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Le Mans 1969 – Porsche misses glory by metres

Submitted by on July 8, 2015

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Ford vs Porsche: 4998km against 4997.88km

by Helmut Zwickl

Thanks to AUTOMOBILSPORT, we take a look back at the fierce battle between Porsche and Ford in the 1969 24 Hours of LeMans.


Three days after the Nuerburgring, they decided at Porsche to start in Le Mans even though at this stage no CSI message clearly taking a stand on the movable flaps had been received. Principal Ferry Porsche cut the number of Le Mans cars to five. In the little country village of Teloché, about 8 kilometres from the Le Mans circuit, eight cars were unloaded from the transporters nonetheless. Four 917’s (one already in the ownership of wealthy amateur racing driver John Woolfe), three 908 long-tail Prototypes and a brand new streamlined 908 Spyder. The long-tail 908 destined for Mitter/Schuetz bore chassis number 30. Multiplied by the material cost of DM 200,000 each this yields a DM six million effort for the contingent of 3-litre 908 coupes alone, although the first 20 cars had been built for the 1968 season. Ing. Ferry Piëch, who had moved into private quarters with his wife Corena near the garage rented in Teloché, offered: “You can’t gain more than the World Championship. Here, we can only lose. What would hurt us would be an accident. After perennial success messages, an accident would be most convenient for the press…”

During scrutineering the hoary technical inspectors left themselves wide open. They tried to stuff a suitcase into the Porsche 908, even though luggage boots are no longer requested in the 1969 Prototype regulations. Practice started at half past four on Wednesday in scorching heat. While the Ferrari pilots idly waited for their two 312P coupes, Porsche’s eight car armada rested lined-up in front of the pits. At this moment it was certain that Elford/Attwood as well as Stommelen/Ahrens were to drive the 917. Hans Herrmann was to have Gérard Larrousse as his co-pilot; after the April test session Hans had opted for a 908. Willi Kauhsen and Rudi Lins stood around idly. They were registered as reserve drivers and had little hope of a start, especially since just five cars were to be campaigned.

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While Stommelen experimented with the 917, continuously modifying the position of the rear flaps, Siffert switched from the long-tail 908 into the Spyder and the Mitter/Schuetz car suffered clutch failure; Kurt Ahrens was to circulate in John Woolfe’s private 917. Ahrens did three laps, the third in 3:36.4 despite ignition trouble. This time was to remain ninth fastest, becoming springboard into the last lap of his life for John Woolfe. 37-year- old John Woolfe slipped into his DM 140,000 jewel for the first time on the Thursday. When he returned, the engine had been over-revved – to 9,400 rpm. “I missed a shift”, he shrugged.

Around 7:45 pm I stood at the right-hand kink on the Mulsanne straight. The newly installed guardrails started to vibrate as the big bangers sucked up the 5 km asphalt strip. John Wyer’s Ford GT40s, thrusting through this kink as on rails in excess of 300 kph, Jo Bonnier’s red Lola heralded from far afield by its hammering engine sound, the two works Ferraris, unable to work to capacity because their rear spoilers didn’t fit, the blue narrow-gauged 3-litre Renault Alpine’s with their screaming eight-cylinder engines, and finally the Porsche 917, since the Nuerburgring race featuring a new front suspension with revised geometry effecting better road holding under deflection and hopping. For this mightily roaring 12-cylinder the computer had calculated a lap time of 3:25.76 over the 13.49 km long circuit. The electronic brain estimated the speed through the kink in the long straight at 319 kph and left it to the driver’s courage to improve this speed – if he dared to grope his way up to the 917’s ultimate centrifugal force, a maddening balancing act at such speed. Stommelen said: “You can’t apply full throttle, you have to lift slightly!

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Stommelen corrected the computer at 7:45 pm when he succeeded with a lap time of 3:22.9 and an average of 238.970 kph which obliterated any previous Le Mans standards. Stommelen recalled: “Suddenly it was eerily quiet in the cockpit. Along the straight the rev counter needle rose up to 8,200 rpm in 5th…” According to the diagram this correlates to 340 kph. To that one should add the x-factor of the tyres’ so-called ‘blow up’. For the Porsche technicians the 331 kph top speed for the Stommelen car officially recorded by the organisers at post 44 seemed too low. They say: “350 to 355 kph would be correct” Looking back, 3:23.6 read Denny Hulme’s lap record in 1967, established with a 7-litre Ford Mk IV Prototype. Meanwhile, a corner has been incorporated into the final straight by means of Ford-money – a so-called chicane hardly permitting 115 kph, forcing all cars into the lower gears and extending the lap times compared with 1967 by approx. 10 seconds. Despite the chicane Stommelen was seven tenths quicker than the Ford two years before without it. In doing so, the chicane had been installed not only to reduce speed along the final straight in front of pits and grandstands but also to reduce lap times. A misapprehension; like many things in auto racing devised by hoary officials.

