By 1972, Graham Hill and Joakim Bonnier were nearing the end of their illustrious racing careers. Both men broke into the sport in the mid-1950’s; Bonnier excelled in sports cars, notching overall wins at Sebring, the Nurburgring, Reims, twice at Montlhery, and twice at the Targa Florio. Hill, while highly successful in British sports car events, didn’t enjoy that level of success in international sports car events (I’m sure those F1 championships, multiple Monaco GP victories and that Indy 500 win slowed him down). Ironically, in two of Hill’s major sport car victories, Bonnier was his co-driver.
As Le Mans approached, both drivers found themselves on different trajectories. Bonnier was reinvigorated after starting his own race team, Ecurie Bonnier, and held a hot hand that season. Hill had struggled since his 1969 accident at Watkins Glen, when he broke both legs. Henri Pescarolo, Matra’s #1 driver who would be paired with Hill at Le Mans, privately wondered what, if anything, the veteran had to offer.
With Ferrari’s all conquering 312PB skipping Le Mans, the top class would be a contest between the Matra 670s, specifically designed to win at Le Mans, Alfa Romeo’s new Tipo 33 TT3, and the Cosworth DFV powered Lola T280, entered by Ecurie Bonnier.
Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Chris Amon’s Matra sprinted out to an early lead, but then its V12 blew a cylinder head gasket at the beginning of the third lap. This shook the confidence of the other Matra drivers just enough to allow Bonnier’s Lola to jump to the front of the field. Bonnier was slowed temporarily by a deflating tire, and after the first pit stops, the two remaining Matras led the race again with François Cevert and Howard Ganley in front.
Even if the reliability of the Ford-Cosworth DFV was questionable in a 24-hour race, the Matra V-12s appeared just as fragile; So, Jo Bonnier decided to keep the pressure on. The Lolas were running fast as Bonnier and Gijs van Lennep briefly retook the lead, establishing a new lap record early in the evening. The second Lola of Hughes de Fierlant and Gerard Larrousse suffered a clutch failure late in the 4th hour. Meanwhile, Graham Hill reclaimed the lead for Matra around midnight, with Cevert’s car 2 minutes astern.
At dawn, Cevert and Ganley again swapped positions with Pescarolo and Hill’s Matra. Bonnier’s Lola T280 was still in the hunt with a surprisingly healthy DFV V8. During the night, the Bonnier-van Lennep Lola dropped to 8th due to a couple of unscheduled, tire damage related, pit stops; But the Lola quickly regained its form, and Bonnier & Co., now joined by Gerard Larrousse, were once again charging up the leader board toward the Matras as the sun rose. Just before 8:30 a.m., on the 213th lap, Bonnier’s Lola came upon the Ferrari 365 GTB4 of Florian Vetsch, just before Indianapolis curve. The witnesses are not entirely sure what Bonnier hit first, the Ferrari or the barrier, but the Lola went over the barrier and into the trees killing Bonnier instantly.
This tragedy left the Matras without any serious opposition. Despite an unscheduled pit stop, the car of Ganley and Cevert was still leading when Ganley got hit in the tail by a Chevrolet Corvette. This gave the lead back to Henri Pescarolo and Graham Hill. In the end, the Matra 670 “Short Tail” piloted by Pescarolo and Hill took first place, with Cevert and Ganley’s 670 “Long Tail” finishing second. This was the first victory for a French car at Le Mans since 1950. The victory made Graham Hill the first, and only driver to win the Triple Crown of the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix.
As usual MQ’s crack a/v
nerds squad found this excerpt from Michael Keyser’s outstanding documentary on the 1972 World Sportscar Championship, “The Speed Merchants“, regarding the events at La Sarthe. Our narrator today is Vic Elford.
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