Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans

Renault victorious at last

Le Mans (Sarthe) June 10th/11th

The Le Mans 24 Hours has always been considered as the most important long distance race in the world, right from its inception in 1923. Never has its pre-eminence been more pronounced than this year, however. Held on the weekend of June 10th and 11th, the Automobile Club de L’Ouest’s annual test of speed and endurance round the Circuit of the Sarthe was the only long distance race of this season to attract a major, full works effort from such factory teams as still support sports car racing.

Those few works teams - two, to be precise -did the 24 Hours of Le Mans proud. Both Porsche, hoping to complete a hat-trick at Le Mans, and Renault, striving desperately to avenge last year’s humiliating defeat, entered four cars each, and there was a strong supporting cast of private and semi-private teams to back them up. Porsche’s four cars consisted of three open Gp. 6 machines, labelled 936s, plus the very latest, 3.2-litre 935, the Gp. 5 car that won at Silverstone in May on its maiden outing and the engine of which develops anything between 750 and 850 b.h.p., depending on the setting of its twin turbochargers. Huge yet dramatic looking in its Martini liveried coupe-style bodywork, the 935 was to be driven by Rolf Stommelen and Manfred Schurt.

The 936s were powered by relatively puny 2.1- litre flat-six engines; but, like the 935, two of them had the very latest 1 2-valve, twin overhead camshaft, water cooled cylinder heads, as well as a separate turbocharger for each bank of cylinders. In this form the 936 motors produced around 580 b.h.p., and they propelled the cars entered for Jacky Ickx/Henri Pescarolo and Bob Wollek/Jurgen Barth. The remaining works Porsche was the 936 that won at Le Mans last year; it still had the older, rather less powerful single turbo engine, and was driven by Hurley Haywood, Peter Gregg and Reinhold Joest.

Against this powerful German onslaught, Renault fielded a quartet of their Alpine V6 sports-racers, although their plans took a knock when Patrick Tambay had to withdraw from the 24 Hours because of fire extinguisher burns suffered in the F2 race at Pau. Tambay’s injury caused some hasty rearrangement of cockpit crews in the Renault camp, and in the end Patrick Depailler shared a car with Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Didier Pironi with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, Jean-Pierre Jarier with Derek Bell, and French rally star Jean Ragnotti with Guy Frequelin and Jose Dolhem.

 The extreme speeds reached on the long straights of Le Mans have always nurtured technical novelties designed to snatch another 10 k.p.h. on Mulsanne or a shade more stability through the notorious kink. This year it was Renault’s turn to come up with the most interesting aerodynamic experiment: a perspex windshield that almost completely enclosed the cockpit. In practice the best of the Renaults, a new car called the A443 that was powered by a 540 b.h.p., 2 .1-litre engine, attained a staggering 228 m.p.h. on Mulsanne with the new “ bubble top” in position. Without the semi-enclosed cockpit, the same car could manage no more than 216 m.p.h. (By way of comparison, the works Porsche 935/78 achieved 227 m.p.h., Ickx was radar trapped at 214 m.p.h. in the quickest of the Porsche 936s, and during the race though not in practice Alain de Cadenet’s very special LolaDFV was unofficially timed at over 220 m.p.h.).

Yet the Renault-Alpine A443 lapped the 13.64 kilometre circuit virtually as quickly without the rooflike “ bubble top” as with it, and the drivers were far from happy with it. It made the cockpit hot and claustrophobic, and afforded them reduced visibility at night. Thus, for the race, Jabouille and Depailler used conventional open bodywork for their 2.1-litre engined A443, while Pironi and Jaussaud had the controversial high windshield fitted to their otherwise conventional 2-litre engined A442.

Outside the big budget works teams from Renault and Porsche, variety was the keynote of the entry, although Porsche Turbos and Carreras inevitably accounted for almost a third of the field. But there were plenty of Group 6 sportsracers as well - a pair of turbocharged, Renault V6 propelled Mirage M9S for Vern Schuppan/Jacques Laffite and Michele Leclere/Sam Posey; a trio of Cosworth DFV powered de Cadenet Lola T380S for Chris Craft and Alain de Cadenet himself, Simon Phillips/Nick Faure/John Beasley, and Bob Evans/John Cooper/Pete Lovett; Ian Bracey’s brand new IBEC-Hesketh 308LM, driven in the race by Guy Edwards and Ian Grob; and no fewer than 15 2-litre cars, including the very swift Sauber-BMW of Marc Surer, Eugen Straehl and Harry Blumer, and its main class rival, the BMW (GB) Racing entered works Osella-BMW shared by Tom Walkinshaw, Dieter Quester and Rad Dougall. Among other smaller 2-litre sports-racers were a pair of British entered, Ford FVC powered Lolas and the Chevron-BDG B 31 run jointly by Tony Charnell and Robin Smith.

