24 HOURS CENTENARY – PEOPLE AND MACHINES ⎮ In addition to his track record and longevity, Henri Pescarolo's career at the race is also a compelling human interest story. Here is an overview in four parts about determination, victories, encounters, stamina and friendship.
Henri Pescarolo boasts four wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1972, 1973, 1974 and 1984) as well as four decades of participation in the race as a driver from 1966 to 1999 (a record 33 participations) then as a team owner until 2012. But the exceptional nature of Pescarolo's career goes well beyond these few figures, as impressive as they are.
1968 | A rainy night at the 24 Hours of Le Mans
Two years after his rookie 24 Hours, Pescarolo became a bonafide legend well before his first victory at the race with nighttime stints under pressure driving a Matra with broken windscreen wipers. At daybreak, the French driver and teammate Johnny Servoz-Gavin were in second position, but were forced to retire three hours from the chequered flag following a puncture that caused a fire. Henri Pescarolo: "We had worked so hard on the car, the first powered by an engine designed by Matra, replacing the BRM from 1966 and 1967. We finally had a car that allowed us to be a contender in 1968 and I found the idea really stupid to give up with a windscreen wiper problem. When Jean-Luc Lagardère asked me if I wanted to keep going, I didn't hesitate for a second. I left telling myself every lap could be the last because it seemed impossible to drive under those conditions. When I would catch up to a car, I could barely see the red taillights in the water spray and was unable to tell if the car was going right, left or staying in the middle. If I chose the wrong side to overtake, I would end up in the wet grass then in the trees. The performance is seen as exceptional, but my goal was to put the car back where it should be, that is to say in second position."
1984 | Pescarolo fourth, Joest first
For his first win with Matra in 1972, Pescarolo joined forces with British driver Graham Hill. The following year, he welcomed a new teammate, Gérard Larrousse, for two more victories in 1973 and 1974, also with the French marque. He would not return to the top step on the podium for another 10 years.
In 1984, he became the first Frenchman to win the 24 Hours four times (matched later by Yannick Dalmas in 1999) and kicked off the sensational track record of one Reinhold Joest, now the most successful team owner in the history of the race. "I have always really liked Reinhold. I first knew him when he was a driver and continued to follow his career after he became a team owner. Thanks to Moët & Chandon, my partner in aeronautical endeavors, I got a budget and contacted him because he had a Porsche 956, the car that had the best chance of winning again at Le Mans. So for the occasion, I became a paying driver because the budget that had to be brought was quite substantial. I found myself in a very competent team, along with the highly capable Klaus Ludwig. We won the race after a good comeback following a fuel pump problem. It was fantastic, we drove flat out throughout the race to make up for lost time."
A passionate team owner
In the wake of his outstanding career as a racing driver, Pescarolo decided to promote the emergence of young talent. Many of his former drivers have earned remarkable track records at Le Mans and in other disciplines. Benoît Tréluyer, Romain Dumas and Loïc Duval boast six wins at the 24 Hours; Sébastien Bourdais has won the 12 Hours of Sebring and four American Champ Car single-seater titles; the first Swiss driver to win Le Mans, Marcel Fässler is a Pescarolo protégé; and Sébastien Loeb took his first start in 2005, finishing second the following year.
Others have followed in Pescarolo's footsteps and gone on to lead teams themselves, like Nicolas Minassian, former Pescarolo Sport driver then official Peugeot driver, now Sporting Director for the IDEC SPORT Racing team (the 2019 European Le Mans Series title-winner and a major contender in LMP2): "I learned so much from Henri. He was a driver and when he spoke to us, he did it from a driver's perspective. There is also a great deal of respect and a way of talking to drivers that makes it possible to get more out of oneself. From that point of view, Henri had an excellent team, people that would have worked 24/7 for him because he knew how to motivate. That's what I gleaned from Henri for my current work as a team manager, the way to communicate and share the passion because that is also something you feel when you speak with Henri. Car racing is a passion not work. I support the drivers and work in a positive way with them, and also with the engineers and mechanics, to give the driver the best possible car. Everyone is important."
When teammates share loyalty and true friendship
Another characteristic of Pescarolo's legacy at Le Mans is longterm loyalty, inherited from the Matra era. Pescarolo: "I had very meaningful relationships with Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Johnny Servoz-Gavin and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud. It went well beyond simple friendship because we experienced the entire Matra adventure together. It was a little less so in foreign teams, for example at Jaguar, where we were sort of international mercenaries from all walks of motorsport."
Grandson of fashion designer Nina Ricci, Jean-Louis Ricci joined Pescarolo in 1989, 1990 and 1992, forging a strong friendship: "Jean-Louis and I were truly friends who chose to do the 24 Hours of Le Mans together. Our friendship started out rather curiously. Initially, he had formed a team with a Spice chassis and contacted me to drive it. It was surprising because Jean-Louis had preferred to drive one of Reinhold's Porsche 962 Cs, with Claude Ballot-Léna as a teammate, as he fielded another car for his own team. When he asked me to drive with him, he eventually realised that things were much better with the Porsche. Then we continued on together, with Jacques Laffite then Bob Wollek. In a way, Jean-Louis was one of the initiators of the gentlemen driver movement as we know it today. He did it with a lot of heart and generosity, and we saw each other regularly outside the races. Our trips were extraordinary times."
There is no shortage of extraordinary moments in the life of Henri Pescarolo, which earn him an intergenerational popularity that few of his colleagues can claim today.
PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO Archives): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. From top to bottom: Henri Pescarolo in 1973 on his way to a second win after a long duel with Ferrari; in 1968, the Matra of Henri Pescarolo and Johnny Servoz-Gavin sported a highly coveted number, the 24; in 1984, Pescarolo (at the wheel) and German driver Klaus Ludwig comprised the last two-man crew to win the race; during the 2000s, Pescarolo's team claimed three consecutive podiums in 2005 (second), 2006 (second, here with rally world champion Sébastien Loeb at the wheel) and 2007 (third).