The plan for Le Mans was to run the engine that we'd used at the Targa and the Nürburgring in the first practice session, then change to the fresh engine for qualifying and the race. It was with both surprise and delight that Jürgen announced at dinner that evening that he had arranged for the loan of an engine from the factory. There was some question as to whether the bearings in the normal 2.5 motors would go the distance. The factory motor was 2.5 liters, but had a shorter stroke than the spare we'd brought and was therefore thought to be more reliable. It was through Jurgen that we had also obtained an entry for the race itself, the concession being that the car had to be entered under the name of Louis Meznarie, the owner of a local garage, and one of our co-drivers had to be Frenchman, Sylvan Garrant. So with the car having been fully prepared by Hans, we headed for France with high hopes.
I'd been to Le Mans in both 1970 and 1971 to take photographs for the book I was working on, so I was intimately familiar with the circuit itself having traipsed from one end to the other shooting every curve and corner. This time around, however, I was to be a participant, and the experience would be decidedly different.
In 1970 I'd been a member of David Piper's 917 team and had stayed with them at the Hotel de la Cane in a small village called Sceaux sur Huisne which was on the main highway between Chartes and Le Mans. It was a quaint little place that had a garage on the grounds, so I'd made arrangements earlier in the year for both the race team and the film crew to stay there, the film crew having reassembled with two valuable additions, Peter Samuelson and Jean Pierre Avice.
Peter was a young Englishman whose family owned Samuelson's, a London film rental and production house, and Jean Pierre was a Frenchman who had grown up in Le Mans. Together they'd handled pre-production for the French portion of the shoot, Jean Pierre having worked on Steve McQueen's film, Le Mans, two years earlier. Shortly after meeting him, he related the story of getting a call from the police in the middle of the night during the production with the news that they'd arrested one of the mechanics who was working on the film. The mechanic had gotten quite drunk at a local disco and decided to impress a girl he'd picked up by taking her for a spin in one of the Ferrari 512s that was being used in the movie. On arriving at the hotel, Peter and Jean Pierre gave each of the film and race crew a packet of materials that would come in handy in the event they ran into problems, not the least of which was the name and home phone number of the chief of police, who after the Le Mans shoot had become a friend of Jean Pierre's.
The tales of going through tech inspection, or scrutineering, at Le Mans are legendary, the exercise being more one of ceremony than function. It would seem that the members of the ACO (Automobile club de l'Ouest), the organizing body at Le Mans, who are in charge of deciding who races and who doesn't, and under what conditions, spend the entire year leading up to the event in eager anticipation of jerking the chains of competitors who have never experienced nitpicking in the Gallic tradition. Luckily, with Jean Pierre at the helm, we were able to communicate with the ACO officials, and technically being a French entry, we sailed through tech in less than an hour.
Because much of the eight-mile Le Mans circuit consists of public roads, which are closed for practice and the race, all sessions start late in the afternoon and continue into the early evening. I'd met our French driver, Sylvan Garrant, at scrutineering, and he seemed to be a nice enough fellow; tall and slightly balding with a word or two of English in his vocabulary. My knowledge of French was just as limited, but Jürgen spoke it fairly fluently, so we were able to communicate in a round-about way. Once out on the track in the first practice session, it was less than a minute before I was headed down the famous Mulsanne Straight.
Because of it's sheer length (over 3 miles) and the many high-speed tales that are associated with it, this stretch of road had become bigger than life in my mind. I'd photographed it from one end to the other and driven up and down it in a street car, but now I was strapped into a race car with nothing but an unending ribbon of asphalt ahead of me. I'd driven at Daytona several times in 1970 and 1971, so I was familiar with sustained high speed in a 911, but still the first time down the Mulsanne, it seemed to go on forever.
The notorious right-hand kink toward the end, which had hardly been noticeable in a street car, suddenly became an actual curve. Although there was a fair amount of runoff area beyond the shoulders of the road, the twin-tiered Armco barriers lining the straight looked as if they could easily launch a car into the thick woods beyond if struck at the wrong angle. At the end of the Mulsanne the track made a sharp 90 degree turn past the signaling boxes before heading back in the direction of the pits.
