The inside story of the greatest Le Mans finish ever

The 1969 Le Mans 24 Hours was dramatic right to the very end. The legendary JW Automotive team manager David Yorke gave this account of the race in Autosport’s Le Mans Yearbook, published with the 10 June 1982 issue of the magazine…

The 1969 Le Mans 24 Hours was so close that it is indelibly written in the history of this classic motor race. It was also probably the finest race Jacky Ickx has ever driven, although he himself would say that his performance in the night in 1977 was better.

I was managing the Gulf-sponsored John Wyer team, with its two five-litre Ford GT40s. One of them – that driven by Jacky and Jackie Oliver – was chassis 1075, the 1968 Le Mans winner for Pedro Rodriguez/Lucien Bianchi.

All the drivers make the traditional running start, except for Jacky Ickx who walks across the track in protest

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Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, J. W. Automotive Engineering Ltd., Ford GT40, takes the chequered flag

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

David Yorke

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Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver’s and David Hobbs, Mike Hailwood’s Ford GT40s are worked on in the garage

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

Photo by: Sutton Images

Ranged against us were Porsche, then coming into real prominence, with the first 917s and the three-litre long-tailed 908s. We were off the pace of the best Porsches, but Le Mans is about reliability and tactics as well as speed.

Immediately after that race, perhaps in the euphoria of the moment, I said: “This is the 37th Grand Prix d’Endurance, and it will be another 37 years before you will see a closer finish.”

When the drama of the previous hours had drained from my mind, I knew that such a remark was rather stupid. Motor racing being a lottery, it could happen just as easily the next year. In fact, 12 more races have gone by with nothing like a repetition. So I am now only about two-thirds stupid…

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

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I am not a great believer in pre-race tactical plans, but for Le Mans I had a simple rule. Set in practice a lap time that is easy on the motor, transmission, brakes and tyres. Instill in your drivers to run that time, at least until dawn on Sunday. If you are then still in the race, you have another 12 hours to set about winning.

We were very fortunate to have set up a good rapport with an American company, Sylvania, who were specialists in car lighting. Apart from their superior ability in static focusing, which saved many laps of headlamp adjustment in practice, they modified our main beam headlamps to give even better straight line range. Perhaps more important was the improvement they made to our supplementary headlamps to give a very wide spread of light and excellent illumination of the apex of corners. Consequently, our initial planned lap time was the same, day or night!

Before the race I was constantly asked by international journalists as to our chances. They were rather sceptical when I forecast at best third or fourth place. Their thinking was influenced by our win the previous year with the same car and that Jacky was now to drive, and also our victory in the Sebring 12 Hours earlier in the year. My thinking was influenced by the tremendous opposition we faced from Ferrari, Matra and Porsche.

The German team most dearly wanted a win in this prestigious race, exemplified by their entry of two of the new 4.5-litre 917s and four three-litre 908s.

In my mind was the serious weight disadvantage of the GT40, now in its sixth year, although on this high-speed circuit, this was slightly ameliorated by the car’s excellent stability and its top speed of at least 210mph on the super-long Mulsanne Straight.

First practice justified my pessimism. Jacky achieved 3m37.5s, two whole seconds quicker than Rodriguez in 1968. But Rolf Stommelen at 3m22.9s in the Porsche 917 made our position academic. Consequently, Jacky and I agreed to forego practice for his car on Thursday so as to give the ‘mechs’ two whole days to do the best ever pre-race preparation.

French Police at the start of the race

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In those days, the Le Mans start was a dramatic affair. As the drivers took up position opposite their cars, echeloned in front of the pits, the hubbub from the vast crowd gradually softened. At about 30 seconds, an eerie silence prevailed.

At 1400 (two hours earlier than usual that year because of a French general election) the flag fell, and 44 of the 45 drivers hurled themselves across the road into their cars; David Hobbs in our second car was first to move. The 45th driver, Jacky Ickx, walked to his car and carefully secured his harness before moving.

With what was to happen in the next two and a half minutes this was fortuitous, but would he have done this if he had a premonition of where he would be 23 hours later? This was a personal protest by Jacky against the Le Mans starting procedure, which he considered unnecessarily dangerous.

The lead cars came through to complete the first lap, Porsche first to fifth. Hobbs was eighth, another two cars and then nothing. An ominous cloud of smoke rose above the trees beyond the chicane preceding the pits.

