The 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans was the 38th Grand Prix of Endurance, and took place on 13 and 14 June 1970. It was the eighth round of the 1970 World Sportscar Championship season. As the race saw the factory teams entering four Ferrari 512S and five Porsche 917K, plus another nine of these 12-cylinder powered sports car entered by privateers, and provided the background for the Steve McQueen movie Le Mans, the 1970 Le Mans race is also called Battle of the Titans.
Much of the racing footage of the motion picture was taken from a competing car, as the #29 Porsche 908/02 had been fitted with movie cameras.
During June 1969, Enzo Ferrari sold half of his company to Fiat to finance the construction of the required 25 cars to compete with the Porsche 917; the Ferrari 512, powered by a 5.0L V12, was introduced for the 1970 season. Despite a lack of factory drivers, as Ferrari had only two F1 pilots permanently under contract, the Scuderia entered four works cars. With another seven cars entered by customers, a total of eleven Ferrari 512S entries were accepted for Le Mans, plus a 1969 Ferrari 312P in the prototype category, in which three other factories competed.
More Armco was added to the track in the spots that originally weren't as dangerous as other spots where Armco was added the year previous.
Disappointed by the poor results of the 917 in 1969 and facing a new competition, Porsche contracted John Wyer and the Gulf Team to become the official Porsche team, and also the official development partner. During tests in Zeltweg, Wyer's engineer John Horsmann had the idea to increase downforce to the expense of drag, a new tail was molded with aluminum sheets taped together. This worked well as the new short tail gave the 917 better stability. The new version was called 917 K (Kurzheck).
Wyer was surprised to discover that another team was carefully preparing Le Mans with close support from Porsche. As in 1969, the Porsche Salzburg team was a de facto second works team under control of members of the Porsche family. The Martini Racing team also gained some support from Porsche AG; obviously Porsche had made major efforts to win the race with competing teams.
A new low drag version of the 917 was developed for Le Mans with support from the external consultant Robert Choulet. The 917 L (Langheck) featured a spectacular new "Long Tail" body with a wing, which had very low drag and better stability than the 1969 version. Ferrari brought a similar body, dubbed Coda Lunga.
Two 917 L were entered in Le Mans, one by Porsche Salzburg, the other by Martini Racing. The spectacular livery of this car was an elaborate whirls and swoops of light green on a dark blue background. The car gained the nickname of the Hippie Car or the Psychedelic Porsche from the team and media. The Porsche-Salzburg's 917L was powered by a new 4.9L engine that Porsche had introduced at the 1000km Monza.
Wyer lined up three 917Ks, two with the 4.9L engine for the regular drivers, and one with the 4.5L unit, for motorcycle champion Mike Hailwood. A fourth JWA 917K entry, chassis 013 with number 26, was not accepted — the drivers would have been actor Steve McQueen and reigning F1 world champion Jackie Stewart. Porsche Salzburg also entered a 917 K with the standard 4.5L engine for Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood, while a third car with #24, which was qualified by Herrmann and Elford ahead of their #23 car, was withdrawn. With only one privateer 917K, that of David Piper, seven flat-12 from Zuffenhausen faced twelve V12 from Maranello's (incl. the 312P), as the entries of two 512S and four 917K had been rejected.
The 3.0L prototype category saw four competing factories. Of the two 1969 Ferrari 312P of NART driven in practise at rather slow pace, only chassis 0872 with the bubble roof extension was used to race, as 0870 had been sold. Of the three 1969 908/02 accepted, one of Martini crashed in practice, and the Solar Production car had to serve as camera mule anyway. Matra entered two MS650s (roadsters with tubular chassis) and a new MS660 (a roadster with monocoque chassis). Except for Jack Brabham all the drivers were French. Alfa Romeo, until 1951 the major Italian competitor, had upgraded their Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 from 2 to 3 litres.
Unsurprisingly, the low-drag, high-power Porsche Salzburg 917L 4.9 set the pole position at 3:19.8, with Vic Elford at the wheel. Only 0.2s behind was the fastest 512S Coda Lunga, though, and with the Siffert/Redman 917K, another 512 and the other Wyer 917 4.9 within 2 seconds, competition was close. The fastest Matra was 14th in practice, and the fastest Alfa at 17th was still ahead of two 512S.
