With but an hour left in the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Sunday,
Mario Andretti stood in the pits, on the brink of something no
driver has ever accomplished. Andretti is 55, and he had waited
so long to complete the first grand slam of international motor
racing, and he had just yielded the cockpit of his
Courage-Porsche prototype to teammate Bob Wollek for the final
sprint toward history.
Andretti's Formula One world championship was long past (1978),
his Indianapolis 500 win even longer gone ('69) and his Daytona
500 victory still further back ('67). And never, in four
previous tries in the storied Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans, had
he been closer to winning than at this moment. This could set
the gloaming of his career aglow. A victory now would state his
case as certainly the most versatile, and probably the best,
racing driver of all time. Yet he stood there not tense, not
even excited, but serene -- somehow mesmerized.
It was out of his hands now. He had done all he could, driving
his stints through relentless rain that undulated between
drizzle and downpour all race long, through a foggy night and
into a second bleak day atypical of northwest France in June. In
this final hour Wollek had to make up more than a lap, or nearly
nine miles, on the leading McLaren. Moments before the driver
change Wollek had vowed, "I'm going to catch them." Upon being
told this, Andretti said softly, "Then he will."
If pure will could make it happen, they would win, these old
friends, this Italian-American and this Frenchman of 52, so late
in their hard-luck careers. For all their winning, both men
should have won more; Andretti won Indy only once in 29 tries
before retiring from Indy Cars last year. Wollek, a giant of
sports car racing, had been trying to win at Le Mans since 1968.
They had talked about it all week, had even flouted superstition
by carrying the number 13 on the car they codrove with
28-year-old Eric Helary of France, who won Le Mans in '93.
"He will," Andretti repeated, softly affirming Wollek's vow, and
even as he stood there, his mind drifted off somewhere. He
didn't say where, but it wasn't hard to figure, not after having
heard him earlier in the week. "Here, I reflect, I look back,"
he had said. "I say, 'How strong are the formative years!' I
Back to a refugee camp in Italy after World War II, where a
teenage boy kept his spirits alive by reading, in tattered
racing magazines, of the exploits of drivers. "I followed
Alberto Ascari, Juan-Manuel Fangio, Mike Hawthorn, Stirling
Moss.... They raced here, at Le Mans," Andretti said. "My heroes
raced here. That's all I need to say about this place."
He had come to America at 15, mastered American forms of racing,
followed his heart back to Europe for that world championship of
1978, gone back to American racing -- and now, after all that, had
returned to Le Mans and to this moment.
By their collective will, Andretti, Wollek and Helary had made
up six of the seven laps lost when Andretti luck had stung the
team in the fourth hour. Just before 8 p.m. on Saturday,
Andretti had been running second in the rain as the
Courage-Porsche threw up rooster tails of water.
But in the Porsche Curve, a sweeping turn, mud had been thrown
onto the track by another car's spin. As Andretti streaked up on
yet another racer, that vehicle slid in the mud. Trying to avoid
the mess, Andretti spun and hit a wall. Damage to bodywork,
wheels and suspension cost a half hour in the pits and made the
car handle precariously for the rest of the race. Yet through
the night, Andretti and his partners stormed back.
In the final hour, with Wollek struggling to cut into a deficit
of nearly four minutes, the residual sting of the early wreck
broke Andretti's trance. "There was no reason for that to
happen," he said. "I hardly even felt it in the cockpit. I
thought maybe I got away with a little body damage. But it bent
the wishbone [part of the suspension]...." He shook his head.
The battered Courage-Porsche simply could not carry out Wollek's
vow and provide the final, elusive jewel to Andretti's career.
McLaren driver Yannick Dalmas of France, finishing up for
teammates J.J. Lehto of Finland and Masanori Sekiya of Japan,
held off Wollek by three minutes and five seconds -- quite close
in a 24-hour race -- at the finish.
Yet afterward Andretti was still smiling serenely as he sat
among the three top-finishing teams. "Of all the drivers up
here, I think we three had the most fun," he said of his team.
"By having the problem early on, we had no choice but to go flat
Besides, Andretti said, "I plan to come back here next year. Oh,
As Andretti and friends took heart, British fans -- who appeared
to make up about a third of the crowd of 160,000 -- took to the
pits and the track in a mass celebration of the win by a
British-made McLaren, a victory that heralded something of a sea
change at Le Mans. Rather than being prototypes, the McLarens,
which finished first, third, fourth and fifth, were race-fitted
versions of road cars, vehicles that can be bought and driven by
the public, albeit at a price of more than $1 million. The
McLarens, the first road cars built by a branch of McLaren
International, the renowned Formula One constructor, became the
first marque to win in an inaugural appearance at Le Mans.
For a quarter century the darlings of Le Mans had been
thoroughbred prototypes (though the cars were in fact
forerunners of nothing suitable for highway use) that begat more
exotic prototypes, that moved ever further from the everyday
reality of the road.
