Fifty years ago, for the first and so far only time, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was held in September. It was a year unlike no other and against a background of political upheaval, the race also went down in history.
The 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans was originally scheduled for 15-16 June, but with the social unrest that swept France in May that year, the race was postponed to 28-29 September. It thus became the closing round of the World Sportscar Championship.
New regulations -As performance levels scaled new heights with the Ford-Ferrari clash in 1967, the CSI (International Sporting Commission, the predecessor of the FIA) stepped in to restrict the prototypes’ engine capacity to three litres for 1968. They also created a ‘Sport’ class (with a maximum engine capacity of five litres and mandatory production of at least 50 cars), which meant Ford could continue to compete.
A fourth win for Ford? - Five GT40s lined up on the grid, including three fielded by John Wyer sporting the iconic Gulf sky blue and orange livery and driven by Pedro Rodriguez/Lucien Bianchi (#9), Paul Hawkins/David Hobbs (#10) and Brian Muir/Jackie Oliver (#11).
Strong presence for the absent Ferrari! - Enzo Ferrari was against the new regulations and decided that his marque would not field an official entry at the 1968 24 Hours. However, five cars were fielded by some of the Italian manufacturer’s long-standing partners, such as the North American Racing Team managed by three-time winner Luigi Chinetti, Swiss outfit Scuderia Filipinetti, and privateers like British driver David Piper. The battle for the 1968 world manufacturers’ title was thus fought between Ford and Porsche.
Porsche sets the bar high - Contrary to Ford and Ferrari, Porsche decided to go along with the new 3-litre regulations and stepped its quest for victory up a notch by entering four of its new prototype, the 908, driven by Hans Herrmann/Jo Siffert (#31), Vic Elford/Gerhard Mitter (#32), Jochen Neerpasch/Rolf Stommelen (#33), and Joe Buzzetta/Scooter Patrick (#34). Powered by the new flat-8 engine, the 908 was the first Porsche truly designed with the overall win in its sights. The team’s aspirations became clear right from qualifying when Jo Siffert gave the German carmaker its first ever Le Mans pole.
Howmet gambles on the turbine - On the grid, alongside Alfa Romeo, Alpine, Matra, Moynet and the Chevrolet Corvette, there were a couple of Howmet TXs (Turbine eXperimental) powered by a turbine engine. The cars were driven by Dick Thompson/Ray Heppenstall (#22) and Bob Tullius/Hugh Dibley (#23). The Howmet has regularly featured at Le Mans Classic in recent years and if you are anywhere near the pitlane when its engine starts, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the spectacular whirr for a helicopter!
An early start - The 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans started at 3 pm instead of the usual time of 4 pm, to give the drivers an extra hour of daylight driving on the Saturday.
When the drivers ran over to their cars at 3 pm at the start of the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans, Porsche topped the provisional standings of the World Sportscar Championship, with Ford just a couple of points behind. To find out how the race played out, see the next episode of our saga!
Photo (Copyright - ACO Archives): In 1968, the #31 908 driven by Jo Siffert and Hans Herrmann became the first Porsche ever to take pole at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.