The greatest ever Le Mans 24 Hours finish

Adam Cooper

Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, Ford GT40, leads David Hobbs, Mike Hailwood, Ford GT40, Hans Herrmann, Gerard Larrousse, Porsche 908, and Rudi Lins, Willi Kauhsen, Porsche 908

Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, Ford GT40, leads David Hobbs, Mike Hailwood, Ford GT40, Hans Herrmann, Gerard Larrousse, Porsche 908, and Rudi Lins, Willi Kauhsen, Porsche 908 Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

The Fords took it easy during qualifying. Indeed Ickx's best time was some 15 seconds off Stommelen's pole with the 917, and he didn’t even bother to drive on the second day. It was a very relaxed approach…

When the race got underway on Saturday afternoon Ickx undertook a public protest against the continuing use of the traditional Le Mans start, which he considered dangerous. While everyone else sprinted across the track, the Belgian walked, and he made a point of carefully doing up his belts when he climbed aboard his blue and orange machine.

“We both protested the echelon start,” says Oliver. “His idea was to walk instead of run, but I remember the last few steps were a bit hurried. We had qualified quite near the front, so a few other guys had decided to take off when he was halfway across the track!

“You could never disagree with Jacky, he had fixed ideas in his mind. It was a good partnership, and I didn't argue with him. He was a bit of a superstar, but we worked well together, and we were the same size.”

A few minutes later, Ickx’s protest was validated in the most tragic way. British amateur John Woolfe, driving the only 917 to have made it into private hands, crashed fatally. Debris also accounted for Amon's Ferrari, halving the already weak Maranello challenge.

Meanwhile the works Porsches took up position at the head of the field, but the parade was reduced by one when Stommelen’s 917 dropped back with what turned out to be a terminal oil leak. There was more trouble after four hours when gearbox problems claimed leader Siffert’s 908. Still, the German marque had plenty of other cars left.

Ickx remained confident: “I alone refused to accept defeat. I had this unaccountable belief that the Porsches were going to disappear from the scene between the 20th and the 21st hour, and this boosted the team’s morale when I told them.”

Through the hours of darkness the Porsche squad showed further signs of weakness. The Kauhsen 908 lost third gear, and then Herrmann/Larrousse wasted 30 minutes after a front wheelbearing failure. Just after half distance the recovering Larrousse nudged Schutz's second placed 908 off the road at the Mulsanne kink, and the German had a miraculous escape.

Suddenly the pressure was really on Porsche. The mighty six-car line-up had been decimated, and only one car was still running to plan – the 917 of Attwood and Elford, which led easily from the transmission-troubled Kauhsen/Lins. A humble 13th after two hours, Ickx and Oliver were a comfortable third by dawn, but still unable to match the Porsches on pace.

Hans Herrmann, Porsche 908 ahead of Jacky Ickx, John Wyer Automotive Ford GT40

Hans Herrmann, Porsche 908 ahead of Jacky Ickx, John Wyer Automotive Ford GT40 Sutton Images

Sutton Images

The surviving 917 motored round and round in the lead, but with just three hours to go, bad luck struck. First it had a delay with gearbox problems, and then a few laps later Elford was forced to park up for good.

Team mate Kauhsen should have inherited the lead, but his 908 retired at the same time when its gearbox issues resulted in complete failure. It was the 21st hour, and Ickx’s prediction had come true… And thus the Gulf car moved serenely into the lead.

“That race was all to do with the team management,” says Oliver. “David Yorke and John Wyer ran the thing like clockwork. We just picked up in the pitstops; that's what won the race – reliability and pit work. The drivers didn't really count for much.”

The only surviving 908 was that of Herrmann/Larrousse, still on the same lap as the leading Ford despite its earlier delays. It was now ordered to go flat out.

And so for Ford the battle wasn’t quite won, and the final part of the race turned into a sensational game of cat-and-mouse, with the lead changing constantly. Herrmann had the advantage on the straights, while Ickx, who’d taken on new brake pads so that the GT40 was on top form for the final hours, had the more stable car when slowing for corner entry – and he could leave his braking very late…

Ickx discovered that by slipstreaming his rival all the way down the Mulsanne Straight, he could stay close enough to outbrake the Porsche from 200mph-plus at Mulsanne Corner – and was then able to keep ahead all the way back to the finish line.

But just in case he couldn’t manage to get past there on the decisive final lap, he had another trick up his sleeve. Several times he deliberately let the German stay ahead at Mulsanne, and rehearsed a slingshot through Maison Blanche and a final lunge into the Ford chicane before the checkered flag.

The victorious Ford GT40 of Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, had new brake pads for the final stint. They would prove crucial to the success.

The victorious Ford GT40 of Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, had new brake pads for the final stint. They would prove crucial to the success. Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

All this place-swapping made for spectacular viewing for spectators, who didn’t realise that Ickx was merely experimenting.

“Jacky always wanted to start and finish the races,” Oliver recalls. “They changed the lead two or three times a lap, as I remember.”

When the big moment came, Ickx duly snuck ahead at the end of Mulsanne and he thought he'd done it. However, there was no flag as he crossed the line with 15 seconds left on the ACO’s clock, and thus there was another desperate lap to run.

This time he eked out enough of a gap so that he was far enough in front of the Porsche at Mulsanne, so there was no need to switch to Plan B, and he hung on to win by less than 100 metres – and it meant that the very same chassis had won the race twice.

“What sticks in my mind after the finale which kept the crowd gasping are the 53 laps I drove in succession at practically my best practice speed,” said Ickx. “At the end of a 24 hour race, on a circuit which had become extremely slippery, and without ever having exceeded the authorised 6000rpm. It was a long time – three hours and 20 minutes under those conditions…”

It seemed inconceivable that the Porsche army had been beaten, but the men from Stuttgart would make up for it in years to come – considerably aided, ironically, by the driving services of Ickx.

Meanwhile the event helped to inspire Steve McQueen’s famous movie, which was made the following year – by which time Ickx had switched to Ferrari, and Wyer and Gulf had hooked up with Porsche. Ford’s glorious spell at the forefront of sportscar racing was over.

Ickx and Oliver won Sebring and Le Mans in ’69, but at least in the French enduro classic, Oliver credited the JWA management as being the prime cause of success.

Ickx and Oliver won Sebring and Le Mans in ’69, but at least in the French enduro classic, Oliver credited the JWA management as being the prime cause of success. Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Rainer W. Schlegelmilch