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Henri Pescarolo and Le Mans, Part 1 - 1966-1967, the discovery

As a young boy, Henri Pescarolo dreamed of a being a pilot. He shared a passion for aeroplanes with his father, Dr William Pescarolo, and his childhood dream would eventually come true, many years later. In the meantime, racing cars had taken pride of place.

Although many fine cars were to be found at the Pescarolo family home in Montfermeil in the eastern suburbs of Paris, motorsport did not really become a part of young Henri’s life until 1964 when he took part in a talent-spotting operation staged by Ford. He was 22 years old when he dropped out of medical school: “I jumped straight in at the deep end! The first time I ever went to a circuit was as a driver for the Ford Jeunesse operation, not as a spectator.”

A year later, Pescarolo made an encounter that would prove to be a major turning point in his life. Matra had commissioned Jean-Luc Lagardère, a young engineer specialising in satellites and missiles at the time, to launch a vast motor racing programme. “I really discovered motorsport and its history when I became a Matra driver,” he continues. “At his very first press conference, Jean-Luc Lagardère had announced that he wanted to be Formula One World Champion and win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In every field of Matra’s activity, he always adopted the same approach: he recruited experienced people and also up-and-coming engineering talent. This was the case when he set up the racing team, with talented guys such as Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Eric Offenstadt and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud. He was also advised to take a look at the drivers coming out of Ford Jeunesse, so he called me into his office and told me he wanted to give me a trial. I wasn’t really sure that I could drive but, from that point, I did everything I could to earn a seat with Matra.”

Alongside the open-wheel formula racing series (Formula Three, Formula Two and Formula One), Matra made its 24 Hours of Le Mans début in 1966. “I didn’t know that much about Le Mans before racing there for the first time,” Pescarolo freely admits. “Before taking the wheel for my first 24 Hours, I was a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades: sweeping up, cleaning the windows and doing a bit on the mechanical side.” Throughout the “Matra period” at Le Mans, which went on until 1974, the outfit provided a launch pad for a whole generation of French drivers: Jaussaud, Beltoise and Johnny Servoz-Gavin, followed by François Cevert, Gérard Larrousse, Patrick Depailler and Jean-Pierre Jarier in the 1970s. “Lagardère’s motorsport strategy was to hire the best drivers to prevent them from reinforcing a rival team,” Pescarolo recalls. “Consequently, in the Formula Three team, and then in Formula Two, there were a half a dozen of us for just two or three single seaters. But this excessive number of drivers did not pose a problem when it came to putting together the line-ups for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, again with expert advice from the journalist Gérard Crombac. So I ended up making my Le Mans début with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, who was my teammate in Formula Three.”

Matra’s first two Le Mans outings proved tough as none of the team’s cars made the chequered flag. Pescarolo and Jaussaud pulled up with an engine problem in 1966 and, the following year, trouble with a door that refused to close put an early end to their bid. In 1968, however, Henri Pescarolo became part of Le Mans legend... More about that story in the next episode of our saga!

Jean-Philippe Doret (ACO) – Translated from French by David Goward

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