Arturo Merzario : « Un Grand Prix de 24 heures »

What memories do you have of your second start at Le Mans, in 1973?

We started in the lead, then the gas tank cracked two hours later, while Carlos (Pace. Editor’s note) was behind the wheel. The tank was in two parts – 60 liters on each side of the pilot – connected by a tube passing under our buttocks. We only left there for an hour thanks to the exceptional work of our mechanics. But if it weren’t for that, we would have won two or three laps ahead, I’m sure.

What role were you to play in this race?

I had to be the hare and even mistreat the mechanics. That’s why I immediately took the lead at the start. If the gearbox or the motor should break, too bad, we were warned. In the end, I did a 24 hour Grand Prix (laughs. Editor’s note). The philosophy of Endurance racing was pretty simple back then, there weren’t all those computers or engineers talking to you on the radio. For the information, we were satisfied with the signage at the exit of the turn of Mulsanne. At night, it was a problem, because we had difficulty reading the messages. We could very easily have run out of gasoline (like several Ferraris in 1961. Editor’s note).

How did you manage your race following this tank problem?

I drove most of the night because Carlos had never done so. It was his first Le Mans and didn’t like night driving. He even wanted to return to Brazil on Saturday evening, we were so far from the Matras! In the early morning, in the fog, I managed to pick up a few laps on the leaders, but we finished 2nd (at 6 laps. Editor’s note).

Has the 312 PB been modified for Le Mans?

The body was “coda lunga” (long tail. Editor’s note) to go faster in a straight line. We chose it after testing on the motorway between Turin and Piacenza. During free practice, I told the team to prefer to shorten the tail by half, the lap times hardly suffering. The elongated body was wasting too much time in Indianapolis and Ford corners. The 12-cylinder flat was the same as in F1 with a reduced revs of 1000 rpm, to 11,800 rpm, and power reduced to 440 horsepower. For Le Mans, two headlights were also added in the center of the front cover in addition to the usual four. Finally, a light was projected on the dashboard in order to better see the different levels (oil, water. Editor’s note) during the night.

What top speed have you reached?

In the Hunaudières, I was close to 345 km / h. Matra was still going 352-355 km / h, but our chassis performed better in the twisty sections.

What was the atmosphere like during the final sprint?

The last hour, 3pm to 4pm, was fantastic. I could hear the audience shouting “Go, Go, Go” for the Matra team. I was in a way the enemy of the French. We could only hope for a head car breakage, we were too far away to worry. But it was also necessary to watch the Matra (of Jabouille-Jaussaud. Editor’s note) third.

How do you welcome Ferrari’s return in 2023?

I am “felicissimo”, very happy! Ferrari, like many manufacturers, started out in Endurance racing before going to F1. The Ferrari factory first won at Le Mans. This is where the team and motorsport took root. Not in F1.


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