Countdown to Le Mans EP4: The 1968 September Le Mans
Here is what happened the last time 24 Hours of Le Mans was held in September.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans have been held for nearly 100 years, but there have been only three times when the event was held outside of June. The 1923 24 Hours of Le Mans, which was the first 24 Hours of Le Mans, was held in the last week of May. The 1956 24 Hours of Le Mans started in the last week of July due to circuit modifications after 1955’s horrific incident. Finally, the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans started way later than usual in September like this year.
Image from The New York Times.
The 1968 edition of Le Mans 24 Hour was held so late due to the May 68 protests in France, which was one of the biggest civil disobedience events that happened in modern France. Mainly led by students, along with communists and socialists, protestors went on strike, causing the whole country to shut down for nearly a month. Although the situation was calmed down by the summer, officials did not want to risk issues in a huge event like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and thus decided to push it back.
As the event was now held in the last week of September, it was obvious that the track conditions would be hugely different from the past years. With the night being longer, ACO permitted one battery change on the cars due to the extra electricity needed to keep the lighting devices functional on the devices. The track itself saw a huge change, as a new chicane was added before the pit straight, slowing the cars by 10 seconds per lap. Ford volunteered to sponsor the construction, and the chicanes were thus named the Ford Chicanes. This was the biggest change in the layout since 1932, and by reducing the speed, it contributed to minimizing accidents on the pit straight.
But that was not the end. The FIA decided to put a displacement limit on Group 6 prototypes and Group 4 sports cars. The previous 7 litre limit on both of the classes was reduced to 3 litres for Group 6 and 5 litres for Group 4. This regulation effectively killed the big block Ford GTs, Chaparrals, and the Ferrari 330 P4s. Enzo Ferrari was deeply angered as it would effectively make the 330 P4s useless, while the Ford GTs could run in the sports class with 4.7 or 5 litre V8s as they already met the homologation requirements for Group 4. Ferrari being Ferrari, boycotted the event. This regulation would later be tackled by Porsche building 25 prototype 917s, but that is another story.
With so many changes, the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans was already confusing enough for the teams. Yet, to make things worse, it was overall rainy on race day with a heavy shower just 10 minutes before the start of the race. Although the rain did stop in the afternoon, it started to rain more throughout the night, making this race some of the rainiest races at Le Mans. With the Fords facing little competition from other smaller displacement prototypes and sports cars, the #9 Ford GT driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi easily won the race. But overall, due to the smaller displacement cars and unfavourable weather, it was far from any record distances.
This out-of-the-ordinary race was a milestone in motorsport for multiple reasons. For example, 1968 was the first year commercial advertising was allowed on the cars. The winning #9 Ford GT wore the legendary Gulf livery, which marked the start of Gulf liveries at Le Mans with the most recent car being the Dragonspeed LMP1. Another turning point is that this year marked the shift of power. For nearly ten years, Ferrari has dominated Le Mans, while with this year’s Le Mans, Ford consolidated their new reign at Le Mans. Smaller companies like Porsche, Matra and Alpine also had seen considerable success, which all would eventually win Le Mans in ten years' time.
Yet it was not only the glamour and fame of victory that was present at the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans. The late 60s, and especially 1968, was a terrible year in motorsport. Many Le Mans veterans including Jo Schlesser(7 Le Mans starts), Jim Clark(3 Le Mans starts, 3rd place in 1960), Mike Spence(2 Le Mans starts), and Ludovico Scarfiotti(8 Le Mans starts, 1st place in 1963, 2nd place in 1967) were killed while racing. Several others suffered serious injuries like Brian Redman or Chris Irwin.
The remnants of Mauro Bianchi's A220.
This race was no exception, Willy Mairesse and Mauro Bianchi(brother of the winner, Lucien Bianchi) suffered career-ending injuries, with Mairesse taking his life a year later. Even the race winners Lucien Bianchi and Pedro Rodriguez were able to drive as both Jacky Icx and Brian Redman; the original drivers had serious injuries a few months ago. The tragedy continued, with Lucien Bianchi being killed in an accident in the 1969 Le Mans, and Rodriguez at the 1971 Norisring race. This was the point where not only the outside world but racers themselves started asking, "Is this okay?" Jacky Ickx would famously start next year's Le Mans by walking to his car instead of running, as a sign of protest to the Le Mans start that ended Mairesse's career, and in 1970, the Le Mans start was finally gone.
The 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans was a significant milestone in motor racing, both for good and bad reasons. This year's Le Mans will also be another 1968-like year, hence the new schedule and huge upcoming changes in regulations phasing out the LMP1 cars. But, let's hope that the parallel ends there. We sincerely hope all Le Mans drivers this year the best of luck and safety.