Fifty years ago, for the first and so far only time, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was held in September. Here we recall some of the drama and exploits that saw the 1968 race go down in history.
For Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi, the quest for Le Mans victory had been long and fraught with difficulties, that is until 29 September 1968. Rodriguez finally clinched the win on his 11th outing in La Sarthe, having only made it to the finish line once previously (seventh in 1965)! For Bianchi, 1968 marked his 13th and final Le Mans start; he had previously claimed a seventh (1957) and fifth (1964) place.
Out in front – The Porsche 908 started from pole and stayed in front for the first three hours of the race until Hans Herrmann and Jo Siffert were forced to retire with transmission issues. One team’s misfortune is another team’s opportunity, and Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi seized their chance and led the race from the seventh hour to the end.
Henri Pescarolo’s heroics – Unexpectedly, the Matra driven by Henri Pescarolo and Johnny Servoz-Gavin played a decisive role in the race. Pescarolo earned his status as an icon during a spectacular night-time performance in the driving rain when his windscreen wipers broke. The French driver didn’t think such a "stupid" problem was reason enough to pull out of the race. At daybreak on the Sunday, the #24 Matra was second, but it had to retire later in the morning when the car caught fire after a puncture.
Ford, winner and champion – Porsche grabbed two podium spots: on its first Le Mans entry, the 908 finished third (Neerpasch/Stommelen) behind the privateer 907 with Dieter Spoerry and Rico Steinemann at the wheel. In the end, Ford and the German marque had scored five wins each in the World Sportscar Championship, but the Blue Oval took the title with a three-point lead (45 to 42) as only the five best results of the season were counted.
Something for everyone in the final standings – Behind the winning Ford, three manufacturers enjoyed something of a formation finish at the 1968 Le Mans 24 Hours. Porsche, of course, finishing second and third, but also Alfa Romeo (fourth, fifth and sixth) and Alpine (eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh). The eighth-placed Alpine was driven by André de Cortanze, who went on to design the Peugeot 905 that triumphed at the 24 Hours in 1992 and 1993, and the Toyota GT-One that raced in Le Mans in 1998 and 1999.
Ferrari in the Top 10 – Although there was no official entry from the prancing horse, Ferrari finished seventh thanks to David Piper and Richard Attwood. The Ferrari 250 LM driven by the British duo was identical to the car that gave the Italian marque its ninth – and to date, last – overall win in 1965.
Former and future winners on the grid – Three drivers with previous 24 Hours wins under their belt lined up for the start (Masten Gregory, Jean Guichet and Nino Vaccarella), alongside five drivers who would go on to win at Le Mans in the future: Richard Attwood, Hans Herrmann, Gérard Larrousse, Jackie Oliver and Henri Pescarolo.
The 1968 Le Mans 24 Hours was marred by two accidents. Just minutes after Saturday’s start, Willy Mairesse was seriously injured when his door (which hadn’t been closed properly) flew off at Mulsanne. Then, on the Sunday with three hours to go in the race, fellow Belgian Lucien Bianchi was in the lead when he learned that the Alpine driven by his brother Mauro had burst into flames. Both drivers survived but when Mairesse eventually emerged from a long coma, the lasting effects meant he would never race again and he sadly committed suicide in September 1969. That accident triggered a movement that brought an end to the traditional Le Mans start: on Saturday 14 June 1969, in a sign of protest at what he saw as a danger, Jacky Ickx walked slowly over to his car, instead of running, and won the race 24 Hours later ... at the wheel of the Ford GT40 that had won in 1968!
Top photo (Copyright – ACO Archives): The winning Ford GT40 driven by Pedro Rodriguez (seated on the car, champagne in hand) and Lucien Bianchi (at the wheel).
Gallery above, left to right: the Alfa Romeos cross the line one after another, the #24 Matra driven by Henri Pescarolo and Johnny Servoz-Gavin, and the first Alpine to cross the line (P8).