A British private entrant – John Woolf – had crashed just after White House corner. Debris from the accident subsequently eliminated Chris Amon’s Ferrari 312P. Jacky, if he had made a normal start, could have been involved, but his only penalty was to wait for the track to be cleared of debris.

Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, John Wyer Automotive Engineering Ltd, Ford GT40

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At the two-hour mark, Hobbs was 11th and Jacky 13th. Now the race settled down to what I considered was a boring but necessary progression.

Certainly, with our four drivers – Mike Hailwood and Hobbs, Oliver with Ickx – sticking to their planned lap times, we were soon well up on the leaderboard. At four hours, seventh and eighth, and at eight hours fourth and fifth. But this performance was mainly due to our opponents having major or minor technical ailments, whereas we were just running to schedule.

At around midnight, this air of apparent efficiency was disrupted. The Ickx/Oliver car had just been in for a scheduled stop and driver change, and we were sorting things out when in came Oliver again. When I asked him why, he replied that he had been signalled in.

I realised at once that our signalling crew out at Mulsanne had made a mistake, which was also due to an oversight on my part. I had failed to tell them that the stop had been completed, and they failed to notice the lengthened lap time, and signalled the car in again.

Oliver, unusually for him, worked himself up into a temper. When I told him curtly to go, he left the pit with an excess of revs, and a terrible smell of an overheated Ferodo clutch lining. I thought the worst. However, luck was with us and the clutch accepted the abuse.

Cars at night towards the Dunlop Bridge

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The night dragged on, our cars still running to schedule. At about 0600 on Sunday morning I had telephoned the pit signal and momentarily fallen asleep standing up by the phone on the back of the pit. I can remember now as clearly as the day that, on waking, the realisation came to me that we could win this race.

The Ickx/Oliver car was now third, albeit eight laps behind the race leader, the works Vic Elford/Richard Attwood 917. But I sensed that all was not well with this Porsche, as they cut their lap times and were actually running 10s slower than us. Second was a 908 driven by Rudi Lins/Willi Kauhsen, three laps ahead. But there were eight hours to go…

The immediate task was to plan our pitstops, but most important I wanted to make the best use of Jacky. Saying this is no denigration of Oliver, but in my opinion Jacky was then in the top three sportscar drivers of the world. The other two, Jo Siffert and Rodriguez, were in the race, but by now both were out due to mechanical failure.

The Le Mans regulations were strict and closely observed. A driver was limited to 14 hours, so we had to calculate how much unused time Jacky had. Somehow, even with a third of the race still to run, I had a premonition that the last few hours would be a real motor race. I wanted Jacky in the car for this period – and I always wanted him to have the best replaceables, tyres and brake pads.

Tyres were no problem. Le Mans is light in wear, and Firestone had the material to cope with our car weight and ultimate speed. We had just renewed the front brake pads and, with eight hours to run, my idea was for Jacky to run the last three, starting with new front pads so that he had the best possible equipment for a component that was going to be overworked.

#6 John Wyer Automotive Engineering Ltd, Ford GT40: Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver

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The drivers of both cars were now released of any restrictions and really started to race. The lead Porsche 917 had a substantial cushion on us, but I was keen to show them that if they had problems, as I suspected, any lengthy pitstop would put them in jeopardy.

Four hours later, with the position unchanged, I began to have second thoughts. Perhaps we had better ease up and settle for third and fifth. Then suddenly it all went our way. The leading 917 made a long stop, after which it was nearly a minute a lap slower than us. Meanwhile the second-placed 908 made a stop and, as it pulled away, was obviously suffering clutch slip. A few laps later, it failed to appear. With exactly three hours to go, the 917 was back in the pits for good: the gearbox casing was split.

Now the Ickx/Oliver car was in the lead from the only remaining Porsche, the 908 of Hans Herrmann/Gerard Larrousse that was on the same lap. Our second car, Hobbs/Hailwood, was third, hotly pursued by the Jean-Pierre Beltoise/Piers Courage Matra MS650 Spyder.

Very soon after 1100, I brought Oliver in for fuel and new front brake pads, and Jacky took over. As he left the pits, Herrmann in the 908 went by into the lead. A few minutes later, Herrmann came in for fuel and the position was reversed. Larrousse went up the pitroad as Jacky boomed by into the lead.

The vast crowd responded magnificently to this drama that was unfolding. Strangely, although there was a French driver in the Porsche, their cheers seemed to be reserved for Jacky. True, he is a French-speaking Belgian, but I had no idea that the French, like the British, tend to support the underdog.

