A Spectator’s View
The Le Mans 24-hour race was postponed from June to the end of September and this gave a feeling that the whole event was going to be different. Thirteen hours of darkness, the chance of horrible weather conditions and the start moved from the traditional 4 p.m. on Saturday to 3 p.m. encouraged this feeling. In consequence I decided to view the race in a different manner and try and discover some of the reasons why so many people go to Le Mans, and what they see. Normally I go to Le Mans as a job of work, suitably labelled with the very best passes and with invitations to various food and drink emporiums, so that there are few personal problems, merely the one of trying to keep track of the activities of 55 cars and 110 drivers throughout the 24 hours, and to follow three races simultaneously, the overall distance category, the Index of Performance handicap and the Index of Energy handicap, to say nothing of class positions in Sports-Prototype, Sports and GT categories. Apart from all that Le Mans is a holiday, so this year I decided to concentrate on the holiday part and leave the details to someone else. I felt that the only sure way of not becoming involved in the technical aspects of the race or the individual dramas was to go without any passes whatsoever and enjoy Le Mans purely as a spectator, buying whatever tickets were necessary and relying on the public address system, a portable radio and newspapers, apart from one’s own observation, for information about the progress of the race. In other words, to do the 1968 Le Mans race in the same manner as a great many of our readers who make the annual pilgrimage to the circuit of the Sarthe.
In order to avoid any confusion or temptation I decided to leave the E-type at home and go in some other form of transport, and as I was planning to stay at the race for 24 hours I thought it might be a good idea to take something in which I could sleep, for I felt sure that few genuine spectators stay up all night. Wilson’s Caravan Centre of Brixton were most helpful, and did a straight swop on a Commer “Highwayman” motor caravan for the E-type (with the option of a straight swop back again after Le Mans) and on Friday I joined the happy throng heading for Le Mans, except that most of them seemed to be overtaking me. Some 35 miles before reaching the circuit there were numerous box offices beside the road where I could buy tickets, which meant that I could approach the circuit certain in the knowledge of getting in, and the sales-girl explained clearly where everything was, how much it all cost and gave me a map of the circuit, the car parks, the public enclosures, and all sorts of useful information, in French, naturally. Having bought a car-park ticket for £1 14s. od. and personal entry tickets for the grandstand area at £4 4s. 9d. a head, I rejoined the flow of cars heading for Le Mans just before midday on Saturday.
The cheapest grandstand seat seemed to be about £6 10s. od. and the best about £13, while it cost £6 to go up on the balcony above the pits. It was an interesting thought that the free seat in the Press Grandstand given to the “gentlemen of the Press” was worth at least £15. For my £4 4s. 9d. I was to be allowed to stand on the tiered terraces in front of the grandstands and opposite the pits along with thirty or forty thousand other spectators. The joy at reaching the town of Le Mans, with its welcoming signs that tell you it is the town of the famous 24-hour race and that it also has an Automobile Museum and a Cathedral, was short lived for there was a solid traffic jam and it took over an hour to get across the town. Apart from the race-going traffic we were bogged down with local people leaving a drive-in supermarket having done their Saturday morning shopping, factory workers going home at mid-day and an enormous articulated Berliet lorry that insisted on crossing the traffic stream from the opposite direction in order to deliver soap powder or something to a grocer’s shop. All around us, and below from the height of the driving seat of the “Highwayman”, were cars crammed full of potential spectators, apart from a couple who were on holiday on their way to the Chateau country of the Loire and knew nothing about the 24-hour race. There were cars from England, Belgium, Holland, Germany and France heading our way, while from the other side of town, no doubt, there were Italian, Swiss and Spanish cars as well as cars from all parts of France. Once across the river bridge on the south of the town we were soon up the old road from the Pontlieu hairpin and into the Red car park, waved in by courteous, but firm, mobile police. The car parks are enormous and it is pot-luck whether you find yourself at the front or the back, a difference of as much as a mile in some cases, but they are well organised with gaps like fire-breaks, so that you can leave at any time you want and you are not trapped until the chap in front decides to leave, as at Monza or Nurburgring. The luck-of-the-draw put the “Highwayman” nearly at the extremity of the Red car park so that there was a good 15 minutes’ walk to the main spectator entrance, arid another five minutes’ push-and-shove to get somewhere down near the centre of the long line of pits.
