My greatest race - Jacky Ickx

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Le Mans 24 Hours June 11-12, 1977

He had already won the great race on three occasions, but Jacky Ickx says his fourth victory at Le Mans was almost unbelievable

To win Le Mans one time is very special, and even now it is still hard to believe how it was possible to have the luck I had. Not to win six times, but just to be in the right car six times — that’s the way to really succeed in the 24 Hours! You need the right car, the right team, and the right co-drivers.

Of the six wins, the one I really remember, my greatest race, is the fourth in 1977, with the factory Porsche 936. Everything that year was unplanned, unexpected, and a new experience. In all, it was a completely different race from what I was used to.

I enjoyed the circuit very much, but it did have to be changed to the way it is today. In the past although the straight was extremely fast, it was very comfortable, and restful in a way. Now with the chicanes they have these two hard braking areas in the middle of the straight. So the track is very demanding, and the cars are demanding too, because of the downforce. The strength and concentration you need to drive a car at Le Mans today is probably much greater than it was in my day.

My fourth win came in the era when it was still normal to have only two drivers, and for the first time I was sharing with Henri Pescarolo. He was always frustrated in Formula One, but he was successful at Le Mans, and for a long time he’d waited to join Porsche. It was a ‘dream team’, as it was when I was driving with Derek Bell. Henri was very good for Le Mans, a very talented co-driver, but the first time he joined Porsche we had a problem.

The beginning of the race was a real disaster for the team, as the car we were sharing was out after three hours with a broken crankshaft. Even worse, the second car driven by Jurgen Barth and Hurley Haywood was also delayed by fuel pump trouble, and they were in something like 41st place. That year it was a competition between Porsche and Renault, who had four cars. With us in trouble the Renaults were leading easily in the early stages.

I was reserve driver in the second car, and they decided to put me in it with Jurgen and Hurley. It had already become what you might call a lost cause, because when you are five or six laps down, lying in 41st place, it is hard to imagine you might finish first. But there was still a long way to go…

The race was becoming more and more difficult, because the conditions were deteriorating. It was foggy, raining a lot and the track was dangerous. It rained almost all the night. However, things went well as far as the handling of the car was concerned, and mechanically speaking it was very good too. We had no problems at all. And gradually we went up in the classification, hour after hour. From 41st we were 28th, 16th and soon, until we were in the top 10. We had nothing to lose at all, and we just went on driving the car absolutely flat out. Through the night I did two stints in a row which meant driving for four hours non-stop. Then I stopped for one stint, and then I retook the steering wheel for another four hour run, in the wet conditions. Every pit stop the co-drivers were ready and the engineers were asking “Do you want to change?”, and I said “No”. They could not believe it! “Are you sure you want to stay?” I had driven something like four Grands Prix in a row.

It was the best driving I ever did in long distance racing – and I did a lot of long distance racing, and had some really good moments. But this one was really exceptional. It was fantastic through the night, like a dream. That’s why I say it was the best race of my life, because it was something you can hardly explain. You are so sure, so confident, efficient and so concentrated. You’re reacting so quickly, and so awake, you do that once in your life I think. But I never had the impression I was taking risks – I was just driving flat out. The inspiration and fun came because we didn’t have to be conservative any more.

By halfway, 4am, we were in third place, behind two Renaults. And we were catching them. They had to push harder because we were close to them. We got up into second place, and then finally in the middle of morning the last one – the car driven by Derek and Jean-Pierre Jabouille – blew-up and we were in the lead.

Having spent most of the night in the car, I was so exhausted that I was totally unable to drive any more. The other guys did just what we expected of them. I had much more experience than them, and probably a bit more ability than them in the wet, but as soon as it was dry they were very good.

But in the last hour it all began to get tense again as the car suddenly developed an engine problem. It was terrible, as we had to stop for a while as the minutes ticked past, before Jurgen Barth was brave enough to take it out for two laps to the finish. We were running on five cylinders, and we didn’t know how long the car could go like that.

Although I was experienced and prepared for all sorts of things, that last hour, knowing that the car was doing the last lap very, very slowly, doubtful that it would be able to finish, and then to see it arriving at the flag, was something unbelievable. I’m sure that for everyone involved in our team it was one of the greatest moments of their lives. At the start I was perhaps the only one to feel that we could do something good, but by the end the whole team, the engineers and mechanics, were frantic about it. Some of those guys are still around at Porsche. That evening we had a big celebration in the town where Porsche used to stay. The day after I felt very weak, but very happy…

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