Le Mans, June 11th/12th
Dramatic endings are nothing new in motor racing, even if they are less frequently encountered in long, drawn out endurance races than in the more hectic excitement of Formula One and Formula Two events. But the finish to the 45th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans that took place on June 12th was exceptional by any standards, with the winning Porsche 936 suffering a virtual engine failure 45 minutes from the end. After half an hour’s stay in the pits, during which time its turbocharger was switched off to minimise the risk of further damage, the Group 6 Porsche staggered round two final laps on five cylinders to take the chequered flag not merely as a finisher but as the comfortable though crippled victor of a race marked by wholesale mechanical carnage amongst the faster cars.
For the three drivers of the victorious, Martini sponsored Porsche it was an historic and memorable occasion. Having taken over the car late on Saturday night and then smashed the lap record in his bid to regain lost time, the Belgian Jacky Ickx took his third consecutive win in the 24 Hours, and his fourth ever, a feat only previously achieved by fellow Belgian Olivier Gendebien. As for Ickx’s two co-drivers, the result gave Jurgen Barth the first major victory of his racing career, while for the American Hurley Haywood, Le Mans was his first ever race in Europe.
As last year the organisers of this classic test of speed and endurance, the Automobile Club de L’Ouest, cocked a proverbial raised finger or two at the CSI by ignoring their loss of championship status and running their famous race for a mixture of production-based machinery and out-andout two-seater racing cars, colloquially known as sports cars, though more from custom then logic. The result was that the ACO was rewarded with the most open field of cars seen at the Sarthe for several years, indeed the most competitive entry seen for any long distance race this season or last.
The essence of the race was a massive confrontation between Renault and Porsche. Ever since their calamitous failure to win a single round of last year’s World Sports Car Championship, Renault had concentrated their entire Group 6 programme on this one race. Throughout the winter and spring their cars underwent long endurance tests at Paul Ricard, and when the team turned up at Le Mans it presented not just three, as expected, but four of the long-tailed Alpine A442 sports cars. Resplendent in Regie Renault’s vivid sunshine yellow livery, and adorned with advertising for Elf, three of these cars were brand new, full works entries. For drivers, they had Derek Bell and Jean-Pierre Jabouille in one car, French Formula One stars Patrick Depailler and Jacques Laffite in another, and Patrick Tambay and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud in the third. The fourth car, although technically a private entry and painted in the blue of Gitanes, was in fact the “mule” used for the bulk of the pre-race proving programme. Its drivers were two men with growing reputations in Formula Two, Didier Pironi and Rene Arnoux. However, beneath the skin all four Renault Alpine A442s were virtually identical, being powered by the turbocharged, two-litre, 520 b.h.p. V6 Renault Gordini engine that is now in its third year of competition.
Against this French onslaught, Porsche ranged a team of three factory entered cars, all turbocharged and all supported by Martini. The two Group Six sports-cars, the 540 b.h.p. 936 models destined for Jacky Ickx/Henri Pescarolo and Jurgen Barth/Hurley Haywood, were in fact the same chassis as ran at Le Mans last year, albeit with extensive modifications to their bodywork and their 2142 c.c. flat-six engines. The third works Porsche was a 935/77, the Group Five “Silhouette” car that usually contests the World Championship for Makes. Rolf Stommelen and Manfred Schurti were to be the drivers of this car, which although heavy could reach speeds as high as 220 m.p.h. thanks to its twin turbocharged 2.85 litre motor, which produces up to 650 b.h.p. on full boost.
Yet the race did not only lie between Renault and Porsche. After finishing second in each of the two previous years, the two Mirages entered by American enthusiast Harley Cluxton couId not be ignored, despite their relative lack of straight line speed, especially as their previous Cosworth DFV engines had been replaced this year by more powerful turbocharged Renault units. Vern Schuppan was to share one car with Jean-Pierre Jarier, while Sam Posey and Michel Leclere had the other. Nor could one altogether ignore the DFV-powered lnaltera coupes built in the town of Le Mans itself, for which Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Al Holbert, Lella Lombardi and Christine Beckers, and Jean Rondeau/Jean Ragnotti were the three sets of drivers.
From a British point of view, our hopes rested on the very special 3-litre Lola-DFV that Alain de Cadenet had had built for himself and Chris Craft. In addition though, the very fast Kremer prepared Porsche 935 had an all British crew, with John Fitzpatrick, Guy Edwards and Nick Faure to share the cockpit duties, while Tim Schenken was destined to drive both of Georg Loos’ rapid Gelo Porsche 935s at different stages of the race in conjunction with Toine Hezemans and Hans Heyer.
