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Duel with Time
Ed Hinton
June 26, 1995
At 55, Mario Andretti came tantalizingly close to winning his first 24 Hours of Le Mans
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June 26, 1995

Duel With Time

At 55, Mario Andretti came tantalizingly close to winning his first 24 Hours of Le Mans

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The battered Courage- Porsche simply could not carry out Wollek's vow and provide the final, elusive jewel to Andretti's career. McLaren driver Yannick Dalmas of France, finishing up for teammates J.J. Lehto of Finland and Masanori Sekiya of Japan, held off Wollek by three minutes and five seconds—quite close in a 24-hour race—at the finish.

Yet afterward Andretti was still smiling serenely as he sat among the three top-finishing teams. "Of all the drivers up here, I think we three had the most fun," he said of his team. "By having the problem early on, we had no choice but to go flat out."

Besides, Andretti said, "I plan to come back here next year. Oh, yes. Definitely."

As Andretti and friends took heart, British fans—who appeared to make up about a third of the crowd of 160,000—took to the pits and the track in a mass celebration of the win by a British-made McLaren, a victory that heralded something of a sea change at Le Mans. Rather than being prototypes, the McLarens, which finished first, third, fourth and fifth, were race-fitted versions of road cars, vehicles that can be bought and driven by the public, albeit at a price of more than $1 million. The McLarens, the first road cars built by a branch of McLaren International, the renowned Formula One constructor, became the first marque to win in an inaugural appearance at Le Mans.

For a quarter century the darlings of Le Mans had been thoroughbred prototypes (though the cars were in fact forerunners of nothing suitable for highway use) that begat more exotic prototypes, that moved ever further from the everyday reality of the road.

Almost forgotten were the glorious battles of the 1960s between the sporting Fords and Ferraris. In '67, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney of the U.S. piloted a Ford GT40 Mark IV, which could be driven legally through the streets to the track. Foyt, upon first seeing Le Circuit Permanent de la Sarthe, pronounced it "nothin' but a li'l ol' country road," infuriating the French to the point that their journalists vowed that the wild Yanks would run the car to death and could not possibly finish—whereupon Foyt and Gurney proceeded to win breezily, rowdily, overwhelmingly.

All of that had given way to the proto-types, with their manta-ray silhouettes and exotic engines that propelled cars down the Mulsanne Straight at 250 mph, so that if you watched from the tavern just off the Mulsanne at midnight, the headlights looked like huge tracer bullets and the sound was but a split-second thump, like that of a mortar on a battlefield.

But by last weekend the pendulum had swung back to the spirit of the 1960s. Cars of the Grand Touring class, race-fitted versions of road cars, outnumbered prototypes 40 to 11 in the starting lineup.

Thus was this race a struggle between the dying prototype contingent, led by Andretti, and the rising GT contingent, led by Derek Bell of England, who at 53 has won eight 24-hour races—five at Le Mans and three at Daytona. Bell, driving with son Justin and countryman Andy Wallace, led for nearly 11 hours on Sunday. But transmission troubles that began at midday left the Bell McLaren pitted for lengthy repairs just after 2 p.m., allowing the Dalmas-Lehto-Sekiya McLaren to take the lead for keeps. The Bells and Wallace finished third.

All week Andretti and Bell had served as point-counterpoint, Andretti expressing distaste for the emphasis on road cars, and Bell expressing happy acceptance of the change, even though all of his 24-hour wins had been in prototypes. Andretti denounced the return to emphasis on street cars as "a half-fast situation." But, said Bell, "the fans love it. They say, 'That's a McLaren! I saw one on the street the other day in London!' There's great romance in this for the public."

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