Tag Archives: Le Mans

image_pdfimage_print

24 Hours at the Starlight

KeyserBook161

A recent celebration of the Steve McQueen classic “Le Mans” in Los Angeles brought out all the stars. DDC’s own Bond Girl was on hand to add lustre to the occasion and here she gives her take on the screening.

When the film “Le Mans” was released in 1971, I was barely driving. It was the era of the Saturday night date at the local drive-in theater. I saw “Le Mans” at the Starlight. Please rest assured that any exuberance exhibited while watching cars racing around a track in the French countryside existed purely for the benefit of the boyfriend of the moment. However, it wasn’t all feigned. There was that crush on Steve McQueen. As far as I was concerned, the King of Cool just embodied the sexy Hollywood superstar. So while a trip to the drive-in to see Le Mans was, for some, all about the racing footage, I just wanted to gaze up into those dazzling blue eyes. Talk about a passion pit.

KeyserBook160

In the racing world, however, it wasn’t just about McQueen’s taciturn Michael Delaney and those charismatic facial expressions. Beyond his craft, enthusiasts respected the man as a competent racer, making the role a realistic fit. For all that, the movie itself co-starred in pole position with the Circuit de la Sarthe. Considered by many to be the most influential racing film ever made, some forty years later, “Le Mans” enjoys an almost cult like following. From Delaney’s slate gray 911S, to the Heuer Monaco on his wrist, to the 917 in Gulf Colors, the film resonates.

signage

Still, aside from McQueen, just who and what were we actually watching? For starters, actual footage from the 1970 24 Heures du Mans. Moving on from there, how about a supporting cast including the likes of Brian Redman and Jo Siffert to name just a few of the notables – piloting various Porsche 917’s and Ferrari 512’s. In addition to list of drivers named in the credits was a very young Jürgen Barth. When asked of his own role in the film, Barth replied, “I drove the 911 that caused the crash.” We were watching legends at work, no wonder it all appeared to be so authentic.

KeyserBook155

Voyeuristically, we screamed along the Mulsanne Straight in the rain, at night and in the home stretch. And that’s what makes the film more of a documentary, that insider’s perspective. At the time, a good percentage of us truly had no idea we were watching the real deal as we munched popcorn and steamed up the windows of our own rides.

TCM ON SCREEN

Today, aside from in-home, Blu-Ray screenings, the chance to revisit “Le Mans” on the big screen is almost never going to happen. But the opportunity did arise recently, and what better venue than The Chinese Theater in LaLa Land? Hollywood is not only the land of the star, but playground to the luxurious, the fast, the cool, the expensive automobile. These attributes converged at the Turner Classic Movie Festival with Porsche Cars North America joining the celebration by hosting Club TCM, held at a venerable hotel. A pre-screening discussion presented two of racing’s own cool cats, Derek Bell and Vic Elford, on the dias, and rounding out the expertise was McQueen’s son, Chad. Each reminisced about a simpler time in racing, about McQueen and his driving, his personality and their own experiences during the filming of the movie.

Hollywood-5

Basking in the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown, the approach to Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel revealed two Porsches positioned on their own crimson runner; a brand-new, bright yellow 991, and a black, completely original 1965 911. Needing no introductions, the pair stood in silent welcome as fans of the film and the marque arrived to revisit 1971 in the comfort of Hollywood’s Chinese Theater.

Dave sees a

It may not have been the Starlight, but then again, I’ve been driving for a long time now.

 

Lizett Bond, May 2013

Photos courtesy of Lizett and scans courtesy of Michael Keyser, taken from my review of his book on the making of the movie

http://www.doubledeclutch.com/?p=3224

 

Bob Wollek – En marge de la gloire

BobWollek318

Ten years or more has passed since Bob Wollek was killed in an accident on Highway 98, near Lorida, Florida. Last summer has seen the publication of a biography of the great French endurance driver, written, appropriately, enough by his close friend, Jean-Marc Teissedre.

