1969 24 Hours of Le Mans
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In motorsport circles there is an old adage, "I remember when sex was safe and racing was dangerous".
This refers to a period of motorsport before the widespread use of computers in the sport, when looking for an 11 year old Escort meant seeking a Ford automobile and not a Google search query that would get you a ride in the back of a paddy wagon.
Parallel parked right in the middle of this era was the 1969 24 Hours of Le Mans. Won by Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver in a Ford GT40, the 37th running of the 24 hour event saw the final use of the traditional start where the drivers would run to their cars on the grid. Even with this display of visible physical exertion by the drivers, many in the general public contend that motorsport is not actually a sport. Sitting down for hours at a time merely makes a driver a glorified office worker, they say.
A racing driver has none of those liberties. A thought of a thought of hesitating and he is gone from this world. For fucking real.
Ten of the 43 drivers who participated in the 1969 Formula One season would die in accidents. If you were any good at maths in school, you would realise those are quite literally worse odds than a game of Russian roulette. All the drivers had to break the bank was a gear stick, steering wheel and an absolutely massive pair between their legs.
Those controlled a inconceivably large engine, strapped to a few wheels, as it fired along a thin strip of road at about three kilometres below light speed. After tap dancing on the bonnet of death's patrol car, the driver would tear off his goggles, wipe the grime off his brow and accept questions from the nubile French university students drawn to the countryside by the scream of vapor being rammed through sixty million valves.
If one of the students remarked "I bet you're hard on tyres," he would just smirk and say "I bet it fucking doesn't, love!" before the pair departed to his caravan at lap record pace.
Like most French towns, Le Mans has a long tradition as a place where young men could come to lose their lives while operating equipment provided to them by older gentlemen. The region was slightly late to this game, however, as the first 24 hour event was only held in 1923.
For 1969, the rules were modified to allow cars that had only sold 25 individual units to run in the sport class. This meant teams could build cars so utterly ridiculous that only 25 immensely rich people devoid of taste or sanity need buy them. Sadly, it would be several decades until the emergence of the rap star, so such people were difficult to come by.
The German Porsche team, completely unaccustomed to losing in France, basically threw it all in to win the overall victory in 1969. It was as if the head of Porsche AG, Ferdinand Piëch, simply walked into the design office, counted up on his fingers to ten, said "more cylinders than that" and dumped a suitcase full of Marks on the coffee table.
According to reports from the time, several designers were crushed to death by the weight of the money pushed into the 917 development program. Survivors were tasked with the construction of a "short-back" version fit for homologation by the F.I.A. A lucky few were simply told to practice their maniacal laughter.
The statistics of the finished 917 could not be more ridiculous if they were being read by a hunchback in a castle. The 800 kilogram car was good for 580 brake horsepower (bhp), if you have a calculator at hand, this is one horsepower per 1.37kg. That is like giving the strength of a stallion made to pull carts of goddamn solid gold around all day to a starving guinea pig and then expecting it to behave. You could multiply that hypothetical almost six hundred times over for the Porsche.
Constructing much of the transmission out of unconventional alloys was probably some fantastically hilarious joke in German. In English it translates as a dangerously unstable car. What was even less funny was the fact the outside of the car was, honestly, made of glass. Glass fibre, yes, but that doesn't change the fact all the panels on a machine that moved at over 250mph were chemically the same as the vase you broke at your grandmother's place when you were four.
In any case, the 4.5 litre 917 was faster than a game of pass the parcel at a terrorist training camp, and in the capable hands of Vic Elford and Richard Attwood the machine broke basically every record in town. Had it not been for the Francophone Matra team, the French government may have just handed control of the country to Porsche on the spot.
You are probably looking for a joke about how fast cars made by Mécanique Aviation Traction could run, so long as it was in the opposite direction.
The engineers behind the team were accustomed to placing 500bhp Cosworth engines in the ass of their F1 cars, so sticking something mean up your behind would be absolutely no problem.
Matra contacted Henri Pescarolo to assist with the 640 and he quickly agreed. Poor Henri had been boring himself wrestling polar bears or whatever drivers of that era did to pass the five long weekdays before an event, so piloting a prototype machine fresh from the mind of a designer who probably ought to have been committed was a godsend for the Frenchman. Pescarolo stuffed the head of the final bear up its lily white ass and hitched a ride to the circuit to help develop a car for the soon-to-be Formula One teams champion.
However, within a lap or so of April testing, the Matra was sticking out of a tree and Henri was badly burnt. We like to think Henri had just tried to ditch a post-accident cigarette in his trousers before the innkeeper saw him chatting up the owner's adult daughter.
Having the vehicle and driver reduced to their base elements was a serious setback for the team, and the 640 was consigned to history as the car that looks most awesomely like a rocket from a cartoon.
Ferrari returned to Le Mans after sitting out 1968 in protest of new regulations. Rather than protesting in 1969, Ferrari would simply ignore rules when it suited them, a policy that has served the team well ever since.
Following classic Ferrari tactics, Scuderia Ferrari fielded two 312P models in the 24 hour event. The first car was given the aim of winning, while the second car was to basically be the bitch of the first. In actuality Ferrari had a decent chance of overall victory, as the 3 litre 312P was quite agile and easy to control. I suppose you could say it was the underage call girl to the Silvio Berlusconi of the Porsche.
Finally, Ford did basically nothing prior to the race. When called for testing, which consisted of wheeling last years winning GT40 out of the garage and nodding, Ickx failed to show up. The boss at John Wyer Engineering accused him of skiving off to play golf. Ickx denied these allegations, and said he had the fish to prove it.
Forty-five cars started the race on June 14, 1969. Not one of the 90 drivers claimed to be a princess, there was no goddamn turtle to patronize them from a cloud when they went the wrong way and if a driver claimed to find a short cut he was just an idiot who had driven onto the Bugatti configuration of the racetrack.
