First, an introduction… I know this is an F1 site, but I wanted to do a piece about Le Mans because I’ve been in love with Le Mans from way before F1.
My first recollection of a race was Le Mans 1990. I was born January 1986, so I was four and a half at that time. I was watching it with my dad and knew nothing about it except that my dad was a mad Nissan fan who, up until a few years, back only bought Nissan cars. But for me this was an amazing experience despite the fact that I didn’t really understand what was going on.
None of the Le Mans cars on TV looked anything like I had seen before. They were big, low, very loud and had massive wings. On the street where I lived, cars at the time were black, grey, white or blue and if you were lucky you’d spot a red one. But then on TV, there was this purple one. That blew my mind. As a kid I didn’t know it was a Jaguar, but it was a vivid purple and you couldn’t see the rear wheels. Crazy! I couldn’t understand it, but I liked the concept of it. Right then I knew crazy cars were my deal. In fact, I couldn’t understand most of the things that the commentator said, yet the cars were still enough to keep me hooked to the screen. For someone with ADD, that’s something rare – even when @WTF_F1 thinks I’m also on autism spectrum. What a wonderful experience it was for me as a young boy.
A year later there was a new player in town, even when Jaguar brought a car which was completely purple instead white and purple. Mazda had one which spoke more to the eyes of a little boy. Deep orange and green? Hold on! Later on I learned that Jacky Ickx had some input in this car. To further clarify my connection with Le Mans, my first memory of an F1 race is a little later in time, and again I watched it with my dad as he used to be a fan, born in ’59 he experienced the golden age of it…
But he had three little boys in the nineties and that made it harder to really follow the whole F1 circus. So it was watched more sporadically. And since Le Mans was a single race it was a bit easier. But I digress. Note to Bernie: it’s the dads who sacrifice their first born to your sport. The more you put them off, the more fans you’ll lose on a generational level.
Back to the Le Mans story… now with the legendary Jacky Ickx, of course!
Some of you already know that Jacky is my favorite driver of all time. He’s raced anything, anywhere, anytime and always fast! You’ve gotta wonder if that versatility is there in F1 today. Sure we have Vettel in the race of champions but what is that really worth? And Hamilton is yet to be seen in anything like that. Anway, I first learned about Ickx, again, through my dad. My dad used to have Michel Vaillant comics (‘used to’ because they are mine now haha). Now I don’t know how famous they are outside of Belgium and France, so I might have to explain them. They’re about a fictional character who’s essentially the best driver to ever walk this earth. Or better yet, who ever drove on it. But the best thing about them is that they are historically accurate and have real personalities of the racing world, and their cars, in them. Starting in 1960 and working their way trough the decades. So that was the first time I heard about Ickx; but not the last time. I went and read up about him. Quite easy finding something of the best belgian racer ever, in Belgium.
And now I want to tell you about the Le Mans race of 1977.
The ’77 year had it all. Big players, drama, underdog story, sensation – the lot. At the qualification it was the beautiful Renault Alpine A442 of Jabouille and Bell that took pole position. And Renault meant business that year. Not only pole, but p2 and p4 were secured and that showed their strength that year. They desperately wanted that first Le Mans victory and they brought the weapons to win the war. Four Alpines and two mirage concept cars with Renault power. But no great war is won without a great opponent. So Renault was up against the mighty empire of Porsche. Porsche only brought three cars: the no.3 of Pescarolo and Ickx and the no.4 of Haywood and Barth – both of which were 936’s – but also the older 935 for Schurti and Stommelen.
Ickx and Pescarolo started third, whilst Haywood and Barth couldn’t get a better place than seventh. Press, fans and the whole of France favored Renault for the victory, and Renault executives wanted nothing less. But after the race started those same executives looked pretty worried given both Porsches were in the top three, which wasn’t the start they wanted. Of course Le Mans wouldn’t be Le Mans if nothing happened. Drama struck for the Porsche team. Before the third hour Pescarolo had to retire his no.3 car with a broken conrod. After that the no.4 of Haywood lost half an hour in the pits when they had to replace the fuel pump. Gone were the chances of victory for the German team. So the team decided to join forces by adding Ickx to the Haywood and Barth line up – which is within Le Mans regulations. At that time they were driving around p41, nine laps down from the leader.
