Crowning achievement

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F1 racers don’t always make great 24-hour drivers, but on his tenth visit to Le Mans, Graham Hill knew exactly what was required of him. Gary Watkins describes how the Englishman achieved his still-unique triple crown

Henri Pescarolo wasn’t best pleased. He’d already taken some persuading to rejoin Matra for its most serious assault yet on the Le Mans 24 Hours — and now he’d been told he’d be sharing with an ageing Formula One superstar clearly past his best. So unhappy was the French manufacturer’s former favourite that he considered backing out of his deal to lead the 1972 assault.

“I wasn’t sure Graham would be ready to take the kind of risks necessary to win Le Mans,” recalls Pescarolo, who was still smarting over his sacking from Matra’s F1 squad at the end of 1970. “He was already a world champion and had won the Indy 500, and the 24 Hours was a very dangerous race.” Pescarolo quickly came to realise, however, that Hill was no less determined than any other member of the eight-man Matra squad.

Responsibility for reassuring the star of Matra’s 1968 Le Mans campaign fell to journalist and French motorsport fixer Jabby Crombac, who was retained to organise Matra’s driver line-up.

“Jabby told me that Graham was really coming to win,” explains Pescarolo. ‘And that his ambition was to be the first driver to win the 24 Hours as well as Indianapolis and the world title.”

Crombac agrees that Hill made the trip to La Sarthe in pursuit of a record that remains unequalled. He can’t, however, remember the exact circumstances of his offer to a driver who hadn’t raced in sportscar racing’s blue riband for six years.

“I was good friends with Graham — he’d been best man at my wedding — so whenever I was at the races we’d meet up. I’d been told by Jean-Luc Lagardere [Matra’s boss] to get F1 people, so I guess it was natural that I should ask Graham.”

Hill, who had already turned 43, was a willing, conscientious participant in Matra’s extensive test programme with the new 3-litre MS670 prototype, though his famed sense of humour came to the fore when he heard of his team-mate’s reservations about driving alongside him. “He played it beautifully and acted like an old man at the first test just to take the piss out of Henri,” says Crombac. “But once he started driving, he was outstanding.”

Pescarolo quickly came to respect Hill: “He was a true professional and fitted in very quickly. Graham worked hard to become part of the team, because he realised he was in the right place at the right time to win Le Mans.”

Matra were deadly serious about winning on their eighth consecutive attempt. The F1 programme had been scaled down to just one car, there was a new chassis in Bernard Boyer’s MS670 design, and the intensive test programme included three major endurance runs at Paul Ricard.

Nor was there a distracting campaign in the World Championship of Makes, a series Ferrari was dominating with its fleet of 312PBs. The Scuderia entered Le Mans, too, topping the times at the pre-race test day but then withdrew, claiming its 3-litre contender had yet to be fully developed into an endurance racer.

That confirmed Matra as pre-race favourites, a status the team lived up to in qualifying. Francois Cevert, who was paired with Howden Ganley, beat Pescarolo to pole by just over 0.5sec, while the third MS670, driven by Chris Amon and Jean-Pierre Beltoise wound up third. A fourth Matra, an updated MS660 shared by Jean-Pierre Jabouille and David Hobbs, qualified behind the threecar Alfa Romeo team and the first of Jo Bonnier’s Lola-Cosworths.

Both Ecurie Bonnier Lola T280s and Rolf Stommelen’s Alfa T33/3 enjoyed short spells at the head of the field over the first couple of hours, but by seven o’clock, the battle for the lead was an all-Matra affair. Beltoise had lasted less than two laps before his engine gave up the ghost, and the Hobbs/Jabouille MS660C had been delayed when the Frenchman ran out of fuel. And so the race became a straight fight between the two front-row cars, the Hill/Pescarolo chassis running a high-downforce rear end, the Cevert/Ganley a long tail.

And it really was a fight. Even though strict instructions not to race each other had been issued by the Matra hierarchy, bad weather made such orders almost impossible to enforce. Twice Hill embroiled himself in an internecine battle with Ganley, and twice he passed the Kiwi for the lead.

Gerard Ducarouge, who ran Matra’s sportscar programme, remembers Hill using all his experience in these difficult conditions: “In the morning, the weather was very unstable and Graham decided on his own to change from slicks to intermediates. Then rain started and he began to catch the other car like hell and took the lead when it pitted.”

The destination of the victory laurels was decided shortly before midday on Sunday. Ganley was hit from behind by a slower car and lost 10 minutes while repairs were made. Ducarouge, though, is convinced Hill/Pescarolo were already on course for victory: “I’m quite sure of that. Both of them drove brilliantly that day, but Graham was particularly special. He was not a loser and there was no way he was going to let the opportunity to win Le Mans pass him by. We tried to slow them down at one point, but forget it. They just said that they couldn’t see the board because of the weather.”

There was pandemonium in the pits after the race, perhaps not surprising given that this was the first victory for a French car at Le Mans since 1950. Hill had some trouble reaching the podium, but once there this bon viveur began celebrations that would last well into the night.

Hill’s victory was soured, however, by the death of Bonnier, a long-time friend, former team-mate and fellow co-founder of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. Shortly after eight o’clock in the morning, the Swiss veteran tangled with a slower car on the approach to Indianapolis Corner. His Lola slammed into the guard rail, which partially collapsed and served only to act as a launching pad.

Pescarolo and Hobbs remember the awful news being kept from the Matra drivers until after the race, but anyone on the track at the time could have had no doubt as to the seriousness of the incident. “It was one of those terrible accidents where you could see what had happened,” explains Hobbs.

Just how much Hill was affected by the death of his friend on this occasion isn’t clear. Pescarolo and Crombac recall him being the life and soul of Matra’s post-race celebrations out on the Mulsanne at Genissel’s, now the Chinese restaurant.

“I’m not sure Jo was on Graham’s mind that evening,” says Pescarolo. “There are pictures of us throwing glasses around the restaurant. It was a fantastic party.”

Hill was more reflective in his posthumously-published autobiography, Graham: “He was my oldest friend in motor racing and I found it hard to believe he’d been killed. I could always have a go at winning another race, but I wouldn’t meet Jo again.”

Hill admitted the “shock detracted enormously” from his win. Nothing, however, could prevent one of the unsung Le Mans performances of the 1970s sealing him a place in the history books.