In 1969, Porsche set out to dominate endurance racing and win the International Championship for Makes. After a hiccup at Sebring, Porsche’s mighty 908/2 steamrolled the competition, picking up consecutive wins at Brands Hatch, Monza, the Targa Florio, Spa-Francorchamps and the Nurburgring. If that weren’t enough, Porsche introduced the 908’s successor, the 917, midway through the season at Spa. While the 917’s 4.5 liter flat twelve made it the most powerful car on the grid (it was 20 mph faster than any of its competitors), it’s squirrelly handling, due to the lift generated by it’s long tail section, made it the bane of the Porsche works drivers. Despite the handling issues, two 917s, along with three 908s, were entered by the Porsche works team for Le Mans.
Ferrari’s works team, after taking the 1968 season off, returned to endurance racing with a full complement of their new 312Ps, powered by a version of their existing F1 engine. Matra, after a disastrous testing session with their 640 prototype left their number 1 driver, Henri Pescarolo badly burned, entered a 650 coupe, 630 spyder and two 630/650s. Meanwhile, John Wyer Racing entered only 2 Ford GT40s, one, piloted by Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver, was the car that won the race the prior year, the other, by David Hobbs and motorcycle racer, Mike “the Bike” Hailwood, was its sister car from the prior season. Neither car was expected to be competitive against the Porsche juggernaut.
The race began in a troubling fashion. Jacky Ickx, protesting the traditional Le Mans start, walked across the track and put on his safety belts, while the rest of the field roared off. Moments later, John Woolfe, driving the sole, privately entered Porsche 917, crashed at Maison Blanche and was killed instantly. The fuel tank from Woolfe’s car dislodged from its chassis on impact, and landed directly in the path of Chris Amon’s Ferrari. Unable to avoid the obstacle, Amon ran over the tank and it exploded; Fortunately, Amon was unhurt, but his badly burnt car was forced to retire.
The factory 917s leapt to a commanding early lead and appeared unbeatable, despite their troublesome handling. Soon, however, the Porsches began to drop. The Ahrens-Stommelen 917 develops an oil leak. The 908 Spyder, driven by Siffert and Redman, lost its gearbox. Schutz and Mitter’s 908 gets knocked out in a shunt. All the while, the battle tested GT40s ascend into the top 5. Still, the Vic Elford-Richard Attwood 917 maintained a tremendous lead over it’s nearest competitor, the Rudy Lins-Willy Kauhsen 908LH.
By mid-morning on Sunday, both of the leading Porsches developed transmission issues. The Lins-Kauhsen 908 fell by the wayside first, allowing Jacky Ickx’s Ford to leap into second place. While race leader Richard Attwood struggled with the 917’s increasingly recalcitrant gearbox, Ickx and Oliver were running 10 seconds per lap faster than the race leader, with the Hans Hermann-Gerard Larrousse 908 hot on the 2nd place Ford’s heels. At 11 am, on lap 327, the leading 917 succombed to its woes. Now the youngster, Ickx and the veteran Hermann would duel for the lead.
Ickx gave up the lead when he stopped for refueling, but only temporarily, as Hermann pitted to refuel and hand off to Gerard Larrousse. Larrousse would reel Ickx back in, closing the gap to just over 100 yards. For the last 2 hours of the race, the lead went back and forth between Jacky Ickx and the team of Hermann and Larrousse; While, one lap down, the Hobbs-Hailwood Ford and the Beltoise-Courage Matra swapped third and fourth place, running less than 20 seconds apart. In the end, Ickx, who walked to his car to start the race, beat Hans Hermann’s Porsche by a mere 395 feet. For Ford GT40 #1075, it was its second consecutive victory at Le Mans, a feat equaled by Woolf Barnato’s Bentley in 1929 and 30 and the Joest Porsche 962 in 1984 and 1985. For Jacky Ickx, it wouldn’t be his last trip to the top step at La Sarthe.
As usual, MQ has sourced an excellent documentary produced by Castrol Films, “La Ronde Infernale”, narrated by Maxwell Boyd.
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