One chassis, Five Le Mans

It wasn’t a 24 Hours winner, but Gulf GR8 chassis ‘802’ was one of the race’s most successful cars in terms of longevity

The list of history’s great winning Le Mans cars is probably headed by those chassis which won more than once. Ford GT40 ‘1075’ immediately springs to mind, the Gulf-JW team’s 1968-69 double winner, together with Reinhold Joest’s ‘New Man’ Porsche 956 ‘117’ which did the double in 1984-85. Rolling further back the works Bentley Speed Six ‘Old No 1’ – registration ‘LB 2332’, chassis ‘MT3464’ – scored its back-to-back victories in 1929-30. Any twice-winning Le Mans 24 Hours car occupies a very special ledge on the cliff face of desirability, but there are more which returned to the Sarthe and achieved really significant finishes there without actually winning outright.

Consider for a moment the case of Gulf GR8 chassis ‘802’. This projectile first appeared with Cosworth-Ford V8 power at the Sarthe for the 1975 24 Hours. It was run by the former Gulf-JW team restyled as Gulf Research Racing but retaining the hallowed old pale blue/orange livery. Vern Schuppan/Jean-Pierre Jaussaud drove ‘802’ home third that year. The Gulf programme was then taken over by Harley Cluxton’s well-known Grand Touring Cars Inc operation from Scottsdale, Arizona. He revived the old Gulf-JW ‘Mirage’ name, and ‘802’ with restyled bodywork finished in GTC livery was co-driven at Le Mans in 1976 by Jean-Louis Lafosse/François Migault to finish second.

As if this would not be sufficient race history for any modern classic, ‘802’ then finished second again at Le Mans in 1977 when Vern Schuppan/Jean-Pierre Jarier drove the old lady, which had been re-equipped with a turbocharged Renault V6 engine. Still Cluxton, that most engaging and genial entrant/enthusiast, soldiered on with ‘802’, entering it yet again for Le Mans in 1978. That time it finished 10th, co-driven by Vern Schuppan/Jacques Laffite/Sam Posey.

So that was four Le Mans races down, and still one to go. Back at the Sarthe circuit for the fifth time in 1979, reconverted to Cosworth-Ford V8 power, chassis ‘802’ – shared by Schuppan/David Hobbs/Jean-Pierre Jaussaud – for the first time failed to finish.

During this extraordinary career, ‘802’ was variously titled as the Gulf-GR8 (1975), Mirage-Ford M8 (1976), Mirage-Renault M8 (1977), Mirage-Renault M9 (1978) and Ford M10 (1979). What was it that Bill Boddy and Jenks used to bewail regularly here in Motor Sport – “Pity the poor historian”? Yet despite all the specification and shape and livery changes to ‘802’, beneath the skin it was all essentially the same individual chassis structure, eventually sold to German collector Peter Kaus, displayed within his Rosso Bianco Collection in GR8 form, and recently offered in the Bonhams auction sale at Quail Lodge during the Monterey Historics weekend.

John Horsman, the Gulf and later GTC team’s technical director responsible for ‘802’, recalls: “For Le Mans ’75 we wanted a longer body to reduce drag and the designer Len Bailey drew a new chassis with a six-inch longer wheelbase, giving more room for things like oil tanks. JW and I sketched the body shape, and our machinist, Brian Holland, made a quarter-scale clay body shape to the sketch. We made a few minor changes before the model was sent to FKS Fiberglass in Poole who made the panels.

“Despite a rather large frontal area the GR8 was a pretty good shape, with a low drag coefficient and (for its day) good downforce from the rear wing. It was a good car for Le Mans, easy to drive, with no vices. We had modified various areas to lower the fuel consumption to meet Le Mans’ required minimum 20-lap distance between refuelling stops. In fact we went too far as the car could do 22 laps, but it’s nice to have a safety cushion in a 24-hour race.”

John recalls the Cosworth DFV engine’s notorious vibration as having been the worst threat: “It had been designed as an integral chassis member for Formula 1, forming the rear half of the car structure. But, from our original Mirage M6, Len Bailey wisely included three-tube braces along each side. Over 24 hours the DFV’s inherent vibration was very destructive. At Le Mans in 1975 it fractured the engine’s lower mounting blocks, putting all the rear-end load onto Len’s tripod frames on each side. This light steel framework then held both our cars together during the last half of the race. Otherwise they would literally have collapsed in half like a torpedoed ship! This lower mounting was remade in steel for the ’76 race and both cars finished without trouble in that area.

“Built to resist Cosworth vibration, the Gulf Mirage GR7 had been overweight – the lightest we ever got it was 720kg with a lot of titanium parts, but with a second alternator for Le Mans. The minimum weight limit then was 650kg, which is what the Matras managed with their vibration-free V12 engines. The extra wheelbase of the GR8 made it even heavier than the GR7, but the DFV engine’s vibrations were irresistible. No sooner would we overcome metal failures in one area than the vibrations found another area to destroy! For instance, small body clamps as used by Matra and Ferrari with their smooth 12-cylinder engines stood no chance on a DFV V8 car. In the 1975 race DFV vibrations also broke an exhaust pipe on our leading car, ‘801’, despite more reinforcement there. We changed it without losing the lead, but the failure shortened it to only one lap. Yet overall the GR8 was a good car for Le Mans…”

Interesting sidelights on such a successful Le Mans car – in some respects, during its early Cosworth-engined days, perhaps victorious despite its engine, rather than because of it.