Larrousse, not quite as experienced a race driver as Herrmann, managed to keep in contact with Jacky, and around 1230, when I brought Jacky in for the last refuel, the gap was about 5s. A few minutes later the Porsche came in for fuel and driver change. They were at rest a few seconds longer than us, but possibly they took on more fuel than we did.

There was nothing that we in the pits could do to influence the final result. I fed Jacky signals giving the time to run: it was superfluous really, because of the large clock overhanging the pitstraight.

#6 John Wyer Automotive Engineering Ltd, Ford GT40: Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Jacky was now driving way over prescribed limits, and the two car passed and repassed one an other on every lap. At the same time Hailwood was doing a similarly magnificent job keeping the Matra at bay. In this last hour and a half, with nothing left to do but converse on the telephone with my signal crew at Mulsanne, my stomach felt bottomless with anxiety.

Any sort of mechanical failure was possible as the result of the stress Jacky was having to put on the car to maintain his lead, but it was the brakes that worried me most. True, the ‘mechs’ had reported the front discs in good shape at the last pad change, but now my signal crew at Mulsanne were reporting that Jacky was regularly outbraking the far lighter 908 at the heaviest braking point of the circuit.

Ladies on the pitwall keeping track of the timings

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

As 1400 approached, another worry assailed me. Had we put enough fuel in? To save time at the last stop we had only put in enough fuel to run to the finish plus the slowing down lap. But this estimate was based on the consumption for Oliver’s last session, and Jacky had been far exceeding that performance. Certainly we added a safety margin, but had it been enough?

My anxiety reached a peak when Jacky, with Herrmann on his tail, crossed the finish line 15s before 1400. So, another eight miles was added to our fuel requirements. Unknown to me, the opposition were in a similar state of suspense. (We were to average 6.56mpg, winning the Index of Thermal Efficiency Award, with the Hobbs/Hailwood sister car runner-up!)

On the final lap my signal crew reported Jacky in front at Mulsanne. Almost immediately, tumultuous cheering broke out from the top rows of the grandstands. They could see the approach to the chicane before the pits, and I knew we had done it. Amid absolute pandemonium, Jacky crossed the line about 75 yards ahead of Herrmann.

#6 John Wyer Automotive Engineering Ltd, Ford GT40: Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Good old GT40 number 1075, repeating its 1968 victory for Rodriguez/Bianchi, added another 3100 miles of racing to its considerable total at an average speed of 129.4mph. And Hobbs and Hailwood held off the works Matra to finish third.

Now, absolutely drained of any physical or mental energy, I crossed over the track with John Horsman, our engineer, to escape the hordes of enthusiastic spectators.

Walter Hayes, Public Relations Director of Ford Europe, came across with a couple of bottles of champagne. He was over the moon, as well he might have been. For the second year running a semi-privately entered Ford had won the world’s greatest sportscar race, and this year with a finish that would go down in history. What a bonus to add, at no cost to the Ford Motor Company, to the previous Ford of America victories in this race!

This has been a very personal account of a great race. But it was a team effort. I feel it right to pay tribute to John Horsman for the support he gave me throughout the race, to John [Wyer] again and the six mechanics for their flawless preparation of our two cars and their superb pitwork.

Their knife-edge victory over Porsche had, for me, an amusing footnote. At the Sebring 12 Hours in March 1969 we had been approached by Porsche to run their works team in 1970 and 1971. We were understandably flattered. We went on to win the Sebring race with Ickx/Oliver and GT40/1075. The offer from Porsche was still under consideration by our sponsors Gulf Oil. More than anything, Porsche wanted to win Le Mans. Hence their entry of six cars. Although they obviously held us in high regard, it must have been rather galling to be beaten by a two-car team of six-year-old design cars!

A comparison of the power-to-weight ratios (no fuel) emphasises the fantastic performance by Jacky in the last three hours of this race. That of the Porsche 908 was at 4.27lb/bhp, and that of our Ford GT40 was 5.18lb/bhp.

Ickx/Oliver pitstop stats

Fuel stops: 17

Front brake pad changes: 4

Rear brake pad changes: 1

Front tyre changes: 3

Rear tyre changes: 2

Total time stationary: 27m11s

Hobbs/Hailwood pitstop stats

Fuel stops: 17

Front brake pad changes: 4

Rear brake pad changes: 1

Front tyre changes: 3

Rear tyre changes: 2

Total time stationary: 37m16s (including rear caliper balance pipe replaced, 7m42s)

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