Everyone has a tale to tell about Le Mans but none are as hair-raising or give a better insight into this unique event than those of the drivers taking part. Here a select few share their memories
You love it or hate it. Most Grand Prix drivers stayed away from it, probably because they were too busy, or did not consider it a proper ‘race’.
There is no other atmosphere like it anywhere in the world. There are certainly vivid memories that remain. Following the 7-litre Fords with constant streams of flame from their exhausts as they went down the Mulsanne straight at night. Following the Chaparral 2F with its rear wing stuck on full downforce with a hundred foot vapour trail behind it.
It’s the big corners that you always remember, such as the Dunlop Curve, the Kink, Indianapolis or White House. We were lucky to have been there at the time and to have survived it, but times have changed and the challenge is gone forever.
In the 1969 race Vic Elford and I were leading in my Porsche 917 when it broke with three hours to go. I was actually glad to get out of the car. I still hadn’t won and I couldn’t have cared less. The car was a nightmare and so noisy with its exhausts under the doors, that I’d been deafened in the first stint.
The following year I asked for the slowest 917 with the least powerful engine, with the most consistent and oldest team driver. We won.
I drove at Le Mans 1939 with Ian Connell in my Delahaye 135; I think we might well be able to claim something of a Guinness world record we’re both still going strong, and I still own the same car. We drove it at Goodwood two years ago.
Ian had won a BRDC Gold Star that year, and we decided he’d drive first. It was dusk when I took over, and I chose to wear a dark blue suit with chalk pinstripe; no hat, just goggles, and no helmet in those days we felt only the professionals wore helmets.
Our exhaust gasket blew after 11 hours, lan burnt his foot and couldn’t drive any more. As it was getting light I changed into a check suit and drove to the finish I did about 16 hours in total. When I came into the pits I’d jump into a bucket of water to soak my shoes, and that kept my feet cool for the next session.
We had Count Doric Heyden running our pit, who enjoyed a glass of wine. He had filled the pit with champagne, but by early afternoon he and the crew had nearly drunk it all. Then they realised this poor bastard was still rushing round out there and there wouldn’t be any left for him, so they called me in for a glass while refuelling.
Le Mans remains the Holy Grail of auto manufacturers, of visionary engineers, patriots and drivers. For them, Le Mans demands discipline and skill, a balance few of us mastered.
1951 – We were in second place at the 20th hour in the first Cunningham to enter Le Mans, the C2. The Jaguar ahead was the last survivor of the factory team, two other identical cars having retired with broken oil lines. It was reasonable to expect the third to suffer the same malady. What an upset it would have been if the upstart Americans had won first time out in their 4000l1b behemoth! Instead we were slowed by low oil pressure.
1952 – We led the first lap and had to pit on the next when a plug wire came adrift on our Cunningham C4. The lead on the first lap at Le Mans has never been significant, but still…
1955 – A tragedy that threatened the very survival of motor racing and changed the perception of safety in racing. As co-driver to Levegh, I was deeply affected and moved to seek relief from the consequences of Force equalling Mass times Acceleration, as they relate to racing.
1960 – In the rain our production Corvette slithered up to seventh place while it lasted, unlapping ourselves from the leading Ferrari. Alas, the rain stopped. We finished eighth. We lost to six Ferraris and an Aston Martin – not bad for a plastic pretender.
In 1963, we had a sleepless Friday night changing the engine of one of our Ferrari 250GTOs. Saturday was a second sleepless night. On Sunday, we had success, the cars of the Ecurie Francorchamps finishing second and fourth in the classification and first and second in the GT class. We spent a third sleepless night celebrating. On Monday, we packed up, attended prize giving and then it was time to drive to Belgium in the GTOs. We didn’t have enough money for a truck. That night we reached Paris. We stopped in a pub and instead of driving to Brussels, we went with the GTOs to Pigalle where we spent our fourth sleepless night. I’ll always remember the night in Pigalle, with the GTOs with their race number parked in the streets.
In 1972 I drove a Matra MS670 with Francois Cevert. I was following Graham Hill’s Matra down the straight when he suddenly disappeared. He’d run into a cloudburst. Then I was in it myself, the water so heavy that the car was aquaplaning. The next thing I felt was an almighty blow from behind, and looked up to see a Corvette, minus right front corner, banking left several feet in the air as it overtook me.
