Protest march

Jacky Ickx • Le Mans 24 Hours, 1969
It might have been distinctive and spectacular, but the traditional Le Mans start had its critics. The time had come to take a stance…
Writer: Simon Arron, Illustrator: Guy Allen

Clairvoyants might have had trouble with this one… Jacky Ickx would become known for his stance against the perceived sanitisation of motor racing: at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, for instance, he was the first dissenter to venture out while rivals debated whether or not to boycott the race because they considered Montjuïc Park’s safety installations inadequate.

At Le Mans six years earlier, Ickx had been the lone objector to the traditional Le Mans sprint start, which he felt exposed drivers to compromise when it came to fastening doors and harnesses correctly. In 1968, his compatriot Willy Mairesse had been seriously injured after his door blew open on the opening lap, causing him to crash violently: Mairesse lay in a coma for a fortnight, his racing career over.

One year on, Ickx’s response was to stroll to his Ford GT40 as rivals made their customary, smoke-shrouded getaways, then make sure he was securely belted in – with door properly affixed – before being last of the 45 cars away.

The race began dramatically – Porsche 917 privateer John Woolfe crashing fatally at Maison Blanche before the first lap was run – but Ickx and co-driver Jackie Oliver gradually made their way up the order, moving into the top three after 15 hours and taking the lead with three to go. They eventually beat the Porsche 908 of Hans Herrmann and Gérard Larrousse by just 120 metres – the closest competitive finish in Le Mans history. Things had been tighter still three years beforehand, but that was a consequence of Ford stage management.

It would be the last time Le Mans began with a traditional running start. In 1970, cars lined up opposite the main pit straight grandstand, as before, but with drivers tightly strapped in by their teams.

For Ickx, Le Mans 1969 proved to be a multi-faceted triumph.