1972 24 Hours of Le Mans
By: Jeremy McMullen
By: Jeremy McMullen
| By the 1970s, many had thought Graham Hill had long since past his shelf life in motor racing. His results in Formula One were nowhere near what the two-time World Champion was capable of achieving. However, it was just when people started writing the Englishman off that he would find something a little extra to prove everyone wrong. And what he would end up achieving would be something that would place him in a league all his own.
Graham Hill's presence in the 1972 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans would be far from the first time the Englishman would take part in the long distance classic. Hill had first attempted the famous race in 1958.
In his first attempt, Hill would be paired with Cliff Allison driving a Lotus Mk15 for Team Lotus Engineering. Unfortunately, it would be a very short introduction to the famous race as it would come to an end after just three laps. Most unfortunate would be the fact that this would set in motion a string of failures for Hill at Le Mans.
The following year, Hill would join Derek Jolly driving a Lotus 15. This time the Englishman's race would last a while longer, but still not that much. Hill and Jolly would manage to complete 119 laps before they would be forced to retire.
Another retirement would follow in the 1960 edition. Graham Hill would move on from Lotus and would partner with Joakim Bonnier driving a Porsche 718/4 RS for Porsche KG. Once again Hill would progress and little further completing 191 laps before falling out of the running.
Failures would continue to follow Hill for 1961 and 1962. In fact, it wouldn't be until 1963 that Hill would actually make it to the end of the French classic. Of course, in the case of the 1963 running, Hill would be driving the Rover-BRM with a gas turbine engine. This car would not be eligible to compete but would still take part in the race. Therefore, although the end would be a non-classification it would still be something of a victory after five-straight seasons without finishing.
1964 would see Hill experience his best result at Le Mans, at least to that point in his career. Hill would be employed by the British Maranello Concessionaries team driving a 4.0-liter Ferrari 330P. Once again, Hill would be paired up with Jo Bonnier sharing the driving duties in the Ferrari.
Hill and Bonnier would be right in the midst of a battle between Ferrari and Ford with their new GT40s. Although not a factory Ferrari effort, the Maranello outfit would look to all of its customers to help quell the threat perceived to be coming from the Ford factory team.
The threat would not be as expected. The GT40 still needed some development work and would prove to have some stability and unreliability issues. This would leave Ferraris to sweep the top three spots in the results. It would also enable Hill to take his best ever result at Le Mans with a 2nd place in the Ferrari 330P. Although some five laps between the winning car driven by Jean Guichet and Nino Vaccarella, Hill and Bonnier would still manage to beat the factory Ferrari 330P, and by some thirteen laps.
Hill would follow up his 2nd place result in the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans with a 10th place result driving a Rover-BRM along with Jackie Stewart. In that race, Hill and Stewart would end up some 64 laps behind the eventual winners of Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt in the North American Racing Team (NART) Ferrari 250LM.
Hill's string of participations in the 24 hour race would come to an end in 1966. This edition would be famous for the clean sweep of the Ford GT40 Mk II. In that race, Graham would partner with Brian Muir driving a Ford GT40 Mk II for Alan Mann Racing Ltd. Unfortunately for Hill and Muir, their GT40 would not be one of the three that would sweep the top of the overall results. Once again, Hill would suffer a retirement and just after completing 110 laps.
The lack of success in the most famous endurance race would certainly discourage from taking part in the race for a number of years. The desire within Hill's heart would come into even more question after he suffered an accident at Watkins Glen during the United States Grand Prix in 1969. In that race he would have an accident that would cause him to break both legs. As a result of the accident Hill would be confined to a wheelchair. And even after making a remarkably quick recovery Hill would seem to drive as though he was still in that wheelchair.
Even after returning to racing Hill would struggle. The best result he would have in the Formula One World Championship, surprisingly, would come in the 1970 season, the very next season after suffering the broken legs. In that season, Hill would end up the season 13th in the standings earning just 7 points.
