Porsche, French nationalism aside, had to be the favorite. This year has been the most successful in its history. After an awkward start in America, where Porsche had managed to lose at Daytona to a pair of Lola-Chevys and at Sebring to Wyer's reliable GT40s, the Stuttgart works had assured itself of the World Manufacturers' Championship for the first time by taking all five previous European races counting toward the title—at Spa, Monza, Brands Hatch and the N�rburgring in addition to the Targa Florio. However, Porsche had never won Le Mans outright and very nearly didn't enter.
The trouble was a flap over flaps, i.e., movable spoilers at both ends of the rear wing of the 917s. The CSI, which is the competitive arm of the FIA and which had hastily banned airfoils on Formula I cars last month, told Porsche it couldn't run with the wings or the flaps. Porsche, in turn, told the Le Mans organizers that if they couldn't run with the wings, they wouldn't run at all. They already had their world title and, besides, they had gone well over the racing budget for the year.
A compromise was reached, under which the 917s could run with wings and flaps, the 908s with wings only. That satisfied everybody, especially since the best Porsche of all, the 908 driven by Jo Siffert and Brian Redman, which had won four of those five European races, did not have a wing at all but rather two fins, vintage 1958 Cadillac, sticking up from the rear fenders.
The race began as a Porsche parade, a 917 driven by Rolf Stommelen and Kurt Arhens leading through the first hour, but the car was ailing from a faulty exhaust and an oil leak that finally forced it to retire at 3:50 Sunday morning. Next to lead was the Siffert-Redman 908, which prospered until an oil leak caused its gearbox to seize. Then Elford and Attwood took over and, considering that their car had appeared in only two previous races and had not done well in either, performed impressively as long as it lasted.
The Matras had their moments, especially an open-seat spyder driven by Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Piers Courage. At the seven-hour mark it had moved into second place, but then all sorts of trouble began to overtake it. First the Matra crew took an abnormally long time to replace brake pads. Then, with night approaching, crewmen took 20 minutes to get the car's rear lights working. Minor but time-consuming problems, like Servoz-Gavin's miscue in the pits, plagued the others, forcing the retirement of one and costing the rest whatever chance they had for victory. Still, the French fans would not give up and into the last hours of the race cheered wildly every time one of their cars roared down the pit straight.
The Ford GT40s, on the other hand, were trouble-free, and through the long night hours, when the Matras fell back and another contending Porsche driven by Gerhard Mitter crashed at the end of the Mulsanne Straight, the Fords pushed forward. By dawn Ickx-Oliver were third and the second GT40, driven by David Hobbs and Mike Hailwood, was fifth. Just before 11 a.m. the second-place Porsche, driven by Willi Kauhsen and Rudi Lins, retired, and the Fords were second and fourth. And just after 11 the leading Elford-Attwood Porsche was parked. Oliver and Ickx had been seven laps behind, but now there was no rush, and they were already getting the slow-down sign from their pits.
They had to step on it again, of course, when the Herrmann-Larrousse Porsche fought so brilliantly in the last hours, and in the end there was something for nearly everybody, even the French. A Renault-Alpine (not Killy's, sad to say) had won the Index of Performance, and Matras had manfully finished fourth and fifth. People who did not get home in time to vote discovered it did not matter. Pompidou won his race quite a bit more handily than the Ford.