The 88th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, held this weekend, holds the distinction of being only the second edition of the French endurance classic to be held in September. It was done once before, over 50 years ago. What happened during the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans, and why was it delayed? MotorsportWeek.com takes a closer look.
The 36th edition of the twice-around-the-clock enduro was originally scheduled to take place on the 15th and 16th of June 1968. That summer, however, civil unrests, protests and strikes occurred throughout France in events that have since become known as ‘May 68’.
The events forced the organisers to postpone the race, making it one of the rare editions that were not held in its traditional June spot.
After the postponement, the race became the tenth and final round of the 1968 World Sportscar Championship. The late date meant competitors would have to deal with roughly three hours of additional darkness.
After the 1967 edition, which was won by Ford for a second consecutive time, regulations were changed as those in charge feared that speeds at Le Mans would become too high. Group 6 prototypes had their engines limited to a capacity of 3 liters and Group 4 cars had a 5 litre engine limit.
The rapid implementation led to unrest with teams, with Ferrari chief amongst them. Enzo Ferrari, unhappy with the rules, cancelled his prototype program and withdrew from the race, leaving Ferrari customer outfits forced to race with older GT machinery.
In Ferrari’s absence, the main battle for overall victory would be between Ford and Porsche. JWA Gulf, now in control of the GT40 program, entered three cars for Pedro Rodriguez/Lucien Bianchi, Paul Hawkins/David Hobbs and Brian Muir/Jackie Oliver. Rodriguez and Bianchi had been brought in to replace Ford’s top pairing of Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman, who were both injured.
Porsche, meanwhile, entered four longtail 908s. The German manufacturer led the World championship, holding five wins from Ford’s 4. The four cars were driven by Jo Siffert/Hans Herrmann, Vic Elford/Gerhard Mitter, Rolf Stommelen/Jochen Neerpasch and Joe Buzzetta/Scooter Patrick.
Porsche took the upper hand in qualifying, locking out the top three spots with its new 908. Siffert and Herrmann started on pole, ahead of the pairings of Stommelen and Neerpasch and Elford and Mitter. Rodriguez and Bianchi started fourth.
The start of the race was immediately marked by a heavy crash when Ford privateer Willy Mairesse crashed on the Mulsanne straight after his door flew open. The resulting injuries put the Belgian in coma.
Porsche had the upper hand in the early hours, until the 908s began developing issues. Both Stommelen and Elford suffered electrical issues, dropping them down the order. In the early evening hours, Porsche suffered a major blow when the leading 908 in the hands of Jo Siffert had a clutch failure.
This left the two Fords of Rodriguez and Bianchi and Hawkins and Hobbs in the lead. The third Ford of Muir and Oliver had fallen away after an off at Mulsanne Corner.
Ford was now heading for a near-certain victory, but the run to the flag would not be without its issues. During the evening, David Hobbs brought his GT40 into the pits with a clutch failure, the repair of which cost two hours. Once it got back out, the car suffered a major engine failure just after midnight.
This left Rodriguez and Bianchi clear to carr on through the night and would end up taking victory by five laps over the privateer Scuderia Tartaruga squad, which took a creditable second on debut with a Porsche 907LH for Rico Steinemann and Dieter Spoerry.
Porsche completed the overall podium with a third place for the factory-entered 908 from Rolf Stommelen and Jochen Neerpasch.
The win would seal the International Championship for Makes in the favor of Ford, beating Porsche to the title by three points.
The victory was not without personal drama for Lucien Bianchi, however. His brother Mauro had a serious crash in his Alpine A220 at the Esses. His car caught fire and although he survived, he suffered severe burns to face and arms.