The first session of practice, on Wednesday evening, was blighted by incessant rain, with the consequence that times set then were of little true significance, though Manfred Schurti raised a few eyebrows by taking the works Porsche 935 round faster than any of the supposedly quicker Group Six “sports cars”. In the second six hour session of practice, on Thursday evening, the Renault Alpine team moved swiftly into its stride, with Jabouille gaining pole in 3 min. 31.7 sec. and Depailler claiming the other front row grid position with a lap o.8 sec. slower. lckx was a tenth of a second slower again to keep the best of the Porsche 936s on the inside of the second row, but then came the two other Alpine A442s and Stommelen’s Porsche 935/77 before one got to the second Porsche 936 on the grid.
When the race began at its traditional hour of four o’clock on Saturday, the two Alpines of Jabouille and Laffite took immediate command at the head of the swarming pack of cars, but before half a lap had been completed the hard trying Stommelen had got the works 935/77 up to third place. By the end of the first lap he was second, chasing Jabouille for all he was worth. For half an hour the pursuit continued, though Jabouille slowly prised open a few seconds’ advantage, but after eight laps the second placed Porsche was in the pits, for a rocker shaft was loose and was causing a persistent loss of oil. The Porsche lost over three laps before it could rejoin, and although it then began to make up many of the lost places it eventually retired three hours later when a head gasket blew. Already Tim Schenken’s Gelo Porsche had retired in a spectacular engine failure, leaving the Australian to share the team’s other Porsche with Hezemans and Heyer for the rest of the race. The fourth Alpine-Renault, the one that started with Pironi at the wheel, was also hors de combat, having caught fire half way round the opening lap when an oil pipe feeding the turbocharger fractured.
With Stommelen’s Porsche effectively out of contention after little more than half an hour, Jabouille’s Alpine enjoyed a 25 sec. advantage over the Porsche 936s of Ickx and Barth. The remaining Alpines were fourth and fifth, easing their pace while the drivers carefully watched how the pacemakers fared ahead of them. John Fitzpatrick’s Kremer Porsche Turbo became another victim of engine failure, the car retiring with burnt cylinder liners after less than an hour, but the Mirages were beginning to look handily placed although well behind the works Renault and Porsche entries.
The Porsches had a much greater range than the Alpine-Renaults, so that when Jabouille had to refuel and hand over to Bell after 18 laps, Ickx took the lead for the German team, relinquishing it to Bell again only when Pescarolo took over from him five laps later. By this time all the leading cars had completed their first round of scheduled refuelling stops, and Bell’s Alpine had a 35 sec. lead over Pescaralo’s Porsche, with Depailler and Jaussaud further back. The second Martini Porsche 936 was now several laps behind, however, for after 18 circuits of the 8 1/2 mile track it had had to have its fuel pump changed, which took over ten minutes.
The way Depailler was trying, he seemed certain to pass Pescarolo, but no sooner had he caught the Porsche than his Alpine needed to stop for a second time to take on more petrol. So Pescarolo clung on to second place, and though Bell was practically a minute ahead Henri knew that the French car would have to stop again long before his own. On the 39th lap Bell came into the pits, making way for Jabouille, who accelerated back into the race at exactly the moment that Pesearolo’s Porsche blasted into the lead. When they reappeared sweeping through the long curves that now by-pass the old White House section and lead into tight Ford Esses before the pits, a mere four seconds separated the two leaders. Next time round, Porsche’s lead had hardly shrunk at all, but a lap later it was Jabouille in the lead with Pescarolo fighting to stay in his slipstream.
Two-thirds of the way round that 44th lap, as the yellow car and the white one sped towards Arnage, Pescarolo revved the Porsche too hard. In a billow of oil smoke its engine expired, and with a shade under three hours gone, the Renault team held the top three places. With the Mirages already a couple of laps behind, it looked uncomfortably like a stranglehold on the race that Renault were not likely to lose.
It was approximately an hour later when the Alpines had their first hint of trouble: the third placed car of Tambay and Jaussaud lost over ten minutes in the pits while a loose inlet manifold was tightened up.
Sam Posey’s Mirage mysteriously ran out of petrol on Mulsanne Straight five laps before it was due to take on more, and then the Inaltera shared by Beltoise and Holbert burst into flames for a few seconds during a pit stop, though it suffered remarkably little damage and was soon on its way again. The Inaltera with the all girl crew was in trouble too,electrical failures delaying it on more than one occasion during Saturday evening.
