Gijs van Lennep left his mark on the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice. He won the legendary endurance race in 1971 (Porsche 917 K) with Helmut Marko, now in charge of drivers with Red Bull Racing, then in 1976 (Porsche 936) with icon Jacky Ickx. Here's a look at the Dutch driver's career in motorsport.
Gijs van Lennep participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans a grand total of seven times after debuting at the race in 1970 at the wheel of a Porsche 917 K. "It was a year for firsts: the first time I competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans or drove the Porsche 917. I remember the car very well, it was truly powerful with a 4.5-liter engine, well-prepared and I was with a good team. Everything was on point early in the race. I recall that night, around 10:30 p.m., we had nearly a six-minute lead on Richard Attwood (the future winner of the race, Ed.) and it began raining. David (Piper, his teammate, Ed.) was in the car and there was an accident. He was able to work on the car, and after about 45 minutes, he managed to return to the pit. An additional 45 minutes were necessary to repair the car. So I started off again, but once I got into fifth gear, going about 310 km/h, the front right of the auto was thwarted by a flat tire and I hit the safety barrier. That was the end of that!"
The second attempt was much more successful. Van Lennep won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Helmut Marko, and it remains to this day his favorite win, though it presented some challenges thanks to bearings and brake problems. "1971 was a fantastic victory, especially since it wasn't expected we should win! We had the magnesium chassis which was experimental. A lot of things were new on the car, including the brakes with small holes. The Porsche 917 LHs (Lang Heck in German, Long Neck in English, Ed.) were 20 km/h faster than the 917 K in the straights. However, they had some troubles (engine and oil leak, Ed.). Despite some troubles, we found ourselves in the lead at four in the morning. Everything went well until four hours from the finish when we had a problem with a cracked brake disc. The car that was behind us, the #19 Porsche 917 K (John Wyer Automotive Engineering, Herbert Muller and Richard Attwood, Ed.) was trailing by 30 minutes. The Martin Racing Team team manager told us if we changed the discs and pads, we could not win. He said the solution was simply don't brake! So that's what we did, we almost stopped braking entirely, taking on the curves slowly. Our lap times increased, but the Porsche 917 driven by John Wyer also had troubles. In the end, our Porsche won and the Porsche Gulf finished second. That year, Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep established a distance record (5,335 kilometers at an average of 222 km/h) that would hold until 2010.
Five year later, in 1976, he triumphed again. "Ah that win with Jacky Ickx! It was a superb race, but again with a few worries. We took the lead quickly and first had a problem with the injection pump, forcing Jacky to stop at the edge of the track. He cleverly managed to repair and returned slowly to the pit. Then, following muffler trouble, the turbo no longer delivered full power. During a stop, the team changed out the turbo as well as the exhaust. It was difficult for the mechanics, the pipes were burning hot. Fortunately, we had a big enough margin of time on our side and even after the repairs, we still held a three-lap lead." The Porsche 936 won the race with an 11-lap lead on the Mirage GR8 driven by Jean Louis Lafosse and François Migault. It would be van Lennep's last hoorah. Shortly after the 1976 24 Hours of Le Mans, he "decided and made the announcement that it would be [his] last race. I was lucky to win (laughs, Ed.)."
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was without question the most challenging race he ever did. "At Le Mans, something always happens, it's never a walk in the park! I always had technical and mechanical concerns, except in 1975. I was drove a Porsche Carrera RSR that year. Other than my teammate John Fitzpatrick's spin out, we had no problems. Pit stop refueling, take care of the windshield and tires, and that's it. Actually, at that edition, I believe we only spent 17 minutes in the pits! We finished fifth, winning our class."
One of van Lennep's last appearances in France took place at the Le Mans Classic. Initially, the two-time 24 Hours winner was supposed to take the wheel of a Porsche 908 Long Tail. "I decided not to take part in the races. I'm too old now. I can still drive but I like to feel comfortable in the car. I didn't feel great in the Porsche 908 LH I was scheduled to drive. The driving position was not good, braking wasn't ideal either and everything moved in that car. Also, to change certain gears, it was hard on my arm. The Porsche 908 LH is known to be difficult to drive anyway. Everyone who's ever driven one agrees. I didn't think it was the car for me anymore. I think a car like the Porsche 911 Turbo RSR is easier."
Gijs van Lennep's track record at the 24 Hours of Le Mans:
1970 : Porsche 917 K (David Piper) with David Pipe (incident, retirement)
1971 : Porsche 917 K (Martini Racing Team) with Helmut Marko (winner)
1972 : Lola T280 (Ecurie Bonnier Switzerland) with Jo Bonnier and Gérard Larrousse (incident, retirement)
1973 : Porsche Carrera (Martini Racing Team) with Herbert Muller (4th)
1974 : Porsche Turbo RSR (Martini Racing Team) with Herbert Muller (2nd)
1975 : Porsche Carrera RSR (Gelo Racing Team) with John Fitzpatrick, Manfred Schurti and Toine Hezemans (5th)
1976 : Porsche 936 (Martini Racing Porsche System) with Jacky Ickx (winner)