Part two: End of an era
When: 14th and 15th June 1969.
Where: 24 hours of Le Mans, La Sarthe.
A race remembered for more than just the single iconic moment. An immense battle; an epic finish; records broken; an end to two eras… gather ‘round children, for I will tell you all the tale of he who must not be named… oh wait, that’s another story. This one has a little less magic in it, yet just enough to keep it interesting. Life can be full of magic when it’s not the shitstain that it usually is.
There, I’ve made it pretty dark in one sentence, yet leaving a little spark of hope. Light in the darkness. Sounds like a Hollywood classic all ready, doesn’t it? Well, let’s find out!
The story begins in a little mystical place called Maranello; a place ruled by a fierce commander ruthlessly ruling over the land. A place, despite it being the backdrop of many little boys’ dreams, isn’t free of trouble. And trouble it was for Il Commendatore. He was losing strength on both the battlefields in which he considered worthy. Furthermore, one of his loyal servants said ‘farewell’ to him and joined the opposing side in his most precious occupation; a young boy by the name of Jacky Ickx. In 1969, a young Ickx chose the side of Brabham in Formula One, while in sport car endurance racing he drove a Ford GT40 for John Wyer where he was the team’s No.1 driver.
The official Ford team decided to pull the plug on their Le Mans project after the win in ’67, leaving efforts to the vast majority of customer teams to defend their honour. Those teams continued to race the GT40, just not in the Mark 4 version. After the Le Mans race in ’67, the Mark 4’s would never race again.
Back to Ickx… he found a new teammate for the ’69 season in the form of Jackie Oliver. Oliver who drove the Le Mans race for the first time in ’68. Well actually drove is a bit exaggerated since his team mate, Brain Muir, binned it in the first lap and Oliver never got the chance to drive the car in the race because of that. The ’68 race would eventually be won by Lucien Bianchi (the Belgian driver with Italian roots who had the late Jules Bianchi as grandnephew) and Pedro Rodriguez, in a GT40. Lucien Bianchi who would be tragically killed during pre-qualifications at Le Mans when he’d hit a telephone pole in 1969. Just a short time after he had chosen to drive for Alfa Romeo – as a true Italian-blooded gentleman, this was clearly a choice of pure emotion. But it shows that the Bianchi family has had their share of bad fortune in racing.
Did you know that Jules had ‘Lucien’ as middle name? Too bad that wasn’t the only connection they’d share. As for Rodriguez, he too would be killed in a racing accident in Germany in 1971, at the Norisring. After the crash, his car would burst in to flames, sky-high flames, and it would be close to a minute before the first fire extinguishers go off.
It should be remembered that in those days fatalities were more common than they are now. I say this without trying to undermine the sad times as it still happens on occasion now, and it’s still is a tragedy… but it is a fact that it happens a lot less than it used to. This means we should be grateful for ALL the improvements that happen in the field of safety for the drivers, just as we should ferociously call-out the FiA on anything they do wrong with respect to the area of safety. There are enough examples reminding us how cruel the sport was and still can be. But what’s worse, for all those examples we remember, there are three more that have been forgotten. [Ed: The FiA appear to swing between apathy and knee-jerk reactivity when it comes to safety. The entire Jules Bianchi accident, from the apathetic implementation of the double-waved yellows; to the farcical investigation; to the subsequent knee-jerk solutions (not forgetting Ferrari’s Halo device) are examples of this swing.]
In March of ’69, the Ickx/Oliver combination wins the 12 hours of Sebring. But it doesn’t hide the fact that the GT40 was showing its age and needless to say teams were working on new cars. As it happens, Wyer too was working on a new prototype called the Mirage with a massive BRM V12 in the back. Both at Monza and at Spa Francorchamps, the car had some hick-ups and Ickx was unable to finish both races due to mechanical failures. For the race at the Nürnbergring, Wyer ditched the mammoth BRM engine in favour of a tried and tested Cosworth V8, yet this didn’t help Ickx either and he had to retire once again.
