When Matra put France back on the winning track at the 24 Hours of Le Mans
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When Matra put France back on the winning track at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

24 HOURS CENTENARY – MAKES, MARQUES AND IMPRINTS ⎮ No French manufacturer had triumphed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans since Talbot-Lago in 1950 until Matra put an end to the losing sequence. The aeronautics firm took to the racetrack in the late sixties, much to the delight of French fans who discovered a new generation of drivers led by three-time winner Henri Pescarolo.

Matra’s Le Mans venture was first powered in 1966 and 1967 by a BRM 2-litre V8 engine. New regulations introduced for the 1968 race, limiting the engine capacity of prototypes to 3 litres, encouraged Matra to design its own V12. This was the catalyst for a relentless march to glory.

1968-71: A personal exploit and the first signs of promise

In 1968, Henri Pescarolo made a name for himself by driving the sole Matra in the race through the rainy night with a faulty windscreen wiper. After climbing up to second place, Pescarolo and fellow Frenchman Johnny Servoz-Gavin retired three hours from the finish when fire broke out as a result of a puncture. The following year, four Matras started the race with three of them finishing in the top ten in the overall classification: Jean-Pierre Beltoise/Piers Courage (4th), Jean Guichet/Nino Vaccarella (5th) and Nanni Galli/Robin Widdows (7th).

In 1970, however, the four cars entered were all forced out before midnight struck. Twelve months later, Chris Amon and Jean-Pierre Beltoise in the only Matra reached second position, chasing the Porsche 917 of the eventual winners, Helmut Marko/Gijs van Lennep. Unfortunately, their race ended abruptly on Sunday morning.

1972-74: Winning in style

From that point, Matra opted to stack the odds in its favour to improve its chances of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1972, the manufacturer decided that Le Mans would be the only round of the World Championship for Makes (the predecessor of today’s FIA World Endurance Championship) it would enter, as well as its Formula One commitments. In 1973 and ’74, however, Matra withdrew from F1 to focus full-time on the World Championship for Makes. This strategy paid off in the shape of three consecutive Le Mans triumphs. The path to glory was hardly obstacle-free, however.

Shortly after French President Georges Pompidou had signalled the start of the 1972 race, Matra lost one of its cars to engine failure. Henri Pescarolo/Graham Hill managed to avoid such mishaps in the #15 Matra and fought off stablemates François Cevert/Howden Ganley in the rain to clinch victory.

After experiencing some troublesome issues in preliminary testing, Ferrari opted to sit out the 1972 race, but returned a year later. The 50th anniversary edition saw a superb Franco-Italian face-off until 90 minutes before the chequered flag when the Ferrari of Jacky Ickx/Brian Redman was forced to retire. Pescarolo won for the second year running, this time partnered by Gérard Larrousse.

In 1974, Ferrari withdrew from endurance to restore its prestige in Formula One where no car bearing the Prancing Horse emblem had won the title since 1964. Despite holding a comfortable 11-lap lead, the #7 Matra ground to a halt with gearbox trouble on the Mulsanne Straight. Pescarolo lifted the hood and managed to fix the problem sufficiently to crawl to the pits in third gear. The Porsche of Gijs van Lennep/Herbert Müller had closed the gap to less than three minutes but was also struck by transmission issues in the latter stages of the race. Matra secured its third straight win, as did Pescarolo – still the only French driver to achieve this feat at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“Generation Matra” and other great names of French motorsport

The Matra adventure spawned an outstanding generation of French racing drivers who shone not only at Le Mans but also in formula racing.

Between them, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Henri Pescarolo and François Cevert reinvented French motorsport in the sixties and seventies:  Beltoise by instigating this “new wave”, Pescarolo through his feats at Le Mans and especially his heroic 1968 effort, and Cevert who, in 1971, became the first French driver to win a Formula One Grand Prix since Maurice Trintignant in 1958, as well as clinching pole position at Le Mans in 1972 and clocking the fastest lap in 1973.

Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, Pescarolo’s co-driver in the 1966 and ’67 24 Hours, chalked up two Le Mans wins in 1978 (Renault-Alpine) and 1980 (Rondeau). Jean-Pierre Jabouille lent his immense talent as a driver/engineer to Matra, and then Renault for the maiden Formula One win by a turbocharged car, before working on the Peugeot 905 programme in the 1990s. Patrick Depailler’s technical nous was also highly valued by engineers.

Outstanding Matra drivers of the seventies also included the loyal Bob Wollek (30 Le Mans starts), the lightning quick Jean-Pierre Jarier, and Le Mans-born François Migault who made the 24 Hours podium three times (third in 1974, second in 1976, and third in 1981).

Several 24 Hours winners put Matra in the spotlight at Le Mans. In 1969, Frenchman Jean Guichet asked Matra boss Jean-Luc Lagardère to hire Sicilian Nino Vaccarella with whom he won the 24 Hours five years earlier for Ferrari. Lagardère obliged and the reformed duo returned the favour with Matra’s first top five finish.

In 1972, Graham Hill chose Matra to accomplish a feat that he is still the only driver to have achieved: adding a Le Mans win to his 1966 Indianapolis triumph and two Formula One world titles. Unfortunately, such success at Le Mans eluded three-time F1 world champion Jack Brabham despite partnering François Cevert in his third and final attempt in 1970 (DNF). A few weeks later, the Australian called time on his racing career after his final victory, in the company of Cevert, at the 1000 km of Paris.

The fascinating Matra story would not be complete without mentioning the splendid high-pitched wail of the V12 engine which still delights fans of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and motor racing today.

PHOTOS: LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS – FROM TOP TO BOTTOM (© ACO ARCHIVES): in 1972, Henri Pescarolo secured his maiden Le Mans win and the first for Matra; four years earlier, Pescarolo climbed to second place in the rain with faulty wipers before retiring; French President Georges Pompidou about to brandish the national flag to start the 1972 24 Hours, after supporting the funding of the Matra V12 when a member of Charles de Gaulle’s government; Gérard Larrousse (centre) and the mechanics aboard the winning car in 1973, after Pescarolo took the chequered flag; in 1974, the new Matra MS680 did not finish but the MS670 made it three consecutive wins; François Cevert (pictured here in 1972) drove a Matra in each of his three Le Mans appearances; the 1972 Le Mans grid featuring three Matras in the first three positions with François Cevert/Howden Ganley (pole position, #14), Henri Pescarolo/Graham Hill (#15) and Jean-Pierre Beltoise/Chris Amon (#12).

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