The next couple of years would be worse. A number of retirements and poor showings would have many of his fans just hoping within their heart that he would retire from racing. But motor racing had infected him ever since his first taste back in 1953 and he would not give up. Thankfully for Hill, there was Jean-Luc Lagardere and his clear direction that Matra was to win both the Formula One World Championship and Le Mans. This desire and determination on the part of Matra would lead to a number of Formula One drivers being hired to spearhead the Le Mans attack. A double World Champion was a double World Champion, and this would be the reason why Hill would be brought on to drive for the French team.
But while nobody would question his ability to drive doggedly determined and gritty it was the heart that served as the motivator, the will. And this was the very thing that even Henri Pescarolo would question when he found out he would be paired with the two-time World Champion heading into the 24 hour race on the 10th and 11th of June.
However, in spite of the glory of Hill's championship days quickly fading into the distance, Hill would not give up. His tenacious determination would lead him to mount one last attack on the sole remaining jewel missing from his motor racing crown.
At the 1972 running of the 24 hour race Hill would end up facing off against an old friend and co-driver. Joakim Bonnier had started his racing career about the same time as Hill and the two would co-drive a number of times. However, by the beginning of the 1970s, both careers were on their downward trend. But while Bonnier would decide to head a slightly different direction by starting his own team, Hill would continue to just focus on driving. But while Bonnier would have his passion reignited by being both a team owner and driver, Hill would still seemingly lack the passion he would become famous for.
Nonetheless, Hill and Pescarolo would be fast in practice and qualifying starting the race up at the front of the field. Hill and Pescarolo, in the number 15 Matra-Simca MS670, would be joined up at the front by two of the team's four cars. One of those would be driven by Chris Amon and Jean-Pierre Beltoise. The other would be piloted by Francois Cevert and Howden Ganley. This would put three Matra-Simcas up at the front of the field. The fourth chassis, which was to be driven by Jean-Pierre Jabouille and David Hobbs, would start just a little bit further back.
Great excitement surrounded the race. The absence of the factory Ferrari effort meant there was a really good chance the French faithful would have the opportunity to see a French car, and possibly a French driver, take the overall victory for the first time since the French father and son combination of Louis and Jean-Louis Rosier in 1950. In that race, Louis and his son would drive a French Talbot-Lago T26GS to victory beating the French pairing of Pierre Meyrat and Guy Mairesse by a single lap.
The circuit layout would be something that would be changed heading into the 40th running. The incredibly fast and dangerous Maison Blanche section would changed and a serious of curves, which would later become known as the Porsche Curves, would be added.
Matra's number one driver, Henri Pescarolo, would have the honor of starting in the number 15 Matra-Simca. And as the field rolled through the Ford chicane to take the waving French flag to start the race, it would be Pescarolo leading the way up the small hill toward the esses at four o'clock in the afternoon.
Although Pescarolo had the lead going around the Dunlop Curve it would be the pairing of Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Chris Amon that would have the lead after the first lap of the race. Pescarolo held onto 2nd place.
Beltoise's and Amon's lead would be short-lived as their V12 Matra engine would expire after just the 3rd lap of the race. The failure would be so immediate and sudden that it would cause the sister-cars such problems that it would allow Bonnier's Lola to take the overall lead.
Bonnier would continue to hold onto the lead for a while before a slowly deflating tire would slow his pace allowing the Matras to catch back up and take the lead. After the first rounds of pit stops it would be the Matra of Cevert and Ganley in the lead.
Throughout the rest of the evening, the race would remain tight with the Matras up front but Bonnier would keep the pace up in efforts to try and break the superior numbers of the Matra-Simca team. It was an impressive display. Just one lone Lola would be pressuring three Matras trying to get them to make a mistake or break. It truly was hard to tell who it was that was the hunter and who was the hunted.
The weather throughout the running of the race would continually change. The dry conditions would see the race pace increase and produce some very impressive lap times. Then, just as the times were really getting to be fast the rain would come and would make the conditions treacherous. This would be when Hill's experience would come to shine.
If Pescarolo had questions about Hill's devotion and drive in the later stages of his racing career, he would provide an answer near to midnight. After being right in the mix throughout the first third, or so, of the race, Hill would take his short-tail Matra 670 and would move into the lead overall.