One of the traditions of Le Mans is that you must “assist at the start”, which means being there when the flag falls, but unless you are there four or five hours before the start you are not likely to see anything. There were probably 18 or 20 rows of people in front of us, many of them optimistically peering into “gimcrack” periscopes bought from dubious-looking vendors. As there was over an hour to go before the start and we could only just see the heads of the crowd on top of the three-tier pits on the opposite side of the track, and nothing whatsoever of the pits themselves, the cars, the track or the drivers, there seemed little point in standing looking at the backs of people’s necks, so we repaired to a cafe for a drink (9s. for a small beer and a lemonade!). At 2.45 p.m. it started to rain and we decided that it was better to sit in the dry and not see the start than stand in the rain and still not see the start, but at five minutes to three the spirit of Le Mans got the better of us and we ran up the steps “to assist at the start” along with thousands and thousands of other spectators who were not going to see anything either, but who were hopefully looking down towards the pit area, for now we were where the crowds were a bit thinner up near the first bend after the pits and away to our left we could see about 50 yards of the track as it disappeared over the hill at the Dunlop Bridge. We were not alone in having paid £4 4s. 9d. to not see the drivers run across the road and leap into the cars, for no-one around us could see anything. One group of English enthusiasts had parked their car in the Green car park in the centre of the circuit and had walked even further than we had to see nothing.
We dutifully stood with all the others, facing towards where we thought the starting flag should be, but we mignt just as well have looked in the opposite direction, and it was only the roar of applause from the early-risers at the front that told us that the drivers were running to their cars. Then we heard the sound of engines starting and stood on tip-toe to see them go by, for on the right-hand curve we could actually see the earth banks that line the circuit. Still we could see nothing, for the roofs of the low racing coupés were below the tops of the banks! Finally we saw a car, it was a white Porsche of some sort, too small in the distance to make out the type, and then another, and another as they went over the brow of the hill in the distance, like Dinky Toys. There was a yellow GT40 and a red car, then a red LM Ferrari and then all was confusion and spray from the wet road. We were too far away from any loud-speakers to hear the commentary clearly, but discussion with the English chaps round us concluded with agreement that it must have been four works Porsches in the lead with the Mairesse/”Beurlys” Ford GT40 behind them, but the red car puzzled us, as we were too far away to read numbers. When the cars appeared again for a fleeting moment on the next lap we felt sure that the first four were Porsches, but what type and who was driving them we knew not. The yellow GT40 did not appear and that strange red car was fifth, and the red LM Ferrari was still there. We heard rather than saw a Howmet turbine car, certainly heard a Chevrolet-Corvette, saw a Manx-like tail with number “50” clearly painted on it, and there was a white 911 Porsche well up the field. The chaps from the Green car park had an official programme and I had a local newspaper so we compared notes. The programme said the works Porsche number one drivers were Siffert, Mitter, Stommelen and Buzzeta, and my newspaper said they were Hermann, Mitter, Stommelen and Buzzetta (we noticed the spelling mistakes as well), and we could only assume that these were the four leading cars. A process of elimination and knowledge of form made us decide that the unknown red car must be an Alfa Romeo Tipo 33, probably driven by Vaccarella, though it might have been Teddy Pilette. The LM Ferrari was not Piper’s because his was green so we decided it was number 14 entered by the North American Racing Team. The programme said the drivers were Gregory and X, and the newspaper said Gregory/”Elde”, so we settled for Gregory and thought it must be Masten Gregory, though there was nothing to prove this. A voice was heard to mutter “Masten Gregory in an LM Ferrari? What is this, a V.S.C.C. Historic Race?” The Manx-tail with number 50 on it turned out to be an Austin-Healey Sprite (and the voice said “this is an Historic Race”) and it was driven by Enever/Poole (programme) or A. Poole/R. Enerver (newspaper). The 911 Porsche that was going so well could have been any one of four GT cars according to the newspaper, while the programme agreed, both assuming that everyone was close enough to read the numbers, but neither giving any details or identifying colours, merely saying that all French cars were blue, all British cars were green and so on. At least we could see that the works Austin-Healey Sprite was red! As I had all my information on one quarter of a page of my newspaper and the chap with the programme had to rummage through four pages in the middle of 100 pages of advertising we decided that tenpence for the newspaper was a better bargain than 6s. 8d. for an official programme, even though the lucky programme number was to win a Fiat 125. We also found that the programme stopped at car No. 64 while my newspaper went on to 65, 66, 67!
