The man in the green helmet


Happy birthday to the man in the green helmet.

Henri Pescarolo is 72 today.

Fifty years ago he was a third-year medical student – a young non-shaver – winning for Paris in the Coupe des Provinces held for Lotus Sevens as part of Ford’s Operation Jeunesse.

Forty years ago he completed with Matra the first Le Mans 24 Hours hat-trick for a French driver. (He received his Légion d’honneur after the second victory.)

Thirty years ago, co-driving Klaus Ludwig in a Joest Racing Porsche 956B, he made it four.

He has earned a nice cup of tea – or coffee with a croissant – and a sit-down.

That, though, is not his style.

Although the eponymous team he founded in 2000, and with which he twice came close to winning Le Mans as an owner, closed its doors earlier this year, he’ll be busy doing something.

Just as he was when his driving career throttled back a bit in the 1980s.

Le Mans ’92 with Courage: the last class win

Did he mope?


He plunged into the Sahara on the Dakar – an event he has since tackled 14 times albeit without the best of luck. (For example, his Land Rover’s failure 30 miles from the finish in 1985 cost him a fourth place on competitive debut.)

He strapped himself into a microlight and set a Paris-London best.

He helped break the New York-Paris record for a single-prop plane.

And he was among the crew of the 1930s-vintage Lockheed 18 Lodestar that beat Howard Hughes’ circumnavigation time of 1938.

He has also competed for France in helicopters and contested snowmobile races.

F2 at Enna, 1969: Siffert leads Beltoise, Courage, Regazzoni, Servoz-Gavin, Cevert, Pescarolo, Widdows and Ickx

This from a man who had already finished third on the 1976 Bandama Rally in the Ivory Coast jungle and won the 1977 Chamonix 24 Hours ice race, in Peugeots 504 and 104 ZS respectively.

He has most motor sport bases covered.

He was the 1967 French Formula 3 champion after a dominant season with Matra that included victory in Monaco.

He finished runner-up to Matra team-mate Jean-Pierre Beltoise in the following year’s European Formula 2 Championship.

And he finished second in the race/rally Tour de France Automobile of 1970.

He won 22 major sports car races, the 1991 Daytona 24 Hours among them. He holds the lap record for the old Spa. And he won for Alfa Romeo and Rondeau as well as Matra and Porsche.

Upon his retirement from frontline driving in 1999 – after a record 33 starts at Le Mans – he guided the next generation of French talent: Sébastian Bourdais, Romain Dumas, Franck Montagny, Simon Pagenaud and Benoît Tréluyer have benefited from Pescarolo’s support and wisdom.

He has had – and continues to have – a full and successful life.

But his experience of Formula 1 still niggles.

It began at the end of 1968 with three outings in a Matra MS11 and a best of ninth in Mexico.

A terrifying testing crash at Le Mans that burnt him and broke his back reduced him to a single Grand Prix in 1969. Though he finished a brave fifth at the Nürburgring, he earned no points because it was achieved in an F2 Matra.

His big chance came in 1970 when Matra’s insistence that its in-house V12 be used rather than Cosworth’s V8 forced reigning world champion Jackie Stewart reluctantly from its fold.

Pescarolo joined Beltoise and promptly scored a third in Monaco. He also finished fifth at Clermont-Ferrand and sixth at Hockenheim.

“MS120 was not the best chassis, not the best engine, but on occasions it was close to being very competitive, close to winning even, so it wasn’t that bad,” he says. “But it was not as good as Matra’s [two-seater] Prototype.

“With the same engine, the Prototype set times that would have put it on the front row of Grands Prix at the same tracks. Its chassis was better, more rigid, and its aerodynamics generated more downforce and used the tyres better. That was partly due to its bigger body, but not all of it can be explained that way.

“[Matra boss] Jean-Luc Lagardère’s main target was to win Le Mans, so there were two different teams at Matra Sport then, with the best designers, engineers and mechanics working on the Prototypes. Only after winning Le Mans three times [1972-’74] did it turn its attention fully to F1, with Ligier.

“That should have been the Matra F1 team of 1970.

“There was not always the best co-operation between the engineers in F1: Jean-François Robin, who looked after my car, and Bruno Morin, who looked after Beltoise’s and the project in general. There was some fighting between them.

“They tried to generate downforce from the shape of the side tanks, but I think that was a mistake from the start.

“Goodyear could be a problem, too. There were occasions, like at Monaco, where they would be competitive – but even there Jochen Rindt’s Firestones lasted longer and were much quicker in the second half. I slowed down. Jack Brabham slowed down. But Rindt’s Lotus went faster and faster, overtook us and won.

“With the car I had, I think I had a fantastic season. All of my career I had worked on the basis of: the first year to learn, the second to win. That had worked for me in F3 and F2.

“My mind was set on F1 in 1971 and I felt confident. I found it impossible to believe that I would not be involved with Matra that year.”

So he was sorely disappointed when Chris Amon was signed to lead the team, with Beltoise in support.

Pescarolo leads Amon at Spa in 1973

“I was more than frustrated by Lagardère,” says Pescarolo, “I was ‘killed’ by him.”

‘Fatally wounded’ is perhaps more accurate.

He joined Frank Williams’ ambitious but impecunious team for 1971 and drove its March 711 to fourth in Britain and sixth in Austria, having begun the season with a second place (behind Amon) in the non-championship Argentine GP in the older and unloved 701.

He also set fastest lap in the Monza race that would remain the fastest GP for 32 years, and might have won the Oulton Park Gold Cup had it not been for rear brake failure in the second heat; he had pipped Howden Ganley’s BRM to victory in the first.

Williams persuaded him to re-sign for 1972 rather than join Brabham. Pescarolo could see what Frank was trying to achieve and appreciated his potential but would ultimately regret the decision.

The lowest point of a crash-strewn campaign was when the team’s self-built Politoys FX3 was badly damaged on debut after its back broke at Brands Hatch’s Dingle Dell compression just a handful of laps into the British GP.

An F2 victory in a Ron Dennis-run Motul at Thruxton’s Jochen Rindt Memorial Trophy in 1973 proved that there remained single-seater speed in parallel with the long-distance nous, sympathy and rhythm.

But joining a BRM very definitely on the slide by 1974 did nothing to improve Pescarolo’s F1 averages.

Being a determined soul he had another stab at it, but BS Fab’s privateer Surtees TS19 of 1976 proved blunt.

Twelve points from 57 GP starts: there have been worse drivers who have done considerably better at the highest level.

But the man in the green helmet has no reason to be envious.

His achievements, and respect and standing within the sport he loves and has graced for so long at so many levels and in so many roles, are proof positive that F1 is far from being the be-all and end-all.

ChapeauMonsieur Pescarolo.

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