The impact accelerated the by now out of control Matra. It zig-zagged down the straight, on the grass on one side, across the road, onto the grass the other side then back again, all the while missing the bather. I was doing lots of steering but couldn’t claim to be in control. Eventually it stopped on the grass. I leapt out to find most of the left rear corner was destroyed. The suspension pieces were all bent or broken but the wheel was more or less in place and most importantly the driveshaft still intact.
The tyre was flat but we had on board those bottles which are meant to reinflate a flat. One by one each bottle flew apart in my hand without making any difference to the tyre. I reasoned that if I drove to the pits on the road, the tarmac would grind away the under tray, but if I drove down the grass the car might survive. It seemed to take all day, but by the time I arrived all the parts were ready. The accident meant we had lost nine laps, or over 30 minutes. We continued but any chance of a win was lost. We regained one lap but then the engine went onto 11 cylinders, so we cruised it to the end for second place. So near, and yet so far.
A lot of people didn’t like Le Mans, but I loved it; I enjoyed getting stuck into a full 24 hours, watching the sun come up and still racing. I never thought of safety, but felt sorry for drivers stuck in the sandbanks. They were offered a spade but it took hours to dig themselves out. I felt like stopping to help!
I suppose the biggest difference at Le Mans now is then we had only two drivers. We’d do three hours before stopping for a rest and food; we never worried about what to eat. We ate steaks, not calorie-counted pasta.
I loved the straight; you could take in the faces even though we were doing 175mph in the Ferrari 330LMB and 185mph in the Cobra. I liked the challenge of reaching the finish. We were never at 10/10ths; you had to pace the car all the time, particularly in ’65 when I drove one of six Shelby Daytona Cobra coupes. We finished eighth, the only Cobra to finish, but for hours we had falling oil pressure on corners. We had to keep cornering forces down because Ford were desperate to have one finisher.
Le Mans was the one race I really wanted to win; I never did, but my son David finished third in 1990.
My story regards my pole lap in 1990. Nissan wanted to be the first Japanese marque on pole for this great race, so we had a special qualifying car. Each time it ran terribly, overboosting the turbos. We didn’t know how much power it had, what the balance was like or whether the tyres would last a lap.
We got to the last chance to qualify. The light was fading as I ventured onto the track to start my warm up lap. As I came through the Porsche curves and I thought “this is it; shit or bust.” Turning onto the pit straight, I booted it. The car spun its wheels in first, second and third gear as all hell broke loose. The telemetry showed the engine was over-boosting badly. They were screaming on the radio “abort lap, over-boost, abort lap”. By now I was crossed up under the Dunlop bridge with 1150bhp under my foot, and, do you know, I somehow didn’t hear the messages…
The tension in the pit was intense. Their throttle trace showed me going for it, but if this car blew up it would be a major smack in the face for the team. I had other things on my mind, like how do I stop the bloody thing from 237mph into the first chicane?
What a lap! Six seconds quicker than anyone else. As I rolled in with my radio working again, the messages were now congratulations! What a difference a few minutes can make…
For 1950, I joined Aston Martin and stayed with them for five years.
That year on the first night of practice, John Wyer decided the drivers and timekeepers should have dinner at the Hippodrome Restaurant on the straight. We were having coffee when ‘vroom’ – a car went past. Practice had started. The Aston drivers dashed for the race cars and headed for the pits, leaving Liz, my timekeeper and future wife to pay the bill. After an hour, Reg Parnell screamed to a halt at the Hippodrome and collected her.
It was hoped that a DB3 would be ready fix 1951 but at the last moment the well used VNF 64 which had raced the previous years, run the Mille Miglia and was David Brown’s transport, was prepared. With this, Lance Macklin and I came third and won our class.
In 1952, my hard top DB3 only lasted a few laps, but for 1953 I had a DB3S which reached 182 laps before retiring. In 1954, David Brown’s dream of beating Ferrari was a 4.5 litre Lagonda. I shattered the dream by shunting it in the Fsses.
In 1955, I was standing in the pits when Levegh’s Mercedes went into the crowd. Everything happened in front of me. I saw 84 people die. When my Connaught expired with a burnt piston we all quietly went home.
Faith in the reliability of our Aston Martin Project 214 clearly did not figure highly in the minds of the pit crew at the 1964 Le Mans race.
