The Le Mans 24-Hour Race has many shortcomings, as anyone will agree who has been there, but in spite of them all it still holds an attraction and lure that makes people go to it year after year, whether they be potential winners, hopeless also-rans, spectators or mere supporters. From the motor-racing enthusiast’s point of view it has the attraction of being held on a real road circuit, and going on for 24 hours, as well as being the oldest and most historic 24-hour race. The Belgians tried to emulate Le Mans with a 24-hour event on the magnificent Francorchamps circuit, but it was always lacking in spectator ambience, and Daytona is still trying but suffers from being too small and cramped as regards circuit, and too artificial. In these days of ever-increasing “slot-racing” on specially prepared circuits, the Circuit of the Sarthe becomes more and more alluring to driver and spectator alike. To drive round the 13½-kilometre circuit on a non-race day is fascinating. As you cruise down the Mulsanne straight at 80 m.p.h., passing the Café de Ia Hippodrome and Les Hunandieres restaurants, You cannot help thinking, “fabulous, the fast cars will be doing 180 m.p.h. at this point, and further on they will be close to 200 m.p.h.”. Through the wiggles of Mulsanne, Indianapolis, Arnage and White House, the feeling is “all this and the average for a good lap is around 140 m.p.h.—this is what road-racing is all about”. Even if you have a good belt round the Le Mans circuit, you still end up thinking “Crikey, that was in a 140-m.p.h. touring car, what must it be like in a 190-m.p.h. Sports/Prototype racing car?” You can spend a million pounds or many millions of dollars on a racing circuit, but you will never quite design and build a circuit like one that developed from public roads, that in the beginning were not designed, but just happened according to the lie of the land, natural obstacles, or personal property. If you have never explored beyond the confined spaces of Brands Hatch or Mallory Park, or the wastes of Snetterton or Silverstone, you will not know what I am talking about, but British drivers like Moss, Hawthorn, Collins, Brooks, Clark, Hill, or “foreign” drivers like Fangio, Behra, von Trips, Musso, Herrmann, Siffert, would know what I am going on about. Praise be, there are still some new young drivers who think the same way, and the likes of Jonathan Williams, Gaydon, Pescarolo, Derek Bell, and other up-and-coming lads, appreciate the real value of “road-racing”, and accept all it means and the calculated risks involved in becoming a road-racing driver rather than a slot-racing driver.
If you must participate in a long-distance event, and why not for goodness sake, then Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans cannot be beaten. For this reason the happenings on the Sarthe circuit are important and significant, though they may not be vital to the health and wealth of today’s “social security” type of driver. No matter how much racing a team or factory does, the ultimate victory is to win the Le Mans 24-hour race. It may not be the best race, or the best circuit, but it is the longest on a very good circuit. To win the Tarp Florio is great, or to win the 1,000 kilometres at Nurburgring, Spa, Monza, or Montlhéry, or even the B.O.A.C. 500 is satisfactory, but they are all preliminaries to winning the “big one”. Somehow the Sebring 12-hour race has never risen above an “airfield race” and a way of selling cars to the naive Americans, and the Daytona 24-hour race has merely perpetuated what Sebring started many years before. Talk to any retired racing driver or team that is no longer racing and nostalgia brings out “the good old days” of winning in Sicily or on the Nurburgring, or at Spa or Monza, it is seldom at Sebring, Daytona or even in Buenos Aires, for the Argentinians used to have a 1,000-kilometre race.
The Automobile Club de l’Ouest who run the Le Mans race are not held in the same esteem as their event, for no British enthusiast will ever forget the scurrilous way that the Lotus 23 was excluded from taking part some years ago, simply because it was going to make the little French cars look stupid, nor will anyone forget how they panicked alter the 1955 accident and rebuilt the pit area so quickly that it only “looked” safer, nor how they brought about a 3-litre limit in 1957 and the Ecurie Ecosse Jaguars took the mickey out of the rules, or in present times how they influence the Group 6 limit of 3 litres that stopped Ford, Chapparal, Lola and others who were working with 7-litre engines, yet it secretly encouraged Alpine-Renault, Matra and Porsche who had 3-litre engines already under way.