If you wanted to pass a car, you couldn't go herp derp bananas, it meant literally driving faster than someone who spent every waking hour straddling a screaming box of pistons as he tried to coax another kilometre-per-hour to add to his several hundred strong collection.
While keeping a car on a glass smooth stretch of road at those speeds, gravity is sweating harder than a snowman in a yard full of carrots and scarves. Without the downforce created by aerodynamic aids Back to the Future could eat a dick, because the only thing standing between a sports prototype and sustained flight was a solid gust of wind.
Also, slamming into a wall was simply a wet dream for drivers at this stage. If one was a millionth of a second late on the brakes while weaving between churches and barbed wire fences, they would atomize themselves, any witches prone to living near notable stretches of road and the annoying little folk known to sing "ding dong" in celebration.
Oh yeah, and the drivers were doing this at night, because seeing more than three feet in front of yourself is for suckers. If ever there was a need for straight jackets it was for the men who started this particular race at 2 pm on a Sunday.
Case in point was the first lap of the 1969 race. John Woolfe was a gentleman driver, a term used to refer to men who built their own goddamn cars from the ground up. Before the 24 hour event, Woolfe apparently became tired of lego on hard mode and bought one of the 917 units from the Porsche team. Vic Elford described "....a kind of moral mistake by Porsche in selling such a monster to Mr. Woolfe," in the sense that giving a car that had caused innumerable hours of trouble to the professional Porsche test pilots to someone as inexperienced as Woolfe was as appropriate as wearing an I'm with stupid shirt while working as a carer for the mentally disabled.
Tragically Woolfe was killed in a fiery accident within minutes of the start.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the full fuel tank was ejected from the destroyed 917 and landed beneath the Ferrari of Chris Amon. Where it promptly exploded. To clarify, a full fuel tank exploded beneath his car and Amon still tried to drive the 312P back to the pits to get it fixed. Yes, that sound you heard while reading the last sentence was Bruce Willis shitting himself. It appears the fiery car crashes in action films that people make fun of for being implausibly unrealistic, aren't actually realistic enough for Le Mans in the late 60s.
After seeing one 917 utterly destroyed in a manner that truly raped every 80s blockbuster, the other Porsche drivers - Elford and Attwood - promptly decided to stop.
...To stop fucking about.
Elford and Attwood delivered 21 hours of absolute domination. Throughout the night the pair averaged over 132mph through fog, and by morning the pair held a five-lap lead. The rate car #12 was going, Vic and Richard would have won, gone bald and be collecting their pension at the post office before the other drivers finished.
Sadly the clutch disagreed with how the two Britons murdered the lap record, and the gearbox decided to spill its shit all over the pitlane with 3 hours left to run. This let the GT40 of Ickx into the lead, with the Porsche longtail 908 of Hans Herrmann and Gerard Larousse jammed up his tailpipe in a manner familiar to those who watch certain kinds of French films.
We think you might like to know that a simple 5,000 kilometres of non stop driving was not quite hard enough for Ickx. Jacky deliberately started dead last behind 44 others so as to do up his belts tightly, because not being strapped in correctly wasn't pimp enough for the Belgian's high standards of bling. The man just swaggered up to his car, watched the other four dozen drivers do 0 to 100 in 2.5 seconds, shook his head and then cracked on his harness. We can't say if this was necessary because his seat was made of diamonds and naked supermodels or not, but within the day he was schooling the rest of the field on badass from right at the front of the class.
Thanks to a fortunate pit stop, the German car sailed to the lead. Indeed, like the Irish police in search of an armed robber, the 908 drivers would block all the exits, and Ickx would just escape through the entrance. Then the Porsche would use its superior power to pull the gap back, and the scenario would repeat itself.
There were so many passes in the final hours of the race that the scoreboard exploded and the arms of the team statisticians fell off. Finally, Ickx pulled the decisive move with little more than a few hundred metres to the line and won by a margin that would make a bee's dick look like a convincing penis enlargement advertisement. In recognition of the great finish, Murray Walker apparently delivered a record 24 seconds of coherent commentary. Walker has never repeated the feat.
In total, only 14 cars were strong enough lumps of metal to be classified after the 372 laps. The 14 were classified as Autobots and promptly defeated all the evil in France. Actually it was even better than that. Instead of inspiring a film franchise with Shia LaBeouf, the 1969 race provided the impetus for Steve McQueen's feature film Le Mans.
You may remember McQueen from such escapes as The Great Escape. After portraying a group of prisoners who tunneled their way out of a German-run POW camp using only cutlery, the finish of the 1969 race was the single thing in existence that McQueen could find more badass to re-enact.
To celebrate his first race victory Ickx crashed another Porsche on the way home, simply because the Belgian felt he hadn't quite stuck it to the Germans enough already. Essentially the vast development programs of Porsche and Matra had failed dismally, while the Ford approach of doing practically nothing but looking cool handed them victory.
Or buy American made.
Wait that can't be right?
Yeah, it isn't.
Porsche was allowed to deny the existence of the 1969 race, and the official explanation given by Piëch is that the team had instead been invading Poland on that weekend. For once the Germans were actually successful a second time around, and in 1970 the 917 absolutely annihilated the Le Mans field.
Porsche then totally hulked out and sent a 1000 brake horsepower version of the 917 to the 1970 American CANAM series, with the sole goal of making some bald eagles cry. The following year, Porsche sent a 1500 brake horsepower model across the Atlantic. The organising body then banned them for basically trying to pass off the Saturn V rocket as a production car.
So I guess the actual lesson from the 1969 race is that people who say "Life is short..." are idiots.
I mean, name anything a person can do that is longer?