Triple Treat

Matra's plan was to win both Formula One titles plus Le Mans in just ten years. In the event, it did all that and more. Gordon Cruickshank reports.

It's hard to think of a recent equivalent to the Matra racing regime. In one glorious decade, from 1965 to 1974, Matra fielded victorious Grand Prix cars and Le Mans winners at the same time as building F2 and F3 cars and selling quirky roadcars ... Perhaps McLaren's 1995 Le Mans win makes them somewhat comparable - but McLaren have never made ground-to-air missiles as well.

It took a strong-willed optimist to forge a single-minded racing outfit from the disparate elements under the Matra flag in 1965. That man was Jean-Luc Lagardere, the director of a new company called Matra-Sports - a wing of the Matra group, whose name, a contraction of michanique-aviatian-traction, indicated its wide remit. Formed with the remnants of the Bonnet Djet sportscar project, Matra-Sports planned to build a sportscar France could be proud of but from the outset Lagardere had an astounding wider plan: he envisioned winning at Le Mans and taking the Formula One championship within ten years. President Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon can hardly have seemed more optimistic.

Lagardere's war-cry was "F3 to learn, F2 to challenge, and F1 to win!" And he made it happen: by the end of 1965, Matra's first season building racing cars, Jean-Pierre Beltoise was F3 national champion, with Jean-Pierre Jassaud second. Along with Henri Pescarolo and Johnny Servoz-Gavin, these were names whose loyalty to Matra barely wavered in the greater years to come; between them they collected two more national F3 titles and five French F1/F2 championships. It must be said that opposition among French constructors was not song; but Ken Tyrrell's choice of Matra chassis for his protege Jackie Stewart brought credibility abroad to the marque and heralded F2 triumphs in '66, including a win for Beltoise in the German GP support race.

As well as running its own team, the company began to sell chassis to privateers in both formulae. This released resources for Lagardere's parallel dream, a new sports-prototype to contest the legendary 24-hour race. Significant among the new talent recruited now was Gerard Ducarouge, a missile technician, who became the organising architect of the Le Mans triple. Lagardere needed to gain some real sportscar experience in the gap before his own engine was ready. Typically adventurous, he did a deal with BRM to use its 2-litre 245bhp V8.

Matra had been virtually unknown outside France, so the appearance in 1966 of the MS620 did not seem to presage a threat to Ferrari. This alloy-bodied coupe, its angular lines reflecting the forthcoming Matra MS530 road car, ran against the Porsches and Dinos, but its excessive weight and peaky engine led to a depressing run of failures. Then, mid-season, Beltoise managed to score a first win, at Magny-Cours. It was a small consolation for the disappointed outfit.

Two examples of a new lighter car, called MS630, went to Le Mans for 1967. With grp bodywork shaped with the help of Matra's aerospace division and a new BRM unit on board, the feeling was optimistic until both broke. But Henri Pescarolo then brought two further wins, one with a 4.7-litre Ford, plugging the gap while development work continued on Matra's own V12. It was an ambitious scheme to use this unit for both F1 and sportscars, as the prevailing rules limited Sports-Prototypes to three litres, just like Formula One. The temptation was clear - the higher output per litre of a purebred racing unit might close the gap to the ostensibly production-based 5-litre sportscars.

But Formula One came first. Through 1968 the Elf-backed F1 team ran the MS10 with Cosworth power under the Matra International flag, Stewart finishing second in the championship, and honed the promising V12 in the MS11. But it was mid-season before the MS630 received the endurance version, putting Matra at last into Division One at Le Mans. It was a hard blow when Pescarolo/Servoz went out with a puncture while lying second, particularly as the V12 did not finish a race that season an embarrassing contrast to Servoz/Gavin's series of victories in the Ford-powered car.

However, Matra was fully committed to making a sports version work, and as Jackie Stewart amassed the seven Grand Prix victories which brought both driver and constructor tides for 1969, the prototypes tackled the endurance races with increasing confidence. A new spider, the chunky MS650, was developed from the 630, as well as a parallel design, the 640, with elongated low-drag bodywork for outrageous top speeds; but that was abandoned after it took off and destroyed itself while testing, putting Pescarolo in hospital for weeks.

This huge level of investment of funds and manpower could hardly be maintained by the profits of one specialist company, even with Elfs input, and in fact Matra was helped substantially by the French government. Thus it was able to send four cars to the Sarthe in '69, and at last, at the place where it really counted, there was reason to wave the tricouluer: the faithful Beltoise and Piers Courage were fourth, delayed by a collision after looking like winners, Guichet and Vaccarella just behind, and Galli and Widdows seventh. The impetus was building up, and an enthusiastic French public began to believe that 'le bleu de France' might after all pull it off.

Stewart's wins, and Beltoise's strong support, had come courtesy of Ford, as Matra `rested' the F1 V12 during the '69 season to redesign it. For 1970, designer Georges Martin gave it a magnesium instead of aluminium block, while a new top end brought narrower heads and central intakes, making for a more compact unit with power raised to 420bhp. Unfortunately it brought the worst Le Mans debacle so far - three engine failures one after the other. But aerodynamic lessons from the revised 630/650 were valuable, and the new lighter MS660 chassis, now a monocoque, did win the 1000km de Paris.