During the practice runs in the evening it was established that the 917 with moveable flaps (mechanically operated by the rear suspension) were by far more stable in a straight line and also in fast corners was more stable, signalling more safety to the drivers than with blocked flaps which would have conformed to the CSI ban. This was recorded by the Porsche drivers in a communiqué. The organisers had satisfied themselves as well that aerodynamic aids in this form represented a valuable contribution to safety. They supported this construction even more so, as Porsche announced they would not start unless the flap system would be allowed. To what extent Porsche would have realised this threat remains to be seen. The CSI was at least forced to revise the general wing ban they had panicked into in Monte Carlo and puzzle out a solution for Le Mans. The chase for best times during Wednesday practice was fought-out amongst the Porsches. Behind Stommelen, Elford recorded the second-best lap for a 917 on 3:28.3, averaging 232.78 kph. Siffert did 3:23.3 in the open Spyder, Udo Schuetz 3:33.8 in the same car, Hans Herrmann 3:35.6 in a long-tail 908.

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Vic Elford during a pitstop

Blond ‘Beatle’ Johnny Servoz-Gavin did the quickest Matra lap in 3:36.4. Matra had concentrated on Le Mans for months, the name Matra standing for Mécanique, Aviation et Traction, a company founded in 1941 and involved with building rocket launch pads, remote-controlled rockets and space satellites. By now it had expanded into an industrial group, manufacturing high-class electronic devices and executing arms orders for the French government and other countries. Around 90 people work in Matra’s racing department. The co-operation with the aircraft technicians is very close; any self-development for motor racing takes advantage of the unlimited technical and financial capabilities of the group. After the first day of practice in Le Mans it became clear that the power output of the V12-engine had been reduced in favour of reliability; the times achieved during the April test days could no longer be achieved. What Matra had lost with regard to speed Porsche had gained with the 3-litre. Apparently also reduced was the engine power of the Ferraris, as Pedro Rodríguez informed Peter Schetty: “The engine appears to be less powerful than in Monza! Ferrari intended to recover the reduced power another way. A reduction of fuel consumption by almost 9 percent increased the driving range of the cars.

When qualifying started under a cloudless sky at 6 pm on Thursday, the light glimmered over the pine forests, which are separated by the wide asphalt band of the Le Mans track. Ing. Piëch was convinced that Stommelen would get close to 3:20 this time. Rolf tried everything to beat his fabulous lap achieved the day before. When this didn’t work out, he began to revise the whole settings of the tail flaps. In the end, everything was misaligned but the previous days’ time could not even be matched, let alone improved on. The high speeds introduced tyre problems on the 917 for the first time. Kurt Ahrens was frightened on the straight by “a crosswind which despite calm almost blew the car of the road”. In fact tread delamination on the left front wheel of the 917 threatened to blow the car off course. A little later the same happened to Elford’s 917: on the left front chunks of rubber separated from the Dunlop tyre.  The tyre specialists recommended a wider tyre for Elford and higher pressure for Stommelen/Ahrens, but this would not be a resolution for the slightly concerned drivers. Since the Firestone debacle during the Monza 1000 km race Porsche allowed the 917 pilots free tyre choice. Both during the short appearance at Spa and on the Nuerburgring the ‘White Giant’ remained Dunlop- shod; safety took priority over speed. For Le Mans Dunlop tyres were fitted, even though it had been found on the rolling test bed in Stuttgart that the Dunlop tyre shed some rubber at 350 kph whereas the Firestone remained intact. Had the 917 drivers been aware of that, they would certainly have opted for Firestones for Le Mans. But apparently Porsche’s technical governing board didn’t want to oust Dunlop completely. There was no contract inhibiting this, but in Zuffenhausen they felt they owed gratitude for special developments that had been performed.

