24 Hours of Le Mans

The most important motor endurance race in the sixties was the scene of a feverish battle between Ford and Ferrari, timed by Longines.
No other race in the world is as challenging for drivers and their cars as the 24 Hours of ­Le Mans: the 13,5 km (8.38 miles) circuit follows bumpy country roads where the drivers chase each other day and night. On the Mulsanne Straight, a straight stretch almost 5 km (3.10 miles) long, the fastest racing cars (Porsche 917) reached a top speed of over 390 km/h (242 mph) as early as in 1971. At the same time, there are numerous private participants, in much slower vehicles. The race is a highly demanding endurance test for every racing team.
Ferrari first dominated the race in the 1960s, with a series of uninterrupted victories from 1960 to 1963. American car giant Ford tried to take over the Italian racing car manufacturer in 1963. When Ferrari was struggling with financial problems. But after days of negotiations, commendatore Enzo Ferrari rejected the offer at the very last moment. Only one week later, the severely disappointed Henry Ford II switched to plan B: to develop his own racing car. “You go to Le Mans and beat his ass,” Ford ordered his subordinates.
In March 1969, Longines was present at the Geneva Motor Show, at the ACS stand with a giant luminous panel from Télé-Longines. This was the first world presentation of the legendary Porsche 917.
The Ferrari 512 S from the Scuderia Filipinetti (drivers Corrado Manfredini/Gianpiero Moretti), with “Longines Chronométrage Officiel” stickers on its wings, at Le Mans 1970.
Quickly, Ford assembled a racing team. With the help of the English sports car manufacturer Lola, Ford put the sleek mid-engine GT 40 sports car on wheels, powered by a Ford V8 engine. In 1964, the American challengers competed against the Italians for the first time in Le Mans. Their cars were already surprisingly fast, but not reliable enough. The lap times, the fastest round, the distances between the cars and the 24 hours were precisely measured by Longines, the Official Timekeeper of Le Mans – as in every year between 1960 and 1991.

Ford had invested millions of dollars in a victory – and in 1964 he still had to suffer a bitter defeat: the three GT 40s all failed. Instead of a Ford, a “prancing horse” crossed the finishing line as the winner, with Nino Vaccarella (co-driver Jean Guichet) behind the wheel. In their Ferrari 275P, the pilots covered more than 4,695 km (2,917 miles) in 24 hours.
Ford then sought help from the Texan Carroll Shelby: the former Le Mans winner (1959) and sports car builder improved the Ford GT 40 in crucial points, together with his race driver and mechanic Ken Miles. Above all they implanted a more powerful 7-litre engine and improved the brakes as well as handling. But the cars with their huge, heavy engines were still unreliable: 1965 was a total disaster for Ford, with all six of its cars retiring before the seventh hour. Enzo Ferrari triumphed with his red racers in first, second and third place.

They had to try a third time. In 1966, the Americans arrived with 20 tonnes of spare parts, equipment and an armada of 15 racing cars (GT40 Mk II). The organisers accepted eight of them. This time, the GT40s set the pace: Longines timed Dan Gurney (USA) in his Ford with the fastest qualifying lap of 3 minutes and 30.6 seconds, which corresponds to an average speed of 230,1 km/h (143 mph). Three further Ford drivers followed just one second behind.
Le Mans 1966 in figures
13.5 km
Track length.
Number of spectators.
3 min. 30.6 sec.
Fastest lap at an average speed of 230,1 km/h (143 mph), (Dan Guerney, Ford GT 40).
4,843.1 km
Distance covered by winners McLaren/Amon (Ford GT 40) at an average speed of 201 km/h (126 mph).
Number of cars starting the race.
Number of cars finishing the race.
Start of the battle between Ferrari and Ford at Le Mans 1964: John Surtees/Lorenzo Bandini (Ferrari 330 P #19); Richie Ginther; Pedro Rodriguez/Skip Hudson (Ferrari 330 P #15).
Le Mans 1971 in figures
3 min. 18.4 sec.
Fastest lap at an average speed of 244.4 km/h (151.9 mph), Jackie Oliver (Porsche 917).
5,335.3 km
Distance covered by winners Helmut Marko/Gijs van Lennep, (Porsche 917) at an average speed of 222.3 km/h (138.1 mph).
396 km/h
Top speed in training on the Mulsanne Straight, by Jackie Oliver (Porsche 917).
Number of cars starting the race.
Number of cars finishing the race.
Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby at Le Mans 1966.
Precise timing by the specialists of Longines: the timing booth at Le Mans 1965.
On a cool and cloudy afternoon on 18th June at 4 p.m. the race started, eagerly followed by a crowd of 350,000 spectators. At the end of the first lap, three Fords were in the lead followed by the first Ferrari in fourth position. It was only during the night, when it was raining heavily and so reducing the power advantage of the big Fords, the Ferrari 330 P3 of Richie Ginther took the lead. As the rain eased, the Fords of Ken Miles and Dan Gurney retook the lead. Without any real challenge, Ford racing team director Leo Beebe began in the morning to organise the ideal photo opportunity that would showcase Ford’s dominance against their competitors: all three leading Fords would cross the finishing line side by side in a dead heat.
The leading Ford driven by Ken Miles slowed down to allow fellow team-mate Bruce McLaren to catch up, followed by the Ford of Dick Hutcherson in third place. The dead heat turned out to be a dead duck. Finally the organisers of the race declared McLaren winner: his car had started 20 m (65 ft) behind Miles – and covered the largest distance in 24 hours. The epic battle between Ford and Ferrari is the subject of the brilliant film “Le Mans 66” released in 2019, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale. In 1966, Ford won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time, followed by three further wins in the next years. That achievement was arguably the greatest in the history of the American car giant. “It came after years of struggle, more than a few public failures, and enough burnt cash to refloat the Titanic”, wrote car magazine “Road and Track”. In its glorious years, racing put whole countries on the edge of their seats.

In 1969, the era of the Americans was near to an end. In the spring of the same year, Porsche launched their legendary 917, at the Geneva Motor Show. At the stand of the Automobile Club of Switzerland (ACS), Longines supported the presentation of the mighty Porsche 917 as Official Timekeeper of the Le Mans race. The new sports car with the air-cooled 12-cylinder engine proved to be extremely successful: in 1970 and 1971, Porsche achieved a double victory in Le Mans (Attwood/Herrmann and Marko/van Lennep). Ferrari remained in third and fourth place in 1971. Porsche won ­15 times more at Le Mans up until 2019.
In 1965, the Le Mans race started with a running practice as usual. The procedure was abolished in 1970 due to security concerns.