We wondered what had happened to the yellow GT40, felt certain we had only heard one turbine car, saw no sign of anything we could identify as the Matra V12, saw the three blue and-orange GT40 coupés of J.W. Automotive in close company, and a lot of small blue cars. The four white Porsches were out on their own so we decided that this was to be a real “endurance race” with a lot of wait-and-see tactics, for there were no “tigers” among the drivers and we were sure that John Wyer would not let any of his Gulf-team J.W. drivers do any “racing”. As we had plenty of time to “wait” with not much chance of any “see” we went under the circuit to the village and bought a 4s. 3d. ticket to go into the museum. At last there was room to move without a lot of elbowing and the sight of a very rare V12 Delahaye competition car of 1937 warmed the heart, while a D-type Jaguar made me leave with a feeling of “those were the days”. Out in the “village” on one of the exhibition stands was another D-type Jaguar and someone had said they thought they had seen a new Jaguar XJ6 being used as a course-car, so I began to think that maybe Jaguars were returning to Le Mans. No doubt Bentley enthusiasts thought the same things in the mid-thirties. There were film shows, motor shows, beer halls, food stalls and a cacophony of loud-speakers selling things, and music, so that there was no question of hearing the race commentary. Having been on our feet for five hours we decided it was time to sit down and as the only free sitting place seemed to be the sandy soil we bought a half bottle of Muscadet at an open-air cafe and sat in the evening sunshine, and it was all rather pleasant, except that we paid 9s. 4d. for the half bottle and loan of two glasses, knowing that in the Commer “Highwayman”, on ice in the refrigerator, was a whole bottle of the same wine for which we had paid 4s. 2d. in a shop that morning, but it was at least 25 minutes’ walk away.
The huge crowd had spread itself out by now and I was able to get to the railings on the inside of the curve after the pits, and hopefully looked to see a racing car at close quarters. They were close enough, but I could only see the roofs and the tops of the windows for they were hidden by the earth banks that must have been put up when Bentleys were racing at Le Mans. I did manage to see the top of a green GT40 and caught a fleeting glimpse of a blue Chevron coupé top with smoke pouring out of the tail. You can certainly hear the cars at Le Mans, but you cannot really see them if you just mingle with “the great French public”. But the sun was shining, the wine was cool, and this was LE MANS. Wandering up the hill towards the Dunlop Bridge it was possible to stand under a loud-speaker and catch snatches of words from the race commentary given in English every now and then by a funny-fellow who said he was an Anglo-Saxon and that Motor of Bowling Green Lane was paying him to do it. Providing no cars went by you could hear by standing directly in line with the speaker, but most of the time it was a case of “In the lead at the moment is zoom. . . , in one of the zoom. . . Fords, followed by zoom . . . zoom . . . zoom, but the driver is unhurt zoom . . . zoom . . . and car number 14 zoom. . . , zoom . . . , a pity. We now hear that zoom. . . , zoom. . . , and that is the order at 6.30 p.m.” This called for 1s. 8d. for a bag of peanuts and a climb over the Dunlop Bridge, where conditions improved, for we were now on the outside of the long curve after the pits and there was a high bank of earth on which to climb. It was like an oasis in a desert for from this one small hump, packed with spectators, we saw our first Le Mans car in its entirety, and clearly enough to read the numbers. We could now take a more intelligent interest in the race and a quick count showed a number of cars missing, one Corvette, one Howmet, one Lola, one Gulf Ford, an Alfa Romeo and the V8 Healey-Climax, though for all our knowledge they may not have started. Down behind this earth bank, standing on soggy sand by a hot-dog stall, it was possible to listen to the race commentary clearly, and as it was now 5.30 p.m. and the race had been going two-and-a-half hours I thought it was time to find out what was happening officially. The French announcer said the order was 31, 34, 39, 9, 10, 24 but the English announcer said he could not get any information from official sources, he had been to the time-keepers and they had told him to clear off as they were busy, but he thought the order was 31, 34, 39, 35, 40, 66. Now we knew that 9 and 10 were