A remarkable incident happened around the private 917 of Briton John Woolfe. His co-driver Digby Martland, a British racing driver who had only minor experience with a 2-litre Chevron-BMW, exited after one lap. Entirely scared off he stated what others might have withheld: “I can’t control this 917. It is too fast for me”. Woolfe found himself without co-driver, so Porsche helped out – they partnered Herbert Linge with him, the racing master craftsman from the research department, pal of a whole generation of Porsche racing cars. That Rudi Lins and Willi Kauhsen donned their helmets on Thursday evening meant the deployment of a sixth works Porsche but Ing. Piëch corrected that with a smile: “It is only five nonetheless. The Siffert/Redman Spyder is running with the Hart-Ski Racing Team…”

Lins did only three laps, the third in 3:42 and Kauhsen did 3:41 in his fourth lap. The 14 km of recently erected guardrails proved their worth for the first time when a Ferrari Dino left the road at the end of the Mulsanne straight. Drivers like Lucky Casner, Robby Weber and Lucien Bianchi had to die in Le Mans until they decided to render the straight safe by dint of guard rails. Up to then the cars had been flying into the woods. At 10 pm the chequered flag brought practice to an end. The lights on the home stretch went out, the crowds dissipated. According to the organisers, 15 percent more spectators than during the time of Ford’s big engagements in the years 1966 and 1967 had come on both practice days. All the technical equipment disappeared from the pits. The Sports cars and Prototypes were loaded upon trucks or driven to the garages under their own power. Exposed to the sound of a Bavarian costume band and the smell of bratwurst and sauerkraut the Porsche mechanics feasted in a huge beer tent.

The evening prior to the 24 hour race the Porsche works drivers gathered at Porsche’s headquarters in Teloché for a final briefing. They casually assembled in a garden around a corroded 30-year-old Renault saloon leaning on a garden wall. Ing. Piëch implored the drivers to go easy on the clutch. One hour before a ‘phone call concerning the ‘White Giant’s’ Achilles’ Heel had been received from Stuttgart. The lining of the Borg&Beck clutch, which had withstood the torque of the 7-litre Ford Prototype, had given up after three hours’ running time on the 917 test bed. That meant once more removing engines and changing clutches. Not good news for the mechanics. The plan of action was simple as always: they were to drive according to predetermined lap times. For the 917 drivers the practice time plus 10 seconds applied, for the 908 folks practice time plus 5 seconds. Rico Steinemann translated for the English-speaking drivers. The tourist in the background, who didn’t pass up the opportunity of Porsche’s ‘pillow-talk’ under the sky was no less than Huschke von Hanstein. Had he still been in office, he would have thrown me out of the garden, but Porsche’s ‘pillow-talk’ was not as intimate as one might guess. Everything was repeated factually. A RED signal means slower, GREEN means faster, the drivers were reminded of the regulations and they were told which tools lay in the car and what they could do in case of trouble.

“Any more requests? was Steinemann’s final question. “Give 10 Francs to anybody” proposed Kurt Ahrens, raising his hand as in school, “in case we drop out on the circuit…” Ing. Piëch responded: “This retainer is granted”. John Woolfe also stood in the garden, jacket draped over his shoulders. Must be wealthy, this Woolfe, they said. How does he make money?

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The Jo Siffert / Brian Redman Porsche 908 (DNF: Position 33)

Kauhsen knew he was in the textile trade, and then he is director of an American food company. In Twickenham he once ran for the Liberals. He got married recently, a versatile and kind man. Herbert Linge makes him an offer: “I can do the first turn if you wish”, but Woolfe responded “Oh no, I would like to start”. He was fascinated by the Porsche 917, despite the problems during both days of practice. David Yorke too held a briefing for his four drivers at the headquarters in La Chatre, in the absence of John Wyer. There was not much to say. Maximum revs for the good old Ford GT40 was, as usual in endurance races, 6,000 rpm. This was 1,000 rpm below the limit. Thereby the lap times for Ickx/Oliver and Hobbs/Hailwood were defined. They knew from qualifying that, depending on the driver, a Porsche 908 was up to 8 seconds faster (Siffert in the 365 HP Spyder weighing 628 kilos) around the 13 km circuit than the Ford GT40 (1025 kilos without fuel but with water and oil). Both Ferraris (755 kg, 400 HP) were roughly as quick as most of the 908s, the Matras a bit slower. Faster than anybody else were the two 917’s. The 580 HP had to shift a dry weight of 850 kilos. Porsche’s one win at Le Mans ought to be the one over the FIA’s International Sporting Commission (CSI). According to Rico Steinemann the “proclamation of sentence” was a charter for the Porsche 917’s movable flaps, which read: “In light of the fact that this car has been homologated as a Sports Car with these flaps already, that Porsche would withdraw its works cars from the start, which would be a big detriment for the organisers now that they had undertaken big investments to improve track safety, and in light of the fact that the competition declared themselves willing to withdraw from possible protests and that Porsche agrees to fix the flaps on the 908 as spoilers, the Porsche 917 is allowed to start with moveable flaps at Le Mans”.