After running three models in 1970, Matra sent only a single 660 for Amon and Beltoise to Le Mans in '71, while preparing for next year the first without 5-litre rivals. Again a retirement - injection problems.

For 1972, with the F1 title ticked off from Lagardere's battle-plan, that elusive victory at the Sarthe was top priority. The F1 team was reduced to one car, for Chris Amon, and staff reassigned to the now completely separate Le Mans team. No other sportscar races were allowed to dilute the effort - Le Mans was the sole target. To crew the three new 670s, backed by one of last year's 660s, Ducarouge put an F1 driver in each, and widened the options by preparing two cars with new-spec 450bhp engines and two in older Grand Prix tune at 420bhp. In addition, two carried long-tail bodywork for peak Mulsanne speeds, while two went the short-tail high-downforce route. Surely this matrix of combinations had to throw up the correct solution.

It was an all-out effort, as Howden Ganley, then racing a BRM in F1, recalls. "Jabby Crombac approached me and said 'this time we're going to do it properly' ". And they did, with three full 24-hour tests for all the drivers. In addition, Ganley, a Le Mans novice, was taken to the circuit to drive the normally closed sections. Even the ACO was doing its bit in this enormous French effort.

The new MS670 was broadly similar to the 660, but with smaller front wheels and slimmer nose for better penetration. It was, says Ganley, a nicely balanced car which really handled well. Beltoise called it the best Matra of all.

When the great June weekend arrived, the scale and professionalism of the Matra corporation was obvious. The team numbered 120 people. Every driver had a Matra road car provided, and each crew had a separate trailer with their names on refinements unheard of then. The attention to detail, Ganley says today, reminded him of the tales of the legendary Mercedes operation of the Fifties. In the event, Ferrari withdrew his cars, so the aerospace-designed steamroller took charge: for many hours Pescarolo and Hill traded the lead with Cevert and Ganley. "We had agreed that we would be light on the brakes," remembers Ganley. "Francois was nervous of driving with me - he thought I would be out to show him up. But we talked it out and I persuaded him I wanted us to win, and we could do it by staying off the brakes."

With fewer pad changes and using less fuel than Hill and Pescarolo, Ducarouge calculated that Cevert and Ganley would lead a 1-2 by a couple of laps, and sure enough they soon had a lap's advantage until in the 19th hour the rain came. Water seeped into an alternator vent and the V12 started to misfire. After a couple of puzzled pitstops Ganley began to catch Hill, only to see the car vanish in a curtain of heavy rain down the Mulsanne straight. Fearful of ramming the leader, Ganley slowed, fighting for control on intermediate tyres in a fog of gripless spray. With no warning he felt a tremendous bang from behind; "from the corner of my eye I spied a Corvette, minus right front corner, banking left several feet in the air as it overtook me".

The impact sent the Matra stewing from side-to-side, finishing up on the grass, its left rear corner buckled and torn. But crucially the drive-shaft was undamaged and Ganley, himself unhurt, realised that crawling back on the flat tyre could grind away the car's vitals. So to preserve the car he set off home on the grass verge. That nail-bitingly slow return and the rebuilding time cost them nine laps, but such was the Matra advantage that when they rejoined they were still second. "We gained back one lap but then the engine went onto 11 cylinders so we cruised it to the end for second place."

At last a 1-2 French victory. But when the jubilation subsided, it had to be said that Matra had not yet beaten Ferrari, so for '73 it was decided to contest the full Sportscar Championship. But with one difference there would be French drivers only. It was a particular disappointment for Ganley, who was looking forward to another run. "I cannot say enough good things about the team, from Lagardere down to all the mechanics a really nice group of people."

As so often happens, a team on a roll seems invincible, and with a refined MS670 and a pool of talented home drivers, Matra vanquished both Ferrari and Porsche during 73. Its five victories included the perfect Le Mans win for Pescarolo/Larrousse, strongly challenged by the Ferrari 312 of Ickx and Redman until it blew up. The constructors' title was Matra's at last. It would need a real drama at Le Mans to excite the home crowd as much a third time in 1974, but fate complied: at midday on Sunday Matra's favourite son Pesca was leading, when his gearbox failed. The stands went quiet as he struggled to the pits and the mechanics set to and all the while van Lennep's Porsche was gaining... He restarted with a bare three minutes over the Porsche, and the historic triple was sealed, as well as a second sportscar title with an amazing nine wins out of ten races. At this glorious moment, Lagardere announced it was all over. Matra-Sport was retiring.

He had achieved his 10-year plan; an F1 title, three Le Mans wins, two sportscar championships; there was nowhere else to go. But the economics clinched it; the oil crisis had hit, and development costs were soaring. The V12 had never won a Grand Prix, and a return to F1, desirable for publicity, would mean enormous new cost; at a time when the Matra group was retrenching. The race department was suddenly closed. To retain a toe-hold, Lagardere turned his budget over to Martin to get the V12 back into F1, and while the 1975 pairing with Shadow soon failed, the much-revised unit finally scored when Jacques Laffite drove a Matra-powered Ligier JS7 to victory in Sweden in 1977.

But even that was a mere echo of the great days, when a group of talented people were inspired by a man with a vision. Tackling both the top disciplines in racing was a mammoth undertaking; doing so with their own chassis, engine, and home-grown pool of drivers smacked of megalomania. But sometimes you need some of that just to get things done.