The day after the finish of the real 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours, Steve McQueen geared up to document his film tribute to long-distance sports car racing. When former Lotus team manager Andrew Ferguson invited a clutch of professionals to join the Le Mans production, many race participants quickly accepted.
JUN 02nd 2016
Brian Redman Serialisation – Le Mans: Le Heartbreaker
My (very brief) movie career
Answering the call were Jo Siffert, Vic Elford, Richard Attwood, David Piper, Hughes de Fierlant, Derek Bell, Jonathan Williams and me, all of us exhausted from the preceding four days of the real contest. Richard had won with Hans Herrmann, driving a Porsche Salzburg 917. Hughes was the best of the rest of us, finishing fifth, and not far behind in ninth place were Jonathan Williams and Herbert Linge driving McQueen’s Porsche 908/02. This was an exceptional achievement for a camera car with its aerodynamics compromised by protruding photo equipment and with pit-stops requiring the exchange of film cartridges as well as drivers. This genuine on-track action provided many of the film’s best moments. Although Siffert and I failed to finish the real race, the film’s story centred on our Gulf Porsche 917 – car number 20.
Since Porsche had constructed 25 917s, there were plenty left over for other purposes. Those used in the film’s production were new and authentic, numbered to match the cars that actually raced. Jacques Swaters, the Belgian Ferrari dealer and racing privateer, orchestrated the necessary allocation of Ferrari 512Ss. It seems that when Il Commendatore learned that a Porsche triumphed over a Ferrari in the movie, he declined to offer factory cars and have his Le Mans entries humbled twice in the same year. It made little difference since Swaters’ Ferraris were very similar to the works entries and the actual competitors’ numbers were easily replicated.
The remuneration McQueen offered to each driver was good by our non-demanding standards, but clever Jo Siffert found a way to turn this modest opportunity into a spectacular financial killing. Seppi owned a Porsche dealership in Switzerland and had developed a knack for wheeling and dealing in used racing cars, of which McQueen’s production needed many. When the props department produced a list of specific models, Seppi’s eyes grew wide. Shoulders raised in astonishment, he simply had to confess that each and every one of the desired cars was waiting in his Swiss garage, ready to take to the track. Of course, Jo had nothing like the sort of collection he professed to own, but he knew he could procure the entire fleet and then rent the cars to McQueen’s production at Hollywood prices. When the filming was complete, Jo also realised that his enterprise had an Act II. He persuasively promised that each car he sold bore McQueen’s famous fingerprints, and more than one 917 became the actual Delaney/McQueen car. Then, as now, the resale values of racing cars were burnished by the lustre of stardom.
A little later, in a moment of good fortune, the genuine McQueen 917 became mine. Yes, really! Following my neck-breaking accident in Canada, however, I sold it to an unimpressed Richard Attwood, who had won the real thing in a 917 and had little need for the additional McQueen stardust.
Working on location was exceedingly painstaking. The crews took forever to set up their cameras. The light had to be just right, and then all the little details needed to be perfect. Given McQueen’s fastidiousness, they were. Each day the crew would examine film of the real pit-stops and then match the action so precisely that, when we watched the rushes every evening, it was hard to tell the movie version from the original. The on-track sequences were staged with faster and slower cars mixed together and we were instructed on where, when and how to pass. In the final edit, these sequences were woven artfully into footage shot during the race, resulting in majestic distance views and vivid close-ups of exciting cars doing battle.
This next statement will begin to sound familiar, but I soon learned that working in the movies was another job for which I was unsuited. I found all the constraints counter-intuitive and, to me, following McQueen’s scripted scenarios was unnatural. After several weeks I could no longer take the tedious pace or the travel back and forth between England and France. I resigned from the Le Mans crew – one more career opportunity tossed aside.
The genuine tragedy in the creation of Le Mans was how David Piper, a top sports-car driver, sustained a deep leg cut in a crash that destroyed the Porsche 917 he was driving. While David was being removed from the wreckage, brake fluid and other debris got into the wound, causing a severe infection. The lower section of his leg had to be amputated to save his life. A lesser man would have moved on to a sport with fewer physical challenges, but not Piper. While his professional career was finished, he continued to compete successfully in historic racing for over 40 years, often in his own green Porsche 917. David also endures as a fixture in many racing paddocks, often upstaged – as we all are – by his incredibly funny wife Liz, from whom I learned my best after-dinner jokes.
The 1969 24 Hours
During practice for Le Mans in 1969, Jo Siffert and I tried one of the Porsche 917s, understanding that the company’s prestige and fortune hung upon its success and that it was destined to be in our future. On the Mulsanne straight the new 917 became downright terrifying, hunting at 225mph in a way that made sequential fast laps difficult and exhausting. For the race, Jo and I lobbied for and got permission to use a special, new, long-tail 908 Flunder that we found infinitely more stable and, therefore, more comfortable for a long, fast race. We led during the third and fourth hours until the transmission overheated and melted the plastic piping that delivered oil from the pressure sump to the main shaft and differential, probably because the enclosed tail section made the ducts in the rear bodywork inefficient. The Flunder may have let us down, but it kept us safe. A wealthy Le Mans aspirant wasn’t so lucky.