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The Vic Elford / Richard Attwood Porsche 917L  (DNF: Postion 16)

Half a million people surge into the pine forests on race day, they come on foot, by car, by train and hitchhiking, a pilgrimage from all over Europe. They camp, occupy all the hotels, spend the night in the open air, playing guitar, fuelling fires, opening cans and beer bottles, romping with their girlfriends in the sand. Someone once said that not an to be underestimated percentage of the French nation has been fathered during this dusty garden party around a 24 hour race!   

The cars are aligned on the home straight for the Le Mans-start, side by side according to their practice times. The drivers are quite talkative, surprisingly eloquent. Vic Elford says: “You can’t imagine what strengths you have to mobilise to take this Porsche 917 to its limits for 20 laps”, and Jean Claude Killy, the former Jim Clark of ski slopes, driving a 1,500 cc Renault Alpine, claims: “Before such a race I am completely relaxed. After all it takes 24 hours. Before a ski race things were different. You have to be excited and tense to literally explode for the couple of seconds the race lasts”. Ing. Bott advises Stommelen and Elford: “Conserve the clutch”. They nod and forgot it immediately. “Conserve the brakes; you will be fast enough to stay out front anyway…”. They nod automatically. Ferrari team manager Franco Ghozzi opens a telegram sent by Enzo Ferrari. The Commendatore confirms that they will not protest against the latest CSI decision to legalise Porsche’s moveable flaps, but in the future the CSI should take care that decisions once taken will be observed. Otherwise Ferrari would withdraw from racing.

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The Vic Elford / Richard Attwood Porsche 917L  (DNF: Postion 16)

Chris Amon has the safety belts suspended with rubber bands like a corset, so he can slip into easily at the Le Mans-start. Four Porsches stand in front: Stommelen, Elford, Siffert and Rudi Lins will sprint towards their cars, fourth fastest practice time of the Lins/Kauhsen 908 was achieved by Siffert. Beside it crouches the red Ferrari 312P coupe Pedro Rodríguez will jump into, next to it stands Herrmann’s 908, followed by Amon’s Ferrari, then the 908 to be fired up by Udo Schuetz and the next car belongs to John Woolfe. “I will try to keep up with 3-litre Porsches at least”, he had just told Herbert Linge; an insane idea.

As the flag drops at 2 pm, the home straight resembles a canyon of people as the drivers sprint towards their cars as fast as they can. Only Jacky Ickx walks leisurely over the track, his personal protest against the Le Mans-start. Stommelen takes advantage of ‘pole position’; he is the first to arrive at the Dunlop-corner. Woolfe also gets away fine. He immediately tries to gain time during the first lap; it was to cost him his life… At the exit of the fast Maison Blanche S-bend taken by the top drivers at 240 kph, the 917 bangs against the fence because it had been going too fast too soon In a huge explosion the car is ripped into two, the engine compartment is torn off. A closely following Chris Amon’s Ferrari torpedoes a fuel tank lying in the middle of the road. Hundreds of thousands of people watch the black pillar of smoke raise into the grey afternoon sky. One of the last to get through Maison Blanche before it happened was Rudi Lins. “As I braked for the Ford-chicane, I noted that people were all pointing against the direction traffic. I knew something horrible had happened”. Rolf Stommelen, the leader, was the first to arrive at the scene of the accident in the second lap. Long in advance he had been warned by flag marshals. “I had to engage first gear; debris was shattered across the track, coated with white fire extinguisher foam”. Udo Schuetz recalls “an inferno of oil, steam, fire and excited people. Lins saw the Porsche still alight. John Woolfe was hospitalised by helicopter but was already dead. When Woolfe once won a minor club race at Snetterton with his Cobra and an adversary he hardly knew totalled his car, Woolfe, slowly cruised through the public, making a collection with his helmet for this man.

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Chris Amon pitted visibly shaken. Ashen-faced, his eyes watering from smoke, petrol fumes and tiny metal splinters and he seemed so haggard as if he had just survived a mine disaster. Nervous Ferrari personnel surrounded him, pushing everything else away. “I didn’t wear goggles. Therefore my eyebrows were scorched! John Woolfe’s accident posed the question as to whether they should sell such sophisticated cars like the Porsche 917 to amateur drivers. Woolfe had experience with bigger cars gained in 7-litre Cobra, Ford GT40 and Chevron-Repco, but he didn’t have a chance to familiarise with the Porsche 917 in Le Mans.   

A clear answer to the question should be prefixed with the following facts: The manufacturers are forced by the CSI regulations: a) to build a 5-litre Sports Cars, with chances of victory being higher than with a 3-litre Prototype in the long term, b) to issue a ready-to-use series of 25 examples, involving horrendous investments, c) to gross these investments by sales.

