The 1969 Le Mans race was remarkable for a number of reasons. It was the fourth – and final – win in a row for the revered Ford GT40. Further, the car had to beat a challenge from a host of Porsche 908s, the German marque having not yet won a Le Mans 24 Hours at that stage.
The race also was one of the most thrilling showdowns not just at Le Mans but in all of motor sport history, with likely the closest competitive finish ever at the 24 hour race. Ickx and Oliver beat the runner-up 908 driven by Hans Hermann and Gérard Larrousse by only around 100 metres after a frenzied late fight.
“The last few minutes of the race were unbelievable for Ickx was making up on corners and braking what the Ford lacked on speed, and the two cars passed and re-passed in the sort of wheel-to-wheel racing we would like to see in Formula 1 events,” wrote an admiring Denis Jenkinson for Motor Sport at the time.
“As the clock ticked away the last minutes to 2pm it was still anybody’s race. Both cars were flat out. They passed and re-passed four or five times during that final lap and lckx took the lead round the fast bend to Mulsanne.
“It was a bitter blow to Porsche, who wanted to win Le Mans above all else. The [Ford] Gulf Team found the whole thing unbelievable, having started with a feeling of hopelessness and settled for being outclassed.”
It also was the final Le Mans with the traditional start format, where drivers ran across the circuit to their waiting cars. In the previous year’s race, Willy Mairesse was seriously injured in an accident while trying to shut his door on the race’s first lap.
Ickx, in 1969, protested by walking to his car slowly. His decision, while highly admirable, nearly lost him the race, as it transpired.
Ickx after 1969 would win Le Mans another five times and with it became a Le Mans icon. While Porsche the following year finally scored its first Le Mans win, with Hans Hermann and Richard Attwood driving, and the marque would achieve similar legendary La Sarthe status in time.