Porsche, meanwhile, had decided that with only one works car left running, but running faultlessly, they should use Ickx to inject more pace into the Barth-Haywood partnership. The outcome was dramatic to say the least. Ickx immediately began to fly round the circuit, making up ground fast on all but the Alpines, and shattering the lap record to leave it. 2.8 sec. below the previous best-ever race lap recorded by Cevert’s Matra in 1973. By the end of the seventh hour of the race, the Porsche was fourth again, headed only by those three Alpines.
Just before three o’clock on Sunday morning came the first of the engine failures that were to eliminate the entire works Renault team. The third placed Jaussaud/Tambay car was the first to go, and an hour and a half later Depailler brought the second placed Alpine into the pits for its gearbox to be rebuilt. A pinion had to be replaced and by the time the car was running again the Porsche had swept past. Only the Jabouille/Bell Alpine lay ahead of the Porsche now, though that car had six laps in hand and was going quickly enough to keep that distance constant.
With the dawn came rain, but the only victim was Chris Craft, whose Lola aquaplaned off the road and lost several positions while body and chassis damage was repaired. A few minutes past 9.a.m. Jabouille brought the leading Alpine into the pit lane trailing ominous clouds of Smoke. After a brief inspection and one final slow lap, the car was wheeled away, another victim of piston failure. So the Porsche of Ickx, Barth and Haywood inherited the lead but Depailler and Laffite were still chasing hard in the sole surviving Alpine and were still only two laps behind. Then, alas for French hopes, that car’s engine also expired approaching Arnage with a fraction over four hours to go.
The entire Renault team was out, and the works Porsche 936 was left with a huge lead over the Schuppan/Jarier Mirage, apparently set for a comfortable victory. But 45 minutes from the end it too slowed dramatically amidst a sudden cloud of smoke as a piston broke. It limped to its pit, remained there for half an hour, and only ten minutes before the flag pine out staggered away for two final laps that would ensure the victory that Ickx, Barth and Haywood so richly deserved.
With Barth driving as gently as he could, the Porsche finally cruised over the line on five cylinders to win by 11 laps. There were those amazed that it had done two laps instead of only one, and others surprised that Barth, not Ickx, was given the crucial task of bringing the crippled car home. But Porsche do nothing without a good reason: the car had to do two laps, for the rules stated that in order to count, any competitor’s final lap had to be completed within a certain percentage of the time taken for its penultimate one; and as for Ickx, he had already used up his maximum permitted time at the wheel.
Second after an almost entirely trouble-free run was the Mirage of Schuppan and Jarier, the Mirage benefiting from the retirement five hours from the finish of the Gelo Porsche driven by Hezeinans, Heyer and Schenken. That car, too, had sustained a valve failure, the broken valve also destroying the turbocharger; ironically, the thing that eliminated it was a fuel pump that suddenly stopped working. The last two hours of the race were much enlivened by an exciting dash for third place, with the Porsche 935 of Claude Ballot-Lena and Peter Gregg and the Inaltera of Rondeau and Ragnotti both being hauled in hand over fist by Chris Craft in the de Cadenet Lola. Despite problems with the nuts that held on the exhaust system, and despite the earlier loss of time following Craft’s spin in the rain, the Lola failed to catch the third-placed Group-Five Porsche by only 92 sec., while the fourth positioned Inaltera was a meagre 41 sec. ahead at the finish.
Sixth overall, and easy winners of the 2-litre Group 6 class, were Michel Pignard, Jacques Henry and Alain Defrenne with a Societe ROC prepared, Simca engined Chevron B36. Seventh and winner of the Group 4 category was the Kremer Porsche 934 Turbo driven by Bob Wollek, Philippe Gurdjian and “Steve”. Eighth and victor of the IMSA class was the Luigi Racing BMW CSL shared by Jean Xhenceval, Pierre Dieudonne and Spartaco Dini; while in 17th place out of the 21 finishers, the Aston Martin V8 entered by Robin Hamilton for Dave Preece, Mike Salmon and himself upset almost every prediction by keeping going to the finish. And that, after all, is what Le Mans is really all about. – J.C.T.
Results’: 44 HOURS OF La MANS 344 laps 13,64 .kilometres per lap 4064.9 kilometres drj., and raid and net 13 ember s.ar int( between %arm and
Precision, September 2015
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