If Porsche releases for sale ten out of 25 917 built, and Ferrari issues a 5-litre 12-cylinder, of which let’s say 15 examples are being sold and now Lola and McLaren produce sports cars, the range of such racing sports cars costing DM 140,000 to 170,000 is wider than the contingent of qualified drivers capable of controlling such fast cars. If you eliminate the elite of Grand Prix and long distance works drivers, not many drivers capable of handling such projectiles remain. Good manufacturers have to sell though. They will sell to anybody paying cash, whilst they still prefer to give a car to John Woolfe than for instance to a Herbert von Karajan, eventually the car was built for the race track and not to boast. For so much money it is up to oneself if one will win or kill himself.


The David Hobbs/ Mike Hailwood GT40 leads car 17 and the Rolf Stommelen /Kurt Ahrens, Jr. Porsche 917

The Le Mans entry list is troubling though. You are facing many unqualified people, who only got a position on the grid because they can afford to drive any desired car. Therefore the question should be: Which standards should be applied so that inexperienced people in extremely fast cars are not allowed to start in a Le Mans 24 hour race? The answer ought to be much stricter ones than before.

When dusk set in – in June at Le Mans you have to wait until 9 pm – more has happened at Porsche than the worst pessimists would have guessed. The 917 of Stommelen/Ahrens is leaving a trail of oil smoke. Oil is leaking through a gasket on the underside of the crankcase, the oil is permanently sprayed onto the left rear wheel. They tried to seal the leak during a 24 minute stop. It didn’t work out completely. Only the unbelievably large oil reservoir and the relatively small oil consumption of the engine helped the ‘White Giant’ over the 25 lap distance after which oil may be topped up at the earliest. As early as 5:36 pm a gearbox oil line had chafed through on the leading Siffert/Redman-908. The gearbox withstood the loss of oil only until 5:57 pm, then it seized. Siffert’s comment: “Finally, a Sunday without a race…”

As early as 7:37 pm Kurt Ahrens had to note that the clutch of the 917 was in agony. Ahrens: ”Rolf has been pushing right from the start as if this were an airfield race! At the same time the Herrmann/Larrousse 908 parked in the pits because of a defect which hadn’t appeared since Zeltweg 1968 – a wheel bearing had to be changed. This car stood still for 39 minutes – and in the end they were only 3 seconds shy of victory. At 8:23 pm the clutch of the Stommelen/Ahrens 917 had to be adjusted. For the last time, they said. A little later Rico Steinemann held a protest against this car in his hands, posed because of the trail of oil smoke fogging the opponents’ windscreens. After ten hours, at midnight, Elford/Ahrens in the 917 were leading with 161 laps in front of Mitter/Schuetz (158 laps) and Lins/Kauhsen (157). Three laps behind was the Matra of Beltoise/Courage, another lap behind came the Ickx/Oliver Ford. The average was 217 kph. Wisps of fog came up and drifted across the track. One could see this in the lap times. All of a sudden no one was lapping in less than 4 minutes. In the Porsche-bus Gerhard Mitter ordered a juicy steak from Corena Piëch. Two 22- lap night stints night shift together with the fog had visibly sapped him. Every driver is slightly groggy after two such stints. Elford climbs out of the 917 each time as if he had done a leg of the Tour de France in the Pyrenees. Inside the 917 cockpit it is said to be hotter than in the 908 cheese cover. Kurt Ahrens has cut soles to shape for his shoes from asbestos because the pedals are heating-up like a flat-iron after a few laps. Mitter contemplates whilst chewing the steak: “24 hours are definitely too long. Occasionally you discover a lack of concentration – you are less wide awake when braking for the corners. And you un-learn driving during such endurance races, because you cannot drive at the limit as in a Formula-car race…” Since 11 pm they have been working on the Stommelen/Ahrens car, the clutch plate is being changed. Not until 1:48 am can Ahrens buckle up. The car is in last place. “For what reason do we drive at all? grumbles the man from Brunswick and jolts away into the night. Mitter is sleeping in the trailer as Ahrens arrives in the pits at 2:48 am, reporting a burning car on the Mulsanne Straight. They ask him where “In the kink”, he replies. Schuetz is missing. Might Schuetz be involved in this accident? Masten Gregory arrives in the pits by foot. By now the Chevrolet engine in Bonnier’s Lola has finally breathed it’s last after some difficult cylinder head surgery. Then they get confirmation: It is the Schuetz Porsche which burned out on the straight. Driver is unharmed, they say. I wake up Gerhard Mitter. He is quite drowsy. “Udo is OK”, I tell him, and Gerhard damns this Le Mans.

