Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans

A Question of Endurance, not Speed

Some aspects of the international racing scene may change with almost frenetic haste from month to month, but other facets of the sport seems to remain reassuringly constant from on year to another. One of those unchanging constants is the magic of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The ACO’s annual epic of speed and endurance on the famous and historic Circuit of the Sarthe took place this year on June 9th/10th, and had all its usual character and charismatic allure, even though the entry hadn’t quite the quality of the past two years.

Owing to the recent construction of a new road junction on the Route Nationale that forms the three-and-a-half mile long Mulsanne Straight, the old Tertre Rouge Corner had been replaced by an ever so slightly less acute twin apex bend, shortening the circuit from 13.64 to 13.61 kilometres (8.47 miles). Another divergence from tradition was a change of starting time, moved forward from four o’clock in order to give the French plenty of time to cast votes for the EEC’s new European Assembly.

As far as the entry was concerned, it was very much a case of Porsches against the rest. Of the 55 starters, no fewer than 19 emanated from the Stuttgart manufacturer, their ranks headed by the two Essex Petroleum sponsored factory 936s. These are the long-tailed open Group 6 sports-racers with twin-turbocharged flat-six engines of 2.1-litre capacity that won at Le Mans in 1976 and 1977, although soundly beaten last year by a Renault. The two works cars were little changed since that defeat, apart from a change to the Essex livery of white, red and blue, although sturdier fifth gears had been fitted to avoid the failures that probably cost them the race a year ago. Drivers for two Porsche 936s were Jacky Ickx (trying for a record fifth victory in the 24 Hours), his partner Brian Redman, France’s Bob Wollek and America’s Hurley Haywood.

All the other quick Porsches entered were 3-litre 935 Turbos. Some were in the Group 5 division, others in the IMSA category, although the differences between “European” and “American” models are in fact few and subtle. Among the swiftest of more than a dozen 935s in the list of starters were a pair of Gelo cars from Cologne, driven by Manfred Schurti/Hans Heyer and John Fitzpatrick/Harald Grohs/Jean-Louis Lafosse, and an American twin-turbo 935 entered by Dick Barbour for Rolf Stommelen, Barbour himself and enigmatic film star Paul Newman.

The quickest 935 of all, however, was a very special car. Built by the Kremer family at their workshops in Cologne, the 935K3 had substantially different bodywork, giving improved aerodynamics and even a small measure of “ground effect”, and an air-cooled as opposed to water-cooled intercooler unit. Driving the white, Philippe Selvet sponsored machine, was Kremer’s regular German Championship driver, Klaus Ludwig, plus two Americans from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, whose names were practically unknown in Europe before the race: the Whittington brothers, Don and Bill.

Against the Porsches were ranged a string of Group 6 sports-racing cars all powered by the ubiquitous Cosworth DFV engine. From Harley Cluxton’s Grand Touring Cars Incorporated stable in Arizona came a pair of Ford-France-entered Mirage M10s, developed from last year’s M9s but substantially improved (or at any rate altered!) in numerous respects. Down to drive the Mirages were Derek Bell/David Hobbs and Vern Schuppan/Jean-Pierre Jaussaud. From Britain came Alain de Cadenet’s latest Le Mans contender, the De Cadenet that had finished second at Silverstone in May. As then Francois Migault was de Cadenet’s co-driver.

From France came a trio of Rondeaus, build in Le Mans itself by Jean Rondeau and his partner Charles James. One of the attractive DFV-powered coupes was actually entered as a “GT Prototype”, but apart from different sized wheels it looked practically identical to the pure Group 6 cars. Henri Pescarolo/Jean-Pierre Beltoise handled on Rondeau M379, rally stars Bernard Darniche/Jean Ragnotti another, and Jean Rondeau/Jacky Jaran the “GTP” entry. Finally, from Japan, came a pair of ultra-long, low and narrow Dome Zero R1s, DFV-powered sports-racing machines with canopy-topped cockpits that were built specifically for the long fast straights of Le Mans. As at Silverstone where the Dome made its racing debut, Chris Craft and Gordon Spice were the team’s main drivers, with Bob Evans and Tony Trimmer in the second car.

Very comfortably fastest in the 12 hours of official practice, as expected, were the two works Porsche 936s. Bob Wollek won pole with a 3 min. 30.61 sec. on Wednesday night, and Jacky Ickx returned a 3 min. 32.37 sec. on Thursday – neither time approaching the 3 min. 27.6 sec. set by Ickx last year in a virtually identical car on a fractionally longer (yet arguably slower) circuit. Nor was the Porsche team without its dramas in practice. Minutes after setting his pole position time, Wollek had a frightening moment at around 200 m.p.h. when a rear tyre deflated suddenly on Mulsanne Straight. More by luck than judgement perhaps, he hit nothing, but it was worryingly reminiscent of Jochen Mass’s high speed accident at Silverstone, when a rear tyre had come off the rim after going down without warning. The result was a night of hard work for Porsche’s mechanics repairing a battered car, and some modified rear rims that were made up for the race. Ickx’s car had its dramas too, an engine having to be changed after Redman had over-revved.

