OUR MAN MALLETT GOT ALL EXCITED WATCHING THIS YEAR’S LE MANS 24 HOURS, THE FINAL LAPS REMINDING HIM OF THE DAY WHEN A HOLLYWOOD LEGEND ALMOST WON…
Mallett’s mental meanderings
It's still often billed as 'The Most Famous Race in theworld', but if I had relied onmy daily newspaper, itself arguably the 'Most Famous Newspaper in theworld', for coverage it would have come and gone without me noticing as it carried not a single word on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, before or after. (Likewise it never mentions Motogp,which currently provides the most exciting wheeled racing on the planet.)
Once a keen follower and attendee I began to lose interest before the Millennium turned. I guess this lack of interest coincided with the decline of the World Sports Car Championship in the 1990s and the subsequent profusion of rules and categories – probably why I write for Classic Porsche rather than a 'modern' mag.
Le Mans started in the 1920s as an endurance test for more-or-less standard sporting cars but gradually and inevitably the road cars turned increasingly into specialised race cars.
However, right up until the era of the 917 it was still just possible that if you could put up with some discomfort you could use a pensionedoff racer on the road as an occasional sports car – even a couple of 917s were eventually converted to roadlegal spec.
The further that modern 'sports cars' have evolved from road cars the less engaged I find myself, nevertheless I continue to dip into the Le Mans coverage. I turned on the live stream twice during the 24 hours and each time coincided with a drama. The first tune-in saw the pole-sitter and hot favourite Toyota depart the race. The following morning I took another peek just in time to watch the stricken leading Porsche painfully attempting to limp back to base on battery power – and ultimately failing. Obviously not using Duracells…
As the stricken Porsche staggered onwards, the commentator was getting very overheated at the prospect that, 'for the first time', an LMP2 car looked like winning Le Mans. This bout of hysteria gave the impression that it could be the first ever time that a car from the lesser categories might win.
His unrestrained excitement led me to ponder what he might have made of the finish to the 1979 race. 'Oldies' will recall this is the event that was almost won by Paul Newman – that's the way the media hyped it, although 'gun for hire' Rolf Stommelen put in the really quick laps. The 1979 result was even more remarkable than an LMP2 victory would have been.
The top four placings were all from the Group 5 or GT category, three Porsche 935s and a 934 in that order – in other words, racers based on road cars. The Sports Prototype pack, the equivalent of the current LMP 1 category but without the mechanical complexity, consisted of a brace of Essex-liveried Porsche 936s, a pair of Ford-powered Mirages entered by Ford France, a trio of Rondeaus and the intriguing and almost forgotten Dome Zeros from Japan with their partial 'cockpit covers' which made them virtually coupes.
As always at Le Mans attrition whittled away at the favourites and, remarkably, by nightfall the race was being led by the Kremer 935K of Klaus Ludwig and the unknown in Europe drug-running Whittington brothers, followed closely by a Gelo 934. During the night light rain turned torrential and more cars retired, many with swamped electrics.
However, much like this year 's event, the Porsche 936 of Bob Wollek and Hurley Haywood had rejoined the fray 13 laps down after a long spell in the pits, and was steadily working its way back into contention. With five hours to go it looked like it could get into the lead but then it went 'pop'.
The Kremer 935K sailed majestically on, almost literally as it was still raining, when it stopped on the Mulsanne straight. A belt driving the fuel-injection pump had broken and while Don Whittington struggled to fit a spare the second place car of Barbour, Stommelen and Newman was catching up. By the time the K3 had limped to the pits and rejoined the race its 15-lap lead was down to just three.
The media frenzy surrounding Hollywood legend Paul Newman's participation was totally unprecedented in the history of the race and, with the distinct possibility of a win for the star, the crowd was at fever pitch and the track commentators were working themselves into a typically Gallic lather.
And then problems struck the Barbour car when it lost 23 minutes in the pits when a wheel nut jammed on during its final and purely precautionary pitstop to change brake pads. Once back in the race 200,000 spectators were holding their breath hoping for a fairy-tale finish, but it was the Newman car that fate was once again unkind to when, with Stommelen at the wheel and with only four laps to go, it holed a piston.
The quick thinking pro limped on and parked just short of the finishing line where, with an official standing by to ensure that he kept the engine running, Stommelen waited until the Le Mans clock ticked over to 24 hours and then edged over the finishing line to finish second. In future years this tactic would be banned, a new rule requiring the last lap to be completed in a prescribed time.
Now, what would have been really exciting in this year 's race would have been seeing a modern 911 RSR dicing for the lead. It would have been worth shouting yourself hoarse to witness a result like that. CP
“THE MEDIA FRENZY WAS UNPRECEDENTED…”
The Barbour/stommelen/newman 935 limps home in second place, with a holed piston…
Many would describe Delwyn Mallett as a serial car collector – one with eclectic tastes at that. His Porsche treasures include a pair of 356 Speedsters, a Le Mansinspired Pre-a coupé and a 1973 Carrera RS. Some of them even work…