• by Matijs Jutte

Le Mans '72 - Brave Racers

Rolf Stommelen at Start line

The 1972 edition of the 24 hours of Le Mans showcased the toughness of sportscar racing in the 70’s. The circuit still had the long Hunaudières straight towards Mulsanne where the top teams reached speeds in excess of 320 km/h with the 3-litre cars, after the now banned 5-liter Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 the years before reached more than 360 km/h. But a new chicane was created after White House corner and the Ford chicane where doubled in order to reduce speed on the start finish-straight. The 1972 season was dominated by Ferrari and their 312PB, but for Le Mans the French aerospace manufacturer Matra had been preparing a new weapon. After several 30-hour test runs their new 670 V12 was ready for this one race of the year.

Matra 670 - Drivers Pescarollo / Hill​

But then Ferrari decided not to take part, after their V12 had blown during testing after 18 hours and they were already certain of the World Championship after the Targa Florio. So the flag of Italy was defended by Alfa Romeo and Autodelta. They entered 3 cars type 33TT3 V8 with new rear fin spoilers and a slightly longer tail, for Vacarella/de Adamich (18), Elford/Marko (17) and Galli/Stommelen (19).

Autodelta 33/TT3 with new tail - Picture Thanks to Robert Little - to see more visit: www.robertlittle.us

The Autodelta headquarters before the race - Picture Thanks to Robert Little to see more visit: www.robertlittle.us

Further opposition was provided by Joachim Bonnier’s Swiss team with the Lola T280, one which he drove himself with Gijs van Lennep (winner in 1971 with Porsche) and Gerard Larrousse. The other for privateer racers De Fierlandt/de Bagration/Cabral.

Jo Bonnier in 1972 at Nurburgring with LOLA Scuderia Filipinetti

The 4 Matra’s where favourite and clearly faster, but Alfa was hoping for reliability of their V8. Qualifying confirmed this with the Matra´s taking the first 3 places with Alfa following with the No 19 in 4th place, No 17 in 6th place and No18 in 7th place.

After the start the battle was between the Matra and the fastest of the Lola’s (with De Fierlandt taking the lead before his slower co-drivers took over) chased by Stommelen who was the playing the role of hare in the Alfa team.

The race Start

The first Matra (Beltoise) dropped out after 20 min. but the other three ran strongly through the night. The weather alternated between rainy and dry conditions which further increased the difficulty of this race. The Alfa’s took over the charge when the Lola’s dropped back and where lying 3-4-5 during the night in contention with the Matra’s, before falling back with clutch and gearbox problems.

Jo Bonnier in the evening lead the Race

Matra return at head

Early Sunday morning Vic Elford, running 6th at the time, was passed by Jo Bonnier, whose surviving Lola had recovered from 18th to 8th during the night and had set the fastest lap with van Lennep at the wheel. Vic followed Bonnier and was first on the scene after the unfortunate driver collided shortly before Indianapolis corner with a private Ferrari 365 GTB/4. The little Lola disintegrated in the woods and Vic stopped to offer help, but to no avail. Vic tells this story in The Speed Merchants, the great documentary on the 1972 season by Michael Keyser.

Vic Elford rescue on the fatal crash site

Elford drove back to the pits to hand over to Marko, but the car retired shortly after. Just before Stommelen/Galli retired from 4th place due to engine failure. The surviving No. 18 finished in an honourable 4th place, but well behind the 2 leading Matra’s and the private Porsche 908 from the Jo Siffert collection driven by Joest/Weber/Casoni. Pescarolo/Graham Hill took a well-deserved first win for Matra, the start of their trilogy, but the loss of Bonnier left a bitter mark on this gruelling race.

Pictures Gallery ( Click images to enlarge )

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