The 1969 24 Hours of Le Mans was the 37th Grand Prix of Endurance, and took place on 14 and 15 June 1969. It was the eighth round of the 1969 International Championship for Makes.
It was the last event with the traditional Le Mans-style start, in which the drivers run across the track to enter their cars, as safety belts were now in use, which usually are strapped tight by mechanics. The eventual winner, Jacky Ickx, had demonstrated against the start by walking slowly to his car, putting on his safety belts properly, and thus starting voluntarily at the back of the field. Later in the first lap, John Woolfe was killed, presumably due to not wearing belts properly. The traditional Le Mans-style start was discontinued after this accident, as drivers started in 1970 already strapped firmly into their seats; since the next year, rolling starts. For this race, metal crash barriers had been installed around the circuit, especially at the Mulsanne Straight, where it was originally just an open road with no protection from the trees, houses and embankments.
During 1969, the minimal production figure to compete in the Sport category was reduced from 50 to 25. Starting in July 1968, Porsche made a surprising and very expensive effort to conceive, design and build a whole new car for the Sport category with one underlying goal: to win its first overall victory at Le Mans. In only ten months, the Porsche 917 was developed, which incorporated remarkable technology: Porsche's first 12-cylinder engine and many components from titanium, magnesium and exotic alloys. Porsche built 25 917s and according to many sources this drove Porsche AG close to bankruptcy. In need of cash, Porsche sold the 917s to anyone who wanted to pay for one.
Matra ordered the aerodynamic engineer Robert Choulet to conceive a low-drag Long Tail Coupe specially designed for the Le Mans, the Matra 640. On April 16, Matra brought the car to the Sarthe circuit. Henri Pescarolo took it to the track, at the first kilometres in the Hunaudières the car took off and was pulverised, Pescarolo was pulled out alive but severely burned. In parallel, Matra was experimenting with roadster bodywork. This led to a new car, the 650. Some 630 chassis were converted in roadster; they were christened 630/650.
Despite the fact that no solution was found to fix the instability of the car, three 917s entered Le Mans. Two were Porsche Works teams and the third was entered by the gentleman-driver John Woolfe.
Matra entered four cars: a new 650 roadster, a 630 coupe and two 630/650.
The Ferrari prototypes made a come-back with the 3.0 L 312P.
John Wyer's team was there but managed by David Yorke. Wyer himself wasn't in Le Mans as his wife was ill. The team entered two Ford GT40s. Jacky Ickx shared GT40 1075, the car that won the previous year, with Pedro Rodríguez and Lucien Bianchi.
The Kurt Ahrens/Rolf Stommelen 917 qualified on pole.
Soon after the start the poor handling of the 917 and the inexperience of the driver resulted in a drama: the death of British driver John Woolfe on lap 1 when his private Porsche 917 crashed at Maison Blanche. Woolfe was killed, probably due the fact that he had not bothered to put on his safety belt. This was likely done because of the style of the traditional start used at Le Mans until that year, in which drivers were required to run across the track to their cars, climb in and get it started as quickly as possible to pull away from the grid. The 37-year-old Woolfe likely sacrificed strapping his safety belts in order to gain a better start.
The nearly full fuel tank from Woolfe's car became dislodged and landed in front of the oncoming Ferrari 312P of Chris Amon. Amon ran over it, causing it to explode under his car, which led to his retirement. The race was stopped for 2 hours due to these two first lap incidents, but was eventually restarted.
The 2 official 917s were put out of the race by clutch bell housing problems, but the 908 of Hans Herrmann and Gérard Larrousse remained a serious candidate for the victory.
In a dramatic finish, Ickx and Herrmann repeatedly overtook each other as the Porsche 908 had brake problems and the Ford GT40 suffered from exhaust problems. In the last lap, Ickx let Herrmann pass him early on the Mulsanne Straight, faking he had not enough fuel anymore. Ickx used the slipstream of Herrmann to pass him again just before the end of the 5 km straight. Ickx managed to hold on and beat Herrmann by a few seconds, or about 120 meters (394 feet). Ickx and Oliver won with the GT40 chassis 1075, the same car that had won the previous year. This was second time the same car had won two years in a row; a Bentley Speed Six had done it in 1929 and 1930. Joest Racing would later repeat this feat twice.
Ironically, Jacky Ickx had a road accident near Chartres while driving to Paris on Monday morning. A car pulled in front of his Porsche 911. Ickx's car ended up crushed against a utility pole. Ickx unbuckled his seat belt and stepped unharmed from the wrecked Porsche.Pole Position - #14 Porsche System Engineering - 3:22.90
Fastest Lap - #12 Porsche System Engineering - 3:27.20
Distance - 4997.88 km (3105.54 mi)
Average Speed - 208.545 km/h (129.58 mph)
Index of Performance - #50 Société des Automobiles Alpine
Index of Thermal Efficiency - #6 John Wyer Automotive Engineering