As Le Mans goes virtual, one veteran recalls a famous victory


Paris (AFP)

This weekend's Le Mans 24 Hours, postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, would have marked the golden anniversary of one of its most famous battles.

"Fifty years ago, we raced at all costs," recalled Richard Attwood, winner in 1970 at the wheel of the legendary Porsche 917.

In a torrential downpour, the Briton and his driving partner Hans Herrmann gave the German manufacturer the first of its 19 victories in the race.

"It was the only way for us to make money," he recalled in an interview with AFP, looking back at an era before drivers enjoyed fabulous contracts and so had to race every weekend in different categories.

This weekend, Le Mans is being run as a virtual race, the "real" one has been postponed to 19-20 September.

Porsche will be represented in both events, but is only entered in the GT category in the real race and not in the fastest, and most prestigious, prototype class.

In 1970, the German brand entered the legendary 917. The car was a real power monster with a low, sleek silhouette, it is famous for winning at Le Mans in 1970 and a year later and as the car immortalised in Steve McQueen's film "Le Mans".

Attwood, who is now 80, took part in both the real race in 1970 and the Hollywood version, shot in September on the same track with the cars that had raced that year.

The 1970 race saw a transition away from the famous Le Mans running start, which was blamed for the death the previous year of British driver John Woolfe, who did not fasten his seat belt after climbing into his 917 and lost his life in a first-lap crash.

Instead drivers started in their cars which were parked along the side of the track. The following year, Le Mans adopted a rolling start, with the cars following each other in the order in which they qualified.

In 1970, Herrmann took the start in the Porsche.

"The start was absolutely crazy," said Attwood. "The drivers set off like they were in a Formula One Grand Prix."

- Squashed gnats -

After 12 hellish hours, their red and white 917 took the lead which it held until the finish, finishing five laps ahead of another 917.

The 917 dominated in 1970 and 1971, before being sidelined by a change in regulations, yet the model had not started its career well.

It was designed by the famous engineer Hans Mezger, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90, working with the technology available at the time, which meant no scientific study of the aerodynamics.

The early versions were notoriously unstable at high speed, another factor in Woolfe's fatal crash. The problem was solved by a British engineer who noticed that every part of the car was covered with squashed gnats except the tail, which suggested a lack of downforce at the back.

"In 1969, the car was a nightmare to drive," recalled Attwood. "I would never want to do that again."

"In 1970, it was easy to drive," he said, even though the power of its 12 cylinders meant the car reached 380 kph on the 6-kilometre Mulsanne straight, now interrupted by chicanes.

Attwood kept a Porsche 917 in his personal collection for a long time, but not the one in which he won Le Mans.

"It was chassis 22, while we won with chassis 23, which also bore the race number 23, but that was a coincidence," he points out.

He sold it 20 years ago when the Porsche 917s were already reaching very respectable prices on the collector's market. Now they've become stratospheric.

"But I still drive one of them on average once a year" in vintage car races, said Attwood. "I know them well, they're extraordinary cars."