Almost forgotten were the glorious battles of the 1960s between
the sporting Fords and Ferraris. In '67, A.J. Foyt and Dan
Gurney of the U.S. piloted a Ford GT40 Mark IV, which could be
driven legally through the streets to the track. Foyt, upon
first seeing Le Circuit Permanent de la Sarthe, pronounced it
"nothin' but a li'l ol' country road," infuriating the French to
the point that their journalists vowed that the wild Yanks would
run the car to death and could not possibly finish -- whereupon
Foyt and Gurney proceeded to win breezily, rowdily,
All of that had given way to the prototypes, with their
manta-ray silhouettes and exotic engines that propelled cars
down the Mulsanne Straight at 250 mph, so that if you watched
from the tavern just off the Mulsanne at midnight, the
headlights looked like huge tracer bullets and the sound was but
a split-second thump, like that of a mortar on a battlefield.
But by last weekend the pendulum had swung back to the spirit of
the 1960s. Cars of the Grand Touring class, race-fitted versions
of road cars, outnumbered prototypes 40 to 11 in the starting
Thus was this race a struggle between the dying prototype
contingent, led by Andretti, and the rising GT contingent, led
by Derek Bell of England, who at 53 has won eight 24-hour races
-- five at Le Mans and three at Daytona. Bell, driving with son
Justin and countryman Andy Wallace, led for nearly 11 hours on
Sunday. But transmission troubles that began at midday left the
Bell McLaren pitted for lengthy repairs just after 2 p.m.,
allowing the Dalmas-Lehto-Sekiya McLaren to take the lead for
keeps. The Bells and Wallace finished third.
All week Andretti and Bell had served as point-counterpoint,
Andretti expressing distaste for the emphasis on road cars, and
Bell expressing happy acceptance of the change, even though all
of his 24-hour wins had been in prototypes. Andretti denounced
the return to emphasis on street cars as "a half-fast
situation." But, said Bell, "the fans love it. They say, 'That's
a McLaren! I saw one on the street the other day in London!'
There's great romance in this for the public."
Officials of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, which sanctions Les
Vingt-Quatre Heures, reemphasized GT-class cars after a
three-year struggle with the Federation Internationale de
l'Automobile (FIA), the Paris-based supreme authority over all
the world's motor racing, save that in the United States. The
FIA wanted to stick with the prototypes, and ignoring FIA wishes
is rare outside North America. But then, there is nothing quite
like Le Mans.
Said Bell, "Who else in the world would, or could, think of
shutting eight miles of vital highway and then raising their
finger to the world at large? If this were America or England,
we'd have all the Green people and all the bloody animal-rights
people and the rest complaining. These guys just do it! And they
get the government to build new bloody roads for it! That's the
French. They're unbelievable."
The reemphasis on GT cars was not a frivolous decision by Le
Mans officials. The race had hovered near death because of its
dependence on prototypes in the early 1990s. Then, with Europe
in an economic recession along with the rest of the world,
manufacturers and racers became less inclined to field the
"In 1992 we had only 28 cars on the grid," Jean-Pierre Moreau, a
Le Mans official, says of an event that had traditionally
started 50 or more cars. "It was clear that we could not
continue in that way. We made proposals to include GT cars. We
received no response [from the FIA]."
So Le Mans declared itself free of world-championship rules,
and the FIA canceled the prototype series altogether after the
1992 season. Last weekend's race marked the triumph of a
three-year restructuring plan at Le Mans.
Andretti, though, was unmoved. Firmly, almost grimly, in the
week before the race, he noted that his heroes had driven
thoroughbred race cars. "They were calling them GT, or
whatever," he said, "but I'm telling you, they were
And so he fought what might be the last fight for thoroughbreds
at Le Mans, and he did it not just to crown his career with a
spectacular achievement but also because he remembered the
heroes who had lifted his boyhood spirit.
"Some people," said Wollek, "are lucky. Others are unlucky. I
think I am on the unlucky side." But his grin at Andretti, even
in defeat, showed how proud Wollek was to be there.
COLOR PHOTO:PASCAL RONDEAU/ALLSPORT Bell, in a new McLaren, led for nearly half the race before mechanical woes dropped him to a third-place finish. [Derek Bell driving racecar]
COLOR PHOTO:PASCAL RONDEAU/ALLSPORT In a gesture of defiance at their run of ill luck, Andretti and Wollek chose number 13 for their car. [high-speed photo of Mario Andretti and Bob Wollek's racecar during race]COLOR PHOTO:LANE STEWART Andretti got a quick window wash before resuming his ride; then, in the gloom of night, he yielded the cockpit to Wollek (above, left). [member of crew washing the visor of Mario Andretti's helmet]
COLOR PHOTO:PASCAL RONDEAU/ALLSPORT [see caption above--Bob Wollek getting into car as Mario Andretti gets out]