1967 The greatest race

Le Mans had never attracted an entry quite like it and arguably hasn't since. It was 1967 the summer of love and our Editor-in-Chief was a privileged witness
writer Nigel Roebuck

My lamented friend Jabby Crombac always considered the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hours to have been the greatest in the long history of the race. The quality of the entry, he reckoned, had never been equalled. Not long out of school, I weighed up the options for my one 'foreign race' of the year and plumped not for a Grand Prix, but for this ultimate scrap between Ferrari and Ford.

There was real needle between them, not least because of Enzo's decision not to sell out to Henry a few years earlier. Those close to Ferrari have always maintained he never had any intention of selling, but it suited his purposes to string Ford along. This made the Dearborn hierarchy very angry: in 1964 and '65 Ferrari had the better of Ford at Le Mans; in '66 it was the other way round.

Now the 1967 race loomed and Ford was desperate to make amends for Daytona in January, where Ferrari had finished 1-2-3 on American soil, crossing the line side by side by side.

To many, the iconic 330P4 is the most gorgeous racing car ever built. It handled beautifully, but beside the Ford was left breathless — four litres versus seven — on power. Frank Gardner described Le Mans '67 as "a battle between Italian artistry and American muscle..."

It is worth going through in detail the entry that drew me to Le Mans in 1967. In Fords were Gurney/Foyt, McLaren/ Donohue, Andretti/Bianchi, Hulme/Ruby, Bucknum/Hawkins, Gardner/McCluskey, Schlesser/Ligier and Redman/Salmon. Ferrari had factory cars for Amon/ Vaccarella, Parkes/Scarfiotti and Klass/ Sutcliffe, with privately entered examples for Mairesse/Teurlys', Attwood/Courage, Rodriguez/Baghetti and Guichet/Muller.

There were two of the high-winged Chaparral 2Fs, one of them driven by P Hill/Spence, and a pair of Lola-Aston Martin T70s, one crewed by Surtees/ Hobbs. A couple of jw Automotive Mirages were handled by Ickx/Muir and Piper/Thompson, and there were factory Porsches for Siffert/Herrmann, Rindt/ Mitter, Stommelen/Neerpasch and Elford/Pon. In Matras were Beltoise/ Servoz-Gavin and Jaussaud/Pescarolo, and in the Alpine Larrousse/Depailler. Virtually every world-class driver on the planet was at La Sarthe that weekend..

Visiting for the first and only time, Foyt might have been accustomed to perilous American ovals like Langhorne, but he was still taken aback by unprotected poplar trees that then bordered much of the circuit. "I guess," he said, "the idea is that by the time a car gets to the spectators, it won't be in big enough pieces to hurt them..."

This was the old circuit, of course, before chicanes appeared on Mulsanne and elsewhere, before there was a barrier between pits and track and before the traditional Le Mans start was dropped.

Seat belts, though, had started to arrive, militating against a quick getaway. "Going down Mulsanne on the first lap," said Gurney, "I braced my knees against the wheel and put my belts on that way!"

By the second hour the number 1 Ford was into a lead it would never lose, but that didn't mean that there wasn't frantic action behind. As he chased Foyt late in the evening, for example, Andretti lapped in 3min 23.6sec, then the fastest lap ever.

"Gurney and Foyt were our main competition," Mario said. "We'd gotten some way behind them, but eventually I had a stint in the wet, against Foyt, made up a whole lap on him and then gave the car to Bianchi about two in the morning.

"Lucien was a great guy, but so conservative. After a few laps he's in, complaining about vibration in the front brakes, so I dragged him out of the car — we were losing time....

"Anyway, this mechanic changes the pads — and puts them in backwards! Plus the discs are cracked. I went out of the pits, over the rise, started braking for the Esses — and it took the wheel right out of my hands! The car just turned sharp right, straight into the bank. Big accident — I remember feeling my ribs pop..."

It was indeed. I happened to be at the Esses at the time and, before Le Mans's slow and eerie yellow 'accident' lights could begin flashing, another Ford was crashing, for McCluskey had made out the remains of Andretti's car, surmised that Mario might still be inside and deliberately spun into the barrier. Then Jo Schlesser, in the Ford France entry, next to arrive, aimed for the gap between the two wrecks and found it narrower than his car. Within a few seconds, Ford's armada had been trimmed by three.

On and on went the Gurney/Foyt car, however, and the opposition was taking care of itself. Amon's Ferrari suffered a puncture at around midnight: "I was going to change the wheel, but as I raised Ferrari's wonderful hammer the head flew off! There was nothing for it but to set off very slowly down Mulsanne, but I didn't realise that the magnesium upright was scraping on the road. There were sparks — and the whole lot went up. At that point I abandoned ship..."

Out of contention, too, was the Hill/ Spence Chaparral: from the stand above the pits I watched the mechanics toil fruitlessly for more than an hour on its (automatic) transmission problems.

As dawn broke it was clear that only Parkes and Scarfiotti, in the surviving works P4, constituted any real threat to Gurney and Foyt, but although Mike drove his heart out, Lodovico, feeling unwell, couldn't keep pace, and by the end the Ferrari was four laps back, with Mairesse's sister car third.

Late on Sunday morning McLaren had a bad moment when his car's rear bodywork flew off on Mulsanne. Foyt saw it on the track: "I thought, 'Jeez, where's the rest of that car?" Bruce was given some straps in the pits, and sent out to bring the bodywork back. This he duly did, whereupon it was taped back on and the car continued to fourth place..

"The Fords were definitely quicker than we were," said Amon, "but they used more fuel and made more pit stops. Whereas we could drive flat out all the time, their cars were coming apart. Given a trouble-free run, I think we'd have had a chance — and the Ford that won was, in my opinion, the one least likely to finish! You wouldn't have put money on either Dan or AJ in a 24-hour race...".

They delivered, though, and Ford's post-race elation was unforgettable, Gurney showering everyone with champagne on the podium, thus beginning a tradition that will last through the ages. "Just a spur of the moment thing," Dan said. "I wanted to win that race so much — I guess in many ways it was the greatest Le Mans..."