the Gulf Fords and 24 the V12 Matra, while 35 was a 2.2-litre Porsche driven by Soler-Roig/Lins, 40 was the Alfa Romeo of Casoni/Biscaldi and 66 the 2.2-litre Porsche of Steinemann/Spoerry, so the French version seemed more plausible. The V12 Matra was certainly humming along, and the Fords were known quantities, but officially the race seemed a bit of a shambles. The loud-speaker told me that number 65 had retired almost at the same time as I had seen it go by. I felt that there was a certain amount of chaos down in the official commentary box, with a pathetic system of information transmission from the race organisers to the poor commentators who were faced with a hopeless task. The race had only been running for three hours and communications seemed to have broken down already, which seemed ridiculous when you think that the organising club spend 12 months preparing for the event, have been running it since 1923 and must handle a turnover involving two million pounds. Not my idea of an efficient business organisation. It seemed fairly certain that Porsches were first and second with Siffert/Herrmann and Buzzetta/Patrick, and an Alfa Romeo driven by Galli/Giunti was third, they being the two young Italians who drove so well in the Targa Florio. Taking a look at the crowds opposite the pits, which were as thick as ever, we decided it was time for something to eat, so set out on our 15-minute walk to the car park, where our hearts warmed to the Commer “Highwayman”, for there it was towering over all the other vehicles and the easiest thing to find.
By 7 p.m. darkness was falling fast and at 7.30 p.m. we switched on the radio to listen to Robin Richards on Radio 2, and learnt more than we had in the three hours we had spent at the circuit! Siffert had retired with some sort of transmission trouble, Mairesse had crashed the yellow GT40 on the opening lap, Grandsire had crashed one of the V8 Alpine-Renaults, the Chevron had blown a gasket in its Repco V8 engine, and the race order was 9, 10, 34, 32, 24, 27, which was to say Gulf-Ford, Gulf-Ford, works Porsche, works Porsche, Marra V12 and Alpine-Renault V8. Just after 8 p.m. Tommy Franklin came on the French radio and told us that Siffert had gone out with clutch trouble, the Tullius/Dibley Howmet turbine car had spent four hours at the pits with a wheel bearing being changed(!), Muir was in the sand at Mulsanne with the third of the Gulf-Fords, there were 46 cars left out of the 54 starters and his first six places agreed with the BBC. There was no mention of the Giunti/Galli Alfa Romeo. At 10 p.m. we were back at the circuit, having nearly been run over 47 times by the cars still arriving at the race as we walked our steady path, and the first thing we saw was the huge illuminated scoreboard reading that Siffert/Herrmann (Porsche) were leading from Buzzetta/Patrick (Porsche), even though the scoreboard alongside indicated that car number 31, the Siffert/Herrmann Porsche had retired at 59 laps! Feeling that it must be awful for anyone interested in the race, but thankful that the majority of spectators were merely there because Le Mans is like Derby Day, just somewhere to go without the need to be interested in cars or horses, I checked on the lap-scoring board and found that the Rodriguez/Bianchi Gulf-Ford had covered 104 laps, the Buzzerra/Patrick Porsche 103 laps, the Pescarolo/Servoz-Gavin Matra V12 also 103 laps and the Giunti/Galli Alfa Romeo 102 laps. Shortly after this the loudspeakers, in French and English, confirmed the first three places and gave the added information that the race average was 201.376 k.p.h. or nearly 125 m.p.h. It was now possible to stand opposite the pits and see the cars going by, leaving the pits and being worked on, even though the people were but shadowy figures. Some of the cars had splendid luminous number discs and many of them had coloured identification lights which no doubt the pit staff knew, but to the spectators there was no information about this. It is something the programme could well have contained. One of the Chevrolet-Corvettes, which you could tell by the rumbling V8 exhaust note, had three red lights on the roof. A journey across to the brilliantly lit “village” was made, where we listened to an open-air cabaret show, met some friends by pure chance, resisted the temptation to sample numerous types of food and drink and realised that there was still a vast milling throng of people who probably knew less than we did about the race and certainly cared less, many of them already lying in drunken or tired heaps on the ground.
