Gulf wins "economy" Le Mans
The combination of a fuel-consumption formula (all the cars had to run for 20 laps or more without refuelling), the absence of many graded drivers, and—worst—the lack of Matra, Alpine, Ferrari or Alfa Romeo prototypes, all combined to make this year's Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans decidedly a non-event, and the spectators reacted by staying away in their thousands. Victory always seemed within reach of the two well-prepared Gulf Research Racing GR8s, which took turns at leading the race, and on Sunday afternoon the achievement was recorded by Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx. The second car had been delayed with alternator problems, and then by a fault in the differential, and finished in third place behind the Ligier-Ford DFV driven by Jean-Louis Lafosse and Guy Chasseuil.
The Automobile Club de l'Ouest seemed to be in trouble from the very beginning. First they introduced the fuel-consumption formula, virtually dictating a 25% improvement in consumption to the 3-litre teams. Then, having been banished by the CSI from the World Championship for Makes, the ACO had to cancel the vital test weekend because the CSI introduced a clashing sports-car race to the calendar. And when the final entry list was published, it showed a heavy preponderance of Porsche 911 Carreras, which filled no fewer than 28 of the 55 starting places—just over 50% of the total. Just where endurance racing would be now if Dr. Porsche had not founded his own car company is hard to imagine, for with four more Stuttgart cars in the 3-litre prototype class the company was better represented than ever before!
Gulf calculated that they would have to detune their engines to 370 horsepower (at 8,000 r.p.m.) to achieve 7.5 m.p.g., though during practice they found that their calculations were over-cautious and that the GR8s driven by Bell/Ickx and Vern Schuppan/Jean-Pierre Jaussaud were returning about 8.5 m.p.g,, and could run 25 laps if necessary without topping up. Just as well for Guy Ligier, who detuned his DFV engines to 410 horsepower to counteract the heavy weight of the GT bodies on his JS2 models driven by Lafosse, Chasseuil, and Henri Pescarolo and Francois Migault. Another fancied runner was the 3-litre V6 Maserati-powered JS2 (a development of the road car) driven by Jean-Pierre Beltoise/Jean-Pierre Jarier. Private entry hopes were kept high by Alain de Cadenet's Lola-DFV shared with Chris Craft, and the dark horses of the event were the old Porsche 908/3s (which never did develop more than 360 b.h.p. anyway), of which the Reinhold Joest/Mario Casoni/Jurgen Barth entry was easily the most effective.
Speeds were on average 15 sec. per lap slower than last year's, and though visually that mattered little it did detract somewhat from the glamour of the event. The two Gulfs, fastest in practice, soon settled into a four-minute-per-lap rhythm at the head of the field, with the Ligiers, Craft's Lola and Joest's Porsche 908 in pursuit, none of them hurrying particularly and the drivers audibly taking care of the clutches and gearboxes as they accelerated past the pits. After an hour Schuppan led Bell by 14 sec., followed by Joest, Craft and Pescarolo, with Marie-Claude Beaumont's 2-litre Alpine V6 in sixth place. Half an hour later Mlle. Beaumont became the first, and only, casualty of the fuel-consumption limit when the French car coasted to a standstill half way round its 21st lap.
After the first refuelling stops Ickx and Bell firmly established themselves in the lead, which they never relinquished although their command became tenuous on Sunday morning when the car was delayed 12 min. by a broken exhaust pipe, letting Lafosse's Ligier move briefly on to the same lap. The Schuppan/Jaussaud Gulf was comfortably second until, late on Saturday evening, the alternator failed and half-an-hour was lost in the pits.
In the hours of darkness Alain de Cadenet's Lola lost its rear body section along the Mulsanne Straight, and Migault's Ligier ran over the bits at high speed, damaging its nose section. Both cars were considerably delayed while they were patched up, de Cadenet eventually finishing down in 15th place and Migault/Pescarolo retiring when a puncture put them even lower down the order. Beltoise crashed the Ligier-Maserati heavily after colliding with a Ferrari Daytona, but Lafosse and Chasseuil had no trouble with their car and kept the pressure on the Gulf team all the way to the end.—M.L.C.