Speed is a drug. It is a high that gives you a sustained rush of adrenalin, takes you to the edge of mortality. Colours are clearer, sounds more intense, reflexes sharper than a crime writer’s quill. Like any drug, it is addictive.
It has certainly ruled Henri Pescarolo’s life. As a driver, as a team owner, as a man.
The 74-year-old Frenchman, a four-time winner of Le Mans, was just a kid in short trousers when he got his first hit. No really, just a kid.
“I always wanted to drive ever since I can remember,” he told me some years ago when I interviewed him for the French newspaper Connexion.
“I was, erm, eight when I first got behind the wheel of a car. It was my mother’s car. I had watched how it was done and decided to take it for a drive. It was easy as I had long legs.
“And when I could drive, I wanted to drive fast. My great ambition was to be Formula One world champion.”
That first outing behind the wheel was in 1950 when Juan Fangio was tearing up the tracks in a way that was never repeated until Michael Schumacher came along almost half a century later.
In between times, Pescarolo made his name on the race circuits of the world. He didn’t make his name in Formula One – although he enjoyed some good moments during his 64 Grand Prix – but in the most famous race in the world, the 24 hours of Le Mans.
Pescarolo was not meant to be a racing driver. His father was a doctor and the son followed suit, heading off to medical school.
In his third year, however, the magazine Sport Auto announced a series of races for Lotus Sevens. Ten thousand drivers applied to race, 19 were chosen. Including Pescarolo.
He won the first race but with the likes of Johnny Servoz-Gavin, Patrick Depailler and Jimmy Mieusset also vying for the chequered flag, the competition was stiff.
Mieusset won the series but Pescarolo had seen enough and learnt enough to drop his studies and become a full-time driver. He moved in to Formula 3 with the Matra team and after seeing Servoz-Gavin win the title followed up in 1967 by winning it himself.
Matra was to be a key part of his racing life as he drove for the team in Formula 2 and Formula 1 as well as in the sports cars.
His first trip to Le Mans came in a Matra in 1966. He didn’t win but it left an indelible memory.
“The first time was truly impressive but terrifying as well,” he says.
“The speeds these cars were doing…I didn’t know the car that well which was a problem as was the fact we were driving at night and I didn’t know the circuit. We were going at crazy speeds, it was fast and dangerous.”
Fast enough and dangerous enough to see Pescarolo go on to compete in the race 33 times, more than anyone else, his last race as a driver in 1999 at the age of 57.
“Le Mans is the most important race in the world, it is the greatest prize in motor racing,” says Pescarolo.
The first triumph didn’t come until 1972 by which stage he should probably have been dead.
The main problem with any drug, including speed, is the danger. Motor racing is a lot safer today than it has ever been but the list of drivers who died on the track reads like a roll of honour. And it wasn’t just the drivers. In 1955, more than 80 spectators died when Pierre Levegh ploughed through the fencing.
Pescarolo’s big scrape came in 1969 when he was testing the Matra 640 on a long stretch of straight road.
“The 640 was a very fine car but it had a small aerodynamic problem.
“There was a little bump in the road which meant many cars jump…we took off. We were going 240 or 250 kilometres an hour. That is the take-off speed for a Boeing 747 so a 600 kilo car can take off as well. We flew. It landed in the trees on edge of the circuit where it exploded.
“After that it was just instinct for survival. I don’t know how I got out, I just found myself out if it.
“I have had a very lucky career. If I add up all the accidents I had then I should have been dead an awful long time ago.”
Pescarolo didn’t get away scot-free, though. Bones were broken, his face scarred by fire. Since then he has worn a beard to cover up, one of the few on the racing scene to do so.
His first victory at Le Mans came in 1972 at the wheel of a Matra Simca 670 and partnered by one of the sport’s biggest names, Graham Hill.
“He was already a hero of mine. He was a double Formula One world champion.
“But when he was proposed to me as a co-driver I was not so sure about him. Why did he want to do it? At Le Mans you often get fog or rain, you drive in the night…and I was not sure if he would be prepared to take risks.
“But I was wrong. He was extraordinary, a brilliant driver and he was also a wonderful man. Very down to earth, no airs and graces. He was a champion and I was a beginner but he was what the French call ‘un vrai seigneur’. I am very sorry that I ever doubted his motivation.”
Pescarolo then wrote his name into the Le Mans record books by winning the next two editions with Gerard Larrouse as his co-driver, becoming only the third man after Woolf Barnato (1928-30) and Olivier Gendebien (1960-62) to win three in a row.
For good measure he returned to the winner’s enclosure in 1984 as co-driver to Klaus Ludwig in the Porsche 956 of Joest Racing.
Pescarolo’s career didn’t stop at Le Mans. On the F1 circuit he competed in 64 Grand Prix between 1968, when Hill was crowned champion, and 1976. The highlight was undoubtedly his third place in the Monaco Grand Prix of 1970.
He enjoyed 22 major victories in sports car racing including the Daytona 24 Hours in 1991.
After stepping down as a driver in 1999 at Le Mans he set up his own team which twice came second and once third before he finally retired from racing in 2013. In recent years he has leant his voice to the Eurosport commentary although this year, 51 years after his first race at the circuit, he won’t be there. Failing health means he has decided to stay away.
The pit lanes, the stands, the corridors simply won’t be the same.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans started in 1923 on the streets of the French town of Le Mans, the idea being to see who could drive furthest in 24 hours. Because of the Second World War, there was no race in 1940 and it went quiet until 1949.
At that time the race still had its famous running start when the drivers had to charge for their cars on two legs before hopping in, starting up and setting off on four wheels.
That was stopped after a series of safety issues led to Jackie Ickx going on a one-man protest in 1969, walking to his car, fastening his safety belt, checking his mirrors, indicating and pulling away. Ok, so he didn’t have indicators but you get the idea. The Belgian was the last to get going but still came through to win the race at his first attempt. He went on to win another five times.
Ickx’s six wins, however, leaves him only second in the roll of Le Mans winners, chewing the dust of the remarkable Dane Tom Kristenson who chalked up nine victories between 1997 and 2013, including six in succession.
In past teams were made up of two drivers but these days it is three. The distance covered is over 5,000 kilometres.
In 1971, the race spawned a classic movie called Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen (above) whose character Michael Delaney comes over all Confucius when asked to explain the appeal of motor racing.
“Lotta people go through life doing things badly,” he says. “Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”
©Barney Spender 2017
Follow me on Twitter @bspender
A version of this article first appeared in Connexion in June 2011.