As I said at the beginning, in spite of all the shortcomings no-one who really believes in long-distance motor racing on road circuits will miss supporting Le Mans. The event to be held this coming June, from 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 14th, until 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 15th, looks like being a good one. Porsche are still smarting at having goofed last year when victory for them seemed certain, Ferrari is back, having boycotted the race for one year as a protest after the 3-litre limit was “fiddled” in, Matra are putting all their efforts into the race, having achieved more than they dreamed of last year, Alfa Romeo are steadily progressing towards better things, Alpine must do better to justify the Renault support, Lola feel they ought to be able to make a long-distance winner, and the J.W. Ford-Gulf team just know that a properly organised attempt must succeed, especially if the opposition gets too smart, and stumbles.
At the end of March a week-end of testing was provided at Le Mans, and the roads were closed to the public all day Saturday and Sunday. Ferrari, Matra, Lola, Porsche, Alpine and Alfa Romeo, as well as numerous private teams, took the opportunity to try out new cars, experiment with old ones or give drivers an opportunity to learn the very fast circuit. The works Porsche team had two of their new 4½-litre fiat-12-cylinder-engined cars for testing, which Herrmann and Stommelen were driving, and a 908 model with 3-litre 8-cylinder engine, which Ahrens and Buchet drove. The new 917 model was first introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in March, until which time it had been kept remarkably secret, although there were mutterings last December, but I for one did not take them seriously. The overall shape of the 917 follows that of the 907 and 908 factory cars, with tiny coupé cockpit and long tapering tail and very domed front wings. The driving position is very far forward, almost between the front wheels, and the car is reminiscent of the Ferdinand Porsche-designed Auto-Union of 1933. The chassis is a space-frame made of aluminium tubing of very small diameter, and the body structure is fibre-glass bonded on to the tubing. The engine is a horizontally-opposed 12-cylinder of 85 mm. bore and 66 mm. stroke, giving 4,494 c.c. Each bank of cylinders has two camshafts operating two valves per cylinder, and there are two sparking plugs per cylinder fired from two distributors mounted one at each end of the crankcase in a vertical position. The drive to the camshafts is from the centre of the crankshaft and from the same train of gears a vertical shaft drives a horizontal cooling fan mounted above the crankcase and just below the very sloping rear window. The ducting is of fibre-glass, as are the inlet pipes on top of the engine. The exhaust pipes are underneath, the front three on each side having tail-pipes out of each side of the car, just in front of the rear wheels, and the rear three on each side having tail-pipes out the back. The engine is coupled directly to the five-speed gearbox/differential unit, with massive drive shafts taking the power out to the wheels. Suspension follows the pattern of the eight-cylinder cars, being all-independent by wishbones, radius rods and coil-spring damper units, and very thick ventilated disc brakes are used. On the extremity of the long tapering tail are two horizontal stabilising flaps, coupled by links to the rear suspension so that they move up and down as the suspension functions.
The first 917 appeared at Geneva, the second and third at Le Mans, and an assembly line is well under way to build 25, and by the time this is being read there should be a full 25 of these exciting new Porsches in existence and it will be homologated as a Group 4 sports car. Only Porsche would dare to do this, in complete opposition to the intentions of the F.I.A. When the rules for Group 6 sports/prototypes and Group 4 sports cars were first thought up there were no capacity limits on engines, so it was reasonable to suppose that a manufacturer would build a Group 6 prototype, race it until it was proven, and then put it into production, and in those days 100 cars constituted “production”, this figure being reduced first to 50 and now to 25. All this seemed logical, but when the Le Mans people influenced the F.I.A. into making engine capacity limits, the whole system became a nonsense. Group 6 prototypes were limited to 3-litres and Group 4 sports cars to 5-litres, so the idea of race-proving a 3-litre prototype and then putting it into production was made impossible, unless of course you wanted to make a 3-litre sports car, but this would be giving away 2 litres unnecessarily. What Porsche have done is to take the F.I.A. rules to their illogical conclusion and they have built 25 production 4½-litre cars that can be homologated as Group 4 sports cars, and can be let loose on the circuits of the world completely untried and unproven, which is not what the F.I.A. meant, though no-one could see just what they did mean.
