1982 24 Hours of Le Mans: Capping Off Le Mans in the Most Dominant WayBy: Jeremy McMullen
Group 6 cars had long been ruled out by the rules makers. Yet, despite the normal amount of investment and evolution that would normally take place, the Porsche 936 would continue to be a dominant force at Le Mans throughout the late 1970s. But then came 1981. Porsche was fully invested in its latest car, the 956. However, Ickx was still convinced there was more the 936 could give and it would give its all in 1981 earning yet another Le Mans and giving Ickx a total of five victories to his name. The record, and the title of Mr. Le Mans, was firmly in the hands of the Belgian. But he wasn't done. The following year, 1982, would see Ickx and Porsche save their best for his last.
Personally, there would be very little Ickx could do to top his performance of 1981. Co-driving the Porsche with Derek Bell, the aged man o'war, the 936, would go on to race 24 hours in near perfection completing the race with a margin of more than 14 laps in hand over the 2nd place finisher. It would certainly be one of Ickx's most dominant performances around the 8.4 mile Le Mans circuit. But, at just the age of 37, there just had to be more in the Belgian.
Ickx had convinced Porsche to enter the 936 one last time at Le Mans in 1981. The simple fact of the matter was that the Rondeaus just could not compete in long distance runs along with the Porsches. Therefore, the move worked. The following year would see the Mirage M12 come to Le Mans right along with the Lancias and Saubers. This posed a great challenge to Porsche. However, Porsche would come with a fleet of their own cars and the car the factory would bring to the race in 1982 would become an instant classic. Ickx would not need to persuade Porsche about anything, not when it debuted the new 956 at the Silverstone 6 Hour race in the middle of May.
Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell had joined forces again and found themselves starting from pole at Silverstone leading up to the 6 hour race. This was a great starting position for the new car but the race would be anything but easy, not with the Group 6 cars still allowed in the field.
Though they would be quicker in qualifying, the Lancia LC1 driven by Riccardo Patrese and Michele Alboreto would absolutely fly during the race. They would end up taking the victory by no less than three laps on Ickx and Bell. This was not a great sign heading into Le Mans the following month. There were weaknesses in the Lancia, but there were certainly strengths as well. Furthermore, the 956 would be making its first appearance at Le Mans. Teething problems over the course of a 24 hour race needed to be expected. If the rest of the competition fared as strongly as the Lancias at Silverstone, Porsche ran a great risk of being embarrassed one year after one of its most dominant performances.
Only about a year earlier, Porsche began wind tunnel testing ideas for a new endurance race car that would carry on the Porsche legend at Le Mans. The tests would end up producing Porsche's very first monocoque sportscar. The factory would turn to Ickx for help in guidance with the design of the cockpit and other important features of the new car. He had triumphed at Le Mans more than any other driver before. He would certainly know what a driver needed to win. It was also another opportunity for him to produce, for himself, another Le Mans winner. Though just approaching his 37th birthday, it was understood the Belgian couldn't go on racing forever and the factory would want to give him, and all their drivers, the best opportunity to finish on top.
Jurgen Barth would be the driver tapped to then take the new 956 through its first paces. Immediately the new car feels right, feels like a winner. Though a new car in design, it would still use many tried and proven parts that would help the reliability. Still, the car would be rushed through long distance tests in order to be ready in time for Le Mans.
Three cars would be prepared for the 1982 edition of the French classic. Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx would partner in car number one. Car number 2 would be driven by Jochen Mass and Vern Schuppan. The third car would be driven by Al Holbert and two former co-drivers of Ickx's that helped to win the 1977 running of the race, Hurley Haywood and Jurgen Barth.
The sleek, closed top prototype Group C car would be quick around the circuit. Ickx would set a lap record and would power his way to pole-position, while Mass would also set a record lap and would end up 2nd on the grid. Just like that, the brand new 956s start first and second. Still, to finish first, first you must finish, and this was certainly on the mind of everyone within the team as there was a bit of tension that could be felt within the factory Porsche team.
Ickx certainly showed no signs of slowing down in qualifying. Now, as the race approached, he also needed to show no signs of a loss of focus as it would take great determination and mistake-free driving to fend off the other factory cars, let alone the competition.
The cars would take to the grid for the start of the race with a bright blue sky peering down amidst some big puffy-white clouds. It would appear to be a beautiful start to the 24 hour race on the 19th of June.
The cars would make their way around and then the tricolor would be shown to the field to start the race. Immediately, the Rothmans Porsche would spring to the fore of the field. Appearing around the Dunlop Curve for the first time, it would be the Rothmans Porsches leading the way with Ickx heading up over the hill for the first time. Not far behind, the Lancias, which had dominated at Silverstone just a month earlier, would be rapidly making their way up from their 4th and 5th place starting positions. They were already lurking there behind the Porsches as they crested the hill and made their way toward the esses. The third Rothmans Porsche would be blocked going around the Dunlop Curve. Even as the field crested the hill and made its way toward the esses, the third factory Porsche would be tip-toeing its way being careful not to ruin the day on the very first lap.
Ickx and Bell would be impressive throughout the early stages of the race. However, the number 11 Rondeau would lead for a period of time, just ahead of Bell and Ickx's Porsche. But even though the Rondeau would steal the spotlight, it wouldn't last for very long. Ickx would soon retake the lead and would begin to pull away while the Ford C100 gave chase.
