Le Mans 24 Hours

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This year Le Mans was run to the new Formula of 3-litres for Group 6 cars and 5-litres for Group 4 and the new chicane before the pits was in use, so that cars had to brake heavily after the White House Esses and negotiate two 45-m.p.h. corners before accelerating up the hill past the pits. The entry was not of a very high standard and only 54 cars started, instead of the traditional 55. In view of the long hours of darkness the race ran from 3 p.m. Saturday to 3 p.m. Sunday and, apart from four hours of rain in the night, conditions were better than expected. The race was a straight fight between the Gulf-sponsored team of GT40 Fords prepared and run by J.W. Automotive, running in 4.9-litre form as Group 4 cars, and the works Porsche team of 3-litre prototypes. Unknown quantities were the team of works Alpine-Renault V8 cars and a lone Matra V12, with the Grand Prix engine. Autodelta entered a strong team of Alfa Romeo “33” coupés with their eye on the 2-litre class, and the Howmet Corporation entered two of their impressive turbine cars. There were a great number of private owners, no works Ferraris and 15 French drivers taking part in their first Le Mans, as were many drivers from other countries. The outcome of the season’s Manufacturers’ Championship depended on the result of Le Mans, for Ford, represented by the Gulf cars, and Porsche were equal on results.

The Porsche team consisted of Siffert/Herrmann, Stommelen/Neerpasch, Patrick/Buzzetta, Mitter/Elford. After some last-minute changes due to Ickx and Widdows having accidents in other cars, the Gulf-Fords were driven by Rodriguez/Bianchi, Hawkins/Hobbs, and Oliver/Muir. All this season the Porsche racing team has been falling from grace and losing their great name for reliability and thoroughness, the new 3-litre flat-8-cylinder cars being very doubtful quantities. The four Porsches led the opening phase of the race and then one by one fell by the wayside and after about four hours the Rodriguez/Bianchi Ford GT40 took the lead and was not seriously challenged for the rest of the 24 hours. However, the Fords were also in trouble, losing two cars, one in the sand at Mulsanne by Muir and the other with a broken engine by Hawkins. Behind the leading Ford a keen French battle was in progress between the V8 Alpines and the V12 Matra, and the Matra gained command, driven by Pescarolo/Servoz-Gavin, and climbed to second place, while the Alpines were beset with troubles and fell back. The only serious problem the Matra had was windscreen wiper trouble. In among the French cars the Alfa Romeos were going splendidly and one driven by Giunti/Galli challenged the Matra strongly for second place until it was slowed by suspension trouble. With second place almost a certainty the Matra was put out by a punctured tyre that disintegrated and damaged the bodywork and electrical system, and these troubles let Steinemann/Spoerry, the two Swiss drivers, into second place with a factory-loaned 2.2-litre 8-cylinder Porsche. Only one 3-litre Porsche lasted the distance, arriving in third place, the others going out with clutch trouble (Siffert/Herrmann), and alternator trouble (Mitter/Elford and Patrick/Buzzetta).

The British entry was neither large nor impressive, and none of the cars was likely to challenge for the lead. The new Healey with mid-mounted V8 Climax engine did not last long, before the clutch gave up, and of the others the only finisher was the Austin Healey Sprite of Enever/Poole. The Howmet cars were almost overlooked, so small a part did they play, and one was crashed by Thompson, while the other was delayed so long with a broken hub bearing that it was disqualified for not covering the minimum distance by Saturday evening. The J.W. Automotive Ford won the race for Gulf petrol and the Manufacturers’ Championship for Ford.—D. S. J.

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