An eyebrow raising third quickest in practice was the Kremer Porsche 935K of Ludwig and the Whittingtons, the German driver recording 3 min. 36.64 sec. The Group 5 “Special Production Car” proved quicker on Mulsanne than any of the Group 6 cars except Ickx’s 936, and that had been only a whisker better on top speed, at around 220 m.p.h. Another Porsche 935, the Gelo entry of Schurti and Heyer, was fourth in line at 3 min. 36.65 sec., following a couple of engine failures for Georg Loos’s team during the first, seven hour long practice session.

Only after the two 935s did one come to the best of the DFV propelled machines, the Mirage M10 of Schuppan/Jaussaud setting a 41.63 on Wednesday with so little fuss that it was left back at the base in Le Chartre for the second session on Thursday.

The opening laps went very much as planned, the two Essex Porsches taking a commanding lead before they reached the Esses on lap one. At the end of the first lap, Ickx headed team-mate Wollek by inches, but more than ten seconds passed before Ludwig, Bell, Schuppan and Migault howled past the long line of pits. By the end of lap three the expected order had established itself, with the two Porsche 936s striding away at the head of the field and the Mirages of Bell and Schuppan in third and fourth.

Not until the first round of refuelling stops, early in the second hour, was there any upset in that order. Ickx lost a couple of minutes at his first scheduled pit stop while his rear wheels were changed – the modified rims fitted to his car since practice seemed to be fouling brake calipers, themselves altered since Silverstone where excessive rear brake wear had almost sent Brian Redman into the wall. But it was on laps 43 and 44 that the order changed dramatically. Having taken over from Wollek, Haywood stopped to have his seat more securely fixed, and Schuppan’s Mirage stopped out on the circuit with a broken gear selector shaft. (Although repaired, the car was later excluded for falling too far behind.)

Then Redman, having relieved Ickx a few laps earlier, suffered a tyre blow-out in the Dunlop Curve. He spun the car deliberately, and came to rest without smashing into the barriers; but the car was badly damaged on the side nevertheless, the radiator serving one bank of cylinders being slashed off by the torn and tattered rubber. Redman nursed the battered machine back to the pits for repairs, but 80 minutes were lost.

So in spite of its unscheduled stop for seat adjustment, the Wollek/Haywood 936 enjoyed a good lead until the fourth hour, when it began to misfire. By the time the fuel injection pump, the fuel filter and other parts of the injection system had been replaced, it was restored to full health. But over an hour had slipped away in the meantime, and it left the Bell/Hobbs Mirage with a big advantage over the best Group 5 machines. For close on two hours the Mirage held the lead, Bell and Hobbs being joined by Schuppan out of the other car as afternoon turned to evening. At a little past quarter distance, however, the blue Mirage lost that lead when its exhaust system had to be replaced – and the net result of that was little short of sensational.

As dusk turned to darkness, the Kremer 935K of Ludwig and the Whittingtons thus held the slenderest of advantages over the Gelo 935 of Schurti/Heyer. Throughout the night the two rival teams from Cologne fought spiritedly for the lead, first one car heading the order, then the other – and all the time, the second Gelo Porsche was close at hand.

Hardly had darkness fallen over the restaurants and fairground of the Circuit of the Sarthe than the Mirage team ran into trouble again. The car that was still well placed was bedevilled by an over-charging alternator, causing one headlamp failure after another. The first time it happened, Schuppan left the road at Porsche Curve; fortunately damage was slight, so the car continued, but it lost more time when the problem repeated itself.

Soon after midnight light rain began to sprinkle down, and not long after half distance it turned into a ferocious thunderstorm that threatened to leave the track awash. Now it really was a matter of endurance not speed. Regaining places steadily after its earlier delays, Ickx’s Porsche was stranded on the circuit when its electrics failed. Ickx persuaded the car back to life but was disqualified soon afterwards for receiving external assistance away from the pits.

The Gelo team lost both its cars in quick succession early in the 15th hour of the event, when the red 935s were second and fourth. First Fitzpatrick’s suffered a spectacular turbocharger failure that lit up the whole tail end in flames: damage was minimal, but the marshals smothered it with so much extingishant that the car had to be withdrawn. Less than 15 minutes later Schurti was in the pit road reporting an engine failure in the other car, leaving the Ludwig/Whittington Kremer Porsche in front by literally miles from the Stommelen/Barbour/Newman team.