Other entries of special interest included a trio of Peugeot V6 powered WMs in Le Mans’ unique “ Grand Touring Prototype” class, little French coupes built specifically for the 24 Hours and two of which were turbocharged. For the same category local resident Jean Rondeau had built another DFV engined coupe that he named after himself this year, having lost the Inaltera sponsorship that supported his team in 1976 and ’77. One of the old Inalteras was there too, although now a private entry, as were five Ferrari Berlinetta Boxers, the sleek 4.9-litre flat- 12 machines looking very purposeful though not, alas, entered by the Maranello factory.

Early in the first practice session, on the Wednesday evening before the race, Jacky Ickx shattered the lap record when he took his Porsche 936 round in 3 min. 27.6 sec., at an average speed of almost 147 m.p.h. That was 3.4 sec. better than the previous best ever lap of the current circuit, set by Arturo Merzario in a 3- litre Alfa Romeo during training for the 1974 race. The following day, on Thursday evening, the Renaults responded, as Depailler set a 3 min. 29.4 sec. lap in the slightly larger engined Alpine A443, still equipped with the semi-enclosed cockpit cover at that stage.

On the Wednesday, Stommelen had achieved 3 min. 30.9 sec. in the Group 5 Porsche 935 which remained third quickest overall, but on the second day of practice the car cooked its engine and holed a piston after being driven to the paddock through slow traffic on public roads. It was a fine, flag waving gesture, but that journey meant the team would have to run in a freshly rebuilt engine during the early stages of the race, preventing Schurti and Stommelen from realising the 935’s full potential when it was most needed.

Alongside the Porsche 935 on the second row of the 55 car grid was the 936 of Wollek and Barth, after which came the Pironi/Jaussaud Renault-Alpine, the Gregg/Haywood Porsche 936, the other two Renault A442S, and then the best of the Mirages driven by Vern Schuppan. How hopes o f victory faded fo r the major British entry: gearbox problems on the De Cadenet-Lola. Motor Sport, July 1978 939 When the race began in a rolling start at the traditional hour of four o’clock, Jabouille shot away from the outside of the front row to head a trio of Porsches into the Dunlop Curve. The new Renault was clearly appointed as “ hare” , for Jabouille completed the first lap a gargantuan 1 1 .6 sec. ahead of the others, led by Ickx and Pironi and then Schurti, Leclere and Ragnotti.

With every lap Jabouille extended his advantage, but the Porsches were immediately in trouble. Both Ickx’s 936 and Haywood’s similar but older car came into the pits at the end of lap two and again after the fourth tour. The former needed attention to a sticking accelerator linkage and excessive fuel pressure (cured by switching off one of the car’s two fuel pumps). The latter also had faulty accelerator linkage, and then returned for its turbocharger boost to be lowered from a wildly high 3 atmospheres to a more normal level of around 20 lb./p.s.i.

Jabouille led the race for almost an hour, but had to stop after 14 laps to refuel and to change the rear tyres. Pironi inherited the lead, returning it to the Jabouille/Depailler car when he himself refuelled and made way for Jaussaud on the 19th lap. Depailler, however, was in the pits again five laps later to report a serious vibration thought to be coming from the front bodywork. Another circuit proved that was not the cause, so he stopped again on lap 25 for a complete change of wheels. This time the problem was solved, but the two stops in consecutive laps dropped the number one Renault to eighth place, and left Jaussaud in a lead that he and his partner Pironi would hold almost without interruption until the seventh hour.

It was shortly after quarter distance that the Jabouille/Depailler Renault-Alpine regained the lead, by which time the Renault works team had annexed a position of crushing dominance, holding the top three places ahead of the works Porsches. Yet in reality their position was not as strong as it looked. Five hours after the start, the fastest Porsche, driven by Ickx and Pescarolo, had broken fifth gear, ensuring a 46 minute delay while the damage was repaired. Before that car had rejoined the race, the slowest of the 936s, the Haywood/Gregg car, required a new turbocharger, costing some 13 minutes while the unit was replaced. So far, so good for Renault. But during the seventh hour Porsche had decided to move Ickx into what was then their best placed car, the 936 of Wollek/Barth lying fourth behind the Renaults. With Ickx at the wheel, the leading Porsche was up to second place by midnight, and Renault’s stranglehold no longer looked secure.

The threat to Renault’s supremacy intensified when, at three in the morning, the A442 of Jarier and Bell had to be withdrawn with a broken crown wheel and pinion. But six hours later Porsche’s challenge fell apart, when the Ickx/Wollek/Barth 936 broke its fifth gear, just as its sister machine had the previous evening. This time only 37 minutes were needed to rebuild the gearbox, but it left Renault firmly first and second again, although their fourth car, the Ragnotti/Frequelin/Dolhem machine, had also lost time because of a stripped gear.

