Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

Into the wild blue yonder

Matra was determined to win at Le Mans, but one of its chosen weapons blew up in its face

There are few sounds finer than a Matra V12 with its throttles open, and Goodwood served up an eye-catching pair of these blue bolides: a chunky open MS650S and the swooping lines of the unique closed 640. How could that be here? Surely it was written off in 1969 when it gave Henri Pescarolo a terrifying unplanned flight? Investigating further I found the creator of this conundrum, Pierre Rageys. He confirmed that I wasn’t looking at the same bits of metal that finished as a crumpled wreck during that Le Mans trial, but a painstaking reconstruction of the unique low-drag coupé, built from the original plans under the aegis of its designer Robert Choulet. It has taken Rageys, a Matra enthusiast who also has an MS650, 10 years to complete this labour of love, and it means we can see in action one of the experiments, ill-fated though it may have been, that eventually led to today’s advanced aero management.

Jean-Luc Lagardère, the power behind the team, was determined to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France’s blue livery, and for 1969 to widen his chances he commissioned two parallel projects – the compact open 650 masterminded by Bernard Boyer and Choulet’s low-drag coupé, both powered by Matra’s glorious 3-litre. This in the same year Matra would win the French and European F2 championships and was also building the Tyrrell-run MS80 that Jackie Stewart used to win the F1 drivers and constructors titles...

Before the chicanes, even a few extra mph down Mulsanne could translate over 24 hours into valuable laps, hence Lagardère’s support for Choulet’s radical project. Choulet was a man of strong ideas honed under Charles Deutsch, the guru of those low-power, low-drag CD Le Mans devices, and under its super-low, slippery shape the 640 packed complex suspension exhibiting extremes of anti-dive and -squat geometry. Rockers and transverse springs sat up front with a high-set five-link system behind, leaving clear tunnels on each side of the transmission. No one was looking for ground effect at this point; Choulet’s aim was simply a minimum-drag form that could be tuned for front-rear balance and zero lift, combined with the suppleness to handle a bumpy track.

Designed and built in five months the 640, with its complex multi-tube chassis and aerodynamics refined in the Eiffel wind tunnel and in Matra’s missile design hydrodynamic tank, looked full of promise on its shakedown at Marigny airfield. After sorting a tendency for the doors to open at speed, Pescarolo and the team were optimistic on April 16, 1969, as they headed for Le Mans, where Lagardère had arranged for the Mulsanne straight to be closed off.

‘Pesca’ was approaching 155mph when without warning the car lifted, veered left across the track, hit a pole and finally a tree. Badly injured, Pescarolo realised his fuel-soaked overalls were on fire; somehow struggling out of the mangled car he fell on the grass where an onlooker snuffed out the flames with his jacket. The Le Mans star was left with cracked vertebrae and extensive burns, spending months in hospital, but would soon return to the race he loved. He still carries the scars. As to the car, it was dragged away and the project canned, leaving a hole in the history of the race-going aerospace company.

That’s the gap Pierre Rageys has filled with this brave undertaking. You might call it a copy, but as it was built from the original plans, by two ex-Matra engineers, overseen by its designer and with bodywork moulded from the original moulds it might be fair to call it MS640 no2. It seems a second car was planned, as new, unused panels were found in some of the moulds.

Having been able to purchase the 640’s original engine, which survived the crash, Rageys decided to reconstruct the entire car. “We could use nothing from the damaged chassis or body,” he says, “so we had to start from paper. And it is a very complex chassis.” Though the project began in 1997 it stalled for many years until taken over by EPAF, a restoration firm specialisng in French race machinery and led by two Matra men, Jean-Paul Humbert and Bernard Balzeau. A couple more years of effort and expense, not helped by the fact that Choulet was at the same time working on the Toyota F1 project, led to the 640 running by 2006, partially complete, but significantly piloted by Pescarolo himself. With a few minor revisions to suspension settings and tail flap angle it proved stable after all, vindicating Choulet’s concept.

After the crash Choulet identified that the door flexing had altered the airflow, meaning that the rear flap setting had more effect than intended, to the point that at speed the tail sat down too far and the nose lifted. The final straw was the bump as the car passed over a crossroads, which nudged the car’s attitude above a critical angle.