What Porsche have done in fact, and at a tremendous financial outlay, is to equip themselves with a brand new 4½-litre prototype-type of car to race against the 3-litres of Ferrari, Matra, Alpine, etc., even though it is officially a Group 4 sports car and should be competing against the GT40 and the Lola T70. Quite how the F.I.A. are going to justify this situation is difficult to see and the chances are they will not even try, but will no doubt cover up the whole nonsense by changing the rules yet again, without warning. As Porsche say, “We do not want to sell Group 4 sports cars that have not been race-proved, but under the existing rules we can do nothing else.” If an unskilled customer buys a 917, and some will to be sure, let us hope that he will not try and race it until the factory team have proved that it is a good race worthy car. The factory are continuing with the flat-eight cylinder 3-litre 908 prototype, and, in fact, are pinning their hopes on it for victory at Le Mans and elsewhere this year, but the 917 will undoubtedly be used as a pacemaker. Some idea of the potential of the 917 was seen at the test week-end when Stommelen turned a lap at 3 min. 30.7 sec., compared with his 1968 lap record in a 3-litre at 3 min. 38.1 sec. and Siffert’s best practice time in a similar car in 3 min. 35.4 sec. Porsche claim a figure of 520 b.h.p. for the 4½-litre, which is 115 b.h.p. per litre, whereas the 3-litre eight-cylinder engine was struggling to get 110 b.h.p. per litre. If the increase in capacity and the number of cylinders has increased the specific output as easily as that then there must have been something very wrong with the 3-litre engine. Whatever the answer the 917 is a big powerful car and is more than fast enough for circuits like Le Mans, Spa or Monza.
Ferrari was on test with a single 3-litre P312 prototype, as raced at Sebring, the 12-cylinder engine having inlets in the centre-of-the-vee and exhausts on the outside. Amon drove the car on Saturday, before returning to England for the B.R.D.C. Silverstone meeting, and then Brambilla drove the car. Like Ferrari the Matra team have taken advantage of the revised Group 6 rules that do not call for a windscreen, a spare wheel or any luggage space, and the 1968 Matra 630 with V12 Grand Prix engine and five-speed ZF gearbox was fitted with a very pretty and functional open bodywork, with two small “air-straighteners” across the tail. Servoz-Gavin and Pescarolo drove this single car, designated 630/650, round and round for what seemed like the whole weekend.
Alfa Romeo arrived with a Tipo 33-3, the new 3-litre V8-engined car straight from Sebring, still with the glued radiators that gave trouble in America, to find out whether the leaking trouble was caused by heat or the vibration on the rough Sebring airfield. They leaked again on the smooth Le Mans circuit, convincing the team that their problem was one of heat. On Sunday morning they were out very early and just before 9 a.m. Lucien Bianchi crashed just before the Mulsanne corner and was killed instantly. The death of this amiable and friendly Belgian, of Italian origin, was a sad blow to everyone and to motor racing and rallying in general. The circumstances of the crash would indicate that something went wrong with the car, poor compensation indeed for the relatives and friends of last year’s Le Mans winner, but comforting in a way. Needless to say this was the end of the Autodelta Alfa Romeo activity, though the Belgian VDS Alfa Romeo team stayed on with their 1968 cars, one with 2-litre engine, the other with 2.5-litre engine.
Lola Cars were testing with one brand new T70 coupé with 5-litre Chevrolet engine, driven by Hawkins, but much time was spent patching up the nose with aluminium plates after the fibre-glass had been rubbed away when the nose grounded under braking. Hawkins put in a best lap of 3 min. 35.2 sec. but the engine lacked power and the car did not seem fast enough down the straight so they did not stay long. Alpine were getting some good results with two of their 1968 cars with 3-litre V8 engines, modified as regards suspension and the aerodynamics of the tail, but they await improved V8 engines from Gordini and Renault. The took the opportunity of trying numerous drivers, led by Mauro Bianchi, brother of the lamented Lucien, and himself only recently recovered from the burns he received at Le Mans last year.
The peculiar mid-engined Healey that raced briefly last year, powered by a 2-litre V8 Coventry-Climax engine that dates back to the dark ages, was driven by John Harris, but the engine and gearbox looked as though they had been left outside all winter. Equally peculiar was a little yellow Unipower with a Mini engine transversely in the tail, and very wide Firestone tyres on its podgy little wheels. It was immaculate in bright yellow, and was driven by Weld-Forester, who owns the Unipower firm. There were various European private owners practising with Porsche 911, GT40 and Alpine-Renault four-cylinders, and though the number of cars did not appear to justify the organisation to run the Le Mans circuit it was a useful weekend that indicated that the weekend in June will not be lacking in potent machinery, except for a competitive all-British entry.—D. S. J.