Then at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning came the disaster that Renault team manager Gerard Larrousse must have feared. In an almost exact replica of last year’s race, the Jabouille/Depailler Alpine A443 that had led continuously for 11 hours stopped at Mulsanne with a broken engine, a piston having failed.

Now the Renault “ with the bubble on top” , the semi-enclosed Pironi/Jaussaud car, again inherited the lead. Fortunately for the French team it was still running like a train, with an eight lap advantage over the repaired Porsche of Ickx, Wollek and Barth. It was still going strong six hours later when the chequered flag came down on the yellow and black car to mark Renault’s first ever win at Le Mans. Its winning margin had shrunk to five laps, but that was more than enough to be safe, although Pironi was in a state of near collapse from heat exhaustion and actually fainted after crossing the line. Jaussaud was overcome with emotion on the victory rostrum as the realisation struck him that, at the age of 4 1, he had at long last achieved his life’s ambition of winning an important motor race. The Michelin radial shod car had covered a record distance for the current circuit, completing 5,044 kms. in the 24 hours.

The Porsche 936 of Ickx, Wollek and Barth came a solid second, and after its change of turbocharger the Haywood/Gregg/Joest Porsche followed it home third. Hindered towards the end by their car’s desire to leap out of fourth gear, Ragnotti, Frequelin, Dolhem and (for a brief late spell) Jabouille steered their A442 to a distant fourth place.

The fortunes of the others had been chequered in the extreme. Many cars had crashed, particularly on Mulsanne. In the worst of many enormous accidents on that five kilometre straight, the quickest of the French WMPeugeots flattened a great length of guard-rail and broke into three pieces, seriously injuring its driver, Christian Debias. Having taken over the 2-litre class lead during the early hours of Sunday morning, Tony Charnell was incredibly lucky to escape totally unhurt from the wreck of his Chevron, which had hurtled right over the barriers and into the trees beyond after a suspension failure. Initially delayed by electrical problems, the Osella PA6 had fought back into a strong lead of the same class only for Quester to crash at high speed shortly after midnight and cut his face nastily

In an American entered Porsche 935, Oliver Garretson lost control at the kink on Mulsanne and rolled over and over in an accident that lasted for almost half a mile. And at almost the exact moment that the leading Renault-Alpine retired on Sunday morning, the worst placed works Porsche 936 smashed into the guard rails at Porsche Curve while Jochen Mass was at the wheel. Mass had taken it over on Saturday night when Ickx switched to the car that came second; his progress back up the field had already been reversed as the car refused to give full power or revs, as the night wore on.

Mechanical misfortunes, too, were legion. The Leclere/Posey Mirage was abandoned out on the circuit before darkness fell when its electrical system packed up. The other Mirage, of Schuppan and Laffite, lost hour after hour with alternator failure, throttle linkage failure, gear linkage failure and finally turbocharger failure. Yet it kept going and finished tenth! After reaching seventh place at one point in the early laps, the Craft/de Cadenet Lola successively suffered lost wheel balance weights, major electrical troubles, and then serious problems with both clutch and gearbox, all of which conspired to leave it hobbling into 1 5th place at the finish; nevertheless it was the first all British team to finish.

The two-year-old de Cadenet Lola of Phillips, Faure and Beasley was excluded after dropping way behind with major gearbox and gear selection difficulties, while last year’s de Cadenet car was not even allowed to start. It was excluded by the ACO’s somewhat quaint qualifying rules in preference for a slow but French driven Porsche Carrera - even though John Cooper had been equal 1 8th fastest in practice with the Lola. The new Ibec 308LM ran well between bouts of misfiring, tyre blistering, balance weight losing and miscellaneous electrical faults, until its Hesketh DFV cried enough on Sunday morning, only a few minutes after the team had had to mend a split brake pipe. The Sauber that headed the 2-litre division for the first three hours at least finished, but only after a gearbox stripdown and a long spell of misfiring and overheating

Most of the Porsche Turbos fell prey to mechanical mishaps, too, with holed pistons very much in fashion among the customer 935s. The works car of Schurti and Stommelen, placed fifth on Sunday morning, limped to the finish with a broken piston seal that consumed oil in vast quantities, though it held together to finish eighth. The Georg Loos entered 935 driven by John Fitzpatrick lost time during the first hour when a hub bearing needed replacement and retired during the second when its engine broke. A little later the Kremer Porsche 935 shared by Englishmen Martin Raymond and Mike Franey and Frenchman “ Steve” dropped out for similar reasons

Avoiding all misadventures, however, Brian Redman brought the Porsche 935 he shared with Americans Dick Barbour and Jon Paul into a fine, class winning fifth place, narrowly beating the similar Kremer car of Californians Jim Busby, Chris Cord and Rick Knoop. In spite of his almost unparalleled endurance racing record elsewhere, this was Redman’s first ever finish at Le Mans. For all the many British enthusiasts at the circuit, that was probably the most cheering result of all. - J.C .T .