Though it’s remembered for its catastrophic end, Choulet sees his 640 as a crucial step in aerodynamic learning. When Lagardère canned the project, Choulet went to Porsche, shaping the similarly conceived 917 Longtail which took pole at Le Mans in 1970, and later working on Porsche Can-Am cars and Peugeot’s exotic 905 sports-prototype. He reckons he learned more in those Matra months than any other period.

Since that rebirth and a previous Goodwood appearance, the car has inched towards completion, the determined dream of Pierre Rageys. Now it is complete – “well, almost,” smiles Pierre. “The engine is in France being finished off...” – Pescarolo will drive it at a benefit for burned drivers in Holland and it will race at Le Mans Classic. It’s an impressive effort and a reminder that winners are not the only ones who make history.

*****

Firing on all fronts

Once again Goodwood offered up amazing sights

There was a constant crowd around the big beasts of the Goodwood zoo – the 1908 Grand Prix Mors from the Collier collection, George Wingard’s GP Fiat S74 and its even bigger brother, the fire-breathing 28.4-litre S76 that Duncan Pittaway has reconstructed. “Don’t tell anyone,” said Duncan, “but I was playing the goat – I retarded the ignition so the flames would be bigger. Well, the spectators love it.” Wearing his trademark white shirt and tie – very period – he went on, “Actually, coming back down even I was scared. I had Ben Collings with me and I kept saying, ‘It’s too hot, it’s on fire!’ and Ben was leaning out to look and reassuring me it wasn’t.”

Fear goes with the territory: “I’m nearly enjoying it,” says Pittaway. “I’m almost over the hump of terror and into flickers of pleasure.” I notice it has a dainty registration number on its pointed rump. “Yes, it has an MoT and once I’ve built a huge muffler for it I’ll be driving to events. It’s really comfortable, smooth, sits well on the road. At 60mph it’s turning at 390rpm! But I need more plates in the clutch – there are 83 in there but it still slips at anything over quarter throttle, even in fourth.”

I can’t help asking if Duncan can see over that skyscraper bonnet – isn’t it like taxiing a Spitfire, whose pilots have to weave to see the runway round the nose? “Oh, it’s fine. You can’t actually see between 1 o’clock and 8 o’clock but if you move your head around the brain fills in the gap.” I can’t help thinking that if these were the pioneer days of gliding, Pittaway would be clambering into the ricketiest assemblage of struts and canvas and launching himself cheerily off a church tower just to see what happens.

I approved of this year’s paddock swap that brought the oldest cars up to the house and put the supercars in the roomier Cathedral paddock – the Brooklands paddock is where I seem to spend most time, and now there’s even a café alongside. The first person I met in there was wearing a shirt embroidered ‘Watkins Glen 1966’ – Andy Middlehurst, accompanying his beautifully restored Lotus 43. That US GP was of course the only race the 43 with its BRM H-16 engine ever won.

Admiring the Hornsted 200hp Benz of Markus Kern (I always wondered why the 1920s Brooklands racer was known as ‘Cupid’ Hornsted, until I saw a photo of his face – cherubic doesn’t do it justice), I bumped into designer Peter Stevens. He agreed that there was just as much interest here as among the F1 cars or even the booming supercar field. Peter is currently working on fast-charge electric buses – a long way from his involvement in shaping the McLaren F1, but an indication of how the world turns.

Though I and a big bunch of onlookers were shooed out of the supercar paddock while they marshalled the next run – is it not possible to separate a viewing area instead of creating a lot of grumbling spectators? – I had time to admire the export-only Aston Martin Lagonda. Although I don’t feel that ‘retro’ should be part of Aston’s visual vocabulary, this was nevertheless a very handsome melding of today’s detailing with the crisp proportions of Bill Towns’ 1970s Lagonda. Hardly a game-changer technically or aesthetically, but a neat bit of gold-plated niche marketing.

The Lagonda was part of Goodwood’s ‘First Glance’ initiative which has spiced up the Moving Motor Show element, and Mazda used it to reveal the new MX-5. Sharp and compact, it looks much more inspiring than the insipid Mk2 version; assuming Mazda has put the same care into its chassis it should win back an audience whose attention had been drawn elsewhere (see review, p54).

Back in the upper paddocks, a real highlight for me was to see the seductive Ferrari 712 Can-Am car, powered by Maranello’s biggest-ever engine – 6.9 litres. It still couldn’t see off those McLarens, but it looked gorgeous – and amazingly it was still smaller than the 512BB LM in the next pit bay.

Every year I say ‘surely I’ve seen it all now’, but Goodwood keeps catching me out.