The Le Mans 24 Hour Race

Rondeau's rendezvous

Every year, the Le Mans 24 Hours proves something special, whatever the predicament of sportscar racing as a whole. It has a lot to with the unique atmosphere of the Circuit of the Sarthe, and the magic of a race that runs twice around the clock on an ultra-fast eight and a half mile course still largely composed of normal main roads. This year, however, the ACO's Grand Prix d'Endurance et Vitesse was unusually interesting, mainly because of a thick wad of new rules.

For various reasons the organisers have in recent years grown anxious that the professional teams treated Le Mans as too much a test of sheer speed, and not enough a trial of true endurance. At the same time, they saw the advisability of promoting greater efficiency in the use of fuel, and desired to diminish the gap between big spending professional outfits and less well financed private stables. The combined result was a whole catalogue of innovatory regulations.

The simplest rule change was to slim total practice time by two hours, in the interest of greater fuel economy. In the end, heavy rain reduced most entrants' serious practising to about an hour and a half at most. With the same intent, the organisers allowed cars to use fuels other than petrol, but only one, a Porsche 911 SC that finished 16th, took advantage of this latitude and ran on ethanol. More significant was the imposition of a restrictor on every refuelling rig, so that scheduled pit stops would take over two minutes instead of the previous 35 to 40 seconds. This would dearly militate heavily against thirsty cars like Porsche 935s, which was indeed the intention. Morever, the ACO limited all cars to a maximum tankage of 120 litres, a little over 26 gallons, whereas before some cars were allowed as much as 160 litres.

Another major innovation was a ban on the replacement of entire minor mechanical components (like engines, gearboxes, or differential housings), not merely during the race itself, but from the start of official practice onwards.

Most controversial of the new regulations, however, was a highly idiosyncratic approach to qualifying. For this year where a car qualified on the grid, or whether it got there at all, depended not on its fastest single lap in practice, but on an average of the fastest laps set by all the drivers who would handle that car in the race. When added to the ACO's now usual practice of eliminating cars from every class on a pro rata basis, this innovation provoked considerable confusion and bitter resentment among some of the teams who failed to make the race. By the time the event started on Saturday, June 14th, there was even talk of law suits in the air.

As for the race itself, it proved one of the most open for some years, in spite of, or perhaps because of torrential showers that repeatedly cascaded down on the low, sandy wooded hills of the Sarthe. The major protagonists divided neatly into three groups. First there was "the DFV Club", composed almost entirely of Gp 6 sports-racing cars. plus one "GT Prototype", one of the ACO's pet categories. The most important cars in this class were, it turned out, the French Rondeaus built within earshot of the circuit. The M379B coupes were changed relatively little from last year

Three Rondeaus had been entered: a Gp 6 car for Henri Pescarolo and Jean Ragnotti, a similar machine for team patron Jean Rondeau and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, and a slightly heavier GTP version for Gordon Spice, Jean-Michel Martin and Philippe Martin.

Their main opposition among the DFV Club's members came from the British De Cadenet, fresh from its consecutive wins at Monza and Silverstone. This car had to be rebuilt following Desire Wilson's massive high speed accident during practice on Thursday night, a spectacular shunt that led the organisers to debar Desire from taking part. So in the race, the British Racing Green sports-racer was handled by Alain de Cadenet and Francois Migault alone.

Also DFV powered were the Japanese Dome Zero RL80, a development of last year's car driven by Chris Craft and Bob Evans; a Swiss built, Lola based ACR that promised little and delivered less; Nick Faure's three-year-old ex De Cadenet Lola that failed to qualify; and the British Ibec P6 that also failed to qualify, despite having Tiff Needell and Tony Trimmer as drivers.

The second major group of entries comprised the inevitable army of turbocharged Porsches. Quite the most interesting was a unique Gp 6 hybrid built specifically for Le Mans by German privateer Reinhold Joest for himself, Jacky Ickx and (as a last minute addition to their ranks) Michel Leclerc. Although clad in beautiful, long-tailed 936 bodywork from the works cars of three or four years ago, this twin turbo equipped Porsche remained more 908 than 936 under the skin. Its chassis was a mixture of 908/4 and 936 parts, but its engine was still the two-valves-per-cylinder flat-six of a 908/4, not the 24-valve 936 unit.

Otherwise the Porsche challenge rested largely on a host of privately entered 935s, this year delivering anything up to 820 bhp on full boost. The 935s that could be counted as challengers for outright honours were a Dick Barbour entry for John Fitzpatrick, Brian Redman and Barbour himself; a similar Kremer entry for Rolf Stommelen, Axel Plankenhorn and Tetsu Ikuzawa; a Georg Loos "Gelo" Porsche for Bob Wollek and Helmut Kelleners; and the JLP entry of John Paul the father, John Paul the son, and Guy Edwards. (Who should perhaps have raced as "John Paul, the Holy Ghost" to complete the trinity!)