The first 10 hours went according to plan. Then, without warning, while travelling at 190mph, something flew off the Ferrari I’d been slipstreaming. It smashed into the nose of the Aston, bursting the left hand front tyre a hairy moment. Having brought the situation under control I headed for the pits at little more than walking speed. Upon arrival I found our pit to be completely deserted – everything was packed up. A mechanic appeared, ran over to the Aston in disbelief that it was still running. “We thought you had blown up,” he blurted. “No”, I replied, “the only thing that’s blown up is the front tyre.” The team reassembled. However, by 8.00am the head gasket had failed and it was all over.
Having loaded the transporter we piled into our faithful Jaguar MkVII and set off for our hotel at Le Chatre. En route we stopped at a railway crossing where the gates were shut. It was a glorious morning and the sun was shining. It was some time later that we were woken by a camion driver blasting his horn, unable to get past. They were wonderful days, though I doubt if we appreciated it at the time.
I was lucky enough to take part in 10 Le Mans as a driver and a three as an entrant. It was the most exciting race in the world. I never won, but had good finishes in the top five. Two races spring to mind. In 1980 I was driving with Brian Redman in a Porsche 935. I set the pole time and thought we had a good chance. We started in a downpour which lasted for hours. We led for hours but succumbed to a misfire which proved to be a burnt valve and had to reduce our pace to finish fifth overall and win the IMSA class.
The second race was the 1983 race, my last as a driver. I was driving my own Porsche 956 with David Hobbs. At the start there were about 10 of us in 956s circulating together. The 956 did about 220mph on its own and rather more in the slipstream. Imagine how quickly we were going down the straight, in each other’s slipstream and taking the kink flat. On one lap Mario Andretti’s Kremer car overtook before the kink and was a bit tight going in. He was on the dirt on the way out at 210mph and completely sideways, throwing up stones, one of which destroyed my windscreen. Rather unnecessary, but he got away with it.
The 1.5-litre Porsche RSK Spyder I shared at Le Mans in 1958 with Edgar Barth was fourth on Sunday morning, with our team-mates Behra and Herrmann’s 1.6 four-cam RSK in third. With three hours to go their brakes would have to be changed.
That meant that they would lose their place to us, but Jean was the star driver, and manager Huschke von Hanstein wanted him to lead the Porsches home. So shortly before Edgar came in, he asked if I would wait for the sick car to make a dead heat at the finish. Of course, that never works. Porsche had tried a dead heat in the ’53 race and then von Frankenberg and I were the lucky winners of the ‘lottery’ and the 1500cc class.
Still, I agreed. I had a good relationship with Porsche and Ferry was in the pit. I did not want to spoil it. I set off and drove as slowly as decently possible; I let Behra overtake me three or four times until told by the pits we were on the same lap.
But when the results appeared, we realised that, far from having achieved a dead heat, I’d handed the bronze medal to Behra and Herrmann: our car finished one full lap behind them. Finishing in our rightful place third, with a 1.5-litre car would have been as good as winning at the wheel of a Ferrari two years later.
I never raised it with Huschke, but I am convinced he wanted to make sure he achieved his goal and let me have the appropriate signals.
Memories? You mean apart from surviving a 200mph smash in 1982?
The most emotional was finishing in 1990, crossing the line with the two Jaguars. And, in ’83, by a little trickery with a half-empty tank we led in the Nimrod for nine glorious laps.
But the most poignant memory is that I stood on the famous balcony the last time before it was pulled down for ’91. I remember walking up, looking into the pits and seeing the faded number circles from years before.
We drove flat-out in 1990; we only did 55-minute stints because a double stint was too draining. Mind you, we weren’t the fittest team around… When the GTs arrived it was easier again for the downforce had gone.
I’ve done Le Mans 14 times and finished half of them. I’m hoping for a 15th, but with fewer GT1 places and more works cars, there’s less chance for the Lister.
Le Mans is one of those special places. Being there with Jaguar in ’86 was one of most emotional experiences of my life. In the parade I cried; I had tears in my eyes as we came past the pits and heard the crowd.
Driving there is wonderful – it’s quick, testing, a real challenge. It got a bad name when the Porsches won at a canter, but by 1992 we were driving flat for 23 hours. That’s like 15 Grands Prix non-stop.
Le Mans is one of those things you’re proud to tell your children about. I was offered a good drive this year, but I’m a professional racing driver, and my current objective is to put Vauxhall in the Touring Cars winners’ circle, so I sadly said no.
You have your dreams; mine were to win a Grand Prix and Le Mans. Crossing the line in the Peugeot to win in 1992 with all the waving flags was very special. The trophy still stands in my dealership; that’s how much it means to me.