There were nine Porsche 956s in the top 10 at the 1983 Le Mans 24 Hours, but that fact hides an incredibly tense and dramatic finish, as Autosport explained in the 30 June 1983 issue of the magazine
Le Mans can be as exhausting for team managers, mechanics, press men and spectators as it is for the drivers of the race cars. None of these people can cope well with high tension at the end of the race, when the body functions at maybe 65% efficiency – if it has been taken care of during the previous day and night and morning and early afternoon.
It was probably just as well that the vast majority of the people present were blissfully unaware of what was going on in the two leading cars during the last hour. Tension? The word is inadequate.
Just before 1500, Vern Schuppan was at the wheel of the race leader, just over two laps ahead of its sister car driven by Jacky Ickx. Then Vern’s left-side door flew off.
After driving a lap or so without it, Schuppan realised the probable consequences. The doors of the Porsche 956 are vital for engine cooling. The trailing edge of each door is the leading edge of the air duct to the water radiator serving the cylinder head and the turbo intercooler. With the door missing, the duct is ineffectual. And Vern had seen the temperature gauge begin to climb. He came into the pits early, at 1455.
As Al Holbert climbed into the car, he had no idea of the drama to come. If he had known, he would never have gone aboard…
The mechanics fitted a new door, but there was no time to secure it properly. Two others attached the refuelling line and the overflow bottle, and were about to refuel when the car’s manager, Roland Kussmaul, shouted at them not to: there was still an hour left to run, and Holbert had only one refuelling halt left to him.
Al takes up the story: “When I switched on, right away I could see that the left-bank temperature gauge was reading very high. The engine was so hot on that side that there was quite a delay getting it started. When it finally fired, I just couldn’t take my eyes off that gauge. I was really worried about it.
“Then, halfway down the Mulsanne, the faster air flow began to get to the rad and I saw the gauge begin to drop. I thought maybe we were OK now, and we had a new door. But right away the makeshift door fixing broke! I grabbed hold of the door and held on. But when I was midway through the slower sections, through Indianapolis and Arnage and on to the Porsche Curve, well, that gauge started to rise again…
“So here’s what I decided to do: find a pace which would keep us alive, cooling the engine down Mulsanne, keeping the revs down in the slower sections. I found that the door wasn’t too much of a problem. I got down to the pace at which I could control the temperature, and I could maintain it without too much difficulty.”
“As soon as the speed built up, I realised what Jacky had been saying. The front brakes were so out of balance that I had to hang on to the steering wheel for dear life down the straight” Derek Bell
Holbert’s times settled down to around 3m45s. Ickx, meantime, had taken a lap back from the lead just as Schuppan pulled into the pits, and he came in on schedule to hand the second-place car to Bell at 1511 – to report that the brakes, well used by both men during the morning, were now causing real problems.
Both the front discs were cracked. The car’s manager, Norbert Singer, presented the choice to Bell: we change the discs or we drive the last stint carefully.
Bell said: “I saw no point at this stage in fitting new discs, which we knew would consume a definite amount of time. I felt it would be better to take the car straight back onto the circuit.
“It was a bit of a gamble, but out there was the only place to find out if it was a good gamble. Perhaps we would lose even more time than if we had changed the discs – in which case we would just as certainly lose all hope of winning the race. On the other hand, perhaps it would turn out to be possible to live with the brakes – in which case we might keep our hopes alive. So I told Singer I’d drive his car carefully… And I winked at him.
“A couple of minutes later, I was out on the circuit, through Tertre Rouge onto the Mulsanne Straight. As soon as the speed built up, I realised what Jacky had been saying. The front brakes were so out of balance that I had to hang on to the steering wheel for dear life down the straight.
“When I arrived at the brow I had to start changing down through the gears, slowing the car from 220mph largely on the transmission. I just made it through the corner each time.”
In this last stint, at the end of a race during which he and Ickx had experienced all the frustrations of Robert Bruce’s spider, Bell really showed his class, driving on little else but pure adrenalin. Try, try again! His headlights ablaze, he took 10-15 seconds a lap away from the leading car, as poor Holbert stared at the dash, mesmerised by his temperature gauge.
Derek’s lap times, in spite of those damaged brake discs, varied between 3m30s and 3m33s, some of them close to the 145.35mph lap record that had been established by his co-driver seven hours earlier. Whenever his right foot was not on the brake pedal, he was making up the lost seconds through his skill in the corners. Controlled aggression, they call it: power on, standing on it; sliding out of line, dramatic to watch – but the same through every corner on every lap.
“As you know,” said Derek afterwards, “I’ve always dreamed of winning Le Mans on the last lap. I reckon that would just about be the ultimate. When we started the stint, of course, I didn’t think we had a prayer – there seemed no way we were going to realise my dream this time. But I had to give it a go regardless.
“It wasn’t really on to make up about a lap and a half in the remaining 47 minutes, but anything can happen, and I knew that my job was to get as close to the leader as I could, just in case it did.”
Oh, and what things were still happening to the leader! Holbert was still running that steady pace when, at 1525, Kussmaul called him in for another pitstop. This, Al did not expect: “I got on the radio and asked him what he was doing. I’d seen the fuel line attached to the car during the previous stop, and I knew that had been our 25th and last [permitted] refuelling opportunity. And I reckoned I could run at this pace to the finish.
“I hadn’t realised that, in fact, we hadn’t refuelled. Kussmaul put me straight: not only would I have to refuel but, if I did maintain this pace and Derek was able to continue at his, we would lose the race.
