Le Mans test weekend

Le Mans, France, April 10th

Over the weekend of April 8th/9th the Automobile Club de l’Ouest closed the Le Mans circuit to traffic and set in motion the vast organisation that operates during the famous 24-hour event in June. The full circuit was available from 8 a.m. to 4.45 p.m. on Saturday, 9 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. on Sunday and again from 2.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m. Sunday afternoon and the object was to allow competitors for the race in June to test their cars and drivers. As some 30,000 spectators turned up to watch it was also a test for the organisation.

The atmosphere was charged with interest for this year Le Mans looks like being a real needle match between Ford and Ferrari, for the Italians have already won the Daytona 24-hour race and the Americans have won the 12-hour race at Sebring. Throughout the weekend there was a terrific feeling of speed and power, such as Europe has not seen for a long time, and you felt that the two giants were manoeuvring into position with a quiet rumbling noise before letting fly at each other. Saturday provided excellent conditions and Ferrari let fly with some high pitched salvos on his P4 cars, while Ford rumbled ominously but did not press the button. Throughout the day the P4 Ferraris, driven by Bandini, Scarfiotti, Amon and Parkes, went faster and faster, the consistent and reliable scream of the wonderful V12-cylinder engine rising to magnificent heights as the 1966 lap record of 3 min. 30.6 sec. was improved upon time and time again, any of the four drivers circulating continuously at around 3 min. 26 sec. The two Fords were driven by McLaren and Donohue and though there was the occasional belly-rumble from the big 7-litre V8-cylinder engines, there was no attempt to turn on the pressure during the first day. The two Ferraris seemed very well set up for the Le Mans circuit, there being no mechanical or aerodynamic problems and tests were mainly directed on tyres. There was quite a lot of fiddling about in the Ford camp, including a lot of effort fitting two small fins to the tail of the Mk. IV which had little or no effect. To the observer it seemed that the Ferrari team were happily “playing with a racing car,” while the Ford team were conducting a “scientific experiment with a complicated mechanism.” Between these two was the brand new Lola-Aston Martin V8, driven by Surtees and David Hobbs, and while they busily got on with their first experience of high-speed motoring with the car, the two giants kept an eye on them, Ford knowing that their whole racing effort was born of the brain of Eric Broadley and Ferrari knowing that Surtees can never be underrated.

By the end of the day Bandini had recorded the fastest official lap in 3 min. 25.5 sec., a speed of 235.813 k.p.h. (146.5 m.p.h.) which for those only used to speed in Great Britain is the average speed for the 81-mile circuit, which includes three very slow corners. Along the Mulsanne straight the Mk. IV Ford was timed at 205 m.p.h., which Ford’s themselves had recorded as 206 m.p.h. on the instrumentation on the car. The two Ferraris were doing 198 m.p.h. which makes you realise that Le Mans is fast. Ford had been juggling about with various combinations of wheels and tyres and McLaren was confident of beating the Ferrari lap speed any time he wanted to, knowing how much he still had in reserve and estimated that he could pull 215 m.p.h. along the straight and get down to about 3 min. 22 sec.

Unfortunately Sunday morning dawned wet and cold and it stayed that way throughout the day, so the Ford challenge could not be seen, for while it rained they did not run and McLaren only did a few slow exploratory laps and the 7-litres spent the whole day doing nothing. On the other hand Ferrari and Lola profited from the wet conditions to do some more tyre experimenting and both were fairly happy with the handling on the wet circuit, if anyone can really be happy in the wet. Surtees was doing some impressively fast motoring in the rain, proving that there was not much wrong with the Lola part of the all British combine, while the only fault with the V8 Aston Martin engine seemed to be a reluctance to go over 6,000 r.p.m., whereas it should have been running to 6,400 r.p.m. In spite of this the Lola was third fastest, behind the two Ferraris, so that those of us who are hoping to see the beautiful dark green coupé leading the pack in June are not being over optimistic or too patriotic. Although on paper Ferrari left Le Mans as top dog, no one was being fooled by the freak circumstances, for had it been dry on Sunday it might have been a different story and both teams were very impressed with the Lola-Aston Martin efforts, remembering their own experiences when running a brand-new design for the first time. It seemed that Ford did not want to run in the rain for fear of a repetition of the accident to Hansgen last year and the resultant bad publicity, but what if it rains in June, and it can rain very hard at Le Mans.

With all this high-speed motoring going on mishaps were inevitable, but unfortunately one of them on Saturday proved fatal. Young Roby Weber, a Matra Formula 3 driver, crashed inexplicably on the Mulsanne straight in the new Matra with 2-litre B.R.M. V8 engine and was killed.

