For Jacky Ickx, thumbing through the entry list of the 1976 24 Hours of Le Mans must have caused a grimace or two. Poor spectator numbers from the previous year’s race meant that the organisers took a more liberal approach to the vehicle eligibility criteria, opening the door to ‘All American’ entries including a 7-Litre Chevrolet Corvette, a Chevrolet Monza saloon and a pair of huge NASCAR stock cars - a Dodge Charger and a Ford Torino.
Fast forward 46 years and the only place you get to see this wonderful juxtaposition of vehicles in action is the Goodwood Festival of Speed. At the 2022 event, Ickx is back to drive a Porsche 936 - the type he first drove at Le Mans in 1976. He won that race, of course, alongside teammate Gijs van Lennep and it was the first win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for a car with a turbocharged engine.
The race win in the 936 was significant for Ickx too. Having cycled through a number of teams in Formula 1, including Ferrari, Lotus, Williams, Ensign and Brabham, the Le Mans victory encouraged the Belgian to switch to endurance racing and begin an extraordinary career with Porsche that would last a decade. It's no wonder that, when I catch up with him at the top of the hill after being reunited with Porsche 931-01, his 1977 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, he looks content.
It's probably worth mentioning how I got to the top of the Goodwood Festival of Speed hill myself and came to be in the company of an absolute legend. Well, Porsche is one of the few remaining manufacturers who trust their priceless museum cars to people whose primary skill is their writing rather than their driving ability, so a few journalists and writers with some racing experience are offered a go in a variety of cars. For me, this year, it was the only surviving Porsche 961 - the 959-based race car that competed at Le Mans in 1986 and 1987.
To be honest, the Goodwood hill is not the best environment to explore the dynamic ability of a car, especially if you've never driven it before. The car has 680bhp, l.2bar boost, huge rain tyres and gearing so long that you're approaching the edge of the solar system when you slot into sixth, but do you turn down the opportunity? Do you hell.
In a nutshell, the experience of driving the 961 up the hill was nerve-wracking and thrilling. I was pleased (and relieved) to jump out at the top and even more pleased to see a smiling Jacky Ickx sat in 931-01, which has recently been restored to an extraordinary standard by Maxted-Page.
He's reclining in the car, helmet off and relaxed. His air of contentment makes me hesitate - perhaps he doesn't want to be disturbed? I approach, kneel by the bodywork and introduce myself. He sits up, and I can't think of anything else to say other than "I wanted to thank you for being such a great ambassador for our sport." He smiles, then immediately diverts the conversation away from himself. I'd heard this about Ickx; he doesn't like talking about himself and his achievements.
"This is all about the crowd," he begins. "We have had a difficult few years and to be part of an event that brings people together in this way is important." He then leans over. "You know, there is nothing more important than togetherness - in this world, in this time." I ask if he means in this age of pandemic or in relation to communication becoming increasingly digital, and he won't be drawn. Instead, he raises his hand above the bodywork of the 936.
"This," he begins. "When I look around, I see this: people, smiling faces, conversations. We are nothing without it." Sheepishly, I realise I've only been looking at the cars. The 961 is in a batch with some incredible metal, including the 997 GT3 Hybrid race car, a current RSR and a Sunoco 917-30, but I lift my eyes and see what he is talking about. The crowd at the top paddock are smiling, talking, pointing, laughing and cheering. "This is what's important," he smiles.
We're called to our cars and part ways when - typically - I have a hundred more questions to ask, but the fleeting meeting encourages me to return to those books and articles to find out a little more about the altruism that is so clearly evident in the Ickx character. Humble, individualistic, honest and principled, Ickx's personality seems at odds with the selfish, perhaps ruthless, mindset which is considered essential to be a successful racing driver. And yet successful he was: eight wins and 25 podiums, twice runner-up in the Fl Drivers' Championship, around 50 major sports car and endurance wins, six Le Mans victories (four with Porsche) plus the 1979 Can-Am Championship and the 1983 Paris-Dakar Rally. So how does he reflect? An excellent article in Motor Sport magazine by Simon Taylor captures it perfectly:
"I only have one regret, looking back on my time in motor racing. In those days, I was a sort of monorail - I was always thinking about myself and about winning. That is what it is like when you are a racing driver: mentally, you are not very grown-up. I respected the people who helped me, of course, and I always had the courtesy to say thank you to them, but I regret not being more aware of all the links in the chain. The victories were theirs, not mine, but I was not big enough intellectually to see it. Now I have grown up, I have more of a 180° vision.
"Now that I have grown out of my monorail vision of the world, what interests me is people, the human race."