Henri Pescarolo's guide to Le Mans

Four-time Le Mans winner Henri Pescarolo looks back on his 30 races at the Sartre circuit, including his horrific accident in 1969, and previews this year’s 24-hour event

It’s my 31st Le Mans this year; perhaps it will be my last, perhaps not. You just can’t tell. I’m not looking for any records, but if it happens to work out that way then that’s fine with me. I’m very fatalistic if it’s written somewhere, it happens. For instance, I should have been dead a time ago at Le Mans, and many other places, such as in 1972 when Frank Williams’ cars were continually breaking down. I should have died two or three times in that season.

I remember 1966, my first time at Le Mans, very well. I was a Formula 3 driver, and Le Mans was the most famous race so I wanted to race there, as any aspiring French racing driver would. There was a French team, CD, which Charles Deutsch was running, so I went to have a meeting with him. He gave me just two and a half minutes and told me: “An F3 driver is absolutely unable to drive my car. It’s too quick for you.”

So I went away and thought it was finished. I was out of the frame for the new Matra-BRM because they wanted foreign drivers, but at the last minute they were short so they asked me to drive the car which was a lot faster than the CD…

My first laps of the track were very special. As usual with a new car and a new team, nothing was really ready and by the time I was allowed to drive the thing, night had fallen. That year there was a big qualifying battle between Ford and Ferrari.

I didn’t know the track, I didn’t know the car, and I started just in the middle of the battle. I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t know where I was going, and there were so many fast cars on the track that I was looking more behind me than in front.

Those were good times, but my best and worst memories of Le Mans are of my crash during the test weekend in 1969. Without doubt, that crash was the worst moment in my career. I should have been European F2 champion that year and was on the way up to F1. It was difficult but it’s also a good memory, because when you survive it’s fantastic.

Everything you have afterwards is something good.

The accident happened just after the restaurant on the Mulsanne straight, near where the first chicane is now. The car took off, and there was a long time to think about what was going to happen. There was no guard rail or anything on the straight then, so I was surely going to be dead a few seconds later. After it stopped moving, there were flames inside the car, which was the worst thing that could happen in those days. To have bones broken throughout your body isn’t a problem, but a car on fire is so painful that there’s nothing worse.

There was nobody to help me, but fortunately I didn’t lose consciousness. I couldn’t take off my seatbelts, and in the last few seconds I thought I was finished. But at the last moment and I still don’t know how I managed to get free of the belts, but I’ve no idea how I escaped from the car.

My first win at Le Mans was in 1972 with Matra and Graham Hill. At first I wasn’t pleased to be with Graham. I thought that, well, he’d been World Champion, he’d won Indy, and so nothing else would be that important for him. I wasn’t sure that he was really ready to fight for a race win.

But it was a fantastic experience. He came to win Le Mans and was ready to do anything. We won the race because during the night, in the rain, Graham did a fantastic job. That victory was good, especially as I’d been in the Matra team from the beginning.

I won the following year with Gerard Larrousse. That was the most interesting race, because we had to battle all the way against Ferrari. Usually you had to follow a lap time, but Ferrari was so fast that it was really a Grand Prix throughout. It only stopped when Jacky Ickx had a problem with his Ferrari’s fuel tank, and that was about four hours before the end. But it was flat-out all the way.

We won again in 1974, when it was the opposition inside the team, especially Jarier and Beltoise, that was really critical. Ferrari had left the scene, so we had to follow a lap time. In that situation, with changing weather conditions, it’s difficult for the pits to know what’s happening in the car, and as soon as the rain came down it was flat-out again.

Ten years later I was with Klaus Ludwig in Reinhold Joest’s Porsche, although originally I wasn’t supposed to be. The funny thing is, we had number seven, and as soon as my sponsor heard that, he told me we were going to win, because he believed in the numbers. But the first car to stop in the race was ours. We had a problem with the fuel pump on the first lap. Of course, then everyone started laughing and saying the number seven was finished and that we would be last. But the team and the car were fantastic and we went out again, fought flat-out, and won the race. That was very satisfying.

Besides those wins, there are many other memories. I hugely enjoyed driving the Ferrari 512 with Mike Parkes in the Filipinetti team in 1971. We were fighting with the 917s and it was going really well until he crashed in Maison Blanche. It was a fabulous team and a good car, but these things happen.

The Sauber-Mercedes was another good car, but at that time its transmission was problematic. The funny thing was that, in 1987 when I stopped on the track, the only thing to do was repair it myself. Nobody believed I could do it, so the team took everything out of the pits. When I got back there with the car I stopped in front of an empty pit. No team, no tools, nobody. I thought I’d gone mad.

