1976 Le Mans 24 hours report: lckx and Van Lennep win for Porsche

lckx and Van Lennep win for Porsche; De Cadenet and Craft finish third for Britain

Le Mans, June 12th/13th

If you had believed all the advance publicity put out by the AC de l’Ouest, the 1976 edition of the 24-Hours of Le Mans was going to be the most dazzling, original, different looking Le Mans in history. Somehow the race on June 12th/13th didn’t work out quite like that, for it was still in essence an event dominated by a handful of very fast sports-racing cars backed up by a large supporting cast of GT and touring cars from the workshops of Porsche and BMW. Yet the organisers had given some welcome thought to brightening-up the image of their race, which had dimmed and tarnished somewhat in recent years as fewer factories, and fewer still Grand Prix drivers, included the race in their competition programmes. Frightened by the relatively poor attendance for last year’s race, the ACO had therefore brought in a number of innovations to add a little more sparkle to the gruelling test of endurance round the 13.64 km. Circuit of the Sarthe. The regulations were liberalised to bring in a wider variety of cars than ever before, the organisers audaciously ignoring the FIA’s directive that Gp. 6 cars could not be mixed with production based machinery if the race was to stay in either of the two long-distance World Championships. An invitation was sent to America to bring over a handful of the cumbersome NASCAR stock cars that are more used to pounding round all-banked ovals and for the “All American” GT cars that are governed by the rules of the International Motorsport Association.

Yes, despite all these innovations, the entry had the traditional composition of Group 6 sports-racing cars (the FIA has stopped calling them prototypes at last, preferring the more accurate description of “two-seater racing cars”), Group 5 “Silhouette” cars, and Group 4 CT machines. But by insisting on running the one major long-distance event of the year that would pitch all these different classes together, the ACO has succeeded in gathering the most interesting field seen at Le Mans for some seasons, and certainly the most representative entry that would be seen for an endurance race this year.

Fastest in practice, by more than six seconds in fact, was the Alpine Renault A442 shared by Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Patrick Tambay. Rene Amoux had been nominated as reserve pilot for this car, but when the young Frenchman proved too small to fit snugly into its cockpit, team manager Gerard Larrousse had to call instead on one of his second-string Formula Two drivers, Jose Dolhem. The 2-litre, turbocharged, 500 b.h.p. V6 A442 was almost unchanged from the form in which it has appeared in the World Championship for Sportscars except for a longer, more streamlined tail. Jabouille lapped the circuit during practice in 3 mm. 33.1 sec., making the French, Elf-sponsored car comfortably quickest of the Gp. 6 entries.

The strongest rival to the Alpine was the fastest of three works Martini Porsches, the Germany factory deciding almost at the last possible moment to run not one but two Gp. 6 936 sports-racers as well as their Turbo Carrera based Gp. 5 car. With its 2.1-litre, flat-six turbo engine turned down from 1.4 to 1.25 atmospheres of boost in a bid to lengthen its life, the newer and faster of the 936s had grown a high, neatly flared tail section since its victorious appearances at Monza and Imola, a tall air box on top helping the engine breathe better. This car was to be driven by Jacky Ickx and Gijs van Lennep, and it was Ickx who was second fastest in practice with a lap in 3 min. 39.8 sec. The second Porsche 936 was the original test-bed model raced at the beginning of the season at Nurburgring. Reinhold Joest and Jurgen Barth were its drivers, the former making it fifth quickest during practice at 3 mm. 45.4 sec.

Apart from these Gp. 6 cars, the Porsche factory also entered a Gp. 5 935 for Rolf Stommelen and the Lichtenstein driver Manfred Schurti. The 935 also has a turbocharged engine, in its case a flat-six of 2,857-c.c., with such handy extras inside the cockpit as a knob for the driver to control the degree of turbo boost and a lever to adjust the hardness of the shock-absorbers during the race. Stommelen put the car onto the third place of the 55 car grid, lapping at 3 mm. 41.7 sec.

Fourth fastest was the best of several Cosworth DFV-engined cars, an elderly Lola T286 driven by Frenchmen Xavier Lapeyre and Bernard Chevanne. Then, after the second Gp. 6 Porsche, came the two Mirage-DFV GR8s that finished first and third last year but have now been bought by America’s Harley Cluxton and sponsored by JCB and Total. Derek Bell and Vern Schuppan held the reins in one of the Mirages, with Francois Migault and Jean-Louis Lafosse sharing the other.

Apart from the Porsche 935, all these were Gp. 6 cars, but next in line for the rolling Start was a Gp. 5 BMW CSL with a 600 b.h.p., 3.2-litre turbocharged engine and a graph-like colour scheme that could only be described as imaginative. Serious engine malfunctions cut short the works BMW’s efforts on both days of practice, but Brian Redman and Peter Gregg threatened to be very quick once it started to work properly.

Of the few cars that made the trip across the Atlantic in response to the OCO’s invitation, two stood out—John Greenwood’s brutishly beautiful 7-litre Chevrolet Corvette, with 650 b.h.p. and a maximum speed of over 215 m.p.h., and Mike Keyser’s Chevrolet Monza saloon, which is rapidly becoming the car to beat in American CT racing. Much further back down the field lurked two of the huge NASCAR stock cars, but they were neither the latest nor the fastest examples of their breed and as expected proved too heavy, bulky and unwieldy to be at home on a road circuit. In the race, the Dodge Charger lasted no more than a lap and a half before its engine seized spectacularly, but the Ford Torino ran till after midnight before transmission failure put it out.

