The amazing 1969 24 Hours of Le Mans produced the closest race finish ever, as Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver’s Ford GT40 battled the Porsche 908 of Hans Herrmann and Gerard Larrousse in an epic fight.
Ford’s two-second victory over Porsche after twenty-four hours of racing has some considering the 1969 race as the best of all time.
The Castrol Film La Ronde Infernale (The Infernal Roundabout) tells the story of that tremendous battle – the nail biting finish and the courageous challenges that give Le Mans a unique place in the history of motorsport are all captured.
During 1969, the minimal production figure to compete in the Sport category was reduced from 50 to 25. Starting in July 1968, Porsche made a surprising and very expensive effort to conceive, design and build a whole new car for the Sport category with one underlying goal: to win its first overall victory at Le Mans. In only ten months, the Porsche 917 was developed, which incorporated remarkable technology: Porsche’s first 12-cylinder engine and many components from titanium, magnesium and exotic alloys. Porsche built 25 917s and according to many sources this drove Porsche AG close to bankruptcy. In need of cash, Porsche sold the 917s to anyone who wanted to pay.
Matra ordered the aerodynamic engineer Robert Choulet to conceive a low-drag Long Tail Coupe specially designed for the Le Mans, the Matra 640. On April 16, Matra brought the car to the Sarthe circuit. Henri Pescarolo took it to the track, at the first kilometers in the Hunaudières the car took off and was pulverized, Pescarolo was pulled out alive but severely burned. In parallel, Matra was experimenting with roadster bodywork. This led to a new car, the 650. Some 630 chassis were converted in roadster; they were christened 630/650.
Despite the fact that no solution was found to fix the instability of the car, three 917s entered Le Mans. Two were Porsche Works teams and the third was entered by the gentleman-driver John Woolfe.
Matra entered four cars: a new 650 roadster, a 630 coupe and two 630/650.
The Ferrari prototypes made a come-back with the 3.0L 312P.
John Wyer’s team was there but managed by David Yorkes. Wyer himself wasn’t in Le Mans as his wife was ill. The team entered two Ford GT40s. Jacky Ickx shared GT40 1075, the car that won the previous year, with Jackie Oliver.
The Kurt Ahrens/Rolf Stommelen 917 qualified on pole.
Soon after the start the poor handling of the 917 and the inexperience of the driver resulted in a drama: the death of British driver John Woolfe on lap 1 when his private Porsche 917 crashed at Maison Blanche. Woolfe was killed, probably due the fact that he had not bothered to put on his safety belt. This was likely done because of the style of the traditional start used at Le Mans until that year, in which drivers were required to run across the track to their cars, climb in and get it started as quickly as possible to pull away from the grid. Woolfe likely sacrificed strapping his safety belts in order to gain a better start.
The nearly full fuel tank from Woolfe’s car became dislodged and landed in front of the oncoming Ferrari 312P of Chris Amon. Amon ran over it, causing it to explode under his car, which led to his retirement. The race was stopped for 2 hours due to these two first lap incidents, but was eventually restarted.
The two official 917s were put out of the race by clutch bell housing problems, but the 908 of Hans Herrmann and Gérard Larrousse remained a serious candidate for the victory.
In a dramatic finish, Ickx and Herrmann repeatedly overtook each other as the Porsche 908 had brake problems, and eventually Ickx managed to beat Herrmann by a few seconds, or about 120 meters. Ickx and Oliver won with the GT40 chassis 1075, the same car that had won the previous year. This was second time the same car had won two years in a row; a Bentley Speed Six had done it in 1929 and 1930. Joest Racing would later repeat this feat twice.
Ironically, Jacky Ickx had a road accident near Chartres while driving to Paris on the Monday after the race. A car pulled in front of his Porsche 911. Ickx’s car ended up crushed against a utility pole. Ickx unbuckled his seat belt and stepped unharmed from the wrecked Porsche.
La Ronde Infernale Part 1 of 4 (9:06 minutes)
This video includes an onboard lap with Peter Sadler’s GT40, a pre-race team summary such as Matra, JWA Gulf GT40s, Ferrari and Porsche with their 908 and the new 917, interviews with Vic Elford, Mike Parkes, Rico Steineman, Chris Amon and Mike Hailwood, plus a very brief appearance of Steve McQueen.
La Ronde Infernale Part 2 of 4 – The race gets underway (10:17 minutes)
Jacky Ickx was opposed to the traditional Le Mans start which he considered to be dangerous, so he slowly walked across the track to his GT40, instead of running. He locked the safety belt carefully and thus was the last to start the race, chasing the field. In lap one, a tragic event proved that Ickx was right: private driver John Woolfe had a fatal accident in his new and powerful 917 and fellow countryman Willy Mairesse had an accident which ended his career. Neither of them had taken time to belt in.
La Ronde Infernale Part 3 of 4 – Racing into the night (10:06 minutes)
La Ronde Infernale Part 4 of 4 – The Finish (9:00 minutes)
The Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver-driven JWA Gulf GT40 battles the Porsche 908 of Hans Herrmann and Gerard Larrousse for the win in the closest finish ever at Le Mans. The final lap starts at the 7:25 minute mark.