Thank Frankel it's Friday: Le Mans 1965, the weirdest race Le Mans ever held

13th June 2019
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

As you will doubtless be aware, the Le Mans 24 Hours starts tomorrow. So here’s a lesser known story about one of the more extraordinary wins achieved in the race over its 96-year history.

It concerns a winning car with no hope of winning, an old driver at the end of his career and a youngster at the start, neither of whom wanted to be there, and a third who may or may not have been there at all. And then there was the big boss man whose company had created the car, who gave every impression of not wanting it to win at all. Welcome to the weirdest race Le Mans ever held.


It was in 1965 and the record books show Ferrari recorded its sixth straight victory, its seventh in eight years and that the winner’s margin over the best of the rest was fully five laps by the end of the race. Not much, it would seem, to delay us here. Which just goes to show you can prove anything with statistics.

So as you will also know, Le Mans 1965 was always going to be a Ford versus Ferrari affair. Ford had brought its GT40 to France in ’64 but it was very much a learning year. In 1965 it came back with no fewer than six GT40s, two of which powered by monster 7.0-litre engines. Henry Ford II’s stated intention to kick Enzo’s arse was about to come true. Surely?

Well Enzo had other ideas about that, and entered three of his own prototypes backed by seven privately entered cars. However most of these were 250LMs and only in the class because Ferrari had failed to pull off the GTO trick a second time and have them homologated as GTs. Against even the little Fords, let alone the big ones and the real Ferrari prototypes, they stood no chance.


Which is why no one paid much attention to the LM that qualified down in 11th place. It was fully 12 seconds off the pole-sitting pace which, extrapolated over the duration of the race, was over an hour. This despite the fact that not only was the still quick ‘Kansas Flash’ Masten Gregory one its drivers, the other was Jochen Rindt who will need no further introduction from me. They had been employed to race the LM belonging to the North American Racing Team, run by US Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti, himself a triple Le Mans winner and the first man to do so from behind the wheel of a Ferrari.

And people paid even less attention to it after it had spent half an hour in the pits very early in the race having a misfire traced to nothing more serious than a dodgy condenser. Rindt and Gregory were just hired hands, otherwise there’s no way they’d have been at Le Mans driving a car with no chance of even getting near a podium. So as they waited for it to be fixed, they agreed that from the moment the LM rejoined the race, they’d drive it flat out, which was absolutely not best practice for doing well at Le Mans back then. But at least it wouldn’t be boring, and would probably increase their chances of getting an early beer.


For Ford the race had already become a total disaster. The 7.0-litre cars were first hobbled by their prodigious thirst and multiple stops required to slake it, then kneecapped by transmissions that simply could not take the torque they were being asked to transmit. But then even the smaller engine Fords hit trouble, so much trouble indeed that after just six hours – one quarter distance – not one was left in the race. Ferrari held the top five places and for its factory entries, the race was already theirs to lose. And lose it they duly did.

As a sort of taster of what was to come, both the British Maranello Concessionaires cars went out during the night but then it was the factory effort that started to slow.

Or not be slowed, to be strictly accurate. In time what turned out to be a duff batch of disc brakes completely stymied the works effort. Drivers were told to use engine braking to slow down instead, putting an intolerable strain on their powertrains, two succumbing to gearbox failure, the third to engine trouble.

Soon all the proper prototypes were either out or out of the reckoning. And as the sun rose again over the circuit and presumably to their very great surprise, Messrs Gregory and Rindt found themselves in second place. Better still, the lead car was another LM, but with a far slower Belgian crew at its wheel. The bad news was the NART car was still two laps down.


And now I should mention the phantom ‘third’ driver. As legend would have it, at some stage during the night Gregory pitted and with Rindt was nowhere to be found, long time NART driver Ed Hugus jumped in under cover of darkness to do a stint. It was Hugus himself who made the claim and as a well-liked man, many believed him. Indeed he is listed as a driver in more than one authoritative journal of record. But Chinetti’s son Coco was at the race and while unable to state definitively that Hugus did not drive the car, he has said he thought it ‘highly unlikely’. And our own Doug Nye, surely the world’s leading authority on Ferrari’s racing history has dismissed the story as ‘utter garbage’ which is probably good enough for me. But I shall leave you to decide for yourself.

Anyway, back to the race where we find Gregory and Rindt driving the wheels off the LM to claw back the immense deficit to its Belgian rival. It seemed touch and go whether there would be enough time left in the race for them to do it. Which is when the curviest of curved balls yet seen in this saga got gently lobbed at the NART team.


It came in the form of a visit from a representative of the Dunlop tyre company, bearing a missive that had been at the very least approved by Enzo Ferrari and, in all likelihood, actually sent by him. In short Chinetti was told to slow his drivers and let the Belgians win. Why? Because Ferrari was under contract to Dunlop and there were Dunlops on the Belgian LM. By contrast, the NART car wore Goodyears.

Happily for fans of proper racing, Chinetti was one of very few people who was not afraid of the Old Man and had no problem standing up to him. He told the Dunlop chap what he could do with his message and urged his drivers onward.

Which left the race genuinely on a knife-edge, right up until a Dunlop on the Belgian car exploded. It would have looked by poetic justice to the NART team, but to Gustave Gosselin trying to control a three wheeled LM at 190mph it probably looked more like a rather large dry cleaning bill. He got it back to the pits, but by the time the bodywork had been bodged back together and the car returned to the fray, all hope had gone. Rindt and Gregory won, five laps clear.

That was 54 years ago now and Ferrari’s most unlikely victory in the French classic remains to this day its most recent.

Photography provided by Motorsport Images.

  • Le Mans

  • 1965

  • Masten Gregory

  • Jochen Rindt

  • Ed Hugus

  • Thank Frankel it's Friday

  • Motorsport

  • Ferrari

  • 250LM

  • Ford

  • GT40

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