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Siffert and Redman talk handling

Towards 3:45 am Udo Schuetz appears in the dark corridor behind the pits. “That’s how a man looks like who just miraculously escaped death”, I thought. A sedative injection has dampened the shock; his face has been treated with tinctures and ointments. Udo’s eyes are bleary. A couple of mechanics stand in the corridor, Herbert Linge is leaning against the wall. Udo Schuetz speaks slowly; the sedation has lulled this bad memory: “Larrousse was following me for four laps. First I thought it was you”, he tells Hans Herrmann, who arrives as if on cue. “Just before the quick right-hander the car drew abreast of me and I see that Larrousse is at the wheel. He fell back and I felt an impact”. Schuetz pauses, then continues: “My car hit the guardrail in an acute angle. It started to play ping-pong, turned over. I saw flames and kicked out the door. I had not been buckled in. Then I jumped out, I ran into the forest and behind me the car exploded…”

Ten minutes later Larrousse’s Porsche is in the pits for refuelling. They inspect the car quickly. There should be traces if it hit the Schuetz car. The bodywork is dirty but there is no damage. Herrmann takes over. Larrousse and Schuetz make toward each other, Schuetz tells his version. Larrousse replies: “That’s not true. I was clearly behind you when you veered off the track…” It’s his word against Schuetz’.

At four in the morning an extremely exhausted Elford climbs out of the leading 917. He says a single word, meant for the car: “Perfect”. Elford/Ahrens sit on a five lap advantage over the Austro-German team of Lins/Kauhsen, they being three laps ahead of the Hobbs/Hailwood Ford. Herrmann/Larrousse have worked themselves up to sixth place. The Stommelen/Ahrens 917 is standing in the scrap yard of all Le Mans hopes – the paddock. On Sunday morning Ferrari also loses the Rodríguez/Piper car because of gearbox damage. Between four and five in the morning it had appeared in eighth place. The Scuderia Ferrari packs up its stuff. The mechanics remove the small mobile radios from their pockets which connected all members of the team, the red oil-stained Ferrari is stowed away in the transporter. Ferrari’s last win in Le Mans dates back four years. In 1965, Jochen Rindt/Masten Gregory drove a 275 LM of the American Racing Team to victory after all the works Ferraris had been eliminated by material defects in the brake discs.

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Sunday morning rolls past like honey. Any half hour turns into an hour. The only moment of tension – has the engine cover on Attwood’s car been closed? – dissipates after three laps. It has been closed otherwise it would have flown away. Watches tick, tired out people in the pits yawn. You feel chilly even though it is not cold. All of a sudden events come to a head. The end of the clutch on the Elford/Ahrens car is audible during shifting, you hear how it slips as the clutch housing is broken. Therefore, Attwood has to pit at 10:04 am. They try to adjust it but Attwood can hardly get under way. “We can write off this car, too”, say the faces of the Porsche people. That would mean Lins/Kauhsen take over the lead, this being only a matter of time anyway, as Attwood is carrying the 917 with 4:30 laps around the course. At 10:16 Lins hands over to Kauhsen. Willi is aware how Porsche is currently doing. He feels the responsibility suddenly resting on him. In secret he might fancy amongst the sparse Sunday morning traffic what he might do with the tidy sum should he win this race indeed – ah, rubbish, no means of winning yet. As Bott’s phrase goes: “Divine service isn’t over as long as they are singing”. In the pits, Lins is pleased now 3rd gear is working again. Ickx/Oliver are four laps behind. Under normal circumstances they cannot overcome this deficit. But circumstances don’t stay normal. After only one lap Kauhsen stops again. “Gear change problems” he reports, embarrassed. “Why, that’s impossible” reckons Lins. At 10:31 am the telephone rings in the Porsche pits, an old wooden box with a crank, their hotline to the signal pits at the end of the Mulsanne straight. “Kauhsen has stopped” reports Ing. Falk and hangs up. Piëch and Bott check the lap chart, Herrmann is on the same lap as the now-leading Ford of Ickx/Oliver. “What have we got to lose? they say. Then they show Herrmann the GREEN. While accelerating out of Mulsanne corner he notes the request that is hardly ever used at Porsche. Herrmann toughens his stance. 3:39, 3:39, 3:42, 3:40 are his lap times, the Ford does 3:43, 3:45, 3:46.

