The car was slow, then it broke down, then Enzo Ferrari asked for a rival to win. But, as Doug Nye recalls, not even this could stop the NART 250LM
Winning the Le Mans 24 Hours race was not about prize money – in 1965 first place paid only 60,000FF – it was about pride, prestige, and promotion. None valued victory higher than Ford Detroit. Its very fast prototype Ford GTs had failed to Ferrari the previous year but now the giant was back, like the mighty American baseball hero “…Casey at the bat”.
This time the giant Ford armada including two new 7-litre cars was expected to win, and their grey suits fully expected to. But Ferrari’s line-up was formidable five prototype P2s backed by a fleet of private LM Coupes.
Ferrari’s American importer, the veteran Luigi Chinetti, had forgotten more about Le Mans than most could learn. As an Alfa Romeo Mr Fixit and driver he had won the race in 1934 after placing second in ’33. Post-war, he had won the revival 24 Hours in 1949 driving a 166 Barchetta for all but mere minutes when he gave Lord Selsdon ‘a steer’… Moving to New York he then headed Ferrari’s East Coast American concession but as his son Luigi Jr ‘Coco’ recalls today, “Dad only ever ran the business to finance our North American Racing Team. The team was his joy.”
For Le Mans ’65, Chinetti teamed Pedro Rodriguez with Sicily’s Nino Vaccarella in his 365 P2 prototype, and entrusted a new Ferrari 2SOLM chassis 5893 to two Formula One drivers; one a fast-fading veteran, the other a fast-rising new talent; 33-yearold Kansan Masten Gregory, and 23-year-old Austrian, Jochen Rindt.
Coco Chinetti: “Masten was the little guy with the improbably deep voice – his girlfriend parachuted for France – he was an old friend, always fun. Jochen Rindt was, well, a flat-nosed Austrian.”
BP backed NART at Le Mans and the Cooper team, with whom Jochen was midway through his first full F1 season. This Le Mans drive was a BP deal, but neither he nor Masten was exactly delighted to be in a car with zero chance of winning. The weekend would be just a paying chore…
Along the pit row, Belgian Ferrari distributor Jacques Swaters presided over the rival Ecurie Francorchamps team, with three yellow liveried private Ferraris two LMs for Langlois/Elde and Dumay/Gosselin and a 275GTB for Willy Mairesse and ‘Beurlys’. This trio was about to lock horns with the brand-new bright-red NART car for motor racing’s biggest prize…
As always NART stayed in Mme Bonnet’s city-centre Hotel Continental opposite Le Mans railway station. The LM arrived fresh from Maranello, but “…from the start Masten and Rindt didn’t seem too interested – more a case of ‘hope it breaks soon’ so they could draw their money and split.”
Ford dominated until the first stops when Ferrari’s P2s took over. Down the field, as Gregory tried to restart the LM after his first scheduled stop its starter stayed silent. Blows from a hammer fixed it and ‘5892’ rejoined.
Coco Chinetti was running the signalling pits on the exit from Mulsanne: “Later in the race our LM went by popping and banging, onto one bank only… we thought that was curtains.”
The car came in on six cylinders, and it took the thick end of 30 minutes to locate and replace a faulty condenser. Rindt rejoined the race but not before agreeing a pact with Masten to drive flat out to the end.
Into the night, all Ford’s dollars had bought was ignominy. While Ferrari’s V12s sang on with the works P2s leading Swaters’ LMs, the delayed NART car was down in 13th position.
Then the night went bad for Ferrari, as Swaters recalls: “The P2s began to crack their ventilated front brake discs, so our LMs ran first and second. But we had trouble with a clutch cylinder seal, we changed it twice but Langlois’ car was so far behind we retired it. But our other car led really very easily.”
Chinetti: “As Ferrari P2s dropped, Forghieri and the works mechanics rushed about trying to find enough discs to get something, anything, to the finish. And in our LM Masten and Rindt woke up to the chance this could be their race. They just went for it!”
The Maranello Concessionaires P2 – retired after its exhaust had disintegrated – was cannibalised to keep NART’s Rodriguez/Vaccarella car running. Works driver Scarfiotti screamed at Surtees “Usate poco I freni!” – while Forghieri was heard rallying his staring-eyed troops to tackle the latest brake horror with “Avanti – coraggio!”
At half-distance the Dumay and Gosselin LM led with Gregory/Rindt going like a rocket in second, two laps behind – and closing. Surtees’ P2 greeted the dawn by dumping gearbox oil onto its clutch, water was poured over Vaccarella’s cooking clutch in the pits and Bandini’s P2, spitting back, retired with a bent valve.
Only two crews were left racing the yellow LM now one lap ahead of NART’s car. Masten had a long stop to change two Goodyear tyres, plus the pads, for the fourth time. He tore off his Dunlop overalls, wrestling into a Goodyear pair instead. NART’s second-stringers were sensing victory…
Chinetti: “For three hours I’d come up from Mulsanne to the proper pits, and that’s when the debate began.” Ferrari’s sports-prototype goose was cooked, now the rival customer teams’ LMs led 1-2. The NART car ripped into the Belgian’s lead, Goodyear tyres against Dunlop F1 drivers against decent amateurs. But Ferrari’s works team ran Dunlops, and one of their most senior engineers approached Chinetti: “Ferrari could show gratitude in many ways if the Dunlop LM wins this race perhaps the price of the road cars you import, the discount basis, we are all old friends, Mr Ferrari has been in touch by telephone…”
Old head, old motor trader… Luigi thought about it. Coco told his father “Will we ever see a chance like this again? Will a discount be remembered in 20 years?” First, second and third would still be good for business and the Chinettis doubted their drivers would respond to any signal other than ‘Go!’
Masten passed Parkes’ limping P2 locked permanently in fifth gear ripping 5sec per lap off Dumay’s lead. Soon after 10am he unlapped himself and drew away. Jochen dived into the NART car at its next stop, Gosselin took over from Dumay, but though tense, the Belgian team was happy, as Swaters remembers: “All we had to do was follow the NART car on the road. We were almost one lap ahead, and we had just one stop to go. We did not need to change tyres or pads, which was a slow job we had done that already for the last time but NART still had it to do. That was our ace card…”
Jochen was drawing further ahead of his prey, soon to be upon its tail. Chinetti: “We were riveted in the pits but could Jochen pass him and build enough cushion for the last stop?”
The gap was 22sec when, as Jacques relates: “Just after Hunaudières, on the straight, a rear tyre burst. He was lucky to keep it on the road at all, but the rear bonnet was destroyed. It had to be repaired losing much time.”
Gosselin rejoined five laps behind NART’s LM which won. Goodyear had broken Dunlop’s domination of Le Mans, Chinetti had won purely as an entrant and as Coco remembers, “That meant the world to Dad”. Gregory, and Rindt were elated and astonished at their success. Ferrari filled five of the first seven places, but the over-riding sentiment was that, yet again, Ford had blown it.