While today the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel use Formula 1 as a platform to highlight social injustices in the world, six decades ago Jacky Ickx held his own protest, for the safety of drivers, changing the face of the fabled Le Mans 24 Hours forever.
In 1969 the Belgian ace – rising fast through the ranks of motor racing in an era when F1 drivers also competed in sports cars, with Le Mans the crown jewel of the genre – took on the establishment with his long walk to his car for the start, while others ran, a deliberate protest against the danger of standing starts in front of over 100,000 fans in the stands and the area overlooking the start.
The so-called “Le Mans-start” was used for many years in various types of motor racing. When the start flag dropped, drivers had to run across the track to their cars which were parked on the other side, climb in, start the car, and drive away to begin the race.
But the serious incidents marred this type of start and Ickx was prompted to make his gutsy stand by walking the walk to his Ford GT, getting off the start stone last and, with Jackie Oliver, going on to win his first Le Mans that year. However, his greatest victory was that his protest led to drastic changes to the way races were started in that era, in the name of safety.
Ickx, a former Ferrari and Lotus F1 driver, winner of eight of the 116 Grand Prix starts and six-time Le Mans winner recalled his first victory at the 1969 edition of the great endurance race, the first of his many exploits at the 24 Hours circuit.
This is one of his and motorsport’s great stories, first published on the official Le Mans website, a racing tale that remains pertinent to this day, reminding us that there was a time in our sport when Drivers Lives Did Not Matter, and it took legends such as Jacky Ickx to make them matter.
Ickx’s protest made him a legend and managed to change the 24 Hours of Le Mans forever
After his first participation with the Essex Wire team in 1966, the following year Ickx joined John Wyer’s outfit whose Mirage cars were decorated for the first time in Gulf Oil company’s legendary sky blue and orange livery. But like in 1966, the young Belgian driver, that time sharing the wheel with the Australian Brian Muir, was forced to retire.
In 1968, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was postponed until September 29th and 30th due to the social and political climate of May of that year in France. Ickx was absent: on September 22nd, the day before Scrutineering for the 36th edition, he had an accident at the Grand Prix of Canada.
With a fractured leg, he had to give his spot behind the wheel of the #9 Ford GT40 to Mexican driver Pedro Rodriguez…who went on to win the race along with Belgian driver Lucien Bianchi.
The start of the 1968 24 Hours was marred by an accident the consequences of which were fully felt the following year. After running toward his Ford GT40, another Belgian driver, Willy Mairesse, started off without securing his safety harness, add to that a poorly closed door, and the result was a violent incident. Mairesse survived after a long coma, but his racing career was over. Sadly, one year later on September 2, 1969, he took his own life.
At the start of the race on June 14, 1969, he decided to make his way to his Ford GT40 Gulf – 14th on the grid – by walking, not running. He took off dead last, but the Belgian driver and his teammate, British driver Oliver, came back fighting and took the lead.
On the final lap, Ickx overtook the Porsche driven by Hans Herrmann at Mulsanne. Under the checkered flag, only 120 meters separated the winning #6 Ford GT40 and the #64 Porsche 908.
In the sixties and seventies, motorsports did not enjoy the level of safety it does today
There were almost daily severe or fatal accidents, recalls Jacky: “What makes the overconfidence of youth is the lack of survival instinct. At 20 years old, we know nothing of the fragility or brevity of life, so nothing can stop you.
“During the 1960s, there were so many accidents that everyone was directly affected at one time or another. It stopped no one, but we were all aware when we left for a race weekend, we may not make it back home on Monday.
“The problem with the magnificent Le Mans start, that Pierre Fillon has masterfully updated, is there is a choice to make. When you run to your car hoping to be one of the first to take off, it is out of the question to fasten your harness.”
Ahead of the race Ickx and Oliver were off the radar and not expected to challenge for victory: “We were not among the favourites and in a long-distance race such as the 24 Hours, the start is of relative insignificance. So it was easy to start last and calmly secure your harness. Certainly, we started last and finished first.
“But just think if we had finished second…today they may say to me: ‘instead of being clever at the start, you could have hurried a bit more and won the race.’
“The most important thing is to act with conviction. And it caused the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans to be changed, for the good of everyone,” added 76-year-old Ickx, a true living Motorsport Legend.
If there ever was a movie to be made, this has a script with blockbuster written all over it… Drivers Lives Matter!