“What else could we do with the 917? muse Porsche’s engineers. They wonder, “Maybe we could stiffen the clutch? says Ing. Piëch, but the idea is rejected. At 10:58 Attwood finally gets out. Herrmann’s deficit on the Ford is 175 seconds. At 11:10 the Ford is being refuelled, John Wyer’s mechanics in their orange-coloured Gulf overalls change brake pads; all told this takes almost 3 minutes. Zooming past the parked Ford Herrmann gains the lead. Jacky Ickx is now at the wheel of the Ford, and Herrmann receives a 47 second advantage signal. The gap remained constant, but at 11:27 Herrmann had to refuel. Will they let him continue or will Larrousse relieve him? The Frenchman has performed splendidly so far, which hadn’t been expected in view of his practice times. But will he stand up to this nervous strain? Anyhow, Larrousse relieves Herrmann and after 47 seconds the car is back in the race. Ickx is in the lead again though. “Larrousse will regain these few seconds”, somebody says. At 11:31, 10 seconds separate Larrousse from Ickx. “Perhaps he will destroy the car? a voice asks. Obviously Larrousse is inferred, and Herrmann asks him to remember that the engine only revs to 7,800 instead of 8,200 rpm on the straight. At 12:09, two hours prior to the end of the race, Ickx leads by six seconds. At 12:36 Larrousse is in the Ford’s slipstream, by the next lap the Porsche is leading and Ickx has to head for the pits to refuel, which increases the Porsche’s advantage to 56 seconds. But, no more refuelling stops are intended for the Ford whereas the Porsche has to pit another time. Reporters and photographers surround the Porsche pit. The media scrum gets more intense. “Rico”, bellows a plump reporter. They surrender Steinemann to the hungry pack of journalists to avoid their intrusion into the pits. Outside Steinemann conducts a press conference in English-German-French. The back door of the pit is locked. Ing. Falk is busy with the slide rule. “Will there be enough petrol for the final dash? is the question. Hans Herrmann laughs subtly. This is his fifteenth time at Le Mans, but he has not yet experienced such a fight to the finish here. Hans is totally calm, almost apathetically calm as he dons his helmet. Ing. Bott is organising the final refuelling stop; any second can make or break victory. At 12:42 Larrousse is braking for the pits. Petrol seems to trickle into the tank like resin. 30 seconds, 35 seconds are up. The Ford appears in the chicane, Herrmann jumps into the cockpit. The Ford is at last being revved to the maximum, up to 6,500 and beyond that. The Porsche’s door is slammed, the fuel hose is being pulled off the filler neck. Herrmann catapults himself away, the Ford has already gone past so, Herrmann grabs for his slipstream. Fatal in the beginning, fascinating in the evening hours, lyrically floating during the night, rippling in the morning – Le Mans showed us all his colours. But now, during the final five quarters of an hour, it ends up what it has never been by this time: A race. (5593)   

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Herrmann looking relaxed

Hans Herrmann

John Frankenheimer, Hollywood’s creator of the movie “Grand Prix”, seemed to direct this Le Mans finale, the screenplay could come from Alfred Hitchcock. The duel which started in the final 78 minutes of the 1,440 minute long race was that of Ford versus Porsche. The duel of young daredevil Ickx, who reminds me of the English saying “a racing driver gets better and better, until he kills himself”, versus a man, who survived a complete Grand Prix-grid: Hans Herrmann. In 1952 he took up racing and in 1953 he was recruited by Porsche. He will never forget the 1954 Mille Miglia. A blind right-hand corner, they are running with 160 kph, a railroad crossing and the gates are closed. The train is approaching, puffing and blowing. It is all too late. Herrmann slaps on co-driver Herbert Linge’s helmet, both duck their heads, the Porsche Spyder slides underneath the gates. Hermann says today: “We were tongue-tied for a long time”. 1954: The big comeback of Mercedes-Benz. Three “Silver Arrows” with Fangio, Kling and Herrmann start at Reims. Hans does the fastest lap at 195 kph. In the Swiss Grand Prix the placings are Fangio – Gonzales – Herrmann. In the Italian Grand Prix Hans Herrmann finishes fourth. Today he says: “At that time I got wise that I had to put my heart and soul into it to stay in the business”. 1955: The Mille Miglia is being held again. Fangio, Moss, Kling und Herrmann pilot the Mercedes 300 SLR.

“Engine wise all of us were equal, each car had between 292 and 298 HP – an exciting prospect at that time”, says Herrmann. With a sound car he was lying behind Moss. “I could have won”, he thinks ever after. Worse was to come; with a thunderclap the loose fuel filler cap flew away, alcohol fuel poured into the cockpit.  One spark would have been enough… Shortly afterwards he had a serious accident with the Mercedes Formula 1-car in Monte Carlo: The brakes seized. Herrmann was with Borgward in 1957-58, then came the successful time at Porsche – overall winner at the Targa Florio with Bonnier and winner of the Sebring 12 Hours with Olivier Gendebien (1960). Between 1962 and 1965 Herrmann drove for Carlo Abarth, who sounds as pithy as his exhausts. He once said about Herrmann: “Pity that he is no longer as hungry as the young ones. If he were still hungry, he would win many more races. Then again he is winning many races because he drives gently, conserves the engine and thus always finishes”. Abarth perhaps characterises Hermann best: “There is no other racing driver in the whole world capable of driving a car so fast with such little risk”.

