Fifty years ago on June 11, 1967, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney established the first 5,000+ km distance record at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Initially difficult to reach for nearly a quarter century, since the 2,000s that bar has become a veritable symbol of performance and excellence for the winners of the 24 Hours.
In 1967, the first 5,000+ km distance record served as the final climax of the tremendous Ford-Ferrari duel born in 1964. During that period, the American manufacturer's steadfast determination to beat the Italian marque on its preferred playing field culminated in as-yet unseen performances in any race. For Ford's first victory in 1966, New Zealand duo Chris Amon-Bruce McLaren became the first driver line-up to surpass an average of 200 km/h.
The following year, the #1 Ford Mk IV driven by Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt quickly grabbed the lead after the first refueling stops. Ferrari speculated the American prototype's feverish pace would soon prove its demise. However, when the P4 driven Ludovico Scarfiotti and Michael Parkes was finally given the green light to go on the offensive, it was too late. With 5,232 kilometers in its rearview (at an average of 218 km/h), the #1 Ford reached the checkered flag with an impressive four-lap lead on the Ferrari.
These performances compelled the CSI (Commission Sportive Internationale, former incarnation of the current FIA) in 1968 to limit prototypes to 3-liter engines with exception made up to 5-liters for the "Sport" class, and a minimum number of units (50 then 25) produced. Porsche answered this regulatory gap with the 917, appearing for the first time at the 24 Hours in 1969.
Though in 1970 the torrential downpour that flooded Le Mans failed to prevent the German manufacturer's first victory, all records were beaten in qualifying...before being trumped once again, even in-race, one year later.
In 1971, Mexican driver Pedro Rodriguez set a pole position record that would hold for 14 years, surpassing the lap average of 250 km/h for the first time ever. Impeded during the first half of the race by alternator belt troubles then contact with another car, winners Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep pulled off a remarkable climb that saw them claim the lead in the 13th hour.
Fourteen years after Foyt and Gurney, the Austrian and the Dutch driver became the second duo to go further than 5,000 in-race, even blowing out of the water the two Americans' record, at an average of 222 km/h (5,335 km). That performance would remain the one to beat for 39 years. It was the Le Mans swan song for the 917 that went on to find refuge in the U.S. in 1972 and 1973 after another change to the regulations.
Thereafter, as a result of variations in the regulations and race conditions, to make it to the 5,000 km mark was no easy feat: in the following three decades, only six winning driver line-ups were successful in 1978, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1989 and 1993. The arrival of Audi, then the return of Peugeot and Porsche, changed the game. From 2000 to 2017, the winners surpassed 5,000 km 15 times, with a new distance record set in 2010.
To be continued in the next installment of this series!
PHOTO (Copyright - Archives/ACO): For their sole win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt gave their all, in the form of a stunning duel with Ferrari and a distance record fit for the history books.