JACKY ICKX: HONORARY CITIZEN OF LE MANS - WORDS AND PHOTOS BY RICK WILSON (UNLESS CREDITED)
On Friday 16th June 2000, the "rest" day between qualifying and race, there was a reception held for Jacky Ickx in the Georges Durand grandstand, during which he was awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of the City of Le Mans, in recognition of his performances and six wins at Le Mans over the years.
The award was presented (photo below) by the Mayor of Le Mans, Robert Jarry, in front of a small group invited to witness the event and share a wonderful four-course "déjeuner" with the great man.
"Jacky Ickx, with his fifteen entries in the Le Mans 24 Hours, including six wins and some memorable moments of fine sportsmanship, embodies the magic of the Le Mans 24 Hours for many fans", commented Monsieur Jarry. "During the exhibition entitled 'the Races of the Century in Le Mans and its region', it was no great surprise that a jury of specialists from around the world (press, members of the ACO etc.) unanimously named him 'Driver of the Century for the Le Mans 24 Hours'. Jacky Ickx has indeed left his mark in the minds of many in Le Mans, not only through his talent but also, and especially, through his exceptional personality as a gentleman and a champion of class and distinction both on and off the track."
He continued; "It is for all these reasons that we wish to make Jacky Ickx an Honorary Citizen of Le Mans this year at the time of the greatest endurance race of the world, the Le Mans 24 Hours 2000. This is an exceptional honour, only two drivers of the 24 Hours have previously been awarded this title ('Sammy' Davis and Luigi Chinetti). But this title of Honorary Citizen ultimately only confirms his more popular title of 'Mr. Le Mans' that was given to him by both the press and public many years ago!"
When Michel Cosson met Jacky Ickx in early May in Paris and orally confirmed the joint invitation extended by the ACO and the City of Le Mans, Jacky did not even try and hide the joy that he felt from being honoured both as a citizen and a driver.
When the time came, however, to schedule the myriad celebrations and events in his honour, the champion was quick to place two minor conditions on the ACO president's plans. "Rest assured, I am at your full disposal for the entire week. I must, however, inform you that, as is my custom since my first trip to Le Mans, I shall be spending Friday evening with my British friends in La Chartre. It was a custom started back when I was racing and I am sure that you can understand that my visit has become a tradition for me."
The second condition sheds special light on the great moral stature of the man who, although proud to be honoured, never forgets the prerogatives of the moment. "In my opinion, my participating in the Driver's Parade would be out of place. The real heroes of this race, viewed as such by the public, are the drivers who will compete on Saturday. I will be delighted to start things off but will then blend in with the other spectators."
Notwithstanding his six wins, Jacky Ickx continues to exhibit the qualities for which he is famous: integrity, sportsmanship and tradition.
One of the most famous moments of Jacky's career was his safety protest at the start of the 1969 event, when rather than run to his car at the start, he walked; a calculated risk to show up the now dangerous practice as many drivers would start their cars and drive off without properly fastening their racing harnesses.
That year was to be Jacky's first win in the Gulf Ford GT40 with Jackie Oliver in the closest ever 'real' (not photo-staged) finish in the race's history, with the winning margin of just over 100 metres. This has been talked about for years, questioning what if he had lost by 100 metres, would he have cursed himself for the walked start? The answer would undoubtedly be "no". Jacky is a man of great belief in principles and a huge and necessary point had been made.
To help recreate this historic moment, Jacky would re-enact it as part of the pre-race build up for the 2000 event, then drive the car around the entire circuit. This superb moment was displayed for all to see on the huge video walls present at the circuit for the race coverage. But in a piece of extreme theatre, this time Jacky ran to the car!
The sight and sound of the Ford GT40 driven by an unhelmeted Ickx was a joy to behold. For those of us who hadn't witnessed the original happening, it was a joyous glimpse into the past; for all who remembered the real thing, it must have brought back many a special memory.
Having played the part of race-driver, Jacky then turned his talents to another task, as Official Starter. As the field exited the Ford chicanes after the pace-car led formation lap, at exactly 4pm, he waved the French tricolor to unleash the 48 starters, led by the trio of Audis and another chapter in the history of the race began to unfold.
Jacky's association with the race cannot be diminished and there are already plans to have him involved further in years to come in a technical and advisory capacity. He will make a true ambassador. I will never forget the day I finally met my hero and he did not disappoint....
"This award is not for me, it is for everyone involved in any way; mechanics, spectators .. everyone. They have all played a part in it."