Back in front of the pits again we heard that the Marra V12 was now in second place and there was cheering and a general feeling of excitement among the crowd around us; the Mitter/Elford Porsche was in some sort of trouble, the Buchet/Linge Porsche was seen to drive away into the “dead-car park”, there were no Howmet turbine cars whistling by, and we heard that the Tullius/Dibley one had been disqualified as it had not covered sufficient distance, while the Thompson/Heppenstall one had crashed. Two works Porsches were disqualified for changing certain parts on the cars, which is nor allowed, and the Gulf-Ford seemed secure in the lead. The V12 Marra with its Grand Prix engine sounded magnificent as it set off from a refuelling stop, still in second place, and now that we could see and hear without being jostled by an enormous crowd the lure of Le Mans began to infiltrate. The fantastically bright headlights of the cars, the long line of illuminated pits, with neon advertising signs here and there, the great glow of light coming up from the “village” and the unrealness of it all was fascinating. As a spectator without a £6 10s. 0d. seat, nor a £15 free one, I decided that it would be pointless to stay up all night, and feel like “death warmed up” the next afternoon, so withdrew to the warmth and comfort of Wilson’s Commer “Highwayman” and listened co two more BBC broadcasts. It was distressing to know that Press communications were still pretty pathetic, for the BBC said the second Howmet had gone out with mechanical trouble, whereas the circuit loud-speakers had said it was disqualified. Rodriguez and Bianchi were still leading with the Gulf-Ford GT40 and the Matra V12 was still second, so quietly humming the Marseillaise and muttering “Vive de Gaulle” as he had put £800,000 in Matra-Sports racing, I went to sleep, with the distant hum of cars still going round the Circuit of the Sarthe.
During the night I stirred uneasily to the sound of torrential rain on the roof of the “Highwayman” and thought that a racing driver’s life is not all fun and glamour, for it would not be light until nearly 8 a.m. Before returning to the circuit at 8.30 a.m. the French radio gave the information that the Ford was still leading, now eight laps ahead of the Matra, but the French car and the Giunti/Galli Alfa Romeo were on the same lap and swopping places as pit-stops were made for petrol and driver changes. Although the Matra V12 was faster than the Alfa Romeo, it was burning more petrol, so that second place was very much in the balance. The Ford had dropped its average to 182 k.p.h. (about 112 m.p.h.) and was cruising round on a real endurance run. The first English drivers were Piper and Attwood in the green LM Ferrari, down in ninth place, the 16 drivers ahead of them coming from Belgium, Mexico, Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany, so that Le Mans was International, if nothing else, and the cars were from Anglo-America, Italy, France and Germany. There is a fascination about serious long-distance motor racing.
By 11 a.m. the grandstand area was beginning to get uncomfortably crowded and not wishing to be pinned there for evermore, we wandered up the hill and on towards the Esses. After a pause to spend 1s. 8d. on a tiny cup of coffee and 4s. 3d. on an under-cooked hot dog that looked like plastic, in a rather dusty piece of bread, we descended into the Fairground on the outside of the Esses. A visit to the “Wall of Death” for 4s. 3d. was well worth while, for I had not previously seen motorcycles three-abreast on the standard size “Wall”, nor had I seen two go-karts at the top of the vertical wall. I decided to forego the pleasure(!) of seeing a man with two heads or a panther woman, nor the woman with the vampires, but was seriously tempted by the dodgem cars. Just before midday we paused for a glass of wine and got into conversation with some enthusiasts who had come over with Page Tours.
They looked very tired and weary, having spent Friday night on a rough crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe, Saturday night sleeping as best they could in a motor coach in the car park, and were not looking forward to Sunday night on another night-boat crossing and being back at work on Monday. From all accounts Page Tours are not too expensive but you have to have a strong constitution, which is why I said last year that “some of Mr. Page’s customers are satisfied”. Their advertising-copy writer deliberately misquoted me and suggested that I said “Mr. Page’s customers are satisfied”.
