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French Flair: The Brief But Extraordinary History of Matra International

Submitted by on November 14, 2012

Jackie Stewart Matra 1969

Image: Cahier Archive

It all began casually enough. Ken Tyrrell, whose eponymously named racing team would become a major force in 1970s Formula 1 competition, was in Paris attending the 1965 Trophees de France prize-giving ceremony. At some point during the evening he was introduced to Jean-Luc Lagardère CEO of the French aerospace company Matra which had recently begun building single-seat racing cars.

Lagardère was relentless in his pursuit of Tyrrell, as he wanted a top line team and driver to enter his new MS5 chassis in the upcoming European Formula 2 championship. By the end of the weekend Tyrrell had agreed to a test of the chassis with one of his own 1.0 liter BRM F2 engines installed. Tyrrell phoned his F2 driver Jackie Stewart to share the news. The Scotsman, reportedly incredulous at the thought of driving the French car, asked Tyrrell if he’d been given too much to drink.

Stewart’s opinion changed swiftly. After only a few laps around Goodwood in the Matra Stewart returned to the pits and announced to those within earshot that the MS5 was the finest handling race car he’d ever driven. Later a tour of the Matra facilities in Vélizy-Villacoublay convinced the pair that the aerospace firm had both the requisite resources and seriousness of intent.  A deal was struck for Tyrrell to enter two Matra MS5 chassis in the 1966 Formula 2 championship.

Beltoise 1966

During this period there were primarily two types of chassis designs utilized for open wheel race cars. One was the tubular space frame favored by Brabham, the other the Lotus-style pontoon monocoque introduced by Colin Chapman in the Lotus 33. Matra, seeking to draw an advantage from its aerospace experience developed an aluminum skinned chassis with robust internal bracing. Matra then sealed all seams and rivet holes with a resin so that the monocoque also could be utilized as the fuel tank. The result was a chassis significant stiffer than its competition – a clear advantage in an era of ever-increasing mechanical and aerodynamic grip.

Lagardère’s sights, though, were set higher than F2. In April of 1967 he secured a $1.2 million loan from the French government to fund the aerospace firm’s move into Formula 1. Lagardère announced to the press at the time that Matra would capture the 1969 World Driving Championship. It’s not known how many of the reporters attending took him seriously.

1968

While Matra had plans for a works team running its own V-12 engine, the company looked to hedge its bets. With fine results and an excellent working relationship with the French firm, Tyrrell agreed to move-up to Formula 1 for the 1968 season. Tyrrell’s team would utilize the dominant Ford-Cosworth DFV installed in its Matra chassis, in lieu of the unproven French motor. The team would be called Matra International in deference to the Anglo-French partnership, and for two seasons it would nearly dominate Formula 1.

Matra v12

For the first championship round of the year, held literally on New Year’s Day, Matra sent a modified MS7 Formula 2 chassis to Kyalami for Stewart’s use in the South African Grand Prix. The race was to be treated as a test session, leading into a longer private test after the other teams had departed.

For the first championship round of the year, held on New Year’s Day 1968, Matra sent a modified MS7 Formula 2 chassis to Kyalami for Stewart’s use in the South African Grand Prix. The race was to be treated as a test session, leading into a longer private test after the other teams had departed.

Converting the F2 MS7 to accept the 3.0 liter DFV engine and Hewland transaxle was a bit of a hack job, resulting in perhaps one of the oddest-looking Formula 1 cars ever to take the grid. While theories abound as to why the hybrid MS7 arrived in South Africa painted green, there appears to be little support for any of them.

Regardless of its appearance the F1/F2 hybrid MS9 was quick. Stewart set the third fastest time in qualifying behind the two Lotus 49s of Jim Clark and Graham Hill. In the race, Stewart lead on lap one and fought for second until lap 44 when a connecting rod failed. Clearly a promising start for the season as the new MS10 chassis, designed exclusively for Formula 1, would be ready for testing the following month.

In the four month break between Kyalami and the next race in the Formula 1 World Championship, Stewart busied himself with preparations for the Indianapolis 500 and the upcoming European Grand Prix season. Unfortunately for Stewart it was all for naught ason the last lap of practice for the European Formula 2 Championship race at Jarama, Spain he crashed his MS7.  While otherwise unscathed, he had suffered a scaphoid fracture to his right wrist, forcing him to sit out the Spanish and French Grands Prix as well as the Indianapolis 500.

While Stewart recuperated Hill made good use of the opportunity to open a sizable points lead in the F1 Drivers Championship. By the time Stewart rejoined the series at Spa Francorchamps, Hill has collected an additional 18 points, winning at both Jarama and Monaco.

The Belgian Grand Prix, his first race back from his injury, was one Stewart most certainly should have won. Despite having been in considerable pain from his injured wrist, the Scotsman overtook leader Denis Hulme near the end of the race; the McLaren driver soon thereafter dropped out with a broken halfshaft. This provided Stewart what seemed like an insurmountable 30 second lead ahead of Bruce McLaren. It would not be so easy. On the 27th of 28 laps the MS10 sputtered and a splash-and-go dropped Stewart behind McLaren, Rodriguez and Ickx in the final order. Despite an early DNF for the Lotus leader the opportunity to close the championship gap on Hill by nine points had been lost.

While Ken Tyrrell took responsibility for the Matra starting the race with insufficient fuel to finish, it’s been suggested that the complicated Matra fuel tanks were difficult to read with any reliability. We can image that the irony of the aircraft construction that made the chassis so competitive was also the source of its downfall wasn’t lost in the paddock that day.

