During Le Mans Classic 2012 we took a small sample of some of the Plateau 5 cars while getting into the legendary Tertre Rouge corner.
Another stroll along the Le Mans Classic paddock, this time visiting the 1949-1956 period with somesurprises in terms of cars that some would not think that took part in the big race and still… Enjoy!
The Mécanique Aviation Traction company, better known as Matra, was founded in 1941 by Marcel Chassagny. During its history, the company was present in several industrial fields ranging from bikes to ballistic missiles. Among those many activities, Matra entered the automobile area in 1961 first as technical partner and then acquiring René Bonnet Automobiles, a spin-off of the DB factory. The sports adventure will start soon afterwards as the ambitious Jean-Luc Lagardère joins Matra in 1963 and becomes its Sports Director the year after. A long road starts for Matra in motor racingand the Matra marque begins a substantial development that will bring them to produce prototypes, Formula 1 cars and also their unforgettable 12 cylinder engines. After several years as outsiders, the FIA rule changes of 1972 will have the Matra 3-liter prototypes as strong challengers in the World Championship for marques, the blue cars are ready for victory.
The main rivals for Matra will be the Ferraris, the 312 PB has been running already in 1970 and 1971 and is a formidable adversary with a few fantastic driver line-ups. The plan is to enter the brand new MS670 prototypes at the Spa and Monza rounds in preparation for Le Mans with a select choice of French drivers behind the wheel. Matra is now associated with Chrysler through Simca and the relevance of their results and the potential PR is much bigger. Lagardère decides otherwise, the team will not enter any race before the 24 Hours race and will instead concentrate in winning Le Mans. They will only have a series of test sessions at Paul Ricard, get hold of a few non-French top drivers and enter four cars for the big race. As the big day approaches a piece of news strikes like a bomb: Ferrari, unbeaten at the World Championship, is withdrawing from Le Mans!!! Maranello claims a potential lack of reliability of the red cars during the long day at La Sarthe. The opposition is limited therefore to three Alfa Romeo 33TT3s and Lola with their T280 prototypes, not to be discarded but still one step behind the Ferraris in terms of performance.
So the moment arrives and four Matras are at the start, three MS 670s : 12-Jean-Pierre Beltoise/Chris Amon, 14-François Cevert-Howden Ganley, 15-Henri Pescarolo-Graham Hill (on a short tail version) and an older MS660C : 16-Jean-Pierre Jabouille-David Hobbs. After a magnificent show with 3 Matras leading on the first lap it was the Lolas that took over the lead but this would not last for long; before a couple of hours the technical gremlins on the T280 meant the blue cars were again on top ahead of the Alfas. This continued during the night with the Autodelta prototypes challenging the Matras all the way despite some minor issues. However, the chase of the red cars would be effectively halted in the early morning as two of them would retire with clutch problems. The morning also brought the very sad news of the fatal accident of Joakim Bonnier, an icon of sportscars racing, after an accident at the Indianapolis corner.
Matra was cruising to an historical 1-2-3 when the old MS660C gave up shortly before the finish and deprived the French team from a complete podium. Nevertheless there were more than enough reasons to celebrate the victory of the number 15 car: It was the first French manufacturer victory at Le Mans after 22 years, the first one for Matra and it gave Graham Hill an unevened record that stands even today: the only driver to win at Le Mans, Monaco and Indianapolis. Three historical feats that entered the history books. Matra would go on to reign at Le Mans for two more years before withdrawing from racing altogether. A final curiosity: Like the Porsche 917s before them, the long-tailed Matras were not able to win in 1972, rather the only short-tailed car was the one seeing the chequered flag first…
Some pictures © www.autosportsltd.com– Michael Keyser
By the end of the 60s turbine cars were the latest attempt to a technical breakthrough in all forms of racing. Both Indianapolis and Le Mans had seen turbine cars coming to challenge the established order with mixed results. While the open wheel cars had shown winning potential at Indy, the Rover-BRM experiments at La Sarthe in 1963 and 1965 had been inconclusive despite the reliability of the car. It was 1967 when American racer Ray Heppenstall started his quest to get a turbine-powered car on the racing track.
The turbine engine chosen was a Continental TS325-1, originally designed for a helicopter project that did not materialize. The engine produced 350HP at 57000 rpm. When presented to the FIA for homologation the engine was deemed equivalent to a pretol 3-litre engine and the car was admitted as a Group 6 prototype. Bob Mc Kee had designed the chassis from scratch allowing the engine to be installed in the middle of the car. Two chassis were built and fitted with the Continental turbine.
The car made its debut at the 1968 World Championship opener, the Daytona 24 Hours, starting from 7th on the grid and progressing to third overall before the wastegate failed to close and the car hit the barriers entering a corner with too much speed. The wastegate was a device designed to improve the response time between accelerator pedal and engine response by regulating the fuel flow into the turbine.