There were two more long straights connected by fast sweeping right-handers, then the track took a fairly severe right-hand dive into the slower left-hand Indianapolis. A short chute led to the equally slow Arnage corner, beyond which another straight led to what in years past had been the infamous right-left-right flick known as White House. This section of track had undergone extensive redesign since the 1971 race, White House having been eliminated. In its place were a series of tricky 3rd and 4th gear right and left hand off-camber sweepers, connected by short straights. The Ford Chicane at the head of the pit straight, taken in 2nd gear, led to the run past the pits and a fast uphill right-hand sweeper. After cresting the rise under the Dunlop bridge, the track dove down to the left and right "esses", then on to the tight right-hand Tertre Rouge corner and the downhill shute that put you back onto the Mulsanne, or Les Hunaudières, as the straight is actually known.
My first impression of the track was how smooth its surface was, there being barely a bump to be found along its entire 8.47 mile length. Apart from holding on for dear life and gritting your teeth down the straight, learning the circuit seemed like child's play after the Targa and Nurburgring. After several laps it was apparent that the new section of off-camber sweepers was going to be the most difficult section to deal with. If you didn't get the first one right, you were set up wrong for the next one, and each one after.
Although Ferrari had backed out of the race at the last moment for fear of besmirching their perfect record, the powerful Matra team with the resources of the French government behind it was here in force, three 670s and one 660 spyder having been entered for a multinational team of drivers. Alfa had three long-tail cars, and Jo Bonnier two Lola T-280s with detuned Ford DFV engines. Rounding out the cars believed to have an outside chance for an overall win was a longtail 908 coupe rented from the Siffert museum and entered by Reinhold Jost. The rest of the field consisted of 908 spyders, a 910, a 907, several Ligiers, and a healthy dose of 2-liter prototypes and sedans, among them nine Ferrari 365 GTBs and seven 911s, ours included.
Jean Pierre had received permission from the ACO for us to put cameras on cars during the practice sessions, and in addition to our 911, we got footage from three other prototypes, including one of Jo Bonnier's Lola's. We'd rented a helicopter with a special anti-vibration Tyler mount to get some aerial shots, and also had a 1,000mm lens on hand which we intended to use for shots down the Mulsanne straight. One of the trucks the crew was using was to be driven through the forest to the kink in the straight, giving us a platform from which we hoped to get some dramatic long lens shots of the start. Jean Pierre had also arranged for two gendarmes on motorcycles to be at our disposal throughout the race so our camera crews could go anywhere they wanted unimpeded.
The day of the race dawned sunny, but the weather forecast called for intermittent showers starting early that evening. The late afternoon start time at Le Mans gave us plenty of time to get to the track, and once there, ample opportunity for the pre-race jitters to build. I'd elected to start, Jürgen would take over next, and our French co-driver, Sylvan Garant, would follow. Promptly at 4 P.M. we were waved away on the pace lap, which was anything but that. We'd qualified 44th out of 55 cars in the race, and by the time I got around to the Mulsanne the cars ahead had strung out far ahead and for all intents and purposes we were racing. By the time I crossed the start-finish line, the rest of the field up front was well away.
Thinking back twenty-three years, I can't recall anything dramatic that happened during the first two hours. We were one of the slower cars in the race, and consequentially, the Matras, Alfas, Lolas, etc. seemed to constantly be passing us. The etiquette I adopted on the Mulsanne was to stick in the right lane and hope I didn't arrive at the right-hand kink at the same moment as a faster car. If this happened, it took a concerted effort to cut the curve short and avoid drifting across to the left side of the track. Although I hadn't been conscious of passing many cars, by the time I turned the wheel over to Jürgen we'd moved up to 32nd place.
