By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
Once upon a time in Motorsport, racing circuits were long and treacherous and racing continued no matter how deplorable the weather conditions became. Whether it be in Sports Cars or Formula One, there was one driver who consistently excelled on the longest circuits when the conditions were at their worst: Jacky Ickx.
Having taken six class victories at the storied 24-hour endurance race for Sports Cars, Jacky Ickx is often referred to as “Mister LeMans.” Sports Cars domination aside, he was also a rather successful Grand Prix driver, a champion in Can-Am, and found success in other endurance events, including the Bathurst 1000 and the off-road Dakar Rally. Ickx also holds the distinction of having driven factory cars for two of the most storied marques in all of motorsport, Porsche AG and Scuderia Ferrari.
Born in Brussels, Belgium in 1945 a young Jacky Ickx was first exposed to motor racing through his father, who was a racer-turned-journalist. The youngster’s first motorized vehicle was a 50cc motorcycle which he drove to three championship titles before graduating to four wheels.
Like many young European drivers, he began his career in saloon cars and sports cars. In 1966, he co-drove a BMW with Hubert Hahne to his first major endurance race win at the 24 hours of Spa in his native Belgium. That same season, Ickx began to show his versatility by driving nearly everything under the sun. In addition to sports cars, his 1966 schedule included trials bike races, hill climbs, touring cars, Formula 3 and Formula 2 races, Can-Am events, and his first start at Le Mans.
With dwindling grids during this era, Formula One cars would occasionally share the track with their Formula Two counterparts, particularity at the longer circuits like the 14.2 mile, 160-turn Nürburgring in Germany. It was at this circuit in 1967 that Jacky Ickx put the racing world on notice by qualifying third overall in his under-powered F2 machine. The rules stated that he would have to start behind all of the F1 cars, but during the race, he stormed through the field into fourth position before dropping out with mechanical problems.
A little over a month later, he would debut as a Formula One driver behind the wheel of a Cooper-Maserati at Monza taking a sixth place finish. He followed this up with a brilliant drive in pouring rain at Spa to win the 100km Sports Car race in John Wyer’s Gulf-sponsored Mirage, solidifying his reputation as a master of wet-weather conditions.
Ickx was snatched up by Ferrari in 1968 for a full season of Formula One. In the driving rain at Rouen-Les Essarts in France, Ickx took his first Grand Prix win in a race that was marred by the death of Jo Schlesser. The rainy conditions allowed Ickx to truly showcase his brilliance behind the wheel finishing with a full lap on the rest of the field.
He continued to run sports cars with the Wyer team and, due to that program’s close association with Ford, Ickx moved to the Brabham Team in Formula One in 1969. The association with Jack Brabham would produce two Grand Prix wins for Ickx, including a brilliant win at the rain-soaked Nürburgring, and second in the season championship.
It was with Wyer’s sports car team, however, where 1969 truly defined Jacky Ickx as a man. The 24 Hours of Le Mans had traditionally featured a start where the drivers would run across the track, hop into their cars and go racing. Multi-point harness seat belts were a rather new innovation in racing at the time, and this type of start just didn’t sit well with Ickx.
In defiant protest to this antiquated tradition, Ickx calmly strolled to his car, took great care in fastening his seat belts properly, and rolled off in last place. Almost prophetically, a first lap accident claimed the life of John Woolfe, who had not fastened his belts properly. The traditional Le Mans start was abolished after 1969.
Ickx, co-driving with Jackie Oliver, would go on to win the race in the Ford GT40, the first of six eventual Le Mans victory for the Belgian. In an ironic side note, Ickx was involved in a frightening accident in his street car returning home from the race the following morning. He was run off the road by an inattentive driver and collided with a telephone pole, but was unharmed. Why? Because he was wearing his seat belts.
In 1970, Ickx was coaxed back to Ferrari to run in both Formula One and their Sports Car program. The association produced mixed results with Ickx taking three Grand Prix victories, but also suffering five DNFs. He took the runner-up position in the F1 championship for a second consecutive season, but this marked the high water point in his time with Ferrari.
Over the next few seasons, Ickx found success in the Sports Car program with Ferrari. However, it was that very same program that seemed to be utilizing the bulk of Ferrari’s resources leaving little left over for the Grand Prix program. With impending rules changes, Ferrari began development of its three-liter Sports Car engine, essentially throwing away the 1971 season. When the new rules came into effect Ickx would take six 1972 sports car victories, including the 12 hours of Sebring.
In Formula One, however Ickx would take the Ferrari to victory only once, fittingly at the Nürburgring in rainy conditions. This would turn out to be his final Grand Prix win as Ferrari struggled mightily in 1973. Ickx’s vocal criticism of the team caused him to be pushed out of Ferrari the following season in favor of a young Austrian named Niki Lauda.