Hill would remain in the lead throughout the majority of the night. Then, in the early morning hours of Sunday the 11th, the pairing of Cevert/Ganley would retake the lead. Bonnier would also remain right there with them continuing to apply pressure despite being outnumbered. Unfortunately, the pressure Bonnier would continue to apply would constantly put him on the edge of control. It would be just a little past eight in the morning when Bonnier would come upon a slower Ferrari heading into Indianapolis. All of a sudden, Bonnier would hit one of the barriers bordering the track and would somersault over the barrier into the trees. Bonnier's impact with the trees would end up killing the Swedish driver thereby taking away yet another good friend from Hill.
Time was certainly running out on Hill's career. He had lost so many fellow drivers and friends. He, himself, had gone through so much in the way of accidents and bodily harm that it really would have to cause him to think twice about carrying on in such a dangerous sport. However, what better way to wrap up a career than by earning a victory in the world's most famous endurance race.
Transmission troubles in Hobbs' and Jabouille's Matra 660 would reduce the Matra-Simca team to just two cars still running in the race. Cevert and Ganley were still in the lead over Hill and Pescarolo when Ganley would be hit in the rear by a Corvette toward the later part of the race. This would be the open door Hill and Pescarolo were looking for.
Hill and Pescarolo would be in the lead of the race ahead of their stablemates and would continue to push hard. Just a couple of hours left in the race, Hill and Pescarolo would still be in the lead of the race and would be enjoying an eleven lap advantage over Ganley and Cevert. They would practically be able to coast around the circuit for the last few laps and the victory would still be theirs.
At four in the afternoon, on the 11th of June, with Henri Pescarolo at the wheel, the number 15 Matra 670 would come across the line with the other remaining Matra of Cevert and Ganley alongside to take the checkered flag and the victory.
This was a momentous moment for the French as it would be the first time a French car and driver had taken the overall victory since the Rosiers in 1950. It would also be a momentous occasion for another very special reason. As the rain once again began falling all around the circuit it would begin to dawn on the crowd assembled that not only had Graham Hill finally won his first 24 Hours of Le Mans, but that at the age of 43, he would become the first to ever win motor racing's Triple Crown.
Just when everyone, even including his own fans, were hoping and praying for him to retire from racing, he would go on to enter a whole new sphere that he would have all to himself. All of those years battling with such greats as Jim Clark and others would already have him considered amongst the best. However, those final couple of years would be a tragic sight as everyone would bear seeing a double world champion struggle to finish races and with good results. Therefore, as the tears from heaven fell on that glorious Sunday afternoon, many other tears of joy and of relief would flow as the ever-popular driver would lay claim to one last moment of glory. And it had remained his glory ever since.
Scroggs, Jennings R. Jr. 'Morning Qualifying—Bittersweet Edition', (http://hooniverse.com/2011/06/09/morning-qualifying-bittersweet-edition/). Hooniverse.com. http://hooniverse.com/2011/06/09/morning-qualifying-bittersweet-edition/. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
'1972 24 Hours of Le Mans—Race Profile and Photo Gallery', (http://www.sportscardigest.com/1972-24-hours-of-le-mans-race-profile/). Sports Car Digest: The Sports, Racing and Vintage Car Journal. http://www.sportscardigest.com/1972-24-hours-of-le-mans-race-profile/. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
'Le Mans 24 Hours 1972: A Hollow Victory', (http://www.sportscars.tv/Newfiles/lemans72-v2.html). Sportscars.tv. http://www.sportscars.tv/Newfiles/lemans72-v2.html. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
Armstrong, Richard. 'The Champions/More than Mister Monaco: Graham Hill—All-rounder Extraordinary', (http://8w.forix.com/ghill.html). 8W: The Stories Behind Motor Racing Facts and Fiction. http://8w.forix.com/ghill.html. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
Wikipedia contributors, '1972 24 Hours of Le Mans', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 September 2011, 18:05 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1972_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans&oldid=450119228 accessed 2 February 2012
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