The last time Le Mans ran in September was 1968

23rd March 2020
Damien Smith

Amid the coronavirus chaos, cancellations and postponements, word came last week that the Le Mans 24 Hours would be shifted from its traditional June date to September 19-20th. We might have lost the Monaco Grand Prix for the first time since 1954 and can’t be certain of the fate of the Indianapolis 500 at this stage, but there’s a sense of relief that the other ‘big one’ should at least take place this year.

It’s not the first time Le Mans has run as late as September either. Fifty-two years ago, in 1968, the 24 Hours was also delayed by three months – but for very different reasons.


French civil unrest

The 1960s remains a fabulously evocative decade. But amid the rose-tinged nostalgia, it’s easy to forget what a tempestuous and violent time it was in the real world (and also in motorsport for that matter), as social and economic pressures pushed communities to breaking point. In France during 1968, social unrest led the country almost to the brink of civil war: 11 million workers walked out on general strike, and a mood of protest spread. In London, Mick Jagger wandered amid the rioting and found new inspiration. The ‘peace and love’ ethos of Sergeant Pepper that pervaded the summer of 1967 was replaced a year later by The Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ that captured the confrontational spirit of a troubled time.

In such circumstances, just like now, a motor race was of little consequence. Le Mans was shifted to September, by which time the unrest – if not the general mood of disenchantment – had quelled.

The Ford GT40 of Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi being chased by the Porsche 908 of Joe Buzzetta and Scooter Patrick. Behind, the Ford GT40s of Paul Hawkins and David Hobbs, then Brian Muir and Jackie Oliver.

The Ford GT40 of Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi being chased by the Porsche 908 of Joe Buzzetta and Scooter Patrick. Behind, the Ford GT40s of Paul Hawkins and David Hobbs, then Brian Muir and Jackie Oliver.

A race to remember

While its significance to a country in crisis might have been tiny in a real-world sense, Le Mans 1968 was a race of towering importance in our little world. Following rising speeds and a new distance record set in the 1967 edition, a new rulebook had been introduced that essentially outlawed the big-block American engines that powered the winning Ford MkII. A new 5.0-litre limit was introduced for the Group 4 sportscar class, paving the way for the original Ford GT40 to return, run in the commercially brash (but oh so cool) colours of Gulf Oils by John Wyer Automotive. Meanwhile, the Group 6 prototype class was limited to a 3.0-litre engine capacity, in line with Formula 1. Ferrari flounced off in the not unreasonable belief that its prototypes would struggle against the 5.0-litre sportscars, but Porsche saw an opportunity. Le Mans 1968 would herald the true arrival of the great German brand as a serious threat for overall victory.

Four long-tail 908s and three privateer 907s would face off against three JWA Gulf GT40s, while Matra would serve notice of its future dominance with a new V12-powered 3.0-litre MS630. The driver entry wasn’t quite as star-studded as ’67 – which remains arguably the strongest in the race’s long history – but there was enough quality to guarantee a memorable race.

The September date created its own challenges, which this year’s drivers and crews will also face. Running in autumn meant racing into darkness through a longer night, not to mention a heightened threat of bad weather. Sure enough, it was damp at the 3pm start, an hour earlier than the traditional 4pm, again due to the later date.


A big win – and serious injuries

Le Mans 1968 proved conclusively that Porsche had the pace to win the great race – but it wasn’t yet ready to go the distance. The 908s dominated the early stages, pole position winner Jo Siffert sailing off into a dominant lead after two hours. But a broken clutch accounted for his hopes at 7pm, while electrical problems cost his team-mates. By 10pm, Ford led Le Mans once again and JWA’s chassis #1075 would hold it all the way to the finish.

But these were dark times for motor racing, and in a year that had already witnessed the loss of Jim Clark, Jo Schlesser and Ludovico Scarfiotti, Le Mans was far from immune to tragedy. The first accident occurred on the opening lap and would have significant repercussions for a traditional, but sorely outdated, key feature.

As they always had, drivers sprinted across the track and jumped into their cars to start the race, but on this occasion Willy Mairesse was struggling. He failed to properly shut the door of his Ford GT40 and at the end of the Mulsanne straight crashed into the trees, suffering appalling injuries that left him in a coma for two weeks. Mairesse survived, but knew his racing career was over. His story ended tragically a year later when he took his own life.

The accident was the final straw that prompted Jacky Ickx to make his famous walking protest at the start of Le Mans 1969, the Belgian still fuming at the needless accident that had cost his countryman so dear. Ickx had made his point and the traditional run across the track was abandoned from 1970.

Accidents and injury seemed to dominate that era. The winning drivers in 1968 were the great Mexican maestro Pedro Rodriguez and Italian-born Lucien Bianchi – but they were only in #1075 because its regular drivers, Ickx and Brian Redman, had been ruled out by injury after surviving awful accidents in Formula 1: Ickx at Mont Tremblant in Canada, Redman at Spa. And at the finish, it must have been impossible for Bianchi to take much pleasure from the greatest win of his life. Just after 11am his brother Mauro had crashed in a fireball, sustaining terrible career-ending burns.

The winners: Pedro Rodriguez (left) and Lucien Bianchi (right).

The winners: Pedro Rodriguez (left) and Lucien Bianchi (right).

A dark legacy

To add to the tragedy, both Rodriguez and Bianchi would die in racing cars in the months and years that followed: the former at the Norisring in 1971, the latter less than a year after their victory, perishing at the Le Mans test day in ’69 when his Alfa Romeo hit a telegraph pole. This fine motor racing family has suffered appallingly at the hands of motor sport. Decades later, in 2014, Mauro’s grandson Jules Bianchi would crash into a track recovery vehicle at the Japanese Grand Prix, sustaining injuries that would eventually prove fatal. He was just 25-years-old when he died.

Back in the 1960s, such tragedy seemed almost an accepted part of a brutal sport – although the high toll was finally being questioned, and not just by the outside world. The racing would go on, of course, JWA and that incredible chassis #1075 securing back-to-back Le Mans victories in 1969 with Ickx and Jackie Oliver.

In its way, Le Mans 1968 remains an important milestone for the great race, for reasons both good and bad. This year, the September running will also carry added significance, and not just because of its date change: it will mark the end of the LMP1 era before the age of the Hypercars begins in 2022 – we hope. Let’s also hope the parallels end there. Not everything was better in the past.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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