The Le Mans 24-hour auto race has ' a nasty way of chewing up strong men and big machines and spitting them out like so much tobacco juice. That is why it is usually won by cars that spring from factories rich in racing tradition, like Ferrari, or simply rich-rich, like Ford, companies capable of producing cars tough enough and indigestible enough to last the distance. Things were different in the west of France last week. In the first place, because of the riots of May and June, the race had been shifted from mid-June to late September. In the second place, it was won by a car that was put together in what VPs at the big glamour places probably would refer to as a seemingly abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, the particular town being London.
At 3 p.m. on Saturday, Mexico's short, dark and Buddha-calm Pedro Rodriguez scrambled into the seat of a blue and orange Ford GT40, designed by Ford but produced by JW Automotive Engineering Ltd. of Slough, Bucks. Twenty-four hours later, when co-driver Lucien Bianchi, his red hair still neat, his mustache trim, climbed out, the men and the car had thoroughly crushed what seemed to be the indomitable pursuit of a Le Mans title by the high-powered Porsche racing organization.
The low square car not only won the biggest single event in sports-car racing but in doing so also squeezed by Porsche to win for itself the International Manufacturers' Championship by a slim three points.
The duel between the snappy little Porsches, lethal as hornets, and the low-slung, friendly-looking Fords had been going on all year, a sort of miniaturized version of the big car Ford-Ferrari duels of 1965, '66 and '67. A series of decisions by Ford, by Ferrari and by the FIA had brought this about. Last year Ferrari decided to opt out of sports-car racing, after a multitude of very successful seasons, and concentrate on Grand Prix racing instead. The Ford Motor Company, figuring that the millions of dollars it had spent to win Le Mans in '66 and '67 had finally paid off, also dropped its sports-car program. Henry Ford II gave the Le Mans circuit $150,000 to build what is known as the Ford curve and said adieu. The curve, just short of the pit area, is designed to keep the cars from hurtling by the pits at 180 mph and thus make life slightly more bearable for the race mechanics. Ford's generosity also, and not incidentally, guaranteed the lap record of 3:23.6, set last year by Denis Hulme of New Zealand in a Ford Mark IV, would remain unbroken for years.
Had Ford and Ferrari not dropped out voluntarily they would have been forced to do so anyway because of new restrictions adopted last summer by the FIA. What the sport's international rulers did was legislate out of existence the big, powerful sports prototypes. As of this year any manufacturer wishing to go endurance racing with an engine over five liters must have built at least 500 copies of his car. A manufacturer who has produced 50 copies of his car can go with a five-liter engine, and the sports prototypes are limited to an engine of three liters.
"The idea," says John Wyer, the languid but astute Britisher who now heads the Ford GT40 show independent of Dearborn, "is presumably that a three-liter car without body restrictions can compete on even terms with the five-liter car that does have restrictions."
The events of 1968 have certainly borne this out. Porsche began the year by dominating the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours so thoroughly that it seemed they had a lock on the entire season and the manufacturers' championship. "We thought we'd be the ones to get off to a fast start," says Cambridge graduate John Horsman, Wyer's second-in-command at JW Automotive Engineering, now sole producer of the GT40. "We were all set, and it seemed that the rest would take a while getting sorted out. In fact, we thought we'd have to get off to a fast start to come out ahead on the year. We knew that when Porsche got their three-liter engines ready to replace the 2.2-liter ones they would be hard to beat. When they won in Florida things looked pretty black." The figuring was all wrong, although Porsche won the Targa Florio in Sicily and also won the Nurburgring 1,000. The Fords, meanwhile, won races in England, Italy, Belgium and at Watkins Glen in the U.S. That brought them to Le Mans in a virtual tie with Porsche.
Wyer accomplished all this in 1968 with only two cars and with very little help from Ford. In fact, Wyer's cars are really orphans of Ford's decision to go into sports-car racing in the first place and then ultimately to get out of it. Wyer was put in charge of developing the GT40 when Ford returned to racing in 1964. Then Ford decided to go with the bigger Mark Us and Mark IVs, and Wyer's pets were shuffled into second-string. In January 1967 Ford made Wyer an attractive offer, and he bought out all the assets of Ford Advanced Vehicles and the GT40 project. The cars are now owned by Gulf Oil, whose agencies take out the ads when the GT40s win races. Until midyear, Ford ignored the cars almost entirely.
"When we won at Watkins Glen things started heating up," says Wyer. "Jacque Passino, Ford's special vehicles manager, got on the phone and asked if there was anything they could do to help. They have helped, with some important engine parts."