Jean-Marc is now unquestioningly the leader of the journalistic pack in the endurance sportscar racing media circles. The proud Frenchman has been covering that aspect of the sport since the 70’s and now, since the retirement of Mike Cotton, is probably the only one, other than Mark Cole, who can remember witnessing the glory days of Group C. Jean-Marc was a confidant of Bob Wollek and there can be no more appropriate author of a book celebrating the life and times of a very successful racing driver.

83BrandsH1000_jb_0001

However the book is far from a hagiography, it is a warts and all account of a man who spent nearly 30 years at the top of the sport. A indication of the honest tone of the book is found right from the start as Jean-Marc gives an account of his first encounter with Mr. Wollek.
“Can you imagine a worse introduction to a guy who had a reputation for being pretty unsociable than having to ask him for money? This is what happened to me in the paddock of the old Nürburgring on Friday evening before the final round of the 1977 German Circuits Championship. Auto Hebdo sent me to Germany to cover the event, and I got the exchange rate between the  French Franc and the Deutschmark a bit mixed up. The only solution was to find a Frenchman who would get me out of this mess. And they were thin on the ground in that era. So it looked like my only hope was Wollek! I didn’t know him, but the magazine asked me to follow him closely as his reputation was just beginning  to expand beyond the banks of the Rhine. But at this particular point in time I had to introduce myself to him not as a journalist but as a beggar! So after a very careful approach I had to come clean. I told him who I was and asked for what I wanted almost in the same breath in a barely audible voice. 
“Who the hell do you think you are asking me for money? We don’t know each other- do you think I’m the Bank of France, or what?” he shot back. A long silence followed our first contact. By the time I’d got round to thinking up an answer, Bob had already gone to the rear of the car and was talking to the Porsche Kremer Racing mechanics in German.
I walked a little further away and tried to think. I didn’t know anybody, the future was looking grim. But now it was time for practice so I said to myself that I’d see about it later. After things had calmed down I went into the press room, and as luck would have it I found myself face to face with Bob. “Have you got your one hundred marks?”
“Well, er .. . no. I don’t know anybody here……”
“It’s not bloody possible…”
I couldn’t  make out the rest  of the sentence, but  it was probably a sarcastic comment about the level of intelligence of  the journalistic profession. But I didn’t have to be asked twice when Bob told me to follow him. He flipped open his wallet and gave me fifty marks. But now there was another problem- how was I going to repay him? At best we’d meet up again in the same spot in March of the following year for the first round of the 1978 DRM. This is what I said to him. He rubbed his hand across his forehead asking himself what kind of half-wit  he was dealing with. “And a cheque, you don’t know what that is? It’s a little piece of paper you take to your bank and get money in exchange!”
Mumbling vague excuses for not having thought of this solution I promised  to send him a cheque on the Monday following our meeting.”

Not an auspicious start.

86BrandsHatch1000_jb_0002

And the book continues in a similar vein, the story of Bob’s career as a skier, then a rally driver and finally to the circuits. Interwoven into the tale are pieces from his contemporaries and also artifacts from his estate. One that caught my eye is the invoice from Motor Racing Developments for a Brabham BT28 the weapon of choice for a Formula Three campaign in 1970, all for the princely sum of £1,860-0-0.

It was in the Brabham that Bob’s career nearly ended before it began. Contact with none other than James Hunt sent Wollek into the trees of Rouen, bouncing from one trunk to another, the car was destroyed and the final destination for Bob was the local hospital for a couple of weeks. Racing at the time was a blood sport, for two others (Jean-Luc Salmon and Denis Dayan) were killed in the race, the drivers adding their impetuosity to the fragile nature of the cars. Bob’s friend of the time and 1980 Le Mans’ winner, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, recalled the race in the book, “They tried to pass four abreast in a place where there was only room for two.” What can one add to that?

Tribute

Tribute

The story continues on with Bob soon ascending to Formula Two, and ultimately more significant in the long run he found his way into endurance racing with Lola and Matra. It is all here in chronological order, the privateer Porsche years, his successes in IMSA, the titles and the race wins, culminating with factory drives for Lancia and Porsche.

