June 09, 2012
Actor Steve McQueen is seen on set for the film "Le Mans" in 1971 in Le Mans, France.
Tony Davis asks why the Le Mans start was axed.
The Le Mans race is famous for its 24-hour duration, its big flat cars and, most of all, its start. Never mind that the famous run-to-your-car-and-blast-off caper hasn't been part of the circus for more than 40 years.
The Le Mans start still holds allure and the concept and name turn up in all sorts of other sports, including bicycle, motorcycling and kart events - even in the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race.
Unfortunately, what yachties call a Le Mans start doesn't involve the crew swimming to their boats and being taken by a shark if not quick enough.
It means they wait at the stern for the start signal, then run to the coffee grinders to hoist and trim the headsails.
The authentic, original, four-wheeled Le Mans start was born when the race itself was born on the La Sarthe circuit in France in 1923.
The idea was elegant. The drivers would line up their cars along the pit wall in the order they qualified. They would then stand on the other side of the track and, when the French flag fell, athletically bound to their cars, jump in and start them unaided.
The reality wasn't quite as elegant. Drivers blasted away in a maelstrom of accelerating cars, not all of them entirely under control, with doors still flapping and - in later years - seat belts yet to be fastened.
All sorts of tricks were used to gain that extra fraction of a second; most famously Porsche moved the ignition to the left side so the driver could use that hand for starting while engaging first gear with the right.
When organisers at Sydney's Mount Druitt circuit ran what they claimed as this country's first 24-hour race, in 1954, they also insisted on a run-and-jump-in start.
What was interesting other than the mismatch (Mount Druitt's winning Jaguar XK 140 managed to overcome, among other things, a Standard Vanguard, an Austin A90 Atlantic and a Fiat 500C) was that seven or eight of the cars listed only one driver.
These included Dick Shaw, placed fourth in a Holden 48-215, who must have managed a very large number of those International Roast-and-Kit Kat roadside stops.
Jacky Ickx - best known here as the 1977 Bathurst co-winner, but elsewhere as a formula one racer and sports car champion - helped change things at Le Mans.
In 1969 he walked rather than ran to his Ford GT40, then very carefully and deliberately strapped himself in before driving off, stone, motherless last.
As it turned out, Ickx won the race on debut and in an already-outdated Ford GT40.
By walking to his car, he was trying to show that, although the start added theatre, any tiny advantage gained would have no effect on the result in such a long race. It was far more important to be properly strapped in.
Curiously, though, Ickx won by only a few seconds, having conceded at least half a minute at the start. If he'd lost by the same amount, he may have looked less sharp.
Still, his point about being strapped in was underlined in the first lap of that 1969 race when British privateer John Woolfe crashed his Porsche 917. Fatally.
The evidence suggested he hadn't yet clicked in his seat belt and/or properly closed his door.
The previous year, Belgian Willy Mairesse had been severely hurt in similar, unbelted circumstances. When it became obvious his injuries were the end of his career, Mairesse took his own life.
After Ickx's protest in 1969, the cars were lined up against the pit wall again in 1970, but the drivers were inside, properly strapped in, mirrors adjusted, music selection already sorted.
This was the one-off start captured in the Steve McQueen film, Le Mans. A year later the race became a rolling start and that's how the cars will get away next weekend.