So far, yet so near
It was the closest finish ever at Le Mans but there still has to be a loser. The man who missed out tells his story to Adam Cooper
The 1969 Le Mans 24 hours is acknowledged as one of the greatest motor races of all time, and winners Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver have retold their stories before. But what about the man who came second that year?
Hans Herrmann went on to win in 1970, but his place in the Vingt-Qiatre Hewes history books was secured by his charging performance in the race he lost by the narrowest of margins. Now a dapper 73, Herrmann acknowledges that '69 was the more memorable experience, and his eyes light up at the recollection of his legendary battle with Ickx. After three wins for the now-outdated Ford, and with Ferrari offering only a half-hearted challenge, 1969 was going to be Porsche's year. Racing boss Ferdinand Piech put a mighty effort into creating the 917, and despite its troubled debut at the Niirbuigring, the car was a hot favourite for Le Mans.
"Getting the 917 built was a tour de force from Piech," Herrmann recalls. "In the beginning the car was a catastrophe. Over time they modified it and made it better. They worked with springs, bars and dampers, because the drivels just could not get used to it. It was understeeting in one corner, oversteering in the next, and in the third one was doing both at the same time!
"Some British engineers pointed us in the right direction; the big problem was an aerodynamic one. They went to Le Mans absolutely convinced of their power, that they would win. If the car lasted, that is." Through practice, the star drivers hopped from one car to the other before the final combinations
were announced. Two 917s were handled by Rolf Stommelen/Kurt Ahrens and Vic Elford/Richard Attwood, while Jo Siffert preferred the sole 908 Spyder, shared with Brian Redman. A trio of standard 908s were split between the second-string drivers, with Herrmann joining French rally ace Gerard Larrousse in one of them. At 41, Hans was the old man of the team, but he was not worried about being in one of the less fancied entries.
"The 908 was an extremely light car, and very reliable, as we had so much experience with it. The older and more experienced people didn't trust that the 917 would be able to go for 24 hours because it was still not a perfect car to drive at Le Mans — though much better than at the Niirburgring."
The race started with tragedy when privateer John Woolfe crashed his 917 with fatal results, although Hans saw nothing of the accident His first stint was handicapped by a set-up misjudgement.
"I made a mistake at the last qualifying. I wanted to have a little bit more downforce in the corners.' Piech said 'No, it's wrong', but I won through with it — not easy against Piech. "But already on the first lap I saw that I made a mistake. I noticed immediately that I was running too low, and the body was touching the ground. I thought, 'I will drive two or three laps and it will rub the body so much it will make the surface go, so I don't need to come in!' At the first stop they put it the way Piech wanted, and everything was perfect" Herrmann/Larrousse settled in a comfortable top six position. And as the hours ticked away, their pace-setting team-mates began top out; first the Stommelen 917 with engine problems, then the Siffert Spyder with a broken gearbox. After about six hours the Herrmann car had trouble of its own. "We stood for 30 minutes in the pits when a front wheel-bearing failed. Without that, we would have won easily. When you are that pissed off, you just go flat out and say, 'If it breaks, it breaks.' I was the kind of guy who was quick when he was pissed off"
Later Lido Schutz crashed heavily in the secondplaced 908, ironically while trying to pass Larrousse. Then, around Sunday lunchtime, Elford's leading 917 succumbed to transmission problems, which should have handed victory to the 908 of Willi Kauhsen — had that car not gone out at exactly the same time. Five cars down, Porsche's hopes rested on Herrmann and Larrousse who were now in second, behind only the steady Ickx/Oliver GT40. At the final stops Hans got back in the 908, while Icloc stayed aboard the Ford.
"Our engine had lost a little bit on revs, although we didn't know why. Then we went into the last hour, and the front brakes were gone. WI went into the pits to change the discs, then it was over, and for sure I'd be second."
There followed a fantastic game of cat-andmouse and the pair passed and repassed each other, testing their respective weaknesses. "Every lap we overtook each other three or four times. We touched very often, and each of us had the colour of the other car. But we had absolute trust in each other. One time Icloc went in the sand at Arnage, and I thought maybe he's going to take a long time to come out and I'll be alright, but he came out much quicker than I thought. I overtook him, but on the straight he overtook me again.
"It was strange, because neither of us wanted to go in front on the straight We were looking at each other, and it was like a pursuit race on bicycles — you see a guy standing still, waiting for the other one to go. That was more or less what we were doing."
On the last lap, Icloc got ahead for the crucial run through Maison Blanche. Hans had one more chance to overtake.
"For that left-right, 200 metres before the start line, I thought I will go through without braking. I could win it — or maybe I would have been killed! So I decided not to do it. It was so risky, I thought, 'For sure I'm going to turn over on the kerbs, and then I'm gone."
So Hans accepted second, just yards behind in the closest non-staged finish the race has seen. The following year he would get his revenge, scoring Porsche's maiden Le Mans win with Richard Attwood in a 917. "When you win it's always better. It was a big relief, a goal I had set myself— and also it was my last race. The day I went to Le Mans, my wife said, 'Now, if you win Le Mans would you then retire?' and just to have peace I said, 'Okay'. And I always keep my word. I would have retired at the end of that year anyway, but I hadn't told anybody, even my wife. But I had to organise things with Piech, because I had a contract for the whole year."