To bring their bad fortune to a screaming halt, the team decided to bring back “grandma” in the form of a trustworthy GT40 in time for the race at Le Mans. The GT40 – a car that has proved itself to everybody that it is a reliable and robust machine – may not have been relatively as fast anymore as it once was, but it (she) was still was strong as an ox. Sidenote: In the same way in which a guitar is female, so too is the GT40. Blame the sensual curves… ooh la la!
After all the years of beating Ferrari, there was a new opponent to be faced. Porsche had decided that they would be the next domination on the endurance scene. Not only did they bring the 908, a 3L V8, but the whole new 917, a 4.5L flat 12 cylinder engine driven purposely-built endurance racer, which should help the Germans win at La Sarthe for the first time ever in their history. When we look back now, it seems strange that a brand like Porsche hadn’t won there in the first 40 years of their existence. Porsche would use the long tail version of the car, and they’d use exotic materials like magnesium and titanium – nearly bankrupting the company – in their efforts. This was the reason why they’d sell the car to anyone who wanted it. But of the 25 built, only three entered this Le Mans race of which two were deployed by the Porsche factory team. The other went to John Woolfe, a gentleman driver.
When qualification came, it was Rolf Stommelen who put a Porsche 917 on pole. Ickx is way down in 13th, almost 15 seconds slower than the pole! And we complain about a Mercedes being 0.5 seconds per lap faster! Nevertheless, after qualification comes the race and this race took place in front of 250,000 people! It should be noted that I’ve used three exclamation marks for the last three sentences, and I meant them all!!!
Back then we had something called a ‘Le Mans start’. None of the cars would be lined up on the grid with the drivers in them, no… first off, all the drivers were out of their cars; secondly, all the cars would be lined up alongside the pits, sort of like a fish grate; and last but not least, all the drivers had the task of standing in a circle which was drawn on the tarmac on the other side of the road. What they were supposed to do is run, and run like hell. First one in his car was the first one to drive off and so on.
When the start signal finally went off, all of them ran to their cars like madmen. Well, “all of them” is not entirely true… there was one who just walked to his car. Calm, but to make a valid point. That point? He showed the world how ridiculous this antiquated starting procedure was. Not only ridiculous, but also dangerous. Later on Ickx would go on the record to say that he did run, however only for the last few meters as the starting cars were driving past him and he feared of being run over!
The problem Ickx had with the start was that the drivers didn’t take time to buckle-up and simply started the race. Some of them even did the entire first stint without being strapped into their car! Only one year before, these guys had a horrific example of the stupidity of this when a driver, who got surprised by aquaplaning, crashed and was thrown out of his car leaving him with severe wounds of life-threatening nature.
Ickx didn’t want to participate in that, so he walked to his car, buckled up and turned on his engine to start dead last. These images went world-wide. It was surreal with everyone running and just one walking. Point proven… but, unfortunately, the point would be further driven home due to an inexperienced driver and/or the bad handling Porsche where on lap one John Woolfe crashed and was found dead. Woolfe hadn’t taken the time to put his seat belt on… and this incident was the direct reason why Chris Amon had to retire. The fuel tank of the Porsche got dislodged, at that moment full of fuel because it happened at the beginning of the race, and Amon hit the tank with his Ferrari causing an explosion. After a two-hour delay, the race was given the green-light again.
When the night falls on the circuit, Ickx and Oliver, with the Gt40 No.6, already climbed up to eighth place in the race. In the pits, Ickx tells the team to have faith. The car behaves wonderfully and since they’ve unleashed the beast he thinks the Porsche will never keep up without breaking. He was right. The two official Porsche 917’s had to give up as they both experienced clutch problems, which left efforts up to the “old” 908 to defend Porsche’s honour. All of a sudden, Hans Herrmann and Gérard Larrousse found themselves competing for the win. All of the Porsches inherited the lead from another Porsche when said Porsche breaks down. And the GT40 holds on tight and gives the spectators value for their money. An immense battle starts and lasts for the next three hours… swapping places on and off again. This is what fans want to see; a war on the track and drivers pushing for the ultimate victory.