Fifteen times Jacky Ickx took part in the race. His first appearance was in 1966, but his first win came in the John Wyer entered Gulf GT40 in 1969. It was the first time that the event would be broadcast worldwide and there were cameras mounted on helicopters to track the cars around the circuit. "I remember Breguet-Atlantique flying over us and cutting through the curves and turns to keep us in sight." From late morning, after the faster 917s had dropped out, it was touch and go between the Ickx/Oliver GT40 and the Hermann/Larousse Porsche 908. They were very evenly matched and the lead changed hands many times over the last few hours and even several times in the last few laps. To win, Jacky needed something to outfox his opponent which is why he let Hermann overtake him at the start of the Mulsanne straight on the last lap. He knew he could outbrake him into the corner at the end of the straight and probably hold him off until the end of the lap, which is exactly what happened and the rest is history. "It was the only way to beat him and it worked! People all over the world still talk to me about it."
With the worldwide fuel crisis at its height in the early/mid 70s, Le Mans introduced rules in 1975 regarding fuel consumption to stave off the critics who said that racing was wasteful. Twenty laps were required between refuelling stops. For that year, John Wyer provided Jacky with a Gulf Mirage which was powered by a Cosworth DFV engine derived from Formula 1, hardly the most economical! Both he and partner Derek Bell drove with very light feet and also endured terrible vibration which threatened to shake the transmission to pieces. "The car made a horrendous noise in all the right-handed curves. We ended up 'driving on egg-shells'. I must confess, as wins go, it did not have a great impact on me!."
With the John Wyer era over, Jacky joined the ranks of Porsche. Teaming up in 1976 with Dutch veteran and 1971 winner Gijs van Lennep to drive the new Porsche 936, the pair led virtually from start to finish. It was van Lennep's farewell race and Ickx gave him the greatest leaving present ever, handing the car over to him for the final stint to take the flag approximately 100 miles ahead of the second placed car. "It was beyond a doubt the easiest of our wins."
By far Jacky's fondest and most vivid memories are of the epic drive that netted him his 4th win in 1977. "Frankly, talking about it even today gives me a special feeling of pleasure! It was the most perfect race that anyone could ever have the opportunity to experience, both drivers and team members. There was a kind of spirit that enshrouded us all and gave us all an uplifting feeling." Early problems had ended the race for the 936 he shared with Henri Pescarolo, so he jumped across to share the sister car of Hurley Haywood and Jurgen Barth. At that time they were also delayed and down in 42nd place!
"From there, something exceptional happened; something I have never encountered at any other time in my career. I drove like I had never driven before and the entire team outdid themselves. There was a kind of a state of grace that reigned and translated into a win .. and that last lap by Jürgen riding on five cylinders with whom, for all the gold in the world I would not have traded places."
PHOTO BY DUNCAN FROST
After Jean Rondeau's historic win in 1980 where Jacky and Reinhold Joest had so nearly taken the honours, Ickx had announced his retirement. "I will only come back to Le Mans as a spectator." But a year later to everyone's surprise, the Belgian was once again back at Le Mans. Porsche had a new programme for the incoming Group C regulations in 1982 and as a forerunner had entered two very updated 936s (now called 936-81s, photo above) and had persuaded Jacky out of retirement and his main stipulation had been to have Derek Bell back as a co-driver as the transmission would need careful treatment. After the first hour, the two disappeared into the distance and won by an even greater margin than in 1976, in blisteringly hot conditions.
For 1982, Porsche had dropped the bombshell of the 956 to the stunned sportscar racing world. So this was how they had tempted Jacky back! He had been heavily involved from the very beginning of the car's development which went on to steamroller the Group C era for many years. Not least of which was a massively impressive 1-2-3 for the factory 956s at Le Mans that year, led by Ickx and Bell in the number 1 car.
Jacky's last race at Le Mans so very nearly gave him win number 7. In 1983, he again shared with Derek Bell in the number 1 Rothmans Porsche 956 (below, as Ickx powers through the Dunlop curve early in the race). After recovering from delays, the pair were closing quickly on the sister number 3 car of Haywood/Schuppan/Holbert who were dramatically slowing over the last few laps with a dying engine.
As Al Holbert started his last lap, there were tell tale signs of smoke exiting the exhausts and Bell sensed that maybe he could give Jacky the perfect leaving present, just as Ickx had done to van Lennep back in '77. Derek really piled on the pressure as Holbert nursed the stricken 956 round one final lap. Bell was closing in hand over fist and was less than half a lap back as Holbert's engine expired for the world to see in a mass of smoke as he crossed the line. If one more lap had been required we would have been celebrating Jacky as a seven time Le Mans winner!
COVER OF THE LIMITED EDITION COMMEMORATIVE BOOKLET PRODUCED BY "VILLE DU MANS" & SIGNED BY JACKY ICKX