No one will be able to prove a driving error by Hans Herrmann, only mechanical problems got him into dangerous situations. In 1959 on the AVUS, the brakes of his BRM Grand Prix-car seized and at 200 kph the BRM nailed itself into the rain-sodden straw bales and somersaulted twice. At Porsche Herrmann never wrecked anything either, apart from the mishap in Imola, where he slipped off the road during a rain shower on dry tyres. Twice he faced broken wheels – but he dealt with such situations. He doesn’t grumble aloud at such mishaps. His good nature and calmness are proverbial, nothing can provoke him, something even his wife Madeleine finds provocative sometimes: “Boy, take a vase and drop it on the floor, do something at least…”, she begs her Hans. In endurance races he has the best fuel consumption as well as brake and tyre wear within the Porsche team. Almost dozy, he sits behind the wheel with his head tilted back. With regard to preparation of his car he is fussy. His seat adjustments can take up to 20 minutes; he detects the minutest variations on the car and is able to locate any noise without being a crafty technician. And he is the only driver within the Porsche team to be on familiar terms with test department manager Helmuth Bott. If roused, Hans can laugh at silly jokes, but he is not rated amongst early risers. Between races and test drives he applies himself to his café in downtown Stuttgart. The doors of the Herrmann’s magnificent villa in Maichingen are always open for guests.

Just 78 minutes prior to the end of the Le Mans 24 hour race this 41-year-old Swabian Hans Herrmann (born February 23, 1928), who is always seen off by his little son Dino with the words “Daddy, drive slowly”, saw himself virtually ordered to drive faster than he wanted in order to save a Pyrrhic victory for Porsche. Millions of Europeans watched this final dash at Le Mans spellbound. What they were unable to see was that after two laps the red brake warning light started to glow on the dashboard of Herrmann’s Porsche. “That means”, explained Herrmann, “you have to pit immediately during the next laps as the brake pads are worn out”. But Herrmann drove for a full final hour. At the beginning of the straight, in fourth and fifth gear, he was able to stay in the Ford’s slipstream, even push forward. As the engine remained more than 400 revolutions below its peak revs, Ickx pulled away from the Porsche on the final part of the straight. Herrmann used any tricks; he tried things he hadn’t tried since his early days. “Against a man driving as well as Ickx you can try such things without fearing to trigger a boomerang effect”, Herrmann later remarked. Side by side they dived into the corners, using any slipstreaming tricks on the straights. The Ford was fit as a fiddle still; it had been treated relatively conservatively for 23 hours after all. Of all cars – this could have been another Hitchcock idea – the Ickx-Herrmann duo closed the gap on the second John Wyer Ford, driven by Ickx’ stable mate Mike Hailwood, at 1:10 pm. Ickx went by without delay, Herrmann had to queue up. “Two Porsches versus one Ford would just as likely have tried to take advantage of this situation”, Herrmann admitted after the race. Ickx threatened to pull away, when Herrmann noted that “the Hailwood Ford was in better shape than Ickx’s”. Thus he hung his Porsche into Halewood’s slipstream “which tore my engine open to in excess of 8,000 revs! Hailwood unconsciously hauled Herrmann back to Ickx again. But Herrmann’s brakes got worse and worse. “What a pity”, Steinemann said, “Siffert should currently be driving against Ickx…”.

Twelve minutes prior to the end Hans still led at the start-finish line. There was nothing I could risk under braking, he regretted. The French audience is very anti-German minded. You only had to watch the spectators; if jubilation dominated, Ickx was leading. If the people stood stiff and silent, Herrmann was in front. In the end, they were jubilant. Jacky Ickx won, with only a drop left in his fuel tank, but with three seconds advantage. Then the surge of enthusiasm closed over the couple of cars, whose tired engines were switched off. Upon John Woolfe’s private Jaguar E-Type, which stood forlornly, coated by a thick layer of dust, a long-haired loafer had scribbled the French word “laver”. Wash it – a loafer, of all people!

resize_1969 24 Hours of LeMans, France, 1969. IckxOliver Gulf GT40 just yards ahead of a Porsche 908 with one lap to go

The margin at the finish!

Originally Published in issue 1 of AUTOMOBILSPORT

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