The third group of possible contenders for victory comprised three French WM coupes, which like the Rondeaus, the Dome and the De Cadenet were heavily based on last year's cars. But this time their turbocharged 2.6-litre Peugeot V6s were delivering a reputed 500 bhp, putting them among the pacesetters for the first time ever, for that was as much power as the Porsche 908/80 had available, and more than any DFV gives in long distance tune. Mounted on Michelin TRX tyres, the WMs were at their best when the road was wettest, their fastest driver pairing being Guy Frequelin and Roger Dorchy.

Naturally, there were the usual 2-litre Lolas and Chevrons in the line up, plus a fast but not always reliable Osella-BMW, and several other interesting entries. Among these were two fact, built BMW M1s, one entered for Didier Pironi, Dieter Quester and Marcel Mignot, the other for Hans Stuck, Hans-Georg Burger and Dominique Lacaud — and the latter crew was very much in contention in the rain soaked early stages.

A quintet of 4.9-litre Ferrari 512 Berlinetta Boxers made the grid, looking as dramatically beautiful as ever, but not terribly fast, as always. A trio of works or works assisted Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbos turned up to maintain Lancia's slender lead in the World Championship for Makes; while Porsche entered three highly developed 924 Carrera GTs, turbocharged 2-litre cars that will be the subject of much more detailed examination in Motor Sport. Andy Rouse and Tony Dron shared one of the 300 bhp, 180 mph 924s, Derek Bell and America's Al Holbert another, and Manfred Schurti and Jurgen Barth the third.

Fastest in practice was actually John Fitzpatrick's Kremer built, Barbour entered 935 K3, but when the ACO applied its new "averaging" process it left the Rondeau of Pescarolo and Ragnotti on pole. Heavy rain an hour before the start on Saturday left deep puddles on the road for the pace lap, but from a rolling getaway Fitzpatrick took an immediate lead, with Pescarolo all too literally in his wake. At first Fitz led by several seconds, then the Frenchman closed up, but by lap five it was Wollek who was plunging headlong into the fountains gushing from Fitzpatrick's rear wheels. As numerous back-markers fell foul of ignition troubles or driver error on the rain drenched circuit, Fitz gradually broke away from his pursuers, leading until his first refuelling stop after eleven laps. Wollek inherited the number one place with Stuck hard behind him in the works BMW, the 480 bhp, 3.5-litre M1 proving much handier at negotiating the deep puddles than the 800 bhp, 3.2-litre Turbo Porsches.

When Wollek refuelled however, Fitzpatrick regained the initiative, and that remained the pattern throughout the opening hours of the race. By the three hour mark, the Wollek/Kelleners Gelo 935 led the Stuck/Burger factory BMW by 84 seconds, with the Fitzpatrick/Redman 935 in third place and the 908/80 of Ickx and Joest fourth, all still on the same lap. Already one works Lancia had retired, running its main bearings when the drivebelt to its oil pump snapped. With cruel irony, the second works Lancia was to drop out for an identical reason with the next half-hour.

The De Cadenet had lost five laps after stopping on Mulsanne Straight while Alain investigated a worsening misfire that had plagued the car from the start. He eventually found the fire extinguisher "trigger" was the cause of the trouble, a legacy of the practice crash. In far worse trouble was the Dome, which was still in the pits having its gearbox rebuilt after stopping at the end of lap six, The Paul family's Porsche had also dropped way back after long stops to sort out throttle linkage and fuel feed problems.

The next 15 minutes proved the undoing of the works BMW, or at any rate the virtual end of its chances. Stuck was involved in a collision with another car, resulting in widespread front end damage to the M1 which lost several laps while undergoing repairs. Later in the race it was to develop a bad and incurable misfire, as did the BMW France M1. All the time, the Gelo and Barbour 935s disputed the lead, changing order every few laps as their fuel stops fell due. But in the fifth hour the race took on a new dimension. Once Dick Barbour himself took the wheel, his Porsche circulated more slowly, and with four and a half hours gone the race had a new leader: the 908 of Joest and Leclerc. Moreover, into second place again had come the Rondeau of Pescarolo and Ragnotti, which had fallen to fifth at one stage. As Barbour lost more time with a spin in the Virages Ford, the Gelo Porsche moved up to third. leaving Dick's car fourth.

