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Famous Le Mans win

'Le Mans '66' reminiscent of Steve McQueen's 1971 movie about the race

The premiere this month of the movie Le Mans ’66 (titled Ford v Ferrari in the United States) brings the startling realisation that it’s almost half-a-century since the release of Steve McQueen's film Le Mans. Fans of historic motor racing are inclined to view the earlier of these two movies through rose-coloured glasses, but let’s be honest: the glamorously fast cars were part of a tediously slow story, and McQueen said so little throughout the film that it looked as if he was being paid by the word and the producers had run out of money.

Cult film Le Mans 1971

The producers did in fact run out of money. And fired scriptwriter Alan Trustman, the scribe responsible for The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, McQueen’s two previous big hits. And sacked director John Sturges, who had worked successfully with McQueen on The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. And suspended filming at Le Mans for two weeks during the summer of 1970 while investor Cinema Center Films re-negotiated terms with McQueen, obliging him to relinquish his creative control, his $750,000 salary, and his share of any profits. All of which turned McQueen’s dream of producing an authentic motor racing film into a creative and commercial nightmare. 

Le Mans 1966, Steve McQueen film

And yet, regardless of all the problems and deficiencies, Le Mans has accumulated cult status. Why? Because the creative flaw that caused so many cinema-goers to fidget restlessly in their velour seats – McQueen’s self-indulgent emphasis on the cars and the driving above all else – results in compulsive viewing for petrolheads. Forget Michael Delaney, the racing driver no-one had ever heard of until McQueen brought him striding onto the screen; what really matters is seeing the Panavision Color widescreen filled with Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s, and the best pre-CGI racing action ever staged.

At least 25 racing cars, and sometimes more, were made available for filming Le Mans at the French circuit that summer. These included five 917s, four 512s, a couple of Ferrari 312Ps (both left behind on the cutting room floor), two Lola T70s (one sacrificed during a remote-control crash), an Alfa Romeo 33/3, and a Matra 650. And because these things had to be steered around the circuit, often in close formation, no fewer than 41 racing drivers are listed in the movie’s credits.

This was a great gig for racers who didn’t have much else to do on weekdays. The drivers were paid $150 per day to play with their toys in front of the cameras (the average Briton’s pre-tax pay at this time was about $400 per month), plus $150 per day on the many days when they sat idle while the cameras were filming something else, plus travel expenses to get them to races at weekends. And the day rate doubled when filming high-speed racing sequences.

This might sound like handsome danger money for merely pretending to do something risky, but McQueen – who had been critical of the trick of speeding up the racing footage in the 1966 film Grand Prix – insisted the cars should be filmed at real racing speeds. Hence that famous accident during the making of the film when David Piper’s Gulf-liveried 917 was caught out by a sudden loss of grip on the fast stretch of track between Arnage and Maison Blanche. Slamming into the trackside barriers and riding over them tore the car apart. Piper was unlucky to need his right leg amputating below the knee because an infection took hold during treatment of his injuries, but equally he was lucky to survive.

In the days immediately before the troubled filming began at Le Mans, a 917 had scored Porsche’s first victory in the race. This was the year when Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann found during qualifying that their factory-entered short-tail 917 was hopelessly outpaced because they had elected to use Porsche’s  proven 4.5-litre engine, in the interests of durability, rather than risk the more powerful 4.9-litre unit; the year when Attwood said “I knew we just didn’t have a chance” because the 4.9-litre long-tail 917 was so much faster – and the year when the tortoise beat the hares, Attwood and Hermann’s victory setting Porsche on the road to four more wins at Le Mans in the 1970s, seven in the ’80s, and 19 to date.

Story of a victorious Porsche 917The full story of this victorious 917, arguably the most significant of all Porsche racing cars, can be found in the second book in Porter Press’ Great Cars Series, Porsche 917 – The autobiography of 917-023, written by Ian Wagstaff. And more about filming Le Mans can be found by watching our short videos (above and at the bottom of this page) with Richard Attwood, who stayed on at the Circuit de la Sarthe after his victory in order to drive one of the movie’s camera cars. Richard talks about the film going massively over time and over budget, of the racers being in admiration of McQueen and McQueen in admiration of the racers, of David Piper’s accident, and of a close-shave he had with a Ferrari 512 driven by Mike Parkes.

Richard also mentions how McQueen “wanted to be involved in everything, and that included the driving.” This shines through in the film, in the way that the Porsches and the Ferraris, and not Steve McQueen, appear to be the biggest stars. And thank goodness for that, because at least the dull storyline is punctuated by automotive audio-visual treats.

This blog was written by Phillip Bingham






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