The one that got away
David Hobbs: 1969 Le Mans 24 Hours
Everyone remembers the closest racing finish at Le Mans – but it should have been for second place, David Hobbs tells Adam Cooper
Le Mans of 1969 is rightly remembered for its dramatic finish, but while Jacky Ickx and Hans Herrmann were the heroes after 24 hours, many other drivers felt that the race could have been theirs. That’s no surprise when you consider that the winning Ford GT40 was stone last at the start and the Porsche 908 it beat had lost half an hour in the pits.
Just about every other Porsche pairing can claim to have been in with a shout, while Matra could also have won. But Le Mans is all about avoiding problems, as the lead driver of the oft overlooked second Gulf GT40 found out.
David Hobbs joined the JW Automotive team in 1968, where he was initially teamed with Paul Hawkins. The pair famously won the Monza 1000Km but were out of luck elsewhere, notably at Le Mans. “We were leading Lucien Bianchi and Pedro Rodriguez [the winners that year] pretty handily when the engine let go,” remembers the Briton.
Hobbs stayed on in 1969 but had a new partner. “I got on well with Paul but he went off to do his own thing, so I had Mike Hailwood instead,” he says. “We’d first met back in 1966 in South Africa when we both drove for Bernard White. Mike wasn’t looking forward to meeting me because he thought I was a Formula One snob, while I thought he was a yobbo bike-type. We’d been together for about 15 seconds when we realised, ‘This could be alright!’ He was a very, very accomplished driver, very fast. And he was a helluva lot of fun to be with.”
Reunited by David Yorke, the pair got on famously, but Hailwood was less enamoured of the star in the sister car Jacky Ickx, who teamed up with Jackie Oliver. On one occasion at Daytona the Belgian attempted to demonstrate his reactions by chasing a butterfly around the team caravan.
“Mike was sitting reading a book. Jacky was showing off, trying to prove that he was agile and dextrous, leaping all over the furniture, including the furniture on which Mike was sitting. Mike went absolutely mad. David Yorke looked horrified. He was an unabashed, dyed-in-the-wool fan of Jacky Ickx. And Jacky could do no wrong!”
Hobbs and Hailwood led at both Daytona and Sebring, but failed to win either. Although Mike hadn’t raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours until that year, the pair had high hopes. In the early stages luck seemed to be on their side.
“The GT40 was a bit long in the tooth, but it was still a great long-distance car,” explains Hobbs. “It had no real vices. I leapt in and made a very good start – I’ve got a picture that shows I’m about the second car to have moved! It was the year of the huge first-lap crash, when John Woolfe was killed. I got through before the accident but Jacky, who had done his protest at the start, got held up. So when the race was only two laps old we were already a lap ahead of the Ickx/Oliver car. And we maintained that for a long time.”
The Porsches set the pace into the hours of darkness, but both Gulf cars bowled along at the steady rate that team boss Yorke had specified.
“In the middle of the night two 908s went by me. It took them forever to really make much ground, and I could see them for several laps on the straight. Then one lap there was a blinding flash of white light – headlights – followed almost immediately by a ball of flame and smoke.
“So I anchored up pretty severely and whistled round the Kink. The road was completely obscured with flames and smoke and dust, and there appeared to be a car stuck to the guard rail on fire. Then I realised that the roll-cage and cab of a 908 was still bowling down the road. And then out of it popped the driver, who started to bounce down the road as well! I assumed he was dead as a doornail. Then you contemplate, ‘Do I run into his car, which would damage my car, or run into him, which won’t damage my car so much?’ Anyway, I missed both and headed to the pits as it was my in-lap. I told them there had been a terrible crash.
“It turned out it had been Udo Schutz and Gérard Larrousse dicing with each other. Schutz was the one who was thrown out, and he’d just walked away. It was unreal. He was a bit of a plump boy, so I guess his fat must have saved him! That was the remains of his car stuck to the guard rail. Larrousse, who’d bounced off him, had just carried on. Talk about better to be born lucky than rich.”
Although the Porsche army was gradually being depleted, Hobbs soon had problems of his own.
“On my next stint I was charging down to Mulsanne Corner when the brake pedal went to the floor. I pumped furiously, went down the escape road – the road to Tours – did a U-turn and drove back to the pits.
“I told them there was a problem with the brakes, and Yorke said, ‘You need new pads.’ I said, ‘It’s more than pads.’ He said, ‘No, I know it’s time for pads. You just sit in the car, and we’ll do our job.’ So they took the bodywork off, changed pads, put the bodywork on, and back I went. I got to the end of the pitlane and practically ran over the bloke with the flag. So I did a slow lap, cruised round. Off everything came again.
“To get from one side of the caliper to the other the fluid went through a little tube. The Firestone engineers had been told by the team not to put wheel weights on the inside of the wheels because the clearance between the wheel and the caliper was pretty marginal.
“Well, somebody had put a wheel weight inside the left rear, and it knocked a small hole in the pipe. So they had to change the pipe and bleed the brakes. And in all the argy-bargy we lost about three laps. The car ran faultlessly from then on but by now, of course, we were behind the Ickx car.”
The lead battle turned out to be between Ickx/Oliver and Larrousse/Herrmann, the latter pair having been well behind during the night
“All the Porsches dropped out until it was just Jacky and Herrmann. Ickx beat him to the line, and we came home third. Of course, everybody forgot about us! We should have been long gone. We just ran that car as sweet as a nut the whole time, and never put a foot wrong. It was terribly frustrating. All that sycophantic fawning over Jacky and his wonderful exploits – it drove me nuts!”
Hobbs would continue to race at Le Mans until 1989, but he never did win the race. “At the time it was a kick in the head,” he says. “You need that stuff on your résumé…”