The book is spiced with comments from his contemporaries, not always complimentary, as evidenced by this passage from his 1995 Le Mans co-driver, Eric Helary. “In my life I’ve only had problems with two drivers: Christophe Bouchut and Bob Wollek. I respect everything that Bob did but he made our 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours sheer hell. Right from the start he behaved despicably. He didn’t want Mario or me to get in the car. He wanted to do the start, the finish, practice, qualifying, the lot.”

And then, “At the finish Mario and I were in the motorhome and we asked each other what the hell was going on in Bob’s head? And it didn’t stop there. After the race he wrote me a letter telling me I was an arsehole!”

a0119ma05

Eric concludes, “Maybe I’m not a good example as I drove with him in only one race and I never came across him again. I have the impression that I didn’t see the real Bob Wollek. I never knew the other side to him.”

Mario, in diplomatic mode, was less critical. “I always had good relations with Bob who I’d known for a long time as we’d done tests in the open WSC Porsche at Charlotte which had gone off without a hitch. I respected him as he had an exceptional set of results.” Team Owner, Yves Courage, also found Wollek to something of a Jekyll and Hyde personality but I will let you buy the book to read the full story. For every negative there is also a positive view from those not easily fooled, like Klaus Ludwig and Norbert Singer.

87LeMans_jb_0010

When I sat down to write this review I was inclined to include some personal experiences and I have to say that my own somewhat limited dealings with Bob were, at best, mixed. At the time I started out in motorsport he was one of the stars of the scene and I was another anonymous face in the mob of photographers, so there was no call for any form of interaction. I witnessed Wollek win races, join teams at the wrong moment and endure all manner of indignities at Le Mans. He grabbed pole position in 1987 and then in the race did not even get to drive as the engine went bang. Bob was driving a werks-Porsche, the ones with Rothmans’ signage, they were not supposed to fail, after all excellence was expected. However a rash of top line Porsches retired early in the race, all victims of a batch of fuel supplied by the ACO that was found to have a lower octane level than it should have, which played havoc with the turbocharged cars. Typically the sister car did not blow a piston and went on to win the race against all odds.

27 May-01 June, 1986, Le Mans 24 Hours. Norbert Singer and Bob Wollek.

The 1987 edition of Le Mans was perhaps the first time I really saw how forceful Wollek could be. The ACO would have a Friday afternoon press conference which in theory was to champion the great race. However the President of FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre, would also manage to be present and would always take the stage. Balestre was prone to giving the assembled hacks a stern lecture on whatever topic was troubling him at that moment, so although we were at Le Mans we would usually receive a rant about Formula One. This was delivered in the theatrical style of a proper tinpot dictator, thumping the desk and getting red in the face all the while bellowing about FOCA or the drivers, or some other iniquity.

88Jerez800_jb_0001

Craven cowards that we in the media were, we would endure these bizarre performances without protest, partly because we wanted a pass the following year and partly because there was usually some form of gift or bribe to encourage our attendance. For instance in 1986 it had been a Magnum of vintage Moët & Chandon Champagne, I can certainly remember that high point of dubious incentives. Well I still have the bottle in my office though it is sadly empty, the bottle that is.

84BrandsH1000_jb_0003

There was the usual matinée idol performance from J-MB and then as the floor was opened to questions Bob stood up and gave Monsieur le Président a full blast. My French comprehension is poor at the best of times but I was no doubt that this was about safety standards at Le Mans and the irrelevance of the Formula One blather. The drivers were very concerned about the speeds down the Mulsanne Straight, which pushed to the limits of the tyres’ performance, a year earlier Jo Gartner had been killed during the race in an unexplained accident. Klaus Ludwig, a three time winner, had refused to race at La Sarthe unless changes were made. Balestre was shaken by the direct line that Wollek took as he was more accustomed to dealing with a tame bunch of scribblers. Bob made his point quietly but he left the Président in no doubt. The message was clear, force the ACO to do something before someone else is killed. As if to underline this point there were several accidents in that race week culminating in the monumental crash of Win Percy’s Jaguar, after a puncture at around 230 mph. Win survived but it was a lottery, the next victim might not be so fortunate. Within a year or two the Chicanes on the Mulsanne would appear. Bob had made his point.