It was just about this time that the first rain shower of the evening blew through and Jurgen pitted for rain tires. As I ate a Grand Marnier crepe and watched the cars on the track throw up rooster tails of spray as they sped by, I knew I'd probably have the unenviable opportunity of driving at Le Mans in the rain. Thankfully the English crew from Firestone had hand-grooved several sets of our slicks into what they promised would be "demon" rain tires. We had a two way radio in the car for the first time which worked sporadically due to the length of the track, and each time he passed the pits Jürgen reported in that all was well. Sylvan took over, and two hours later when he handed the car back to me, also reported that there were no problems. The rain had stopped, but the track was still wet, so we changed to intermediate tires. As is the case with most 24 hour races, there was little chance of getting any real sleep. We had a small caravan back in the paddock and with three drivers had four hours off between stints. When I wasn't behind the wheel, I rested nervously and perhaps caught an odd wink or two during the night, but never really slept.
In the early morning hours, the notorious ground fog I'd heard so much about reared its ugly head. Storming down the Mulsanne I'd suddenly rush into a patch, not knowing whether it was ten feet deep or a quarter mile. Each lap it would move, so I never knew if it was the same patch or a different one. At some point I'd have to decide whether to lift, and invariably when I did, the fog would clear, leaving me wondering if discretion really was the better part of valor.
At around 8:30 the next morning we were still running strong, albeit in 25th place, and I was due to take over. During the night we'd gotten out of sequence and Jürgen was in the car when it pitted. On exiting the car he told me that there had been an accident on the far side of the course and to be careful as there was debris on the track. When I arrived at the second of the two fast sweepers after the Mulsanne corner, course marshals were strung out along the Armco barriers furiously waving yellow flags. As I slowed I saw a set of long skid marks that led to the blackened hulk of a Ferrari GTB, that was up against the guardrail smoldering. The next time around, I noticed pieces of yellow fiberglass strewn along the left hand Armco, but no sign of another car anywhere.
It was only after the race that I learned Jo Bonnier, in one of the yellow Lolas with a Ford DFV, had been the other car involved. According to Vic Elford, who'd been directly behind him in one of the Alfas at the time of the accident, Jo had pulled to the inside on the entrance to the sweeper to pass the Ferrari driven by Frenchman Florian Vetsch. Vetsch hadn't seen Jo and had closed the door, clipping the front end of the Lola and sending it spinning into the Armco, which rather than stopping the car, had launched it into the thick forest. At a speed of 150 miles per hour plus, poor Bonnier never had a chance and had been killed instantly. Vic Elford had pulled to the side of the road to try and help, but there was nothing he could do. After the race Jean Pierre managed to get a copy of the French TV footage shot by a cameraman who happened to be in the area, which we ultimately included in our film. Unaware of what had happened at the time, I continued on.
Now over the radio I learned that we were just behind the only other 911 still remaining in the race. A short time later I spotted the car on the side of the road halfway down the Mulsanne with its engine lid up. This good fortune was short-lived, however, because toward the end of my stint, while negotiating the tricky new section of off-camber sweepers, I managed to put my right-side tires in the marbles. Before I could recover the car understeered off the track, sliding across the grass and into the Armco barrier.
To say I was chagrined was a gross understatement. I'd made a mistake, no matter how slight, and from the force of the impact I was certain our race was finished. Luckily the pits were only a short distance away and I was able to limp in with the right front tire flat. Once out of the car, I saw that the damage was superficial and not as severe as it had felt. In short order, Sylvan was in the car and away.
I had two more turns behind the wheel, and each time I paid extra special attention to the line at the place I'd gone off earlier. I obviously hadn't learned my lesson, because two years later, driving a 3-liter Carrera in the 1974 race, I did the exact same thing, at almost the exact same time, at almost the exact same place! Luckily, it was once again superficial damage and we were able to finish.
I was behind the wheel when the checkered flag fell at 4 P.M., and in spite of my earlier off-track excursion, the last few laps were extremely satisfying. The track workers had left their posts and now lined the track as we passed with their flags waving. An enthusiastic group of Americans had been camping just after the Indianapolis turn and waved the Stars and Stripes wildly when I passed. As I pulled into the impound area, the heavens literally opened up and the rain poured down in torrents. The Matra of Graham Hill and Henri Pescarolo finished 1st, followed by a similar car driven by Francois Cevert and Howden Ganley. We ended up in 13th place, having covered 2,413.19 miles at an average speed of 100.54 miles per hour, and due to the fact (I'm convinced) that we were running the short-stroke 2.5 factory engine, we were the only 911 to finish.