This edition of Quentin Spurring’s fabulous series covers the 1970s in his well-known and valuable decade-by-decade history of the Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race. The decade from 1970 to 1979, certainly saw some of the most memorable race cars in recent times take to the track.
This ten-year period commenced with Porsche’s first victory in the French race (1970), and included the rise of turbo power, victories by Matra (1972, 1973 & 1974) and Renault (1978), and culminated with the first victory by a privateer Porsche team (1979). The Gulf-Mirage scored one victory (1975), with Porsche romping home first on no less than five occasions (1970, 1971, 1976, 1977 & 1979). Porsche’s haul of five wins in ten years was quite remarkable for a manufacturer who, a decade earlier, had not scored a single overall victory at Le Mans.
The opening couple of years saw the mighty Porsche 917 going head-to-head with the potent Ferrari 512 S and 512 M, but if truth be told, the Ferraris lacked the development time and commitment by the factory to be a serious, regular contender. But the potential, or anticipated contest between these two, was always a possibility. In 1972, the new 3-litre maximum permitted engine capacity rule came into force, which saw the French Matra’s rise to the occasion, winning three years in succession, much to the delight of the local spectators.
The early ‘70s was also the era of the big Ferrari 365 GTBs, or Daytonas to you and I, these cars being powered by a mighty 4.4-litre V12 engine, making them easily a lot faster than the Porsche 911s. The by now old Porsche 908 refused to lie down and die, as no fewer than seven of these stalwarts were entered in the ’72 race, along with a single Porsche 907. The Joest-entered 908 LH finished a fine third overall.
In ’73 the fantastic Ferrari 312 PB, which had wrapped up the previous season’s championship with ten victories, came up against some serious competition in the Matra and Mirage. The evergreen Porsche 908 was still going strong this year, finishing with two out of the top seven places. This year saw some gripping battles down in the Sports, GT and Touring classes, where 911s did battle against Daytonas, BMWs and Corvettes. What a wonderful sight it must have been to see these fantastic cars going door handle-to-door handle for 24 hours. Along with the Ferrari 312 PBs, a clutch of Alfa T33s were also always a threat to the leaders, should they have lasted the distance.
The Matras were still the cars to beat in ’74, but famously, the Porsche 911 Carrera RSR Turbo of Gijs van Lennep and Herbert Müller finished in an impressive second place overall. This was the opening salvo fired by the Stuttgart manufacturer, which heralded a new era of turbo power with the first turbocharged 911 at Le Mans. Sportscar racing was in the grip of a sharp downturn in the mid-70s, thanks in part to the OPEC fuel crisis, but the ever-changing rules did not help the situation either. As a result of all of this shuffling of classes, cars and rules, the Le Mans race was run outside of the FIA World Championship for the first time since 1956. The mid-point of the decade would belong to the Gulf Mirage M8 of Ickx and Bell, with the sister car finishing in third place. Just in case you thought that you had seen the last of the Porsche 908s, the Joest-entered car finished in fourth place!
After some years away from Le Mans with an official factory team, Porsche returned with a pair of Martini-sponsored 936s in 1976. This was also the first year for the mighty 935, a model that, in its various guises, would make the international racing stage its own for many years to come. This year would see the 936 of Ickx/van Lennep take the chequered flag with the top 935 finishing in fourth place. The ’77 race would see a squad of one works 935 and five privateer 935s together with a host of 911s in support of the two works 936s. Although the winning car was again a Porsche 936, which limped across the finishing line, Porsche had the GT class much to itself taking the Group 5 and Group 4 classes, while a BMW 3.0 CSL took the IMSA GT class. All three of the works Renault-Alpine A442s failed to finish, much to the embarrassment of the team, and the suits.
The 1978 race was notable, for Renault at least, as this year saw them victorious with Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud taking the honours in a much-improved Renault-Alpine A442B. This car was followed home in second and third places by the works Porsche 936-78 and 936-77. Filling places 5-6-7-8 were four Porsche 935s with the much-loved 935-78 ‘Moby Dick’ of Rolf Stommelen and Manfred Schurti coming home in eighth place. Porsches would win the Group 5, IMSA GT and Group 4 classes that year. Four Ferrari 512 BB cars appeared at Le Mans and although only one would finish, the cars from Maranello added some excitement to the mix.
The final race of the decade went completely against expectations. All the main contenders had problems, including the two Porsche 936-79s. The weather was atrocious, and this is where the Group 5 cars had an advantage as their engine bays were better protected and being heavier, they sat better on the track which was at times awash with water. 1979 was definitely the year that the Porsche 935 came of age, as the first four places were occupied by these Group 5 cars. At the top of the leaderboard was the #41 Kremer Porsche 935 K3 driven by the Whittington brothers Don and Bill, together with Klaus Ludwig. In second place was the #70 Dick Barbour Racing 935 driven by Barbour, Rolf Stommelen and Paul Newman (the actor). Due to the terrible weather, this proved to be the slowest Le Mans race since 1958.
After each year’s summary, the reader will find informative and helpful tables and data relating to that year. At the back of the book are a number of very useful summaries, by year, showing driver stats, nationality of drivers, winning tyre companies, fastest qualifying times, fastest race laps, pie charts by year and much more. One interesting stat is the fastest speed through the speed trap which in 1971 was set by the Porsche 917 L at 225 mph (362 km/h). In 1978, this was equalled exactly by the Renault-Alpine A443 at precisely 225 mph (362 km/h).
This book is once again, an excellent account of the ten years between 1970 and 1979, providing all the information you could want for each race in that decade, which is of great value when analysing certain races, drivers and more. If the 1970s was your favourite decade of racing, then this edition is an absolute must for you.
Le Mans: The Official History of the World’s Greatest Motor Race 1970–79
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