By Maitland Cook
La Chartre sur le Loir
Sitting on the terrace of the Hotel de France with a large glass of crisp ‘Jasnieres’ I reflected not only on the last 24 hours of excitement of the Le Mans Race, but also on the last fifty years. For it was then in 1968 that the Gulf sponsored JW Automotive Engineering, and Ford GT40 won the race and by so doing, also the Sports Car World Championship; I was lucky enough to work for the team from 1967 through 1971.
The world was a very different place in those far off days…. surprising as it may seem today, Britain was trying to join the Common Market, France was mired in civil unrest with strikes, protests and student riots bringing the country to its knees. The internal problems were so severe that the race was postponed from its traditional June date to the last weekend in September. The reliability of the cars in that era was fragile at best and always the first aim was to actually finish, so the extra 4 hours of darkness was a major consideration and put extra stress on the electrics. The postponement also meant that this would be the final round of the Sports’ Car Championship, with Ford and Porsche balanced evenly to win depending on the result.
Saturday 28th September dawned cold and wet, and the showers continued all through the day culminating in a heavy burst of rain just before the start, necessitating a tyre change to wet weather treads. The traditional off at 16.00 was brought forward by one hour to reduce the night time driving. From the start the Porsches lead with the three Gulf cars in 5th, 6th, and 7th positions. The team had entered a third car for this race hoping to bolster its chances. This however proved a futile exercise as the car was dumped into the sand banks at Mulsanne after only 12 laps; the hapless driver spending three hours trying to dig it out. His further attempts destroyed the clutch and the car was retired after just 3 hours of racing. Porsche had some mechanical problems so that by 21.00 after six hours, or a quarter distance the two Fords were in first and second positions. The comfortable position did not last as the clutch in the second car failed and after 2 hours delay when the car finally re-entered the fray the engine blew, and it also had to be retired. At midnight the sole remaining Ford, driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi, was leading, but with two car failures victory seemed far away, especially as the rain started to fall in earnest at 02.30a.m. and continued throughout the night. It did not stop until after 07.00 in the morning. Thanks to a superb stint of wet weather driving by Rodriguez, the car opened up a lead of 7 laps by the time the rain stopped. It began the long journey to victory slowing down to help the reliability. The only very anxious moments being when Lucien Bianchi, had to pass the burning wreck of his brother Mauro’s car. For five laps he had to endure this terrible tension before our pit crew confirmed his brother was alive. However the burns Mauro received that day ended his racing career. In the end the Car won by 5 laps and by so doing also won the Championship.
Gulf Oil, the sponsors organised a celebration for this fiftieth anniversary at the hotel which was attended by 4 of the original team members, sadly neither of the winning drivers survived their racing careers, both victims of a different era of safety.
A complex feeling of mixed emotions, happiness, satisfaction, and sadness enveloped me as I ordered my second large glass.