Cue nightfall… my favorite time of the legendary 24 hour race that makes up one third of the triple crown of motorsports. Nighttime is when the men get separated from the boys and my favorite driver was one who was king of the night and difficult circumstances tout court. Ickx got in the car and drove three stints in a row. A whopping three hours and forty minute drive! He showed clearly to all why the Porsche tactics favored him over the other two drivers and as a result at midnight the Porsche was sixth. Even when they still were a long, long way down from the leading Alpine Renaults there was optimism, thanks to Ickx.
As the thick fog gathers on the track, visibility worse than ever, Ickx gathered in the laps 10 seconds faster than his closest rivals. During the night he had overtaken more than twenty rivals and moved up to the fifth spot in the seventh hour. By the tenth hour of the race came the trouble for Renault. Tambay loses oil pressure and had to retire his car. Meanwhile Ickx did what was asked, one flying lap after another. It seemed as he had never driven better than that night. At sunrise Ickx found himself in third place, six laps behind the leaders. And then at a crucial moment in the race, intervention from the racing gods helped him a bit as the Alpine Renault of Laffite and Depailler had to give up due to a transmission problem. This development moved him up into second place by the mid-race point. This meant there was only one Alpine Renault left in the race – the one of Jabouille and Bell and they were driving in front of Ickx, leading the race.
Meanwhile the other drivers did their work in the car, Barth driving good times but never bettering the ones Ickx drove. A struggling Haywood trying to keep up, but failing to be a real match for the times his teammates produced. So after a short rest, to recover from the long night, Ickx takes over the steering wheel again, early in the morning, ready to catch the last Alpine Renault. At that time the circuit is pretty damp. Conditions are bad and the racing is hard. Both drivers are now driving the fastest they and their machine can.
Pushing everything to it’s limits it is Jean- Pierre Jabouille who cracks first. He makes a driver error and spins the car. As a puff of smoke ascents to heaven at the end of Les Hunaudières (the long straight at Le Mans) signaling the end of the Renault power plant in the back of his car. All Alpine Renaults out of the race so the victory for grabs… but to finish first, first you have to finish.
At Le Mans, that is a harder task than at most races, if not ANY race. So to add a little more drama the Porsche comes in the pits for a non-planned stop. Engine trouble. Could the victory really slip trough their fingers now? At this stage, driver and car exhausted. The Porsche mechanics removed the ignition and injection of a failed cylinder and send the 936 back out on only five cylinders! Giving Barth the hard task of bringing home the wounded, but not defeated, beast. The smoking car limped around the track. Luckily, their lead on the Mirage Renault was big enough to make this the fourth win of Jacky Ickx at Le Mans. Greeted with a standing ovation of the fans and lyrical articles by the press a day later, this edition of Le Mans comes to an end. Fellow drivers are impressed with what the Belgian driver showcased, which makes him the second driver to win Le Mans 4 times – the other one being a Belgian too, coincidentally.
Maybe to end this article I can type a statement made by the man himself that I have in a book he wrote. (Written by Pierre Van Vliet)
“it was the race of my life. Without a doubt the biggest moment of my career. I’ll never ever forget that night. Due to the early technical problems we had nothing to lose and could only go flat out. Without thinking or calculating. The circumstances were extreme; not only was it dark, it rained heavy and there was a lot of fog. But we took every possible risk. Every lap I drove on the limit, although the rev counter was broken and I had to concentrate even harder to change gears pure on hearing. And the higher we climbed in the ranking, the stronger we felt. I remember that strange feeling I got when we again had prospects of a victory, when everything looked like a lost case a couple of hours earlier. None of us could believe it. That night I did go to the limits of my abilities. Did exactly what the team asked of me, drove on the limit constantly and made no mistakes. I put the pressure on the Renault boys so hard that they eventually broke their cars. That’s the magic of Le Mans: the race is only over when the checkered flag falls. And that’s only 24 hours after the start.”
Special thanks to @WTF_F1 for proofreading and editing.