All came right two weeks later when Stewart led a Matra one-two across the line at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. Second place finisher Jean-Pierre Beltoise brought further joy to the Matra organization by setting the race fastest lap. Stewart, who finished more than a minute ahead of Beltoise, had at one point lapped the entire field. Still in so much pain that he sat out Saturday practice he told The Guardian newspaper “I was doubtful about starting and the right wrist, which I use to change gears, was darned painful. I’m afraid I haven’t done it much good.”

Jackie Stewart 1968

The French Grand Prix, held at Rouen-Les-Essarts, saw Stewart finish third behind Ickx and Surtees, while at British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, Stewart finished sixth to snag the last championship point. Hill, in turn, retired from both race though he retained his lead in the championship at 24 points with Stewart at 17.

Two weeks later the German Grand Prix was run on cold and wet weekend at the Nurburgring, a race which if often referred to as the greatest Stewart had ever driven. Having driven only a handful of laps so as not to risk damaging the car, Stewart started the race ninth.

Describing the opening laps of the race, Stewart would later share this account: “The spray from Graham (Hill) and Chris (Amon) was just absolutely impossible to see through; on any other circuit these conditions are hellish, but on the Nurburgring you just cannot imagine how bad they are. The track is narrow, the undulations so pronounced, the bends so numerous, that you can hardly remember where you are on the circuit even on a clear day, but in fog and ceaseless spray you just have no idea at all.”

Once clear of the other drivers, Stewart continued to open up his lead, finishing over four minutes ahead of second place Graham Hill, a Formula 1 record margin of victory that stands to this day.

With two consecutive wins behind him Stewart now sat second in points, 26 to Hill’s 30. It’s interesting to note that the standings at that point would have been reversed had the Matra been fully fueled in Belgium.

At the last of the European races, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Dennis Hulme brought his McLaren home first while both Stewart and Hill retired. The stage was set for the three North American races to determine the 1968 World Championship.

The Canadian Grand Prix was held that year at the bumpy Mt. Tremblant circuit. Hulme again won while Hill, who suffered mechanical woes throughout the race, stuck it out to collect fourth place and three points. Stewart struggled as well, spending a great deal of time in the pits replacing a cracked front suspension rocker arm. At the end Stewart came in sixth and last among the runners.

By virtue of his two consecutive victories, Hulme now tied with Hill for the championship at 33 points each, Stewart five points back going into the US Grand Prix.  But after a commanding victory by Stewart at Watkins Glen, and a DNF by Hulme, the championship points sat at 39-36-33 Hill, Stewart, Hulme. The title would be decided in Mexico.

Hill and Stewart slipped past faster qualifiers and traded the lead in the early laps of the race, with Hulme running third until a rear suspension failure ended his day. Jo Siffert in Rob Walker’s private Lotus 49 slipped into the lead for a few laps, but then dropped out with a broken throttle cable. It looked to all present that the battle between Stewart and Hill for the championship would go down to the checkered. As fantastic an ending that would make, it was not to be as on lap 39 inexplicably Stewart began to slow. On the next lap the gap grew between the two contenders, filled soon with McLaren, Jackie Oliver and Pedro Rodriquez. At the finish, Stewart had dropped to seventh place with 36 championship points. Hill, with 48 points, was crowned World Champion for the second time.

Once gain it was an element of the aircraft construction that spoiled the day for Stewart. The sealant used inside the chassis to make it fuel tight had begun to dissolve, clogging fuel lines and causing the reported misfire.

1969

The next season would be a completely different one for Matra International, for a number of significant reasons. Instead of competing in F1 as a factory team Matra decided to sit out the year and concentrate its efforts on engine development. Tyrrell’s Matra International became, in essence, the works team. That didn’t mean that Tyrrell and Stewart were left hanging. An entirely new chassis, the MS80, was designed to complement Stewart’s incredible car control skills.

1969 Formula 1 World Championship Review

One of the first and most obvious changes made was that the Ford-Cosworth V-8 could be installed as a fully-stressed member in the chassis, as did Lotus and McLaren, and not by the compromise solution of the MS10. Its bulbous mid-section allowed fuel to be carried low and central – minimizing handling changes as fuel was consumed and also to help centralize mass. Other design details included keeping oil tanks, coolers, and other ancillaries low and within the wheelbase to improve responsiveness – unlike so many of its contemporaries.

Perhaps most surprisingly in an era when an F1 chassis might be passed down and raced for years, the MS80 would only be eligible to compete for only a single season, as the 1970 season would require bag tanks to be fitted – a nearly impossible task with Matra complicated aircraft-type monocoque. Clearly Matra took seriously Lagardère’s boast that Matra would capture the 1969 World Driving Championship.

Jackie Stewart Matra

In a season comprised of 11 races, Stewart won six outright, plus set five fastest race laps. Of the races he didn’t win, a broken halfshaft knocked him out at Monaco after starting on pole, while at the Nurburgring he finished second to Ickx, unable to battle due to a balky gearbox and Ickx’s superior Goodyear rain tires.

At the Canadian Grand Prix identical times were set covering second through fourth spots on the grid. The tie was broken by when in the day each time was set, so Stewart would start fourth. Soon into the race he was up running with polesitter Ickx, literally bumping wheels when, as they approached a lapped car, both would spin. Ickx would continue on to win the race, while Stewart would DNF. Engine problems would end his race early at Watkins Glen as well, retiring from the US Grand Prix mid-race after starting third.

The final race of the season was again the Mexican Grand Prix and Stewart qualified third, finished fourth and earned three more championship points. His total that season was 63 points, with Ickx, thanks to his late-season form, finishing second with 37 points. Teammate Beltoise took fifth behind McLaren and Rindt. Further Stewart and Beltoise brought home the constructors’ championship to Vélizy-Villacoublay so Matra International was, in fact, a double World Champion in 1969.

Monsieur Lagardère, no doubt, was pleased.

By Art Michalik

Images: Cahier Archive

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