The car entered the Sebring 12 Hours managing a 3rd qualifying time just 1 second behind pole. A good race was aborted after 6 hours when the engine was damaged by debris picked up from the track. Retirements also followed in the next two races: The BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch and a British Championship race at Oulton Park. The car went back to the US and entered a few rounds of the SCCA championship achieving the first ever victory for a turbine powered car at the Heart of Dixie race in Huntington, Alabama.The Howmet won both the sprint and feature races establishing also a new lap record. The Marlboro 300 in Marlboro, Maryland saw an identical result with a double victory and a record for the race time. The Howmet was ready now to go back the the World Championship scene.
At the Watkins Glen 6 Hours the team entered both cars for the first time. The results were very encouraging with Dick Thompson/Ray Heppenstall managing 3rd overall while winning its class. The other car was running right behind this one but technical problems saw them be relegated in the latest stages although they managed to finish the race. Le Mans was next, the French classic having been postponed until October. Unfortunately both entries were pestered by technical issues before and during the race and neither managed to finish. One of the issues they had was that, according to the rules, the engine had to be halted and restarted during pit stops which could not be done with a hot turbine. While this damaged one of the cars the other was delayed by a wheel bearing problem and was eventually disqualified as it did not complete enough laps.
While Heppenstall wanted to continue the program in 1969, Howmet decided to cancel it as they had already got enough marketing exposure. No further development happened, just promotional showing of the cars but both chassis have survived and one of them, fitted with an Allison 250C18 turbine can be found at several classic racing events in Europe.
With its unmistakable sound and impeccable state the Howmet TX is a sight to see (and hear!) 45 years after….
Over 3300 km in 5 days through open roads, five works teams and two classes. This was the scenario for the 1952 Carrera Panamericana. Ferrari’s victory in 1951 had prompted Lincoln, Porsche, Volkswagen, Gordini, Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz to send official teams for the following edition and catapulted the race’s popularity in Europe. The Maranello cars would be running under the “private” Guastalla team featuring three specially built Ferrari 340 Mexico Spyders for Italian aces Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and Luigi Chinetti. An extra car, a 250S, was allocated to the Mille Miglia winner Giovanni Bracco. The main adversaries for the Italian cars would be the Le Mans winners, two Mercedes 300SL coupés for Karl Kling and Hermann Land and a Spyder for young talent John Fitch.
The race started at Tuxtla Gutiérrez, close to the Guatemalan border and the first leg saw already 17 retirements, including Ascari’s Ferrari and one of the Gordinis. Mercedes did not have a good day either, especially Kling who hit a big local bird of prey at full speed (a caracara to be precise) and saw his co-driver Hans Klenk injured and the windshield shattered. A few kilometers later the rear window gave in as well turning their first day into a hell of a drive, literally. At the end of day one at Oaxaca, Jean Behra’s Gordini was the leader with Bracco’s Ferrari 6 minutes behind and Kling in third 8 minutes from the leader. The Mercedes team changed windshield and rear window overnight and also added iron bars (“buzzard bars”) in front of the former to avoid any further incident.
The second day consisted of two legs with an hour break in between. On the way to Puebla provisional leader Jean Behra crashed his Gordini and had to retire, his life saved miraculously. Bracco took over the lead but at the end of the day Villoresi anaged to win leg 2 with Fitch and Kling right behind. He would also clinch the 3rd leg to Mexico City but that would not be enough to get him on top of the overall classification. At the end of the 3rd leg the main board had Bracco on the lead with the three Mercedes in 2nd (Kling), 3rd (Fitch) and 4th (Lang). Another exhausting 2-legged day awaited them the next morning and the race was still on.
Bracco did keep the lead on leg 4 to León favored by the long straight sectors, ideal for the powerful Ferrari engine. Villoresi won the leg ahead of Chinetti and the three Mercedes. The next leg to Durango was the longest with over 530km and this time Karl Kling was fastest on his 300SL ahead of Bracco’s Ferrari although he was still several minutes behind the Italian in the overall classification. For leg 6 Bracco kept the lead despite the Mercedes catching up. But this was the end for the red Italian car. Just before the start of leg 7 at the city of Parral Bracco ina great sportsmanship gesture approached Kling and told him he did not need to push any longer, the Ferrari was about to give up. And so it did after a few miles leaving the number 4 Mercedes in the lead. By this time Kling was in fact the only of the three 300SLs in contention: lang had lost time when he lost half a door and Fitch was disqualified for reversing into the pits at the start of the 7th leg.
The last day saw the final leg from Chihuahua to Ciudad Juárez and Kling completed the 370km in 1 hour and 44 minutes winning the 1952 Carrera Panamericana ahead of Hermann Lang and Luigi Chinetti. A race that had started in a dismal way turned into a fantastic comeback that had Mercedes in the spotlight again after their Le Mans 24 Hours triumph early that year. The Panamericana would run for two more years before its cancellation due to the high number of fatalities. Today, the race is run as a classic event with much higher safety measures along the road.