When Ickx jumps into the car at 11am, he knew he had to drive until the chequered flag. At the last service, they changed the brakes and callipers (remember in Part 1 I mentioned the Fords are fast but hard on the brakes). The full service would mean Ickx could push the car to the limit all the way to the end to hunt the 908 down. Porsche decided to give the last stint to the German veteran, Herrmann. And as luck would have it, both the 908 and the GT40 seem to be equally fast with Jacky Ickx later saying that in his opinion Porsche made a bad call by choosing the German who was old and at the end of his career. French rally talent, Larrousse, surely should be fitter after twenty one hours of racing? Ickx on the other hand certainly felt at the top of his game. Admitting he played a cat-and-mouse game with the German. [Ed: Don’t mention the war!]
With only the last few of laps ahead, both cars dived in for a splash-and-dash (remember those in Formula One?) and they were ready for a grand finale. The cars traded places continually, mainly on the long straights, which Ickx noted and would eventually use to his advantage. He knew that if the Porsche would stay in his slipstream that it would take the Ford without a problem, so he’d tried to reverse the roles as happens in motorcycle racing.
Ickx allows Herrmann to pass the Ford upon which Ickx clamps on to the back of the 908, making the most out of the tow he gets. In the braking zone of Mulsanne the GT40 passes the Porsche back and thus running ahead to the finish line. But when he passes the line, the clock only says 13.59, meaning they have to drive one more lap! This causes panic in the Ford garage where they actually fear that Ickx is now low on fuel and might not make it to the end.
So when Ickx drives on the straight of Les Hunaudières he slows down to save fuel, but this time Herrmann, who fell for the plot in the last lap, sees trough the manoeuvre. Herrmann decides not take over the lead so that Ickx and the GT40 couldn’t take advantage of his slipstream. As both cars were now driving dead-slow on the track, Ickx could only think of one thing. He decided to put his blinkers on, signalling to Herrmann that he has no fuel anymore and Herrmann takes the bait, and the lead, with the GT40 storming up behind him!
Both now racing for their lives when, once again, the GT40 out-brakes the 908 on Mulsanne! As they raced towards the finish, they took the chequered flag with the closest finish to that point in history that wasn’t a promo picture. 120m is the difference between the first and the second. The Ickx/Oliver Ford breaking the records, 4998 km driven in 24 hours, an average speed 208 kph… the 24 year old Belgian winning his first Le Mans. And, worth nothing, the FiA even alter the rules so that from the next year on the drivers never again start with the archaic ‘Le Mans start’. That being the end of Era.1, like I mentioned before, and the other one being the retirement of the GT40 as a race car – being put to rest with one final victory. A victory worthy of retirement.
Or was it? Fast forward to 2015, 46 years after that last victory. Suddenly rumours emerged of Ford considering a return to the centre stage. And when news came of an official press conference Ford decided to give during the Le Mans weekend I was very hopeful that it would be a lmp1 project. Could you imagine a race between two giants in the racing world? Porsche against Ford. And add a splash of Audi and a dash of Toyota to the mix and you have one hell of a dish. But sadly it all turned out to be nothing more than hope. What they did share with the world was that they wanted to bring back the GT40. Ok granted, I smiled a little… And their basis for that project would be the prototype they made of an new incarnation of the Gt40, this time round dropping the 40 in the name. That car would be sold to people who have that kind of money, good for them. Sadly I’m not one of them. And apparently when I looked on fordgt.com you had to apply for one, and applications were only accepted in a very brief period (one month). I think they sold super fast because admit it, this one looks better than the revival they did in the early 2000’s. Anyway, Ford Performance would join forces with Chip Gannassi Racing and they would race in the gt pro category. Now, all of the parts of both articles were written well before Le Mans 2016 took place, except for this last part. I didn’t even wanted to include the Gannassi car at first, just like I didn’t include the gt that raced in the FIA gt series around the year ’05 (out of the top of my head) with Marc VDS racing and others. But than they (Gannassi) did what seemed rather impossible when they announced they’d race the Gt40 again. They won their class, fifty years after the first Le Mans victory. And if it wasn’t for a Ferrari they’d have a one two. So they finished first, third and fourth. Certainly a good reason for me to include them here. Well done, and massive congratulations to them!
Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Even when the word app for android phones is a pain in the ass! Same for the wordpress app.
Big up to my main boy @wtf_f1 for the editing.
Also thanks to John Brooks, for pointing out some errors.