“It had always been the plan that I would do the last stint – although I hadn’t expected to do two! – so I decided to stay in the car. The mechanics topped up the tank, and fixed the door with a leather strap. But, once out on the track again, now having to use slightly higher revs to preserve our lead to the finish, I saw to my horror that the gauge was starting to climb again…”
“A few moments later, both the temperature gauges pegged themselves to zero. And that can only mean that they’re not sensing any water. Something had finally let go. My engine was dry!” Al Holbert
Bell, in hot pursuit, had put himself on the same lap while Holbert was in the pits. When he had rejoined, Al had started out with his advantage reduced to a shade under two minutes. Derek was now carving huge chunks of time off the lead – because Al found himself in real trouble.
Holbert said: “I was trying to go as fast as I could without putting the gauge off the clock. But still it seemed to me that the thing just kept climbing. Soon I noticed the other gauge climbing, too. Then I came out of Arnage on what I had hoped would be my last lap. And what I had been dreading happened. I smelled the water leave the engine.
“A few moments later, both the temperature gauges pegged themselves to zero. And that can only mean that they’re not sensing any water. Something had finally let go. My engine was dry!
“And, by now, I had also realised that I was going to have to go round one more time. At the end of the lap, I came into the final corner, the second gear Ford chicane – and the engine seized! My heart leapt right into my mouth.
“I was desperate. I banged the car into first gear and stood on the throttle. This and the forward motion of the car unseized the engine again! There was a big puff of smoke from under the left rear wheel arch. Later, [co-driver] Hurley Haywood told me it looked like an illusion, but I said sure as hell it didn’t feel like any illusion… The car was running again. I eased that car up the straight as gently as I could.”
Al staggered across the finish line at 1558. Can you imagine yourself in the lead at Le Mans, driving down the Mulsanne Straight for the 370th and last time, behind you the whole train of human emotions including, throughout the last hour, a bewildering seesaw of tension and relief every time you made it back to the pits again – and now you know that your engine is going to burst at any second?
Holbert was terrified: “All the way round there were people standing up and waving flags or just their arms, and marshals jumping up and down in the road, and I thought, heck, if they knew what I know! We might not even make this!”
Al didn’t know whether to focus on his mirrors on the smoke emitted spasmodically from the back of the car, or further down the road behind, searching for Bell’s headlights.
Don’t ask how that engine, with its air-cooled block, survived those final, nerve-shattering eight and a half miles. Once safely across the finish line, Al didn’t mess about. He parked it. Then he caught sight of the tidal wave of spectators rolling down the pitstraight towards him. And he ran.
Bell, powersliding his car even now through the final complex, had to thread a way through some backmarkers to reach the line, the track invaded by flag-waving marshals who should know better. But he knew, having looked in vain for the sister car parked at the side of the road, that the race was lost.
He crossed over into the deepening sea of humanity that had all but swamped the track in the 64 seconds since Holbert had won his race, and he parked, dutifully, just behind the winning Porsche.
Derek, intent on his work, had not even known who was driving the other car, let alone cared what was going through his mind. He had just kept up that spectacular charge: “Oh, it was exhilarating. I did enjoy it!”
One more lap, and Derek and Jacky would have achieved the hat-trick of victories together? The answer to that is – maybe. The final drama in that extraordinary final hour occurred on Bell’s final lap, with the fuel warning light coming on. Derek had to switch to the reserve just after the Porsche Curve – well, he might just not have made it round for a 371st time. That’s how close Mario and Michael Andretti came to winning Le Mans…
Holbert was breathless for hours afterwards: “When it was all over – well it’s not something you can put into words. Jacky and Derek, they’re quite good at Le Mans, you know? Now I realise how they feel about winning it. I’m sure each time feels just as good as the time before. But the first win – I can’t describe how great it is.”
“Being second in these circumstances – well it’s quite acceptable, you know? Perhaps the others were lucky but, with no doubt, Derek and I have had our share of good luck in previous years” Jacky Ickx
Schuppan had stood in racing gear for much of the final hour in the pits, motionless, ready to take over in case Al ran into any kind of problem. With a couple of laps to go, he and Haywood then made their way to the victory balcony.
Hurley said: “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that puff of steam! We thought we were home and dry, but suddenly we both had sweat pouring off our brows… But Al nursed the car home – he did a real good job.”
Vern added: “All afternoon, people had been coming up to me and telling me we were looking good, asking me why I wasn’t smiling. I told them it wasn’t over yet! It proved that I was right. What a race it was…”
The incident with Jan Lammers on the second lap, the electrical failure early on Sunday, the fractured oil pipe – these were the incidents that stopped the Ickx-Bell hat-trick. And the extraordinary strength of the Holbert engine.
Jacky said: “It was a very exciting Le Mans, for sure. We both felt the frustration of catching up several times but being disturbed each time by a mechanical problem. But being second in these circumstances – well it’s quite acceptable, you know? Perhaps the others were lucky but, with no doubt, Derek and I have had our share of good luck in previous years.”
Derek, back in London during the week, angry at BBC Television because Murray Walker had credited Jacky with that fine last stint on Sunday Grandstand, a little embarrassed by our Catchpole [Autosport’s cartoon strip of the time] whose creator had mistakenly credited him with the fastest lap instead of Ickx, shared this magnanimous view.
“I was disappointed, of course,” he said, “but I must say that I’d almost rather come second in a race like that, than drone along to win unchallenged. Above all, I enjoyed it. Those last 13 laps were really satisfying, and both Jacky and I went home knowing we had done our best.”