The track layout was changed yet again for 1972, with a new section of turns being built between Arnage and the Ford chicane for the purposes of bypassing the dangerously fast Maison Blanche. The five new turns installed would later become known as the Porsche curves, while at the same time a second chicane was added to the Ford chicane to help with the creation of a new pit lane entrance.
For 1972, 5.0 liter cars were banned from the World Championship and thus from Le Mans. The Prototype (Group 6) category became the new Sport (Group 5) category with no minimal production required, leaving the game open for the best 3.0 liter cars with F1-like engines.
In 1971, the best competitor in the 3.0 liter class was Alfa Romeo who managed to beat the Porsche 917 at three races. Alfa Romeo made the choice to build a new car for 1972. Unusually, the new 33 TT3 was built on a tubular chassis, while the previous prototype was a monocoque.
Ferrari and Matra took different approaches. Matra cut down its participation in endurance racing to focus on Le Mans, while Ferrari made the opposite choice preferring to compete for the World Championship and to bypass Le Mans, as the F1-inspired 312 PB was optimized for 1000km races.
This made Matra the favorite for the 24 hours, with four cars entered — three brand new Matra 670, an evolution of the 660 specially constructed and designed to race in Le Mans, and an older but updated 660. They faced an opposition consisting mainly of three Alfa Romeo 33 TT3s, two semi-official Lola T280s entered by Jo Bonnier’s team, and one private Porsche 908LH enrolled by Reinhold Joest. This car was similar to the Porsche that finished second in 1969 and was considered seriously outdated and underpowered.
The Matra of Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Chris Amon took the lead at start, but broke its V12 at the beginning the third lap. This caused enough consternation among the other Matra drivers to allow the Lolas of Bonnier and Hugues de Fierlant to take the lead. Bonnier was slowed down by a deflated tire, and after the first pit stops, the two remaining Matra 670s were leading the race again with François Cevert/Howden Ganley on front.
Even if the reliability of the Ford-Cosworth DFV that powered the Lolas was questionable on a 24-hour race, there was some hope for a general failure of the Matras, and Jo Bonnier decided to keep some pressure on. The Lolas where running fast, with Bonnier establishing a new lap record early in the evening. The other Lola broke its gearbox. Graham Hill took the lead with his Matra around midnight.
At dawn the Matra 670s swapped their position again. Bonnier’s Lola T280 was still there with a surprisingly healthy DFV V8. During the night, some race incidents caused unexpected pit stops and the car was only eighth, but the F1-inspired Lola was running really fast the early morning. Just before 8:30 a.m., Bonnier’s Lola came upon the Ferrari GTB4 of Florian Vetsch before Indianapolis curve. The witnesses are not entirely sure what Bonnier hit first, the Ferrari or the barrier, but the Lola went over the barrier and into the trees killing Bonnier.
This tragedy left the Matras without any serious opposition. Despite an unscheduled pit stop, the car of Ganley and Cevert was still leading when Ganley got hit in the tail by a Chevrolet Corvette. This gave the lead to Henri Pescarolo and Graham Hill. The David Hobbs/Jean-Pierre Jabouille Matra 660 was stopped with transmission problems.
The Matra 670 “Short Tail” piloted by Pescarolo and Hill took first place, and the 670 “Long Tail” driven by Cevert and Ganley finished second. This was the first victory of a French car since 1950, and made Graham Hill the first driver to win the Triple Crown of the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Formula One World Championship.
With such notable results at the top, the third position of the Porsche 908LH driven by Reinhold Joest, Michel Weber and Mario Casoni that was mainly the result of careful preparation by Joest and his team was largely unnoticed, yet remarkable.
1972 24 Hours of Le Mans – Photo Gallery (click image for larger picture)
[Source: Wikipedia; photos courtesy of Autosports Marketing Assoc.]