a0119ma06-2

I continued to see Bob at the tracks but the next time we had any real interaction was less enjoyable. His final race as a Porsche driver in the prototype class was in 1998 at the Suzuka 1000kms, a round of the 1998 FIA GT Championship. Porsche had endured a horrible season being beaten at almost every turn by AMG Mercedes Benz. The exception, of course, was Le Mans but Bob had only managed yet another second place, once again the glory went to his team mates. Looking through the viewfinder at the podium ceremonies, it would taken a heart of stone not to be moved by Bob’s tears as the realisation set in that the dream was over, there would be no triumph at La Sarthe.

2000 Le Mans 24 Hours

For the race in Japan he was paired with Uwe Alzen and Jörg Müller but the trio could not match the pace of the other factory Porsche, let alone the Mercedes duo. During Bob’s mid-race stint he had contact with a GT2 in the final chicane and recovered to dive into the pits to check for damage, unfortunately to do so meant driving against the traffic and he received a three minute stop/go penalty for his pains. I reported this in a Swiss magazine that I was working for but something in the translated report incurred Bob’s ire and he threatened to sue us all! The Editor assured me that he would sort it out and I got the impression that this was not the first time that he had Angry of Strasbourg on the phone.

00ALMSPLM1_jb_0120-2

The next encounter with Bob was much more convivial. At the Le Mans Test weekend for the 2000 race I was filling the hire car up at the petrol station near to the Parc des Expositions next to the track. A Porsche pulled in at the next pump and out got Bob, who nodded hello and gave me a smile, it made my day, maybe I had stopped travelling, perhaps I had arrived. Like Porsche AG itself, Wollek was confined to the supporting ranks of the GT class. He continued to go flat out, frequently surprising the Young Guns like Lucas Luhr and Dirk Müller with his turn of speed. He certainly seemed more at peace, reconciled to the fact that he would never take the great prize.

2000 Le Mans 24 Hours

The following March I was at the Sebring 12 Hours. Arriving at the track on race morning before the sun rose, there is always a photo briefing to look forward to, a great assembly of grumbling, groaning snappers. I understand that the collective noun for motorsport photographers is a Moan. 2001’s race-day photo meeting  was an unexpectedly solemn occasion though.  First to arrive, and in those pre-digital days, first to leave, the vast majority of us snappers had not heard the news, Bob Wollek was dead. It was unbelievable, Wollek had survived during a truly dangerous period in motorsport and now, as he contemplated retirement, he was killed in a pointless traffic incident. There would be no more chance encounters.

WX5Y3223

Every year that I make the trek to Sebring for the 12 Hours I try and get out to the marker post near Lorida where Bob Wollek was knocked off his bike and killed. Others also make the same pilgrimage, evidence such as fresh flowers and wine bottles attest to that.

Bob Wollek was a complex, contradictory character, much loved by those who he allowed to get close, less so by those who were not. This book is a fascinating account of a man who lived by his own terms, well researched, written and translated. It lacks an index but that is about all, buy it, treat yourself, especially if you are in Sebring this week

John Brooks, March 2013

I’m On Top Of The World, Ma…………….

Untitleds_8

The Retromobile was the usual classy affair, one of the best bits is meeting up with old friends. On Hall & Hall’s stand I found 288, the Jaguar XJR9/XJR12 that completed the unique double of winning both Daytona and Le Mans 24 Hours. More on the latter achievement soon. Hunting through the shots on file, I ran into the above with yours truly perched above the pit. If I recall correctly a tipsy tart in the Jaguar Dealers’ Hospitality Box tried to shove me off the ledge, I was in her shot, I didn’t get any respect back then either. And look at my crucial skateboarder’s knee pads, cutting edge or what?

Happy Days.

John Brooks, February 2013

Snakes in the Grass?

2000 Le Mans 24

Rumbles from several sources suggest that one of the big surprises that will form part of the announcement revealing the list of invitations to compete in the 2013 Le Mans 24 Hours will be the inclusion of a brace of SRT Vipers. Those blessed with a good memory will recall a hat trick of Viper victories around the turn of the century, so this is a welcome return, but they will have a lot to live up to. Olivier Beretta is seen here celebrating his triumph in 2000.