Ickx’s career seemed to be in turmoil for the next few seasons. He signed with Team Lotus in F1 at the worst possible time, as the team was struggling with a new chassis. In Sports Cars, he lacked a full-time ride, but split time running with BMW, Matra, and Alfa-Romeo.
In 1975, he added a second Le Mans win to his resume, rejoining the John Wyer Gulf Team, but this was the only highlight of the year. At Lotus, he became so frustrated that he left the team mid-season. Ickx was pegged to replace Emerson Fittipaldi at McLaren for 1976, but lost that ride when the Hesketh Team folded and James Hunt became available.
In retrospect, losing the McLaren seat may have been the best thing that ever happened to Jacky Ickx. While the remainder of his F1 career consisted of partial seasons in mid-field equipment, he signed with the factory Porsche Team in Sports Cars beginning one of the most fruitful associations in all of Motorsport.
Porsche’s 935 and 936 chassis proved to be the class of the field as Ickx collected ten sports cars wins over the next two seasons including back-to-back Le Mans wins in 1976 and 1977. It was, in fact, the 1977 Le Mans win that Ickx himself points to as the finest drive of his career.
After dropping out with mechanical woes in the early stages of the event, Ickx was moved into the second team car which was running in 42nd place at the time. Ickx, now running with co-drivers Hurley Haywood and Jürgen Barth, utilized every stint he had in the car pushing as hard as he could. Ickx had taken the lead of the event by the time the sun came up. He continued to push and built a sizable lead during the late stages.
It was almost all for naught when the car dropped a cylinder and began to misfire. The crew removed the ignition to the offending cylinder, and Ickx was able to nurse the car around the track as it was billowing smoke, threatening to self-destruct at any moment. The lead Ickx had built up saved the day as he sputtered across the finish line nine laps clear of second place.
Between 1978 and 1980, Ickx drove a variety of cars including filling in for the injured Patrick Depallier at Ligier in F1. He entered and won the Bathurst 1000 in 1978 with Alan Moffat. He drove Jim Hall’s Lola to six wins in the North American Can-Am series, taking the championship in 1979. While in America, he also contested the IROC Series and had a few starts in IMSA. After finishing second at Le Mans in 1980, Jacky Ickx announced his retirement from racing.
With the promise of a new Group C car, Porsche was able to talk Ickx out of retiring and welcomed him back to the team. Partnered with Derek Bell in 1981, Ickx stormed to a fifth victory at Le Mans in a Porsche 936.
When the new car, the dubbed 956, debuted in 1982, it was truly something special. Ickx, paired once again with Bell, led a Porsche 1-2-3 sweep at Le Mans giving Ickx an unprecedented sixth win in the 24 hour contest. The following season, the Porsche 956 won nine out of the ten races held, and locked up the manufacturers championship.
During this era, Ickx began racing in off-road Rally raids, including the grueling Dakar rally. With the Mercedes Team he took the overall win in 1983, adding another gem to his already impressive resume.
In 1984, with Porsche boycotting Le Mans over a rift about fuel tank regulations, Ickx accepted the post as race director for the Monaco Grand Prix. With a deluge of rain besetting the course, leader Alain Prost was being caught at an alarming rate by an impressive rookie named Ayrton Senna.
Ickx made the controversial decision to throw the checkered flag before half-distance, thus preserving the win for Prost in the Porsche-powered McLaren. The fact that Ickx was an employee of Porsche raised a number of eyebrows, and Ickx found himself suspended from the position for not consulting with the race stewards before ending the race.
In 1985, Ickx was battling hard with his Porsche teammate Stefan Bellof at Spa. When Bellof attempted an impossible pass at the Eau Rouge corner, the two cars tangled and crashed in dramatic fashion. Ickx escaped harm, but Bellof’s injuries proved to be fatal. Jacky Ickx walked away from sports cars at the end of that season.
He spent the next several seasons competing in Rally Raids with different teams. In 1992 at the Pharoahs Raid, he was involved in an accident that resulted in the death of his co-driver, Christian Tarin after which Ickx retired for good from full-time competition.
His daughter, Vania is a racing driver in her own right, and Ickx once again donned the helmet in 2000 at the Dakar Rally to co-drive with her.
Jacky Ickx was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002. While his Le Mans record was eclipsed by Tom Kristensen in 2005, discussions of endurance racing invariably involve Jacky Ickx. He currently resides in Monaco with Khadja Nin, his wife of nearly 40 years.
In recent years, Ickx has been active on the historic circuit, often appearing at high-profile events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Monterey Historics.