It should have been Porsche’s day but when Stuttgart foundered, John Wyer’s team was ready. Adam Cooper recalls what happened next
The 1969 24 hours is remembered as the closest finish in the history of Le Mans and is usually mentioned in despatches whenever the greatest motor races of all time are considered.
But the race has earned a place in the history books for other reasons. It marked the end of a remarkable era, since it was Ford’s fourth and final victory, and the start of another, since it precipitated a long run of successes for Porsche. And it was also the first of six victories for the great Jacky lckx.
The race itself followed a pattern established the previous year; John Wyer’s Gulf GT4Os versus the factory Porsches. In 1968 sportscar racing had undergone one of its periodical reshuffles, and rules restricting prototypes to 3-litres, and sports cars (‘Group 4’) to S-litres were introduced. That spelled the end of the 7-litre Ford V8s, although the Detroit giant had already decided to withdraw factory support after victories at La Sarthe in 1966-67.
The GT40 lived on in 5-litre guise in the hands of JW Automotive, although the team was also developing its own Mirage chassis. Despite strong opposition from Porsche’s new 908 and the less powerful 907 in 1968, Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi took Wyer’s Gulf-liveried car to a memorable victory at Le Mans, held that year in September.
The victory was widely held to be a final fling for the GT40, but Wyer reckoned the car would still be a good endurance bet in 1969. Both entries retired at Daytona, but then Ickx and Jackie Oliver gave the team an unexpected victory at Sebring in March. Wyer went to Le Mans with a pair of GT40s, one for Ickx/Oliver (in the 1968-winning chassis) and the other for Mike Hailwood and David Hobbs.
Porsche opposition was mighty; there were nine factory chassis, though in the end only six were raced, including a pair of new 917s handled by Vic Elford/Richard Attwood and Rolf Stommelen/Kurt Ahrens. The controversial 917 had proved something of a handful, and required movable flaps to stabilise it on the straight, and these were only passed for use after a considerable fuss during qualifying.
Meanwhile, three longtail 908 Coupes were entrusted to Hans Herrmann and Gerard Larrousse, Gerhard Miller and Udo Schutz and, finally, Rudi Lins/Willi Kauhsen. After trying various cars, star driver Siffert opted for the single new open 908, to be shared with Brian Redman. It wasn’t just about Porsche and JWA; there was also a pair of factory Ferrari 312Ps, the cars anchored by Chris Amon and Pedro Rodriguez, and a strong challenge from Matra, like Porsche, also seeking its first win.
The start was to be both controversial and tragic. Wyer had taken it easy during qualifying; Ickx’s best time was 15sec off Stommelen’s pole with the 917, and he hadn’t even bothered to drive on the second day. Now that relaxed approach turned into a public protest against the continuing use of the traditional Le Mans start, which Ickx considered dangerous. While his fellows sprinted across the track to the 45 waiting cars, the Belgian walked, and made a point of carefully doing up his belts.
A few minutes later, the protest was underlined in the most appalling way when British amateur John Woolfe crashed fatally in his 917 – the only such car to have made it into private hands. Debris also accounted for Amon’s Ferrari, thus halving the already-weak Maranello challenge.
The race went on, of course, and it soon settled into a familiar pattern with the works Porsches lined up at the head of the field. However the sextet was reduced by one when the Stommelen 917 dropped back with what turned out to be a terminal oil leak. There was more trouble at around the four hour mark when gearbox problems claimed Siffert’s leading Spyder. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a walkover after all…
Through the hours of darkness the Porsche squad again showed signs of weakness. The Kauhsen 908 lost third gear, and then Herrmann/Larrousse wasted 30 minutes after a front wheel bearing failed. Just after half distance the team did itself no favours when the recovering Laurrousse inadvertently punted Schutz’s second-place 908 off the road at the Mulsanne Kink; the German had a miraculous escape when thrown from the burning wreck.
Now the pressure was really on Porsche. That mighty six-car line-up had been devastated, and only one car was still running to plan; the 917 of Atwood and Elford, which led easily from Kauhsen and Lins, hobbled by lack of third gear. Down at the Gulf pits, John Wyer knew that luck was coming his way; a humble 13th at the two hour mark, by dawn Ickx and Oliver were a comfortable third.
Still the surviving 917 motored round in the lead until, with just three hours to go it all went wrong. First it had a delay with gearbox problems, arid then a few laps later Elford was forced to park for good. Kauhsen should have inherited the lead, but incredibly his 908 retired at the same time with transmission failure.
The whole complexion of the race changed, as Ickx and Oliver moved into the lead. Porsche’s numbers game had failed.
The only surviving 908 was that of Herrmann/Larrousse, on the same lap as the leading Ford despite its earlier delay. It was now ordered to go flat out. So it was that the final hours of the race turned into a sensational game of cat-and-mouse. The lead changed constantly: Herrmann had the advantage on the straights, Ickx under braking. Ickx desperately tried to work out how to get in front on the last lap; he thought he’d done it only to crass the line with 15 seconds left, and another lap to run. He held on by just 100 metres, arriving to find the pit straight swarming with people. It seemed inconceivable that Porsche had been beaten, but the Stuttgart boys – and Herrman – would have their revenge the following year.
The day after his win Ickx was returning to Paris when a car pulled out of a sideroad, forcing him off the road. After striking a telegraph pole he was thankful to have followed his on-track principles and was wearing a seatbelt, since the borrowed car was a write-off. It was a Porsche 911…