At the Rétromobile show in Paris (6-10 February), the 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum booth - dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the return of the race in 1949 - welcomed the Drivers' Club on Wednesday 6 February. Participants were inspired to discuss a few remarkable stories from Ferrari's win that year for its very first participation.
In his opening speech, Fabrice Bourrigaud - Director of the 24 Hours Museum and the ACO's Pôle Culture & Héritage - confirmed an upcoming 1949 exhibition, the year of Ferrari's first victory at the race thanks to Luigi Chinetti and Lord Selsdon. President of the Drivers' Club and two-time Le Mans winner (1973-1974) Gérard Larrousse then took the stage, sharing how he first came to know the 24 Hours circuit at the wheel of a Ferrari GTO.
Among the other drivers on the scene, one had a special link to Luigi Chinetti and Ferrari. In 1972, Pierre Laffeach took the start at his first 24 Hours of Le Mans at the wheel of a car fielded by Luigi Chinetti's North American Racing Team (NART) after making his mark in one of the French single-seater ladder series that served as a first step for any young driver on the rise in the discipline.
Pierre Laffeach: "I finished second in the Volant Shell at Le Mans, but the credit was given to Jean-Louis Schlesser who was unable to participate in that finale. In exchange, the ACO put me in a NART car along with Gilles Doncieux and Yves Forestier. John Baus, Luigi Chinetti's right-hand man within NART, took care of our day-to-day wonderfully. Mr. Chinetti was always in the pit keeping his eye on everything, but his presence did not bring any undue pressure."
In 1972, NART fielded five cars: a Corvette, three Ferrari 365 GTB/4s and the Dino 246 GT driven by Pierre Laffeach: "Gilles Doncieux and I managed to qualify the car, but Yves Forestier failed to clock the necessary time and therefore had to withdraw from the race. The Dino was not easy to drive, it was totally neutral and did not start from the front nor the back, so you had to drive it with your fingertips." Also, rain disrupted that 40th running of the 24 Hours. "During the race, Gilles Doncieux and I did stints every four hours. At one point shortly after I refueled, I slid with cold tires at the Tertre Rouge and the car slipped under the barrier. I got out of the car when a fire started near the fuel tank that had just been filled. The marshals were able to extinguish it quickly and pull the car out, so I finished my lap and returned to the pit where the mechanics inspected the Dino. They found the car was undamaged and we were off again."
Four of the five NART cars made it to the checkered flag, including Pierre Laffeach and Gilles Doncieux's Dino, finishing 17th. "My first laps of the 24 Hours circuit were fantastic of course, but my strongest memory is being at the wheel at the finish. To finish my first 24 Hours with such a car for such a team, I had tears in my eyes," recalls Pierre Laffeach. "We were awarded a silver trophy with Luigi Chinetti Trophy on it, as well as a congratulatory card from John Baus which I have at home. They were all the more thrilled because we had been driven the only Dino 246 GT ever to finish the 24 Hours."
Pierre Laffeach competed in the 24 Hours three times in all. After the Dino, he drove a Porsche 911 in 1974 (12th) and 1976 (14th), the latter scoring a class win. "I was supposed to do the 24 Hours with NART in 1975, but that year Luigi Chinetti withdrew all of his cars. But I am very happy to have finished the three runnings in which I did participate," concludes with a smile Pierre Laffeach, whose name will always figure in the history and track record of Ferrari as well as Porsche at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
PHOTO (Copyright - Louis Monnier/ACO): In this group photo taken of the Drivers' Club at the 2019 Rétromobile show, Club president Gérard Larrousse is at the wheel of the Ferrari 166 MM normally housed in the 24 Hours museum. This model won the race in 1949 thanks to Luigi Chinetti and Lord Selsdon. Driver of Luigi Chinetti's NART Dino 246 GT in 1972, Pierre Laffeach figures in the second row (third from the left).