John Brooks, February 2013

On the Crest of a Wave

Jean Rondeau and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, on top of their Rondeau M379 B, struggle through the hordes trying to get to the podium to celebrate their famous victory in the 1980 Le Mans 24 Hours. I was down in the thick of it, a proud member of the rabble, determined to enjoy every minute of the world’s greatest race. Little did I imagine that future visits to the event would be in a professional capacity, some days the dreams do come true……………….and yes they did get to spray the Champagne, metaphorically speaking.

John Brooks, December 2012

Miscellany Manceau

Our Special Correspondent has been in France at the Great Race. Here he shares some of his observations and discoveries.


In the days leading up to the 24 Hour race it is rewarding to look out for interesting cars round about Le Mans. Here are some that caught my eye and my delight:

This is “Zig”, one of the Aston Martin Zagato prototypes, lurking in the Le Mans paddock still wearing its Nürburgring 24 Hours clothing, waiting to have a go in the Aston Martin Festival Challenge support race. It finished 11th.

I can never resist a visit to the Museum at Le Mans and they do vary the exhibits so it is usually worth a call. They have a superb example of that extraordinary French car, the Panhard Dynamic. Introduced in 1936, it featured a unit-construction body, a sleeve valve six-cylinder engine, torsion bar suspension and, unusually, a central driving position.

Notice the three windscreen wipers and three-piece windscreen.

The bodywork was designed by Louis Bionier and had semi-enclosed wheels. Some 40 six-light limousines were made on the eve of the Second World War for the military chiefs.

Toyota have returned to Le Mans for the first time since their huge effort to win this race with the GT-One cars in 1998-99. These yielded at best only a second place and they had come very close to winning in 1994 with this car, the 94CV.

Gearbox trouble robbed it of almost certain victory in the last hour of the race.

It is 40 years since Matra scored the first of three consecutive victories in the 24 Hour race in 1972. This was recognised at various events around the city. The winning car of Henri Pescarolo and Graham Hill was to be seen in the Village at the circuit as was the 1974 winner of Pescarolo and Gérard  Larrousse.

At the traditional A.C.O. Press Conference Gérard Larrousse was awarded the Spirit of Le Mans Trophy – appropriately the 1973 winning Matra accompanied the occasion.

The popular Drivers’ Parade also remembered Matra’s achievements and no less than nine examples of their first proper production car, the 530, endured the incessant rain. The column of cars was led by a 530LX on board of which was Henri Pescarolo who had many successes in Matra cars.

Named after Matra’s R530 air-to-air missile, the 530 had a mid-mounted German Ford V4 engine shared with the contemporary Taunus and for the first two years production was entrusted to the French coachbuilder Brissonneau et Lotz at Creil.

Invariably one comes across a gem in the Parade and for this writer the favourite was the Morris Léon Bollée. This was one of William Morris’s failures. He was anxious to break into the French market and purchased the Léon Bollée factory at Le Mans. The cars  were produced as Morris Léon Bollées but did not sell well, although he was able to put his factory at the disposal of the Bentley team when they came to compete in the 24 Hour race. Later models used Hotchkiss engines before production finally ceased.
Tailpiece

Spotted in Falaise on the way home from Le Mans, this Quale Mangusta is reputed to be the only right-hand drive example. The Mangusta started life as the De Tomaso Biguà which appeared at the Geneva Show in 1996. Kjell Quale, the West Coast of America importer of many European prestige cars, agreed to fund the production for which a factory in Modena was used on condition that the car was called the De Tomaso Mangusta. Quale and De Tomaso soon had disagreements and the car was re-named the Quale Mangusta. It had a chassis designed by Enrique Scalabroni and bodywork by Marcello Gandini and under the bonnet lay a 4.6-litre DOHC Ford V8. About 284 cars were made between 2000 and 2001. The Mangusta platform was used as the basis of the MG X-Power SV.

David Blumlein, June 2012