In the middle of this chat there was a great column of black smoke from the foot of the hill, for a car had crashed at the entrance to the Esses and caught fire. The crowds started to run towards the fire in their hundreds, so we all sat tight in the cafe and looked over the great crowd. Shortly before this I had taken a note of the cars still running, and from the cafe we could see the cars disappearing towards Tertre-Rouge, so another check on the numbers showed tnat Alpine number 27, the Matra and a Porsche 911 seemed to be missing. A neighbouring Frenchman peered into the smoke with binoculars and could see some blue and green paint on the burning car, and felt sure he saw the driver raising his arm to indicate all was well. After a time a loud-speaker in the cafe said that the Matra was at the pits having a wheel changed, and we saw the missing 911 Porsche go by, so that there was no doubt that the burning car was the Alpine-Renault V8 of Mauro Bianchi and Depailler, though we had no idea which driver had been in it. As you cannot see the driver in a modern racing coupé we did not know whether Lucien Bianchi was driving the leading Ford at the time, but thought how awful it must be for him if he was, not knowing whether his younger brother was in the burning Alpine. While all this was happening we heard that the Giunti/Galli Alfa Romeo was having suspension trouble and that the Matra had stopped out on the circuit with a flat tyre! Internal communication was obviously still lamentable for “the Man from Motor” announced that the fire was at Tertre-Rouge! All credit to him, he told us he did not believe the official story that the Matra had stopped with a flat tyre, and he said he would let us know later what had really happened. To the vast majority of the crowd details were superfluous, the Matra was out after just over 21 hours through no fault of its own it seemed, when it had been secure in second place. It was no wonder that there were tears in many French eyes for such a magnificent effort at the first attempt at Le Mans by this courageous and valiant French firm.
There was little interest now, the Ford must surely win, and in second place was the 2.2-litre Porsche of Spoerry/Steinemann, with the last remaining 3-litre Porsche in third place, driven by Stommelen/Neerpasch. If anything went wrong with the leading Ford now and let Porsche win, then we felt we could truthfully say “there ‘aint no justice”. After watching for a time at Tertre-Rouge, needing patience or persuasiveness to get near enough to see anything, we wandered back towards the pit area. As we had “assisted at the start” we felt duty-bound to “assist at the finish”. The crowds were as thick as ever and not wishing to be crushed underfoot we did not force our way in amongst them, preferring to stay with the few thousand on the fringe of the enclosure, upstream of the pits. There was a clock opposite us in the “village” and when it indicated 3 p.m. we knew that the 24 Hours of Le Mans were over and many of the people around us looked at their watches and said “That’s it, it’s over”. We could not hear a loudspeaker, even though we were in the £4 45. 9d. enclosure, but we were satisfied that we had done our duty and “assisted at the finish”. If only those people in the front rows who could see stayed for the finish, the Press photos of the great crowds would look very sparse indeed.
All we had to do now was to drive the 300 miles back to London, crossing from Boulogne to Dover. On the way back on Monday we listened to the French radio and heard Jean-Luc Lagardére, the young and dynamic Director General of Matra, explain how the Matra,V 12 had punctured the left-front tyre on the debris from the crashed Alpine-Renault V8 in the Esses, how Pescarolo had driven to the pits on the flat tyre, had another wheel fitted and set off again. A short while later the left-rear tyre had punctured and instead of stopping and fitting the spare, he had attempted to drive to the pits once more. Being a rear tyre, with the power going through it, the cover had disintegrated and ripped the bodywork and torn away the wiring and a battery lead and in spite of being mechanically healthy in the engine it was out of the race. More than anything Monsieur Lagardére was deeply moved by the enormous feeling of patriotism that the efforts of Matra had aroused in the French public, a feeling that he had felt grow stronger and stronger during the 21¼ hours that the car had lasted. He visualised a team of three 3-litre Matras next year and hoped that Matra would win Le Mans in 1970. For the French people the Matra driven by Servoz-Gavin and Pescarolo had made Le Mans 1968 and it had made a great impression on us as well.
On Tuesday I arrived back in England and completed the deal with Wilson’s Caravan Centre in Acre Lane, Brixton, by trading the Commer “Highwayman” in for “a good used E-type, one careful owner, high mileage, Carmen red, no extras”.
Le Mans 1968 was different, but it was still Le Mans, and somehow I feel I shall be back again in 1969, but whether as a member of the public I’m not sure. I think it easier to go as a working journalist, and certainly less frustrating for anyone interested in cars, mechanical things and details.—D. S. J.
Footnote: Later I discovered that the Alfa Romeo in fifth place was driven by Giunti and the LM Ferrari by Herbert Muller, not Masten Gregory, which I should have realised as we could see a white stripe over the roof, denoting a Filipinetti car. The white Porsche 911 was driven by Jean-Pierre Gaban.