The reason was obvious. Owned out of Dearborn or not, a win at Le Mans would redound greatly to Ford's credit and give Ford—not Gulf, not JW Automotive Engineering—the manufacturers' championship. And to win at Le Mans against the powerful Porsche team, Wyer needed all the help he could get.
"Above all, Le Mans is an engine breaker," Wyer said in his office 10 days before the race, as outside in the workshop mechanics were reassembling the three squat five-liter GT40s that would be racing in France, a third car having been added for the 24 Hours.
"There is no premium on roadholding there. It is moderately hard on brakes, chiefly because it is 24 hours long, and once every lap, at Mulsanne corner, the brakes have to get the car down from 200 mph to 40. But what really beats up the car is Mulsanne straight. The straight is so long that the engine is going at maximum power and load for just under a minute—say 55 seconds. No other circuit in the world has anything like this."
In the prerace time trials the factory Porsches finished one, two, three and seven, the fastest being a lap by Jo Siffert in car No. 31 in 3:35.4, over 140 mph. Wyer, however, was not too worried. The day before the race he took lunch at his hotel in the town of La Chartre-sur-le-Loire, 30 miles south of Le Mans, and looked at the trial times while mechanics worked on the cars in a Renault garage across the street.
"We just try to see what the car can handle comfortably," he said. "Porsche usually goes flat-out. Pushing just a little harder, we should be able to handle them."
The Porsche people, whose cars were garaged a few miles nearer Le Mans in the tiny village of Teloché, oozed Germanic confidence. "I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by these cars," said Ferdinand Piech, chief engineer and Porsche vice-president, as he gazed with benign pride at his four cars. He wore a wool hat with an Avis button reading "Wir geben uns mehr M√ºhe" stuck in it. "These cars will be very fast, but, better than that, they will all finish."
By race time, Porsche, with the four three-liter, 320-horsepower cars, and nine other privately owned 2.2-and two-liter starters, was heavily favored and the race began for them just as the season had in Florida. As the drivers faced their cars for that comic half sprint, half shuffle known as the Le Mans start, rain doused the course. At 3 p.m. when the starter dropped his flag, therefore, the rest of the field of 54 cars was left in a spray of rooster tails as the first three white Porsches snapped smartly away and into the first turn. The GT40s, blocked out by a surge of cars from behind, finally moved away in the middle of the pack. After one lap the factory-Porsches were running in front and after two laps had built up a one-minute lead over the leading Ford, back in seventh. That, despite some serious trouble in the Ford encampment, was the highpoint for German machinery.
3:46 p.m. Saturday: Brian Muir, in GT40 No. 11, skids into a sandbank coming off the Mulsanne straight and burns out his clutch trying to drive it off.
6:59 p.m. Saturday: It is dark. Jo Siffert, leading the race by a good five minutes in Porsche No. 31, breaks his gearbox in the Mulsanne straight and is out. Ford No. 9, driven by Rodriguez and Bianchi, goes into the lead.
8:45 p.m. Saturday: Ford No. 10, driven by Paul Hawkins and David Hobbs and exchanging the lead with No. 9, bursts its clutch, and the resulting one-hour, 48-minute pit stop puts it out of the running. It finally retires with an electrical breakdown.
11:55 p.m. Saturday: Rain is pelting, down and lap times have slowed from just under four minutes to five minutes and over. The No. 34 Porsche goes out with a ruptured engine, leaving only one factory Porsche in the chase, another having limped off shortly before 11 p.m.
Midnight: It is still raining hard. Rodriguez and Bianchi have gone into a 15-minute lead over a blue French Matra, a lead they continue to stretch out as dawn comes, the rain stops and the sun tries to come out. John Wyer, wrapped in a heavy blue parka, stares out at the cold rain. "They ought to chop this thing off after 1,000 kilometers," he grumbles.
3:00 p.m. Sunday: The sun is out and the victorious Ford pits are mobbed with cameramen, visitors and beautiful girls wearing tight black skirts and white pullovers that say "Bardahl" on them. Wyer lights up a cigar, a small one, and sips at a glass of brandy. Horsman puts away the stopwatch he has been clicking. "It's a bit tense when you have only one car left and still 16 hours left to drive it," he says. "But we never had to do a thing to it. It ran perfectly." Says Pedro Rodriguez, "It was like playing a piano."
3:23 p.m. Sunday: Herr Piech of Porsche, his wool hat and his "We Try Harder" button still stuck firmly atop his head, shakes hands with winning Race Manager David Yorke. "You were just better," he says.
Everyone, except maybe Porsche, which started the year so well and ended it so badly, seemed to be happy. Maybe even the Ford Motor Company of Dearborn, Mich, is happy, too.