In a moment of regrettable business judgement, Porsche sold one of its unsorted long-tail 917s to John Woolfe, a modestly talented English privateer who had achieved some success driving a Chevron B12 and a Lola T70 in domestic competition. Sadly, Woolfe’s inexperience was such that either he didn’t recognise that his new purchase was diabolical or wouldn’t accept that it was unsuitable for a 24-hour race. His co-driver, Digby Martland, was even less experienced but exercised better judgement. During practice, Martland rode out a lurid spin over the crest near the end of the Mulsanne straight, just before the 90-degree Mulsanne corner. Returning to the pits, he immediately announced his unconditional retirement – from Le Mans, from the Woolfe team and from all future racing.
Porsche, concerned by the mistake of selling an undeveloped car to an unprepared owner, supplied factory driver Kurt Ahrens to qualify the car (in an estimable ninth place) and a second factory regular, Herbert Linge, as Martland’s replacement. They then begged Woolfe to let the experienced Linge take the start. Woolfe, eager for his family to see him behind the wheel and fearful of the car’s early retirement, became adamant. ‘It’s my car and I’m going to drive it,’ he said, nominating himself to start the race.
This was the last year of the traditional Le Mans start where cars were arrayed side by side in front of the pits with drivers lined up on the opposite side of the track, facing their cars. At the signal for the four o’clock start, all drivers dashed across the tarmac, jumped into their cars and charged off in a chaotic mêleé – that is, all except one. Jacky Ickx, critical of the obvious dangers inherent in this colourful bit of theatre, made it a point to stroll across the track after everyone else and carefully fasten his safety belts before starting his car. Jacky may have joined the 55-car queue last, but 24 hours later he finished first, even if only by 100 yards. Point emphatically made!
Habitually, most drivers were in such a hurry to get underway that they charged from the line with seat belts unbuckled. The conventional practice was to let the field sort itself out and then, on the second or third lap, hold the wheel with one’s knees down the Mulsanne straight while belting in.
On Woolfe’s first lap, he lost control of his 917 in the fast, tricky Maison Blanche (White House) section, crashing heavily. Not incidentally for the Porsche team, he took most of the rival Ferraris with him. Without a seat belt, he was thrown from his car and died from his injuries.
John Woolfe was 37 years old.
The 1973 24 Hours
Ferrari skipped Le Mans in 1972 because of concerns about the reliability of the Formula 1-based engine powering the 312PB. It was the only major race that year that Ferrari didn’t win. For 1973 the Scuderia entered three cars in the 24 Hours, one for Arturo Merzario and Carlos Pace, the second for Tim Schenken and Carlos Reutemann, and the third for Jacky Ickx and me. I was asked to test the car at Paul Ricard, at the time a new state-of-the art circuit in sight of the Côte d’Azur’s Mediterranean waters. Every driver loves the chance to try fresh ideas without the pressure of a race weekend’s limited practice. I happily agreed that southern France’s warmth, lyrical landscapes and roasted lamb rinsed in Bandol’s purple wine created the perfect environment for serious racing car development.
Among the concepts that team manager Mauro Forghieri wanted to explore was lowering the airbox that feeds oxygen to the engine and he asked me to gauge the effect on the airflow by loosening my belts at top speed and lifting my head. The immediate effect was that my helmet was sucked against the air intake and suddenly I was looking at the sky in a racing car doing 170mph. Emergencies unleash hidden strength and I managed to drag my head out of the airstream and control the car. It made for interesting dinner conversation. More wine, please.
Before the start of the 1973 race, Jacky came to me and said, ‘Bree-an, I wish not to start and do battle with Merzario.’ Their animosity was well known and mutual. I reminded him that one of the nine prototypes in the race would win, and that Le Mans was about survival. I warned Jacky that, at the end of the first lap, he should expect to see me in ninth place. ‘Good,’ he answered, a very un-Jacky-like sentiment.
By 7.00pm, just three hours into the race, we had been lapped by our teammates. Unexpectedly, I received an out-of-sequence signal to pit. Forghieri wanted to examine our brakes as the backing plates on Merzario’s car had welded themselves to the discs. The decision was that our brakes were fine and we were good to go until midnight. At about that time, the other Ferrari developed a fuel leak and we inherited the lead. Late on Sunday morning we also developed a fuel leak similar to the one that delayed our sister car, and we suffered a broken exhaust that the mechanics tried in vain to repair. By Sunday afternoon Jacky and I had slipped into second place behind the Matra-Simca MS670B of Henri Pescarolo and Gérard Larrousse, but still with a slim chance of pulling off the win.
I had finished my final stint and was resting when Jacky delivered the news that our engine had failed as he was entering the pits. It expired at 3.27pm, 33 tantalising minutes from the finish. We had run for 332 laps and had we been able to cross the finishing line under our own power, a Le Mans requirement, we would have placed third. Ferrari’s exhausted mechanics were in tears as they pushed our car from the pits. The grandstand gave our team a standing ovation.
Extract from Brian Redman’s book, ‘Daring Drivers, Deadly Tracks: A Racer’s Memoir of a Dangerous Decade: 1965-75’ By Brian Redman with Jim Mullen (Evro Publishing) Hardback. RRP: £50.00.
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