The 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans was the 40th Grand Prix of Endurance, and took place on 10 and 11 June 1972. It was the ninth round of the 1972 World Championship for Makes.
The track layout was changed yet again, with a new section of turns being built between Arnage and the Ford chicane for the purposes of bypassing the dangerously fast Maison Blanche and the fast curves through the route up towards Maison Blanche and the pits. The five new turns installed would later become known as the Porsche curves, while at the same time a second chicane was added to the Ford chicane to help with the creation of a new pit lane entrance.
For 1972, 5.0 litre Group 5 cars were banned from the World Championship and thus from Le Mans. The Prototype (Group 6) category became the new Sport (Group 5) category with no minimal production required. This left the game open for the best 3.0-litre cars with F1-like engines.
In 1971, the best competitor in the 3.0-litre class was Alfa Romeo who managed to beat the Porsche 917 at three races. Alfa Romeo made the choice to build a new car for 1972. Unusually, the new 33 TT3 was built on a tubular chassis while the previous prototype was a monocoque. Making the new car competitive and competing in both the World championship and Le Mans proved to be too much for the team.
Ferrari and Matra took different approaches. Matra cut down its participation in endurance racing to focus on Le Mans, while Ferrari made the opposite choice preferring to compete for the World Championship and to bypass Le Mans, as the F1 inspired 312 PB was optimized for 1000 km races.
This made Matra the favorite for the 24 hours, with four cars entered – 3 brand new Matra 670s, an evolution of the 660 specially constructed and designed to race in Le Mans, and an older but updated 660. They faced an opposition consisting mainly of three Alfa Romeo 33 TT3s, two semi-official Lola T280s entered by Jo Bonnier's team, and one private Porsche 908L enrolled by Reinhold Joest. This car was similar to the Porsche that finished second in 1969 and was considered seriously outdated and underpowered.
The Matra of Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Chris Amon took the lead at start, but broke its V12 engine at the beginning of the third lap. This caused enough consternation among the other Matra drivers to allow the Lolas of Bonnier and Hugues de Fierlant to take the lead. Bonnier was slowed down by a deflated tyre and after the first pit stops the two remaining Matra 670s were leading the race again with François Cevert/Howden Ganley in front.
Even if the reliability of the Ford-Cosworth DFV that powered the Lolas was questionable on a 24-hour race, there was some hope for a general failure of the Matras, and Jo Bonnier decided to keep some pressure on. The Lolas were running fast, with Bonnier establishing a new lap record early in the evening. The other Lola broke its gearbox. The works Alfa Romeo team were also in contention; putting pressure on the Matras.
Graham Hill took the lead with his Matra around midnight.
At dawn the Matra 670s swapped their position again. Bonnier's Lola T280 was still there with a surprisingly healthy DFV V8. During the night some race incidents caused unexpected pit stops and the car was only eighth but the F1-inspired Lola was running really fast in the early morning. Just before 8:30 a.m., Bonnier's Lola came upon the Ferrari GTB4 of Florian Vetsch before Indianapolis curve. The witnesses are not entirely sure what Bonnier hit first, the Ferrari or the barrier, but the Lola went over the barrier and into the trees killing Bonnier.
This tragedy left the Matras without any serious opposition; and soon after, two of the three Alfas dropped out with gearbox problems. Despite an unscheduled pit stop, the car of Ganley and Cevert was still leading when Ganley got hit in the tail by a Chevrolet Corvette. This gave the lead to Henri Pescarolo and Graham Hill. The David Hobbs/Jean-Pierre Jabouille Matra 660 was stopped also with gearbox problems.
The Matra 670 "Short Tail" piloted by Pescarolo and Hill took first place, and the 670 "Long Tail" driven by Cevert and Ganley finished second. This was the first victory of a French car since the Talbot-Lago team's victory in 1950, and made Graham Hill the first, and so far only, driver to win the Triple Crown of the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Formula One World Championship.
With such notable results at the top, the third position of the Porsche 908L driven by Reinhold Joest, Michel Weber and Mario Casoni that was mainly the result of careful preparation by Joest and his team was largely unnoticed, yet remarkable.
The Lola T290 entered by Kodak Pathé, France, driven by Barrie Smith and René Ligonnet won the 2 litre class and was the very 1st Lola car to ever finish the 24 hour endurance race at Le Mans.
Failed to cover 70% of winner's distance (240 laps)Pole Position - #14 Equipe Matra-Simca Shell - 3:42.02 (137.441 mph/221.189 km/h)
Fastest Lap - #8 Ecurie Bonnier Switzerland (Gijs Van Lennep) - 3:46.90 (134.532 mph/216.508 km/h)
Distance - 4691.343 km
Average Speed - 195.472 km/h (121.461 mph)
Index of Thermal Efficiency - #39 Charles Pozzi