The 24 Hours of Le Mans could not have hoped for more at the 50th anniversary running of the legendary race in 1973. Matra, winner the previous year and a marque whose contribution to the revitalisation of French motorsport cannot be overstated, against the Ferrari factory team, absent since 1970 and its epic duel with the Porsche 917.
Three Ferrari 312 PBs were entrusted to Jacky Ickx/Brian Redman (#15), Arturo Merzario/Carlos Pace (#16) and Carlos Reutemann/Tim Schenken (#17), while Matra fielded four cars driven by Jean-Pierre Beltoise/François Cevert (#10), Gérard Larrousse/Henri Pescarolo (#11), Jean-Pierre Jabouille/Jean-Pierre Jaussaud (#12) and Patrick Depailler/Bob Wollek (#14).
Ferrari dominated at qualifying with the second fastest time clocked by Jacky Ickx and the pole going to Arturo Merzario. The Italian driver immediately established a significant lead until a fuel tank problem cost the #16 Ferrari a full 25 minutes. The Matra of Depailler/Wollek slipped into the top spot until it was forced to retire due to engine failure. Reutemann/Schenken then took back the lead for Ferrari and held it for five hours until they too fell victim to an engine breakdown in the 11th hour.
Now the outcome was up to two Ferrari and Matra driver line-ups who had played it safe early in the race. Ickx and Redman snatched the lead ahead of Pescarolo and Larrousse at the wheel the Matra. Impeded with exhaust troubles, the Ferrari lost first position on Sunday shortly before 09:30 after a spin-out for Redman sent him back to pit lane for repairs.
Pescarolo/Larrousse's lead grew to six laps after Ickx's car experienced the same fuel tank problem as the #16 had earlier in the race. However, the Matra refused to restart after a tyre change pit stop, losing the team 20 precious minutes. When the car finally hit the track again, Ickx and Redman were only trailing by one lap. The Belgian driver and Brit were on their way to victory until Ickx's engine failed and he was forced to return the #15 312 PB to pit lane at 14:27.
Gérard Larrousse and Henri Pescarolo won the 1973 24 Hours of Le Mans with a lead of six laps on Merzario and Pace at the wheel of the only Ferrari 312 PB to finish the race. Relegated to 30th position after their fuel tank troubles, the Italian and the Brazilian later had to have their clutch changed out, but still managed to reach the second step on the podium after teammate Ickx was forced to retire. Third place went to the Matra of Jabouille/Jaussaud.
Another Ferrari-Matra duel pitted Arturo Merzario against François Cevert for the lap record. Merzario beat the record three times in the lead early in the race (3:42.2, 3:40.8 then 3:40.4) before Cevert out did him during the night with a time of 3:39.6 (223.607 kph average).
This heated duel between Ferrari and Matra was an unforgettable highlight of the 1973 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite its defeat, the Italian marque did score the pole and a podium finish after leading the race for an impressive 14 hours. In 2023, 50 years later, Ferrari will take on Toyota, Peugeot, Porsche and Audi…and maybe more.
PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO ARCHIVES): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS, 9-10 JUNE 1973. Above: the Ferrari 312 PB of Carlos Reutemann/Tim Schenken (#17) ahead of the Matra MS670Bs of Jean-Pierre Jabouille/Jean-Pierre Jaussaud (#12) and Patrick Depailler/Bob Wollek (#14). Below: Jacky Ickx teammate Brian Redman attacking the Arnage corner at the wheel of the #15 Ferrari.