In the middle of the sixth hour, the 908/936 hybrid lost its lead unexpectedly, when Ickx stopped on Mulsanne Straight. The belt driving the fuel injection pump had broken, and some 15 minutes passed while Ickx rectified matters. Into the lead, meanwhile, went the best placed Rondeau, which at quarter distance had 40.7 seconds in hand on the Fitzpatrick/Redman/Barbour 935. Coming into contention for the first time was the second Rondeau of Jaussaud and Rondeau himself, which by ten o'clock was third, one lap behind.

Fourth at that stage was the Wollek/Kellener Porsche of the Gelo team, but only ten minutes later the car suffered the same fate as Ickx's. Again a quarter an hour was lost while Wollek put on the spare belt, right opposite the end of the pits at the entrance to Dunlop Curve. An hour later the French challenge was taking firmer shape, for the two Gp 6 Rondeaus were placed first and second, albeit a lap apart. Fifth at quarter distance, the Kremer 935 K3 of Danny Ongais, Ted Field and Jean-Louis Lafosse retired with a failed piston, the first really quick car to drop out altogether. But the short summer night and the cool grey dawn that followed would see many more.

At 40 minutes past midnight, the Rondeau team pushed the leading Pescarolo/Ragnotti car up the pit-lane, another victim of engine failure. Before dawn, the Gelo car had been delayed by electrical troubles, and the Barbour car held up by a need for clutch adjustment and the onset of a steadily worsening misfire, which eventually led its pit crew to blank off one cylinder completely. So by four in the morning, half distance, the leader was again the 908 of lckx, Joest and Leclere. The Rondeau/Jaussaud M379B was second, a lap adrift, the Barbour Porsche third, three laps down, while fighting for fourth position were the De Cadenet and the GTP Rondeau of Spice and the Belgian Martin brothers.

This remained the pattern for hour after hour, even though daylight brought another succession of heavy showers after a welcomely dry night. The quick Kremer Porsche of Stommelen, Plankenhorn and Ikuzawa withdrew soon after dawn because of engine failure, and the Gelo 935 fell out an hour later for similar reasons. At 8.30 am, while the spectators tucked into their coffee and croissants, the De Cadenet's fine recovery ended in a 50 minute stop for a broken rear chassis cross-member to be replaced.

An hour and a half later came a more dramatic turn of events. The leading Porsche stripped the teeth of its fifth gear pinion, a mishap that has struck down 936s in the past. The car was confined to the pits for almost half an hour, and into the lead for the first time went the Rondeau of Jaussaud and the team's boss himself. From then to the finish, the order did not change significantly again, for several laps divided all the leading cars.

Yet it was by no means dull. For one thing, Ickx looked like staging one of his dramatic Le Mans recoveries for a record fifth victory, reducing his team's deficit from five laps at eleven o'clock to only a lap and a half by three o'clock. But the greatest drama of the race had come with exactly three hours to go. For the fifth or sixth time since the start, the heavens had opened and deluged the track within seconds. The leading Rondeau had spun to a halt in the Dunlop Curve, brushing the barriers in the process, and all but collected the next car through, a 2-litre Lola which went round like a roulette wheel as the rain caught its driver unawares. Moments later, Joest came within inches of understeering off the circuit at about 30 mph, while John "Father" Paul lost it completely in the Esses and spent 18 minutes extracting his car from the catch fences.

But ultimately, it was Rondeau's day, a victory for the home team. Rondeau and Jaussaud covered 338 laps or 4.608 kilometres during the 24 hours, two laps more than Ickx, Joest and Leclerc in the 908/80. A good run interrupted by nothing more disastrous than a couple of minor spins brought third place and a class win to the GTP Rondeau of Gordon Spice, Jean-Michel Martin and his brother Philippe, Gordon being the first British driver home. Fourth, after a strong recovery on Sunday, was the Peugeot powered WM of Guy Frequelin and Roger Dorchy, the car carrying a TV camera throughout the race which produced truly breath-taking live pictures on a giant screen in Le Village.

Fifth was the five-cylindered 935 of Barbour, Fitzpatrick and Redman, and sixth the only works Porsche 924 to finish with all its cylinders firing, the Barth/Schurti car. The other two factory Porsches made it to the finish with badly misfiring engines, although at three-quarter distance they had been a splendid sixth, seventh and ninth. Seventh was the De Cadenet, the first British car to finish, and two all British teams also made it to the end: the 2-litre DRA-Lola of Peter Clark, Nick Mason and Martin Birrane (who came 22nd), and the Ferrari BB512 shared by Steve O'Rourke, Richard Down and Simon Phillips, which came 23rd. Also among the 25 finishers were the two factory prepared BMW M1s, and the privately owned but factory aided Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo driven in the race by Facetti, Finotti and Darniche.—JCT