The Marathon de la Route, an 84-hour epic endurance race run between 1965-1971, was an event that pushed both car and driver to breaking point. With some really unique rules, this race must go down in history as the world’s longest motor race. It was certainly one of the most demanding motor sport events ever, and yet so little of the race is known.
Broken down into its constituent parts, the Marathon de la Route translates into: marathon – a test of endurance, especially in a competition; and, de la route – of the road. In reality, the Marathon de la Route was nothing other than an extreme endurance race and was referred to by competitors as the ‘World’s Longest Motor Race’, a name which went some way towards describing this epic test of human and mechanical stamina and survival.
But the Marathon de la Route, created to replace the equally tough Liège-Rome-Liège rally, would only enjoy a short existence, being run between 1965 and 1971. The Marathon’s predecessor, Belgium’s Liège-Rome-Liège, was little more than a thinly disguised road race over some of Europe’s toughest mountain roads. For the first thirty years, from 1931-1960, the race was called the Liège-Rome-Liège but between 1961-1964 it was re-routed and re-named the Liège-Sofia-Liège.
The year 1955, the Liège-Rome-Liège’s silver jubilee year and a decade before being superseded by the Marathon, saw a record entry of 141 of Europe’s finest long-distance race and rally drivers. Despite this record entry, only 56 teams would complete the gruelling 3100-mile route which saw the factory Mercedes-Benz 300 SL driven by Pierre Stasse and Olivier Gendebien take the honours. The route took in six countries and included more than 30 mountain passes, and was completed in just over 90 hours of almost non-stop driving. Other top sports car contenders included Lancia, Porsche 550 Spyder, Alfa Romeo Zagato, BMW, Jaguar, Triumph and many other top marques, while the driver’s contingent was bolstered by the likes of Jacky Ickx, Herbert Linge and even Nuvolari’s mechanic!
Far from being the sole domain of the big and powerful sports racing cars, the Liège-Rome-Liège rally often saw winners coming from amongst the smaller, more nimble contenders such as MG, Porsche, Alfa Romeo and others. However, spectator and driver safety proved difficult on the difficult public roads where competitors had to contend with normal cars, livestock and other local challenges lurking around almost every corner. Together with the challenging logistics of getting stricken cars repaired, eventually forced the organisers to reconsider the future of this event.
With the sharp growth in traffic around Europe in the 1960s, and the increased performance of these sports racing cars, spurred on by fierce manufacturer and national rivalry, it was only a matter of time before this ‘open’ road race would cease to be run on public roads. Hence the Marathon de la Route was born with the first of the new format races taking place between 24-28 August, 1965. Herbert Linge agrees, “In those days they couldn’t get the permission to drive on the old roads, so they moved it to the Nürburgring for 84 hours.”
Why did motor manufacturers subject their vehicles to such a tortuous test as the Marathon de la Route? The answer for Porsche, was probably the same as for all manufacturers who participated, as Günter Steckkönig explains, “Mr Bott, the Chief Engineer in Development at this time, said that we should always take our new systems or new development work to the Marathon de la Route as a test. He told us that it was always much cheaper to do this race than go to the ‘Ring for testing [privately].
“We did a lot of test driving on the south circuit anyway, because it was only 7.7 km and you completed one lap quicker compared with the north circuit, and therefore obtained more results.”
Participating in the Marathon de la Route was like driving three and half Le Mans 24-Hours, back-to-back, and the only drivers really used to this race duration were rally drivers. Herbert Linge again, “Many of the drivers in this race came from the big rallies in Europe, like the Liège-Rome-Liège and Tour de Force. They were used to this long-distance driving and also the night time driving.”
Manufacturers liked the event because it gave them an opportunity to test their cars and any new components as Linge explained, “They did not have too many spectators there, so if something went wrong it was not so bad. And it was also a very good test for them before their new models went into the production.”