As night turned reluctantly into a grey, wet, dawn, the surviving Mirage was one of numerous cars suffering acute misfires, suffering internal engine damage as a consequence. With seven hours to go, the Wollek/Haywood 936 had recaught so much lost ground that it had moved into second place again, albeit 13 laps behind the leaders. Yet it, too, went sick, and finally retired with something seriously amiss inside the engine during the 19th hour.

Nothing, it seemed, would stop the Kremer Porsche out front – until it ground to a halt on Mulsanne Straight while Don Whittington was at the wheel. The belt that drove its fuel injection pump had broken, and whilst a spare was on board, all Don’s attempts to fit it so that it stayed on proved futile. Eventually he coaxed the stricken car back to the pits by removing and shortening the alternator belt. Shortly after noon, the leading Kremer car was back in the race, its lead reduced from 15 laps at one stage to only three.

It might well have lost the lead during the hour or so it spent out of action, had not the second placed Barbour Porsche encountered problems of its own. Chiselling away the leaders’ advantage by the minute, it had come in for a routine wheel and pad change, only to have a wheel nut jam solid and refuse to budge. The nut had to be sawn off, keeping the car in the pit road for 23 minutes.

As the race ran to its conclusion, the Stommelen/Barbour/Newman car encountered more serious problems in the closing stages. With 20 minutes to go, Stommelen slowed abruptly to a crawl; after a couple of creeping, misfiring laps, he stopped a few yards short of the finish line and waited patiently for the chequered flag to appear, taking care to keep his engine running. Only four or five laps from home, the second placed 935 had holed a piston – but Stommelen’s action ensured that it would still finish second, over six laps behind the victorious Kremer 935K3 of Klaus Ludwig, Don and Bill Whittington. Third was another Kremer prepared Porsche 935, driven by Frenchmen Francois Servanin, Laurent Ferrier and Francois Trisconi, while fourth was the GT class winning Porsche 934 of Swiss drivers Herbert Mueller, Angelo Pallavicini and Marco Vanoli.

So what of the others? The De Cadenet had gone out, in effect, after only six laps, after a bearing in the gearbox had failed. Why had it failed? – because someone had forgotten to drill a hole in a pinion to let oil reach the bearing; bad preparation in other words. The two Domes fared little better. Craft’s, running seventh on the opening lap, had caught fire on the second because a lead to the distributor had been improperly secured; eventually the mess was cleared up and the car set off again only to run out of petrol later at Mulsanne! In the other car, Trimmer climbed through the order to be fifth after a few laps, but in so doing he ignored the rising temperature gauge needle.

The Rondeaus were in trouble right from the start, Ragnotti’s car throwing off wheel balance weights with gay abandon and Pescarolo’s stopping on the warm-up because off fuel vaporisation. The third car, the GTP Rondeau, finally retired with a damaged chassis after swiping the guard-rails at Tertre Rouge, but the two Group 6 cars plugged on gamely despite numerous set-backs. The team’s persistence was well rewarded, for Ragnotti/Darniche ended up fifth and winners of the Group 6 class, while Pescaraolo/Beltoise were tenth. Another car to profit from simply keeping going in the face of adversity was the works run “Procar” style BMW M1 handled by Winklehock, Poulain and Mignot. It lost hours while clutch, gearbox and all four brake discs were changed, and misfired horribly throughout Sunday, yet it still finished sixth.

The four Ferrari 512 Berlinetta Boxers had mixed fortunes. Private entries, the rebodied “Boxers” had nevertheless been developed by the factory at Maranello and Fiorano specifically as endurance racers. Crashes left the 512BB entered by Le Mans veteran Jean Beurlys for Nick Faure, Steve O’Rouke, Bernard De Dryver and himself to finish 12th.

It was the 2-litre Group 6 class that one had to look to find British success. First in class were Tony Charnell, Robin Smith and Richard Jones, whose Mogil Motors entered, Ford-BDG-engined Chevron B36 survived wet electrics and repeatedly flattened batteries to finish 17th. Right behind them, in both the class and overall order, was the Dorset Racing Association team of Tony Birchenhough, Richard Jenvey, Brian Joscelyne and NIck Mason, whose Lola-BDG T297 had gone very crisply indeed after losing almost an hour in te opening stages with a cracked rotor arm.

So that was the 24 Hours of Le Mans for another year. Thanks to the failure of all the favourites, it had proved a better race than anyone expected. – J.C.T.