For the first time the traditional "Le Mans start", in which the drivers run across the track to enter their cars, was replaced by a variant in which the pilots already sat in their cars, having had their belts safely strapped tight by mechanics. But now almost all cars entered the track simultaneously, so since 1971, a rolling "Indianapolis start" is chosen. For Porsche's 20th participation, Ferry Porsche himself was given the honour of dropping the tricolor flag at 16:00. After few laps, the engine of the Vaccarella/Giunti 512 that had qualified second failed, soon followed by the Wyer-917K 4.9 of Pedro Rodríguez with a cooling fan failure.
At 17:30, when the rain began to fall, all the Ferraris had already lost touch with the leaders. Soon after, Reine Wisell was running at reduced speed at Maison Blanche in his "coda lunga" Ferrari 512S, when Derek Bell came in another 512 S going around 160 km/h (100 mph) faster. Bell produced a miracle in avoiding the crash. The following Works 512S of Clay Regazzoni hit Wisell's, and Mike Parkes hit both cars, setting his own 512S on fire. Firemen came quickly and no drivers were seriously hurt. To complete Ferrari's disaster, Bell's engine had taken excessive RPMs in the adventure and broke on the Mulsanne Straight, meaning that by now, three factory Ferrari and two of Scuderia Filipinetti were out. A few laps later, the Wyer car with Mike Hailwood crashed at the Dunlop Curve, eliminating the seventh top 10 qualifier.
The rain became heavier around 20:00, at a time when the last works Ferrari, driven by Peter Schetty and Jacky Ickx, was sixth. Ickx, probably the most talented driver of this era under the rain, managed to bring the car to second at midnight, but this ended tragically when Ickx had an accident that killed a corner worker at the Ford chicane. After Ickx's crash a little more than 4 hours into the event, 9 of the 11 (including all 4 works) Ferrari 512's entered were out of the race. Jack Brabham and François Cevert led the prototypes in the Matra roadster, but the V12s were using too much oil, and over a period of 9 laps all the Matras broke piston rings no later than lap 79. This wasn't the year either for Wyer, after Rodríguez and Hailwood out early, Jo Siffert blew his 4.9L engine by missing a shift while passing slower cars. Save for the polesitter, all the major players were gone during the night.
At dawn the weather turned from heavy rain to storm. Three 917s were leading, followed by a 908. The remaining Porsches just had to make it home safely, driving almost all day in the heavy rain without losing concentration. After 18 hours, also the Porsche-Salzburg 917 L had problems with its 4.9L engine, leaving only the 4.5L Porsches. Of the 51 cars that had started, 16 were still running after 24 hours, and twelve of them were Porsche, the camera car among them.
Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood in their red and white No. 23 Porsche Salzburg 917 K won while Gérard Larrousse and Willi Kauhsen finished second with the Hippie Car of Martini Racing. Martini also entered a pair of Porsche 908/02 LH, and the one driven by Rudi Lins and Helmut Marko finished 3rd, ahead of two Ferrari 512, a Porsche 914 and a Porsche 911 as the seventh and last car to be classified, as all others had either dropped out or not covered enough distance compared to the winner. Porsche had won all four classes that had finishers.
Hans Herrmann, a veteran at age 42 who had survived the dangerous Mille Miglia and Carrera Panamericana races of the 1950s, had driven for Mercedes and Porsche in F1 and won the Targa Florio plus many other major races for Porsche, had promised his wife to quit racing if he should finally win the big one at Le Mans, a success which he had missed narrowly in 1969. So he retired with immediate effect, much to the surprise of his Porsche Salzburg team and its boss Louise Piëch. His career with Porsche extended back to 1953, behind the wheel of Porsche's first mid-engine car, the 550, and saw the evolution of Porsche's racing effort from the shoestring operation it was in the 1950s to the world-beater it became in 1970.
After many class wins, Porsche had won Le Mans outright for the first time, the last and most sought after triumph for the former underdog which managed to win all others sports car races and titles during the 1960s. The next weekend, the two 917s were paraded across Stuttgart, from Zuffenhausen to the town hall square.Pole position - #25 Porsche KG Salzburg Porsche 917L (Vic Elford)- 3:19.8 (150.797 mph/242.685 km/h)
Fastest lap - #25 Porsche KG Salzburg Porsche 917L (Vic Elford)- 3:21.0 (149.897 mph/241.236 km/h)
Distance - 4607.810 km (2863.16 mi)
Average Speed - 191.992 km/h (119.3 mph)
Weather conditions: Overcast; later rain
Index of Performance - #27 Martini International Racing Team
Index of Thermal Efficiency - #3 Martini International Racing Team