Le Mans 66, setting the record straight part one

Le Mans 1966 was a special race for me, and it could have been even more so had parental permission been granted for me to join the Model Cars magazine group on their Page & May run trip to the race. Sadly the trip was vetoed (I was only 13), but a slot racing friend had a relative who worked at Alan Mann Racing and he was on their crew for the race so I got a lot of second hand news from the race plus a programme. My French teacher was impressed with my surge of interest in her native tongue even if was just to help me translate the programme’s pages.

Over the years since I have read many accounts of the race and collected or build models of several of the cars that raced that year. It isn’t quite an obsession, but it would probably be my specialist subject should I ever tackle Mastermind. When the recent film set around the race was released I was not interested though; I knew that it would be a dramatisation and whilst that would be entertaining for many, for me it would just have been frustrating with all of the inevitable inaccuracies and bending of the true story.

In the aftermath of the film’s release there was much comment on social media including a resurgence of the “Miles was robbed” argument. That is a matter of opinion and I do not have one, but one of the things that started to crop up was the story that the number 1 Ford was “four or five laps ahead of the 2 car” and that Ken Miles had been slowed to allow it to catch up, this having been allegedly done late on Sunday morning.

Now this did not gel with anything that I knew about the race and so I started digging through every source of reference that I had on the race. This includes contemporary reports and various subsequent accounts in biographies and the like. In doing this I have tried to take the view that opinion is free, but facts are sacred and also accepting that what people said at the time often differs with what they said later. Filtering all of that I think that I can explain that there was almost certainly a four lap, or thereabouts, gap between the number 1 and 2 Fords during Sunday morning and why it disappeared.

A description is due here about the Le Mans pits back in those days because it has significance in answering the question I have posed, especially for those used to modern tracks and large pit crews. Pit lane was simply an apron alongside the track and there was no barrier to separate it from the circuit. There were strict rules about working on the car, for example no oils or water could be added until at least 25 laps had been covered and each pit had officials to monitor the crew. One of these officials was known as the plumber and part of their job was to check the seals on filler caps and then re-seal them afterwards. Refuelling was via a hose linked to a central system and the only restriction here was the size of your tank in the car.

Communication with the cars was via the signalling pits which were located on the inside of the track just after the slowest corner on the circuit; Mulsanne. These were linked to the main pit by telephone so information given to the driver was just half a lap old.

A white line was painted on the edge of the track by the pit area and cars coming in to the pits had to be to the right of this as they entered the pit area to avoid the manoeuvres that had led to the 1955 disaster. Likewise they had to stay inside the line on leaving the pits until after the line ended. Each pit box was only around the length of the car, so space could get tight when trying to service cars especially when the adjacent pits were servicing theirs.

From what I have been able to research the Ford Mk2 cars ran around a ninety minute stint between routine stops. The regulations required the driver to stop the car in the pits and get out before work on the car could commence. Tyres were generally lasting a double stint and during a tyre change the spare wheel had to be removed from its compartment air the front of the car, bounced on the ground to show that it was properly inflated and then re-stowed in the car. Once all seals had been fitted the driver could get back in and restart the car to resume racing.

Routine pit stops were therefore much longer than we see today with around  1 minute forty seconds being about the best and so, with slowing down and speeding up, it was not hard to almost loose a lap on even a routine stop. If more than just basic topping up and servicing was required then the stops were much longer and, with the Fords lapping at around 3 minutes 40 seconds (Gurney’s fastest lap was 3.30.6), positions could change easily. Add in the potential delay of double or treble stacking cars and a stop could make a big difference. 

An element of servicing was for the brakes and one of the Holman Moody team had come up with a quick change process that changed the entire pad and disc (rotor for my American friends) when required. This apparently could be done in as little as 10 minutes for all four corners, but if that stop also included tyres, fuel and lubricants clearly that stop was going to was going to put you three or even four laps down on any of your team mates that were still running until they, too, had to have their brakes changed.

Within the anecdotal evidence there are a couple of references to the crew on the number 1 car preparing to change their pads and discs only to find that the set that they had carefully bedded in during practice having been used by the number 2 car. There is also evidence that the number 2 car did drop back to four laps down early on Sunday. The logical conclusion is that if the 2 car stopped for a pad and disc change first it would have lost that time and then caught it back up when the 1 car stopped for the same purpose.

On the official hourly leaderboard the 2 car shows in the lead for the first time at 0800 on Sunday morning. One hour later it has dropped to third behind the 3 and 1 cars and then by 1000 the 3 car has retired and the 2 car is shown leading from the 1 and 5 cars. These positions remain unchanged at 1100, 1200 and 1300. During those three hours Miles is reported as exceeding the set lap time for the three remaining Fords and takes about 30 seconds out of the 2 cars lead during which time he is repeatedly given the EZE sign. At 1400 and 1500 the 1 car is shown in the lead, this following tyre change stops where the 2 car was delayed. It is at the final stops that Miles, McLaren and Bucknam are told to form up for the photo finish and here Miles is certainly told to slow and let McLaren catch him. He does this, but both cars were on the same lap at that time.

Rain had started just after 1200 and the track was very wet in the final stages as can be seen in archive footage of the finish. On the penultimate lap the three Ford Mk2s cruise past the pits with the 1 and 2 cars alongside each other and the 5 tucked in behind. Next time around the last few hundred yards are seen from the helicopter in the film This Time Tomorrow as the three cars come through the White House section in formation, but with Miles lagging a little. The finish line is back before the start of the pits and it is here that they get the chequered flag.

The 2 car is between one and two car lengths ahead as they pass the finish line and I am not going to offer any opinion on why the 2 car gets over the line first; some say that Miles backs off, others that McLaren gives the 2 car a squirt. I suggest that you look the  film up on You Tube, watch it, form your own opinion and use the relative positions of the 1 and 5 cars to guide you.

One last thought. The business about a dead heat not being possible was not something that the organisers dreamt up on that Sunday. The rules were clear from the very first race more than forty years before; the winner is the car that covers the greatest distance. Whilst a dead heat is not mentioned, and perhaps they had not thought that it might happen, that does not alter the fact that if two cars cross the line side by side one of them will have travelled further by whatever distance it started behind the other in the echelon line up and so a dead heat could never have been possible.

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