1969 was the last year of the Beatles together, the year of Woodstock and the end of the hippie era but it had also been the last year of the Le Mans start. The 1970 edition of the 24 Heures would see many unique happenings: A weird start with the cars in their traditional Le Mans layout but with drivers already in them, a certain Steve McQueen shooting for what would become a classic film among racing fans and the so-called Battle of the Titans between two very powerful cars ending on the first overall victory for Porsche.
In fact the duel between the three John Wyer Porsche 917s and the four works Ferrari 512S was never as thrilling as in the film: a multiple crash in the rain would cripple the red team and leave one lonely car that never made it through the night and several issues would have the legendary Gulf-sponsored cars retire leaving the victory to the number 23 Porsche Salzburg 917 of Dick-Attwood and Hans Herrmann. For the first time one make got the win in all classes and all classified Porsches and Ferraris were private teams.
The following year would see the fastest lap to date at Le Mans, the longest distance covered at 5335 km and the first rolling start which has been kept until now. The Porsches had again the edge but victory would again escape the Gulf-Wyer team and go rather to the Martini Porsche 917 of Helmut Marko-Gijs van Lennep, for the second time the short-tail 917 K (kurzheck) would beat the "made for Le Mans" 917 LH (langheck). Neither the privately entered Ferrari 512Ms nor the Alfa Romeos could beat the pace of the best racing car of the century in its last outing at La Sarthe.
For 1972 rules had changed and the 3-litre engince limit had completely altered the picture, much to the advantage of the small French Matra-Simcas who would become unbeatable emperors of Le Mans, this year with no real challenge as ferrari was absent. This first victory was in the hands of Henri Pescarolo-Grahan Hill making the briton the only man to date to win Indianapolis, the Monaco GP and Le Mans with another Matra completing a neat 1-2 for the blue prototypes. Jo Bonnier was killed in an unfortunate accident leaving endurance racing without one of its main drivers and team owners.
With the circuit now modified adding a complete new White House section, the next year would see a well earned Matra victory in an all-out fight with the all-but-Le-Mans conquering Ferrari 312. Henri Pescarolo was again part of the winning team partnered this time by Gérard Larrousse and they would repeat in 1974 even when gearbox failure kept them 47 minutes in the pits and put their lead at stake. After their third victory in a row Matra would leave Le Mans and 1975 would see some familiar colors return to victory.
And it was Gulf sponsored Mirage which would bring a British car back to the top of the podium driven by Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell and a first victory for the DFV Cosworth engine at Le Mans. John Wyer’s team met again with victory in a year where the big works teams were absent and other names like Ligier or de Cadenet would continue growing as part of Le Mans’history.
1976 would see again familiar faces on the podium when Gijs van Lennep and Jacky Ickx would help return Porsche to the first spot at la Sarthe. The Porsche-martini team would start a long era of Porsche domination where having another manufacturer winning would certainly become a rare exception. Both the Porsches and their main rivals Alpine-Renault were using turbo engines in which would also be a change for the 24 Hour race. There was also a certain Jean Rondeau introducing a nice prototype called Inaltera…more about him later.
Alpine-Renault came back in 1977 with three cars but none of them would see the finish so victory was assured for the Jacky Ickx-Hurley Haywood-Juergen Barth Porsche when drama would come back to Le Mans in its typical fashion: a piston broke on the leading car with only minutes to go. Given their huge advantage Porsche decided to take a major risk and waited until 15:50 to send Barth back to the track with a crippled car to finish the 24 Hour race almost at walking pace in a very dramatic way. A fourth victory for Ickx and a finish for both de Cadenet (now in his own car) and the Inalteras of Jean Rondeau.
But there is always a revanche and after their 1977 disaster Alpine-Renault managed to get their win in 1978 with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud-Didier Pironi beating the Porsches fair and square in a race that saw Porsche even change Ickx to a better placed car in a futile attempt to give him his fifth victory. Renault retired from endurance after this victory so 1979 would see Porsche be total favorites with practically no opposition.
And while Porsche would effectively win again with Klaus Ludwig and Bill and Don Whittington, the big news was the second placed car since one of the drivers was Paul Newman getting to the podium on his first attempt on the race of races. The 70s would close then like they started: Porsche on top and a Hollywood actor on the spotlight. The 80s would start in a very different fashion, with the first ever constructor-driver to take the honors… but this is another story…..
(Links to previous chapters are on our "News" tab- top of this page- in the "Endurance history" section)