The Marathon was created with some of the strangest, but also the most interesting rules, of any motor sport event of the time. For instance, teams had to complete the same number of laps in the last twelve hours as they had done in the first twelve hours. Another rule was that in the first four hours you could take a maximum of 30 minutes for one lap, and after the first four hours you had to complete one lap every twenty-four minutes, as any teams exceeding this time resulted in disqualification (one lap of the combined North and South circuits was 28.265 km).
Refuelling was done using a normal petrol pump before the pits, but tyre changes and driver changes were done at the team’s pits. Every stop in the pits exceeding one minute resulted in a one lap penalty deducted from the team’s total lap count. In this way, pit stops were very short, and so repairs could be carried out in one of three ways: firstly, a driver could do any repairs out on the track with the spares and tools he carried in the car. Another option was to carry out repairs in a dedicated area away from the pits, a kind of parc ferme, where the driver could repair a broken part. A team engineer or technician could offer advice but he had to stand outside of the designated area and could not bring tools or parts to help with the repair, he could only offer verbal assistance.
Herbert Linge, winner in 1968 recalls with amusement, “You know, we found a lot of parts along the circuit. Sometimes you might find a drive shaft in the woods, or drivers who lost a fan belt after driving for 20 hours, they would find a fan belt somewhere in the hills and you put it in the car and bring it back to the parc ferme.”
No penalty was incurred if repair work was done in the parc ferme, but as you had to drive past your pit to reach this area, you had effectively started a new lap and so a driver could pull into this area to work on the car but he would still have to complete his lap in twenty-four minutes. The driver would always have to keep one eye on the clock and if the repair was going to mean that his lap time would exceed the twenty-four minutes, then he would have to leave the repair incomplete and return to finish the repair perhaps the next lap.
The third repair option was to stop in the pits where it was possible for two people, perhaps the driver and one mechanic, or two mechanics, to work on the car. This, however, had to be done with the twenty-four-minute rule in mind, and with the lost lap penalty being applied for every minute stopped in the pits. A car was only allowed to be stationary in the pits for up to twenty minutes, beyond which the team would be disqualified.
However, in order for the teams to effect repairs on their cars, which over 84 hours were subjected to extreme punishment, a relief window was provided where repairs could be done for a period of up to twenty minutes where no penalty would be incurred. This window of opportunity occurred between laps 75-80, again between laps 150-155, and between laps 225-230 and also between laps 300-305. So, if a team could ‘save’ up their repairs for a distance of 75 laps (or approximately every 2120 km), then these repairs could be carried out without penalty during this time.
Günter Steckkönig again, “I think it was also very interesting for the engineers and technicians. I think it was a nice event.”
Scrutineering was done at the Palais de Princes Eveques (Palace of the Prince Bishops, now the Palace of Justice) in Liège (Lüttich) after which the cars were driven from Liège to the Nürburgring where the race started at one ‘o clock at night. Setting the grid for the Marathon was quite a straight forward affair as no conventional lap qualifying was undertaken for grid positions, instead the race authorities simply placed the fastest cars at the front and that was the order in which they would start.
Marshalling an event like the Marathon over three and a half days at the Nürburgring was no easy task, and the Belgian Army played a big part as Günter Steckkönig explains, “Around the circuit a lot of soldiers were positioned, and every time a car came into the pit, a Kommissar was on hand to watch what was being done. Just like at Le Mans, you had to notify the Kommissar that you were now taking over the car as driver.”
The young Steckkönig did his apprenticeship at the Porsche factory in 1953, and later on went to technical school returning to Porsche in the chassis department (Fahrwerkversuch).
From 1962, he worked in the Fahrwerk und Fahrwerkversuch (chassis testing) department doing a lot of tyre testing for all the production cars but also test driving almost all the racing cars. Much of this testing was carried out at the Südschleife.
“I would say that Herbert Linge was the number one test driver at the Porsche factory at this time, and I had the chance to learn a lot from him,” said Steckkönig.
Günter Steckkönig retired from Porsche in 1992.[/full_width]