The Porsche would have the speed, but it would not quite have the endurance of the Rondeau and Ford. Regulations would limit the amount of fuel that could be used over the course of the race. However, as Bell took over behind the wheel, it was clear the 956 was going at quite a rapid pace.
The number 3 Porsche had suffered brake problems over the course of practice and was the reason for its poor starting spot on the grid. However, as the early part of the race began to unfold, it was clear the car was no longer suffering the problems it once had been and was steadily working its way up the order. In fact, the number 3 car would make a stop right behind the number 2 and would leave the pits rather close to its sister-car.
However, it would be the number 1 car that was carrying on the best of all. More than 300,000 people would be on hand, in the beautiful conditions, to watch as Bell carried on in car number 1, building up more and more of a comfortable cushion over the rest of the field.
The Ford threat would come undone as one of its C100s would be out of the race before completing 70 laps. They would last longer than one of the cars entered by Porsche Kremer Racing. Their Porsche 935, car number 5, would be out of the race after just 25 laps. One of the Saubers and then one of the Lancias would all run afoul of problems and would be forced to retire from the race.
Compared to the older 935, the new 956 would prove what modern technology could do to car design. The aerodynamic shape of the car meant it would be incredibly fast down the long straights. However, the downforce induced by the ground-effect design from the nose to the rear also help the new car to corner at faster speeds as well. The car was certainly a potent package, and, in the hands of Ickx and Bell, was pulling away into the distance until the tiny blue and white speck disappeared altogether.
Heading into the darkness, the main concern on Porsche's mind would be fuel consumption. Their pace was like a rocket ship, but could it be maintained throughout without having to back off to save fuel? This would be a problem as long as the competition remained in the race. Then, of course, there was the inter-team rivalry and the desire of each driver to have their car finish first.
During the night is when sleep depravation and relative blindness can lead to unforced errors. One such incident would happen with Al Holbert, who, while getting in behind the wheel for his stint, accidentally pushed the wrong lever. Believing the door to be shut, the American would be surprised when the door broke away from the car out on course. Holbert would complete the lap without a door. However, he would quickly return to the pits and would have a new door fitted in a matter of moments. He would be back in the race, but the time lost would not be good for the number 3 Porsche's chances.
The night would really begin to claim its victims. Both of the Saubers would be out of the race, as would one of the Lancias. The Rondeau fleet that had been so competitive early on the race, would also come undone in the overnight and early morning hours.
Heading into the early morning hours, it would still be Porsche leading the way. The expected threat from Lancia would be there, but the fight would be gone. In fact, the last of the Lancias would retire from the race after completing just 152 laps. This wouldn't even be half distance of the race and the Lancia threat would be gone. It was, well and truly, Porsche's race to lose.
Heading into midday of that Sunday, the temperatures would begin to soar. The conditions seemed ideal for even more problems. However, with Ickx and Bell at the wheel, everyone within the Porsche team remained cool and calm. The pair had won the race the year before. They knew how to take care of a car while in this position.
Porsche would enjoy finding itself in this position. As the clock crept ever-closer to the end, the factory Porsches would now be running first, second and third. They had numbered their cars perfectly as they sauntered on in that order.
The fight would be over. Even with a lap remaining in the race, all possible threats to Porsche would be long gone. Niggling issues had also reduced the inter-team squabble to nothing as Ickx and Bell enjoyed a gap of more than 3 laps on the number 2 Porsche of Jochen Mass and Vern Schuppan. All that was left for the team to do was finish that last lap. And, what better way to do it than in dominant fashion.
Porsche expected the new 956 to be strong in spite of its lack of experience and competition. However, over the course of 24 hours nearly all three of their cars ran to perfection delicately balancing speed and reliability. But with every new car there is still a bit of uncertainty. The tenseness within the team prior to the race suggested that, while they were excited about their prospects, they just weren't sure if it would all go their way.
It would all go Porsche's way, and then some. Coasting around the circuit for the final time, Porsche would demonstrate its dominant run in the most dominant fashion. The three cars would line up nose-to-tail in order of finish. One-two-three, the new 956s would come through the Ford chicane for the final time. They were really the only ones left, but even still, they had beaten all comers. The barricades would be beaten as well as the crowd had already poured onto the circuit to welcome home the fleet of three.
But Porsche's dominance wouldn't just be in the top three overall. Instead, Porsche cars would occupy the top five places in the overall finishing order. The Rothman Porsches finishing in sequential order would merely cap-off would a dominant performance it had been by the German company.
The year before, Ickx had enjoyed his biggest margin of victory at Le Mans. With a couple of exceptions, every victory by the Belgian at Le Mans had been something of a blow-out. However, the 1982 Le Mans victory would be something else entirely.
The victory would prove to be his last at Le Mans. And, though he and Bell would only defeating their sister car by a little more than three laps, the fact Porsche finished one-two-three meant the factory for which Jacky had driven a number of years and given them some of their more memorable wins, would give to the Belgian perhaps the best finish to his career at Le Mans. The factory team had destroyed all comers. It would have to serve as perhaps one of the best possible final victories in history. Ickx was certainly Mr. Le Mans, and leading home the fleet in an absolute indomitable performance would be a suiting final victory.
posted on conceptcarz.com