The two P4 Ferraris were the ones used at Daytona, one with open cockpit and the other with a closed cockpit and both looked a bit second hand, but certainly did not lack speed. They had the latest 4 o.h.c. V12-cylinder engines of 4 litres capacity, with Lucas fuel injection, the latest gearboxes and the disc-brakes all hub mounted, instead of the rear ones being “inboard” close to the gearbox. The two 7-litre Fords, now run as official factory Ford entries, were a Mk. IV and a Mk. II, the former looked after by Carroll Shelby’s men and the latter by Holman & Moody’s men. The Mk. IV was identical to the winning car at Sebring, even to being painted bright yellow, and had a 7-litre pushrod V8 engine and 4-speed manual gearbox. This was one of the “honeycomb” construction cars, that last year were very experimental and called J-cars; now that they are raceworthy and out of the experimental stage they are known as the Mk. IV. The lone car at Le Mans was fully instrumented on practically all the moving parts and wired to a Chrondek recorder which received all the information on a tape or micro-film and this could be analysed in a mobile laboratory behind the pits. The Mk. IV bodywork has been greatly improved since the J-car appeared this time last year and is a very fine looking machine. The Mk. II car was similar to last year’s winning 7-litre, painted gold and looking a bit old fashioned already. The Lola-Aston Martin coupé was every bit as purposeful looking as its competitors and the 4 o.h.c. Aston Martin V8 engine of 5 litres was very compact. At present it is running on Weber carburetters, but will soon be on Lucas fuel injection. The exhaust pipes are very long and end in two tail pipes with enormous megaphone ends, and two systems were tried, one with the megaphones very wide apart, the other with them close together. The engine drives through a Hewland gearbox and the very large disc brakes are a combination of Kelsey-Hayes, Girling and Lola. The roof of the coupé body extends horizontally along to the tail, with a valley in the middle in which the engine air-intakes are situated. In an attempt to solve engine breathing problems the end of this valley was blanked off with Perspex, but with no great effect.

These then were the giants of the weekend, but backing them up was a lot more interesting machinery, led by two special Ford GT40 coupés built and prepared by J.W. Automotive Engineering of Slough, who used to be the old Ford Advanced Vehicles organisation. Mechanically these two cars were basically production GT40 cars, but had lighter chassis and numerous detailed improvements and completely revised bodywork on the lines of the Mk. IV Ford. Sponsored by the Gulf Oil Company these two cars were painted light blue with a “Gulf orange” stripe down the middle and in June should have special 5-litre Ford V8 egines, having normal 4.7-litre units at present. They were driven by Attwood and Piper, the latter “going Ford” only while awaiting his new P4 Ferrari, and while getting used to Ford motoring on Saturday morning he locked a rear wheel at Mulsanne and slid into the bank, damaging the fibre-glass body, but it was skilfully repaired for Sunday practice. Being experimental special cars, outside the main Ford experimental work, these cars were not called Fords, but Mirage, a simple name for French commentators to pronounce!

In the 2-litre category there was much of interest for Porsche had a pair of 910 cars, with very long tails so that the exhaust pipes finished inside the fibre-glass construction, exhausting into a large box with a slot at the rear. They were getting problems with fumes blowing forward into the cockpit and never seemed to cure the problem completely. The long sloping rear window had slots in it for rear-vision purposes, but even so the organisers were “sticking” a bit about rearward visibility. Throughout the weekend the Porsches did not do very much really serious running and if it had been anyone but Porsche one would have said they were in trouble. They had quite a lot of opposition to keep an eye on, for Autodelta arrived with three Tipo 33 cars (described in detail elsewhere) and proceeded to go quite quickly and reliably, the 2-litre V8 engines sounding very raceworthy even if the cars looked a bit old fashioned as regards “streamlining.” It looks as though Alfa Romeo have decided that no one knows anything about aero-dynamics as applied to racing cars so they have made a chunky, rotund-looking two-seater that looks as though it is going to confuse a lot of people by its speed and stability. The oil tank filler cap is a joy, it is identical to that on vintage 1,750-c.c. Alfa Romeos, and why not. Rather overcome by the unhappy disaster to their young French driver, the Matra team were not really in the 2-litre picture, but the latest car, with centre-exhaust B.R.M. engine as used in the Tasman cars should be competitive. It was one of these latest versions that crashed. Like Porsche they have the problem of the exhaust pipes ending well short of the long-tailed body and the French answer was to cover the complete exhaust system with a long metal duct, at the same time injecting air into the front of the duct. The car was fitted up with three large temperature gauges recording air temperatures at various parts of the engine compartment. One of last year’s Matra-B.R.M. coupés had had the Bourne engine removed and a 4.7-litre Ford V8 engine installed in its place, the result being a very competitive car, the equal of a Ford GT40.

The French Alpine team were very happy, using their 1966 cars for the simple reason that they considered the shape, for the overall size, to be about as near perfect as possible. As one of them, with 1,300-c.c. engine was doing 150 m.p.h. last year, they had every reason to be complacent, this year they installed a 1,500-c.c. Gordini-Renault engine and Mauro Bianchi lapped in 3 min. 58.6 sec. (approx. 125 m.p.h.) and reached 156.5 m.p.h. on the straight. Gordini is working on a V8 engine made up of two of these 1,500-c.c engines, and this 3-litre will fit into the same body/chassis shell as the 1,500 c.c. so it should be very fast. With this progress it will soon be possible for the organisers to impose a minimum lap speed of 120 m.p.h. and this with a maximum lap speed around 145 m.p.h. would be a more than big enough speed differential for the peace of mind of the really fast drivers. The only justifiable reason for keeping small, comparatively slow cars at Le Mans has been that this category had an almost 100% French entry. As things stand at present this would rule out nearly half the entry, but with the big cars genuinely topping the 200-m.p.h. mark, can there really be room for production Porsche 911 coupés or 1,200-c.c. Prototype cars that can only just lap at 100 m.p.h.? Nobody wants another holocaust like the 1955 Le Mans, but more important is that the sporting world has only just recovered from the effects of that accident, as far as repercussions are concerned, and many aspects of motor sport never did recover. Another disaster could well have repercussions from which nothing would recover. If the motor sporting world were left to their own devices all would be well, but the “do gooders” of this world will never leave us alone.

The 1967 Le Mans 24-hour event is going to be quite a motor race, With the accent on MOTOR racing rather than DRIVER racing, and those people who have been prattling shout the “Return of Power” and “Big Bangers” should not miss June 10th/11th, and certainly not June 10th at 4 p.m. – D. S. J.