50 Years of Le Mans

IT IS INTERESTING how time changes one’s perspective. When Steve McQueen’s love letter to racing and Le Mans in particular was released in June 1971, it was mainly panned. The movie also did not make a profit. It just about bankrupted Solar Productions, McQueen’s film company. For budding race fans like me, the movie was enthralling with many scenes shot during the 1970 Le Mans race.

A Porsche 908 was outfitted as a camera car driven by Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams. This was the same Porsche that McQueen, with Peter Revson, drove to second place in the 1970 Sebring 12-hour race. Despite the heavy cameras and compromised aerodynamics, the camera car finished ninth in the 1970 Le Mans race. There were other professional drivers involved in the making of the movie. Richard Attwood (who had just won Le Mans in a Porsche 917), Derek Bell, Jo Siffert, Vic Elford and Brian Redman. Derek Bell was injured in a fiery crash staged for the movie and David Piper unfortunately had to have part of his leg amputated after a crash during filming. Ferrari supposedly wouldn’t supply cars as the movie depicted Porsche winning as in the actual race.

A lot of racing fans and Porsche fans now revere this movie as an accurate representation of endurance racing. There have been numerous books and even a documentary on the making of this film. For me, the racing scenes are, of course, still thrilling but my best memory is the beginning of the movie where McQueen drives his Porsche 911 through the French countryside. Still, for other viewers a movie that runs for 37 minutes before there is any dialogue may be a bit tedious.

That same June in 1971 saw Porsche winning Le Mans for the second time. The winning Porsche 917 driven by Gijs Van Lennep and Helmut Marko set a distance record that would stand for nearly 40 years. That year’s Le Mans had good weather, no chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight and relatively few accidents. Interestingly that year’s race saw the first female driver, Marie-Claude Beaumont, after a 14-year ban. Marko is probably more widely known now as he is the head of Red Bull’s driver development and featured in the Netflix series Drive to Survive.

During Monterey Speed Week this August, RM Sotheby’s will be auctioning the 1970 917, which competed in the 1970 Le Mans race and was featured in the movie. Driven by David Hobbs and Mike Hailwood, it completed only 49 laps. The pre-sale estimate is between $16 to $18.5 million, which puts it a bit out of my price range.

McQueen’s movie helped popularize the Gulf colours of orange and blue. They certainly got their money’s worth on that advertising deal. Porsche, of course, has won 19 Le Mans races and will be returning in 2023 with its new hypercar to vie again for overall victory. </>

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