Apart from the two Mirages, British hopes rested firmly on the Lola T380 with which Alain de Cadenet and Chris Craft had struggled to the finish last year. A purely private entry, sponsored by Tate and Lyle, Elt and Hammond’s Chop Sauce, this machine was to run almost faultlessly throughout the 24 hours. Finished in traditional British Racing Green and proudly bearing a Union Jack on its wing, de Cadenet’s Lola had received numerous aerodynamic improvements since last year that were to make the cockpit almost unbearably hot in the intense heat of both Saturday and Sunday, but at least stopped the tail from flying off as happened last year.

The other cars particularly worthy of note were the two Inalteras, pretty French coupes powered by DFV engines which had been built specifically for this one race. To be driven by Henri Pescarolo, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, “Christine” and the project’s originator Jean Rondeau, the Inalteras were much heavier than the Gp. 6 cars, for although there are no intentions whatsoever to put them into production as road cars they were made for the “Touring Car Prototypes” class invented by the organisers for precisely this sort of machine. Add in two dozen Gp. 4 and Gp. 5 Porsches, both turbocharged and otherwise, half a dozen BMW CSLs and a smattering of other makes, and you will gather that it was a very mixed bag that took the flag at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon.

Jabouille’s Alpine took the lead immediately at the start, coming round with a comfortable lead over the Porsches of Ickx and Joest and the Turbo BMW of Redman after the first lap. The BMW lasted no more than three circuits before a serious oil leak from the engine box forced it into the pits, heralding its imminent departure, but the opening laps still saw a fine tussle as Ickx closed up on the Alpine, got by, led it for half a lap, and then dropped back as Jabouille repassed.

After only ten laps, Jabouille made his first refuelling stop, worried that the high track temperatures might be affecting his car, but all was well and he set off again in third place. The Alpine was not to lead again, however, for although it was the fastest car on the circuit between pit stops a spot of electrical trouble was to lose it several minutes before two hours were up. Having regained third place quite swiftly and then held it comfortably for several hours, the Alpine eventually retired at 1.15 on Sunday morning when a piston broke up.

After a dynamic start that took it into third place for a few miles, Lapeyre’s Lola was soon back in the pit road with a damaged engine, and so the Porsche 936s of Ickx/ van Lennep and Joest/Barth were left a long way clear of the rest of the field throughout the first quarter of the race. By the end of six hours, Greenwood’s Corvette had gone out after a fine run in sixth place when a burst tyre ruptured its fuel tank, the Monza had retired with a broken driveshaft, and both the Inalteras had had trouble. Then the Stommelen/Schurti Porsche 935 also ran into a spate of dramas, as an alternator belt broke, a rear suspension pick-up point gave out, and a battered rear wing had to be patched up. French amateur Andre Haller sadly died after his Datsun 260Z crashed on Mulsanne Straight and caught fire, but a string of lesser incidents proved harmless, although several drivers were suffering from burns caused by the stifling temperatures—it was reckoned to be the hottest Le Mans for years.

Throughout the second quarter of the race, the Porsches of Ickx/Van Lennep and Joest/ Barth ran beautifully, and by half distance the former led the latter by two laps, with Lafosse/ Migault a further four laps adrift in the better of the Mirages. The other Mirage, the one handled by Bell and Schuppan, suffered a series of electrical failures but nevertheless lay fifth behind de Cadenet’s Lola, Which was going superbly after an alternator belt had been changed. Apart from a wheel that stripped its thread on Sunday morning, this was to be the only mechanical problem afflicting the Lola throughout the race, a record that says much for the standard of preparation achieved by de Cadenet’s private team. By half distance, however, the Porsche 935 had also solved its problems for the time being. Schurti and Stommelen were therefore again sixth, making ground fast on the three British cars in front of them.

Nothing, it seemed, could stop the two works Porsches at the head of the field; but at ten past seven on Sunday morning the second placed car of Joest/Barth stopped on the circuit with a broken driveshaft, only a few minutes after it had left the pits with an obvious engine defect. So now British cars lay second, third and fourth, and with the Porsche 935 still making ground on the Mirages and de Cadenet’s Lola, a tremendous battle for second place developed.

As Sunday morning wore on the Bell/ Schuppan Mirage lost more time when its mechanical fuel pump gave up the ghost. The Lafosse/Migault Mirage had one costly pit stop when its throttle linkage, the high pressure electrical fuel pump and a fuel pressure relief valve all had to be restored to working order, while the Porsche team achieved the staggering task of changing the complete turbo unit in their 935 in only ten minutes.

But still the leading Porsche of Ickx and Van Lennep continued its inexorable progress, the better part of a hundred miles ahead of its nearest pursuers. Then, just before noon, that car made for its pit with a crack in the exhaust pipe that ran from the engine to the turbocharger. It lost twenty minutes before it rejoined the race, but it was twenty minutes the team could afford to lose, and with no further dramas Ickx and Van Lennep finally won by 11 laps from Lafosse and Migault. The latter’s Mirage nearly lost second place, when its rear bodywork blew off three laps from the finish after a mounting bracket snapped. It was replaced just in time to keep its position, even after the engine had refused to fire for many seconds after that last dramatic stop, and finally staggered away misfiring.

After a tremendous closing burst which won them the prize for covering the greatest distance during the last quarter of the race (another innovation this year), Craft and de Cadenet came a fighting, heroic third, drawing cheers not only from the large British contingent at the finish but from many of the French as well. It really was a splendid performance from such a small team whose drivers’ feet had been burned and blistered by the heat of the pedals. Fourth were Stommelen and Schurti in the Porsche 935, leaving Bell/Schuppan to bring their failing Mirage into fifth place and French amateurs Touroul/ Cudini/Boubet to come sixth and winners of the Group 4 GT class with their Porsche Carrera RSR.—J.C.T.