to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. The head man at Matra had promised victory to the head man of France, the factory had built three new cars and updated a fourth, there had been countless test runs of 20 and 30 hours to reveal weaknesses beforehand, four teams of ranked drivers had been hired and at least $1 million had been spent. Matra meant to win and Matra won. '
To understand why victory was so important, we must look back to 1950, the last year in which a French car won Le Mans. The rules were different then. Less specialized, perhaps, but different and the French Talbot could hold its own against all comers. But while Le Mans is to I the French what Indy is to Americans, Le Mans is also unique and important to everybody else. There came the Jaguars, the Mercedes-Benzes, the Ferraris, the Fords, the Porsches, the rules that favored cars of a type and cost not suited to the French.
For 1972 there were new rules for the cars in the World Championship of Makes. One could, if one wished, build a prototype sports car with Formula 1 parts. In common with Ferrari, Matra already had done just that and had practiced with the cars in 1971.
So it came to pass that Matra promised victory at Le Mans. And went about it with the same determination Ferrari used to clinch the maker's title. Three new cars, identified as types 670, ugly as only an aerodynamically perfect racing car can be ugly, fitted with GP V-12 engines. There were shorttail bodies which slowed the cars on the straights and gave extra downforce for speed through the twisty bit, and longtail bodies that did the reverse. Last year's 660 was updated and four Anglo-French driving teams were secured: Francois Cevert and Howden Ganley, Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Chris Amon, Henri Pescarolo and Graham Hill, and Jean-Pierre Jabouille and David Hobbs, the last two in the, 660 serving as the reliable reserve.
No surprise then that the three 670 Matras qualified first, second and third fastest.
Opposed to this intense effort, this concentrated display of determination, preparation and talent was-not much opposition. Autodelta was there with updated Alfa 33TT3s but they seemed to have changed only from being the team Ferrari is faster than to being the team Matra is faster than. There were several Lolas with Cosworth GP engines, the same quick fragile cars that have taken the lead and broken in earlier events. And there was a flock of reliable old Porsche 908s. The Gulf March withdrew; not ready for 24 hours yet.
Ferrari withdrew. Ferrari also had a test program and while it was announced that the 312Ps were strong enough to go the 24 hours, Ferrari had no entry in the sports-prototype class. Only nine Daytonas in GT.
The other classes: Le Mans was open to the group 5-6 prototypes, Group 4 GT cars, 'and group 2 touring cars. The latter two groups are considered to be the racing of the future, with good reason. They appeal to the public, there are many factories in the classes and involved in racing, and what with size limitations on prototype engines and virtually free preparation allowed on m,!ss-production sedans, the speed disparity of not long ago has been greatly reduced.
The 1972 rules put a qualifying limit on all entries so the slowest car:. had to be within 133% of the fastest qualifier's time. This turned out not to be much of a hardship. Quickest car ths:re was' Cevert's Matra, with a best lap of 3 :42.2. (At the test weekend, the Ferrari 3l2P tunled 3:40, in case you wish to brood over what might have been.)
From there the times get steadily slower, in small jumps; 3:47 for the best Alfa, 3:50 for Joakim Bonnier's Lola T280, 4:03 for,the fastest Porsche 908, 4: 17 for a 2-liter Chevron-Cosworth, 4: 18 for the fastest Corvette, 4:21 for the fastest Ferrari, 4:25 for the best Ford Capri. Incredible. And the Capris were clocked at 160 mph on the straight.
Point is, the best of the Group 2 sedans out-qualified several Ferrari Daytonas, most of the Corvettes, all the Porsche 911 s, all the Panteras, the lone Citroen SM, the two BM Ws, etc. Some cars were naturally slower than others, but it wasn't simply a matter of leaving out the small sedans.
President Pompidou was the official starter and as he waved the flag for the rolling start it was Matra 1-2-3. I Not for very long, though, as the team began to get its bad. luck taken care of early on: Beltoise took the lead on the second lap only to have his engine literally go up in flames, ignited by a thrown connecting rod. The three remaining cars held pace and Bonnier's Lola nipped into first, followed a few laps after that by the other Bonnier team car. The expected took place, however, and both Lolas pitted for fuel and adjustments. I The lead and the order began to scramble after the first hour or so as the Group 5 cars can only run for a bit more than one' hour before needing more gas, and the ranking changes very quickly and without much importance.
Anyway, there was another race going on, among the GT cars and involving rivalries inside rivalries. There were three Daytonas from U.S. importer Luigi Chinetti's North American Racing Team, one from the English importer, two from the French importer and three from Belgium. There were also two Corvettes owned by John Greenwood, sponsored by B.F. Goodrich and running on DOT -approved radial tires, another Corvette from France and a fourth driven by Bob Johnson and Dave Heinz, who drove it.to fourth overall and first in GT at Sebring this year.
The brand-name battle never shaped up. The better two (of four) Panteras got their speed from special engines shipped in from Detroit, alas with a batch of faulty pistons, and both cars retired early. The Heinz/Johnson car was bent during practice and although it looked and sounded repaired, it didn't run that way.
The Ferraris did, though and GT became a battle of Ferrari team vs Ferrari team. An evenly matched battle, as the cars were as alike as two Ferraris can be. Sam Posey (in the best NART car) said later that driving down the Mulsanne straight at speed side by side with the best French Daytona was lots of fun. The best Greenwood car, driven by Frenchman Alain Cudini, led the GTs until it had brake trouble, at which point' the French-entered Daytona took over until the NART car; passed them and the other French Ferrari passed the American Ferrari.
So it went, all night long, the Matra leading overall and in prototype class, what looked like half the world's populatio~ of Ferrari Daytonas passing and repassing, and the Capri~ running off with the sedan race.
At 8:25 a.m. Jo Bonnier was killed. He was passing one of the Belgian Daytonas and the cars came together, sending the Ferrari off course and Bonnier's Lola over the guardrail and into the trees. He died instantly. A sad event under any circumstances, a tragic one in the light of his retirement from Formula 1 racing and concentration on sports car events. The Ferrari driver-said by witnesses to have been on the correct line when overtaken and thus to not have been at fault in the crash-was only slightly injured. Vic Elford came upon, the scene, stopped his Alfa Romeo to aid the Ferrari man and then drove slowly into the pits to ask that co-driver Helmut Marko replace him. A short time later the car retired with a sheared flywheel, followed a few laps after that by the Stommelen/Galli Alfa dropping out with a broken transmission. One Alfa remained, in fourth.
Behind the Alfa were a bunch of Ferraris. There had been retirements, of course, and not only Ferraris. Both Greenwood Corvettes stopped when their engines stopped, the English Daytona lost a piston, one NART car dropped a gearbox. . .
Oh, and tell your insurance man about this one. There was a rainstorm in the early afternoon and Ganley slowed his Matra only to be belted in the back by Henri Greder's Corvette. The lightweight Matra stopped for a new tail section and a new tire, the Corvette was damaged too badly to continue.
In a casual sort of way, during the rainstorm which sent several other cars into the guardrail or the grass, Matra lost its third car. The old reliable 660 retired with an exhausted transmission.
Not that it mattered. When the gun went off, the two remaining Matras crossed the finish line 1-2. The reliable Porsche 908 came next, and the lone Alfa after that. . .
Then five Daytonas, only nine laps apart after 24 hours, and then two of those amazing Capris, with the best of them only five laps behind the straggler Ferrari. One assumes Matra and M. Pompidou were happy with Le Mans '72. But for everybody else the race would have been just as good without any prototypes at all.
A Hollow Victory