Le Mans ’69: 100-yard humdinger
The 37th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours features on most sportscar racing fans’ list of ‘greatest-ever races’ around the legendary La Sarthe venue – and for several good reasons. The final outcome of the round-the-clock French enduro produced one of the closest finishes ever seen at Le Mans (surely no-one counts the formation-finish, photographically staged climaxes that we get these days?), with the battle for victory decided by the small matter of 100 yards.
Rather like the modern-day warfare between Audi and Peugeot – due, of course, to continue this weekend – the ’69 race was a battle of wills between two motoring powerhouses: Ford and Porsche. And, with further parallels between 21st-century endurance racing, the event was a flat-out sprint to the flag, with neither side letting up in its quest to land one of the most important prizes in international racing.
In the British/American (delete depending on your preference!) corner was Ford with its 4.9-litre, V8-engined GT40, a car that had won the race for the previous three years (ample revenge on late 1950s/early 1960s dominator Ferrari, which the Blue Oval had tried unsuccessfully to buy). However, the GT40 was past its sell-by date, down on power and up on weight against the German opposition from Porsche. Six brand-new cars, in 908 and 917 form, had been entered in a bid to end the Ford victory run. Cue a classic encounter that no-one had scripted.
Weekly motorsport bible AUTOSPORT was moved to write in its post-race editorial in the June 20th 1969 edition: ‘if we had seen a film or read a novel about the world’s most famous sportscar race in which the gallant British stable, struggling with a pair of last year’s machines against the might of the six-car German works team, came through to lead in the last three hours, and then fought a wheel-to-wheel battle throughout the closing laps with the sole survivor of the German works team, with the lead changing constantly as the clock hands moved towards the finishing time and the British car winning the race by a whisker, we would have dismissed it as improbable and unrealistic’.
Thanks to superior reliability, the JW Automotive-run, Gulf-liveried GT40 of Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver (incidentally the same chassis that had won in ’68 with Lucien Bianchi and Pedro Rodriguez) held off the faster, but previously delayed, 908 of Hans Herrmann and Gerard Larrousse in a superb game of cat and mouse over the closing stages. Ickx had driven flat-out to keep Herrmann behind and it was testament to the Belgian’s skill and David Yorke’s tactical acumen that Ford lifted its fourth straight win and Ickx the first of six.
Completing the podium was the second JWA GT40 of Brits Mike Hailwood and David Hobbs. The #7 Ford put paid to local celebrations by keeping two French Matras, one a G50, the other an older 630, behind them.
The only downside to what had been an epic Le Mans 24 Hours was the nasty accident at Maison Blanche on the opening lap in which British privateer John Woolfe was killed after crashing his Porsche 917.
Le Mans 24 Hours-14-15 June 1969
(FIA World Sportscar Championship, round 8 )
1st: Jacky Ickx (B)/Jackie Oliver (GB)-4.9 Ford GT40 – 372 laps
2nd: Hans Herrmann (D)/Gerard Larrousse (F)-3.0 Porsche 908 – 372 laps
3rd: Mike Hailwood (GB)/David Hobbs (GB)-4.9 Ford GT40 – 368 laps
4th: Jean-Pierre Beltoise (F)/Piers Courage (GB)-3.0 Matra G50 -368 laps
5th: Jean Guichet (F)/Nino Vaccarella (I)-3.0 Matra 630 -359 laps
6th: Reinhold Joest (D)/Helmut Kelleners (D)-4.9 Ford GT40 – 341 laps