When F1 visited Le MansWritten by Αυγερινός Δημακόπουλος
Translated by Ioannis Binas
Over the years Formula 1 was hosted in various venues, sometimes permanent and sometimes temporary.
In July 1967 though, the pinnacle of motorsport was destined to visit, in the context of the French GP, the place where the crown jewel of endurance racing was being held, the 24 hours of Le Mans.
Saying place we don’t mean the legendary 13,6 kilometer long circuit de la Sarthe but the then newly built 4,4 kilometer Bugatti.
Towards the middle of the 60s, it became apparent that the area needed a permanent racetrack, as the course where the 24 hour race was held was mostly comprised of public roads.
Thus, behind the teams’ parking space, a smaller circuit was created that took its name after Ettore Bugatti, founder of the homonymous automaker.
The two courses share the start-finish straight from the Ford’s chicanes to the spot after Dunlop’s bridge, where the route of the endurance race turns left to meet the big straight whereas the one of the smaller circuit continues right into Chapelle.
It was inaugurated on 1965 and the Automobile Club of France (ACF) wanting to promote the new circuit, hosted there the 1967 French Grand Prix.
It was the fifth race of an unpredictable year as the first four races had different winners.
Pedro Rodriguez with Cooper Maserati had won in South Africa, whereas 5 months later in Monaco, Denny Hulme prevailed on behalf of Jack Brabham’s team.
In the Netherlands, Jim Clark claimed the win in an ideal debut of the new Lotus 49 and the brand new Ford DFV Cosworth, while in Belgium it was Dan Gurney’s turn with the Eagle Weslake of his team, Anglo American Racers.
That was the second year of the new engine regulations that were limiting cubic capacity of the naturally aspirated units to 3 liters and most of the teams were trying to adapt.
Cooper had Maserati’s 12-cylider units; Brabham the reliable V8s of the Australian Repco, Ferrari and Honda their own V12s and Anglo American Racers used the 12-cylinder units of Weslake, another British engine craftsmanship.
Lotus had the exclusivity on the new Ford Cosworth, while BRM was testing a 16-cylinder engine in H arrangement that would prove unreliable though.
Ferrari appeared in France only with Chris Amon as its other driver, Mike Parkes, had sustained a serious injury at Spa, while Ludovico Scarfiotti refused to race being a witness of the accident at Belgium as well as of than in Monaco that cost the life of Lorenzo Bandini.
Cooper arranged 4 single-seaters for Jochen Rindt, Pedro Rodriguez, Jo Siffert and Guy Ligier (later founder of the homonymous team) with the latter two comprising private entries.
Bruce McLaren appeared without his team as the new M5A was not ready yet and he would race with an Eagle for Dan Gurney’s team.
BRM competed with Mike Spence, Jackie Stewart and Chris Irwin with the latter racing for the private team of Reg Parnell.
Spence and Irwin would use the 16-cylinder engine as opposed to Stewart who opted for the more reliable 2-liter V8 with which he had also raced at Monaco.
In the inside of the track’s corners, there were hald-burried tires to discourage drivers from stepping to the dirt, while in their exits, hay stacks had been placed to secure the contestants’… safety.
The qualifying developed into a a duel between Jack Brabham and Graham Hill with the Brit’s Lotus prevailing for just a second, giving him the 10nth pole position of his career in spite of the problems he was having with his engine’s ignition.
The first row was completed with Dan Gurney, followed by Clark, McLaren, Hulme, Amon, Rindt, Irwin, Stewart, Siffert, Spence, Rodriguez, Anderson and Ligier.
Jim Clark dealt with a similar to Hill’s problem, in a worst form though, something that led Lotus to change his engine before the race.
On Sunday, a crowd of just 20.000 spectators gathered to watch the Grand Prix, making the comparison to the 24 hour race, quite unfair, where, usually spectators were exceeding 100.000.
From the 21 participants, only 15 qualified and took their positions on the grid.
At that time, three single-seaters were starting from the first row, two from the second, three from the next and so on.
At the start, Hill took the lead with Gurney, Brabham and Clark following him.
On the completion of the first lap, Brabham moved in front and remained there for 3 laps, when the lead went to Clark.
Then, Hill, who has reached 2nd place, moved to the lead and the two really fast Lotuses started to expand their margin from the rest, revealing the power of the Ford Cosworth.
On lap 13 however, Hill retired from a problem with the differential and 10 laps later, Clark followed him for the same reason, giving the lead to Brabham.
The Australian gave a fight with Gurney until the 40th lap, when the American retired with a fuel feed problem, leaving Brabham untroubled in the lead.
His team-mate, Denny Hulme, taking advantage of the others’ casualties, silently climbed to 2nd place, demonstrating his consistency that would give him the title at the end of the season.
Further back, Amon was holding 3rd place up to lap 47, when a problem with his Ferrari’s throttle pushed him out of the race, leaving his place to Stewart, who was already a lap behind.
Halfway into the race, the retirement order was as follows: Anderson, Spence, McLaren and Rindt, while Rodriguez and Ligier stopped for repairs at the pits and rejoined after having lost a lot of ground.
Chris Irwin’s engine was losing oil towards the end of the race and breathed its last on the final lap, promoting Jo Siffert to fouth place.
Brabham and Hulme, enjoying the reliability of Repco’s V8 made the 1-2 with the Australian becoming the 5th winner in 5 races, while Stewart finished 3rd, 2 laps behind.
Siffert grabbed 4th; Irwin, who retired on the final lap, classified 5th (as he was on the same lap with the Swiss) and Pedro Rodriguez completed the points six finishing 4 laps behind.
That was the 12th win for Jack Brabham in Formula 1, 8th for his team and 6th for Repco’s engines.
After the French Grand Prix, Danny Hulme was leading the championship standings with 22 points and was followed by Brabham with 16, Rodriguez with 12, Amon with 11 and Clark - Stewart with 10.
F1 would then head to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix but would never again return to Le Mans.
The Bugatti didn’t become particularly popular among drivers, who were expressing their preference for the 24 hour circuit, as it closely matched the tracks they were used to racing at that time such as The 22 kilometer long Nurburgring and the old 14 kilometer Spa.
Back then, the short length and low spectator attendace put a brake for the continuation of F1 presence at the venue, but the Bugatti managed to survive to this day and actually be among the most popural and busy European circuits.
With the French Grand Prix being absent from F1 for many years whilst the 24 hours of Le Mans are more popular than ever, maybe a revival o 1967 wouldn’t be a bad idea, right Bernie…?