Over the past 30 years the race hasn’t really changed, except that there are a lot more cars capable of winning now. That race in 1973 was unusually fast, but for the last few years it’s really been a Grand Prix all the way. The cars are reliable, very fast and you really have to be quick. You can’t wait for the other cars to hit problems. I think it’s harder for young drivers to race at Le Mans now because it is a circuit from a bygone age and they are not used to the type of fast corners you have there. It’s also more dangerous than other circuits. When I’m running on the track I never look at the barriers or what’s behind them. I’ve always been like that, and I’m still like that.

The only real change to the circuit has been the introduction of the chicanes, which in my view have killed the track. In the old days the straight was one of the most critical parts of the circuit, because aerodynamics weren’t good. That made it very difficult to set up the car. Even when you had the right settings the car was very light, so the straight was not easy. Later, with proper aerodynamics, the cars became very easy to drive in a straight line and the straight became the only place to have a real rest, but the chicanes make that more difficult now.

In fact, it’s actually easier to drive at night than during the day, generally speaking, because it’s colder and the track is faster. Of course, bad weather at night isn’t very nice. Also, you can’t spot if there’s some oil on the track in the dark — and neither can the marshals — so there’s always a chance of a nasty surprise during the night.

Neither has the atmosphere changed much. The press and TV seem to be coming back again now that the big manufacturers have returned, much like when Ford arrived to beat Ferrari. And Le Mans is still very special because we are there all week, for scrutineering and everything else. Nobody is used to spending so much time preparing before a race these days, but that’s Le Mans. I think it good to keep that, because the pressure builds up slowly during the week.

I’m now working with Elf’s La Filiere scheme, which aims to help young French drivers, and this year we have two guys sharing a Courage-Porsche with me. Last year it was Frank Lagorce and Emanuel Collard, and now they’re doing the complete championship in GTs. This year it’s Emanuel Clerico and Jean-Philippe Belloc: good drivers who haven’t really had the right opportunity to show what they can do.

For me, it’s very good to be in the car with them and to know how they drive. The psychological aspect is particularly interesting. I sort out the car’s settings, and then I do a normal lap time. It’s not right to be in the car and have two young drivers looking at me, so I’m very pleased when I’ve finished that first job and can give them the car.

Of course, they’re faster than me in qualifying, but that’s exactly what I want. I’m not at all upset if they are quicker. My only problem is that I’m not doing a complete championship this year, and it’s difficult to be competitive. Last year, when Lagorce started in the car, he was a lot slower than me because he was not really racing. I’d done the winter development of the car, and it was difficult for him to be as fast as I was. Now it’s difficult for me to be as fast as a driver who’s had good training. It’s more a question of competition than age; if a driver isn’t driving regularly, he won’t be competitive.

The Courage chassis is getting old now, although the team has one composite C41 model, which will be good. We didn’t really try to do anything special with our car on the qualifying weekend. We still had a very old engine from last year, and I’m sure we didn’t have the same power as before. And there wasn’t a huge stack of cash to throw at our preparations, either.

Michele Alboreto posted some very good times in Joest’s WSC Porsche during qualifying, and maybe they can win again. But with an 80-litre fuel tank, compared with 100 for the GTs, the prototypes have a big handicap, and I don’t think we can beat that. It will be a question of how the tyres last on the GT cars compared with those on the prototypes.

I think it will be more difficult to beat the GTs than it was last year. It’s hard to know if there is a life for the prototype class in with the GT cars, because it seems as though it’s more important for the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to have a works Porsche or Nissan winning the race than teams like Joest or Courage. So what’s the future for prototypes?

The Porsche GTs and McLarens are very impressive, and so is the new Nissan. Because it’s a Tom Walkinshaw project we know it’s a good car, but it will be their first race so I’d expect the big battle to be between Porsche and McLaren, although there’s always a chance that Nissan could spring a surprise.

As for myself, I’d be crazy to think that, at 54, I have a long future in front of me. Of course, I’m more concerned about the future of racing through drivers from La Filiere school than through myself. But I’m still very pleased when I drive, and if I’m competitive that makes it all the better.

I’m certainly looking to be competitive during the race. Last year I checked all the times and I didn’t lose time, so that was fine. If I start to lose too much time to the young drivers, then I’ll stop. No question. And it will happen, but I don’t know when. Maybe this year, maybe next year.