Le Mans car 27 Class winner 1972

1972 was the 1st and only year that I raced exclusively in France due to a wholly French sponsor, the car was out nearly every week-end doing either circuit races or International hill climbs which are daunting and I had never done before, how that came about is part of the Le Mans story.

1971 I was left with no money for racing and had to get a sponsor to continue. I knew that during the Winter exhibition season the top men in their companies always attended for the press days. My idea was to look for a sponsor in France as the French companies were at that time much less solicited than the British ones , or so I thought. My French was not so good and I contacted an old French racing friend, René Ligonnet who I had met in 69 while we were both racing F3. René warmed to the idea of getting some sponsor money and we set about contacting various companies on press days of exhibitions.

We went to the Photo exhibition and after visiting several stands, we came across an impressive Kodak Pathé stand and managed to contact the marketing manager directly which would have been impossible at his office. We got an appointment to make a pitch a couple of weeks later at their head office, Avenue Montaigne , Paris.

I made a plan with René and I said we need to have a model with the Kodak colours . So we went to a model shop and bought a McLaren M8 in kit form and assembled it then had it painted professionally in Kodak colours. Found a plain cardboard shoe box where the model was “garaged “till needed !

I knew, despite limited French, that in negotiations, the two important words in French business were “ Spécialiste” and Exclusivité “

The day of the pitch arrived and at a huge boardroom table René and I sat with 4 Kodak Pathé directors, some distance away. Me holding the shoe box which intrigued them, I am sure. They asked me about our “Exclusivité” and I said we had the only female mechanic in France and produced photos of this beautiful girl, Marie-Nelly Lartigue, dressed in overalls working on René’s F3 Chevron.
I was waiting for the question which I was sure would come sooner or later…. What will this car look like ? When it did I had great pleasure in opening my shoe box removing the model and whizzing it right across the huge meeting table into the hands of the Managing Director, much to his surprise. I think at this moment the deal was sealed in their minds. They could see the advertising merits of our ideas.

We bought a Lola T290 which had been over ordered by Guy Edwards who I knew well, got a couple of new Cosworth FVC motors , bought a new Bedford van and a covered trailer and the Kodak racing team was born.

Our agreement was we had to race exclusively in France, and planning Le Mans was our first job at the start of the season. René and I shared the car for long distance races and we exchanged every week-end, he had his French mechanic and I had the brilliant John McDonnell who had worked for Mike d’Udy and David Piper previously .

We decided that we needed some expertise to help with Le Mans and wanted to change the bodywork. We added rails along the side of the body with a pair of upright fins at the rear. Rails to stop the air spilling off the side and fins to give stability in the long straight lines at Le Mans. This work was carried out by Grand Prix Metalcraft in London.
For the engines we went to Geoff Richardson who explained that a Cosworth 4 cylinder FV engine had never completed 24 hour race ! Their problem was the valves. They become very pitted ingesting all the dust and gravel particles from the track, after some time the compression is lost and the engine would not restart ! So Geoff said build an air intake from above the car to supply clean air, he also fitted F1 cams for more peak, we fitted the clean air intake. [All of these mods were copied by the factory for the 1973 model car, T292 !]
I asked the factory for some spare body parts on a sale or return basis and they refused saying no Lola had never completed a 24 hour race before and it was stupid to try, it was Derek Ongaro who told me that !

We rented a house near the circuit in a village called Volnay. There was a garage in the village and we rented a corner for preparation and the whole village got involved. After our arrival the village school teacher arrived with all the children who drew pictures of the car ! We had become part of the village for that week ! John McDonnell had engaged his two old colleagues , the Amette Brothers John and David. John Amette had worked for Piper and Charles Lucas on his GT40. He is now the factory Classic Ferrari man in North America working out of California.

After the 1st shake down I had noticed something strange about the clutch, John removed the gearbox to find the bearing release carrier was too long and had to machine it shorter. If he had not done this the Lola would not have completed 1 hour of the race !

The official practice went well, we were allocated a pit next door to the fateful Jo Bonnier Lola 280 team.
We had journalists queuing outside our caravan to interview Marie-Nelly our beautiful mechanic. Kodak were so pleased when the articles appeared in magazines and newspapers all over France. Another bit of good luck was that in practice at one moment the TV camera followed our car for nearly a complete lap as there were few cars on the circuit at that time.

The other important member of our team was our French speaking pit manager.
I asked my old friend from Nice Jacques Barichella. Fortunately for us he accepted and he was an excellent professionally trained photographer, which is why we have such an excellent photographic record of the event.
Among all the photos Jacques took, he took possibly the last portrait of Jo Bonnier with Gérard Larousse just before the race. Sad. We also had Barry Sheppard and Mike Rawlings from Rawlson Cars who looked after the signalling pit on the far side of the circuit. Hard and tedious but important job.

The race was really quite uneventful with two exceptions. One drama was when the far side of the circuit got wet, the rest of the circuit was dry and I spun on the wet bit with the slicks on and stopped just feet from the Armco ! So that was lucky !
Then in the morning we ran out of front brake pads and lost 30 minutes while the boys struggled with red hot disks to replace the pads. Ferodo later told us they had pads which would have lasted the distance. Had we not lost that 30 minutes we would have finished 5th overall ! As it was we won the class, 2 litre “Proto” and became the 1st Lola to complete the 24 hour race !

After the race we sent the race engine back to Geoff Richardson for a rebuild. A couple of days later he stripped the engine then called me say what an idiot I was, I had sent him the practice engine ! Of course I had not , he could not believe what excellent condition the race engine was in, he changed the bearings and rings and put is back together ! Like new !
I had some similar remarks from Hewland when they stripped the gearbox !

Photos can be seen at:

Story by Barrie Smith © 2020.