The last Le Mans start at Le Mans

The Le Mans 24 hour race for high performance sports cars is one of the most famous motor races in the world. The Le Mans Grand Prix d’Endurance, to give it is full name, was first run in 1923 on a circuit around the roads near the French village of Le Mans. The race lasted 24 hours and the format became a favourite with motor racing enthusiasts. Apart from the duration of the race, which required more than one driver for each car, swapping over at regular pit stops, the Le Mans race was famous for its start.

The cars were lined up in front of the pits on the main straight, while the drivers were lined up on the other side of the main straight. At the starting signal, which was a dropped flag, the drivers ran across the road, jumped into their cars and raced off to start the 24 hours. It was a spectacular if dangerous way to began the most competitive 24 hour race in the world.

As cars became faster with every tear, safety became an increasingly important consideration. It became obvious that many drivers were trying to save a few seconds at the start by driving off without fastening their harnesses. The organisers of the race decreed that 1969 would be the last year of the Le Mans start. In 1970 all drivers would be securely fastened in their cars before the starting flag was dropped.

So, on the 14th of June 1969, 45 drivers made the final dash across the track to start the race, whose starting time had been brought forward to 2 pm instead of the usual 4 pm, because of voting in the final round of the French presidential election the following day.

Of the 45 drivers, Belgian Jacky Ickx decided to show his opposition to the Le Mans start by slowly walking across to his car and slowly fastening his belts, which meant that he was in 45th and last place after the start, a seen in this footage of the start:

Ickx’s protest to the danger of the start was demonstrated immediately when the Porsche 917 of John Woolfe and Herbert Linge crashed on the first lap. Woolfe had not fastened his belts properly in order to get a good start, and it is believed that this action had a major role in his death.

The two factory Porsche 917s of Rolf Stommelen/Kurt Ahrens Jnr and Vic Elford/Richard Attwood led for much of the race, but by early on Monday morning both cars had retired. The battle for victory was now between the Porsche 908 of Hans Hermann and Gerard Larrousse, and the Ford GT40 of Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver, which had made up all of the ground lost due to Ickx’s safety-first start to the race.

Both cars shared the lead in the final stages, with Ickx managing to pass the Porsche on the Mulsanne Straight on the last lap before the 24 hours expired, and holding on to win by a margin of approximately 120 metres (393 feet), the closest finish in the history of the race (excluding the staged finishes where team cars cross the line side-by-side). Both leading cars covered 372 laps in the 24 hours, with the 3rd placed Ford GT40 of David Hobbs and Mike Hailwood covering 368 laps. Only 14 of the original 45 starters were still running at the end of the 24 hours.

Ickx’s victory was the first of six wins for him in the race (1969, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1981 and 1982), and the last of four consecutive victories in the 24 hours race by the Ford GT40, which is still considered one of the greatest sports cars of all time.

The other victor on the day was Georges Pompidou, who was elected as French President over an ageing Charles de Gaulle.

 

 

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