How a Le Mans local took on racing royalty from his backyard... and won #UnlikelyHero

Le Mans is arguably the world’s greatest motor race. 24 hours of hard racing along a high-speed circuit made up partially of public roads, a test of endurance for both man and machine. Le Mans has produced many stories over the years. Ford taking exacting revenge on Ferrari in the 60s, the infamous Mercedes-Benz crash in 1955, Porsche’s last lap win over Toyota and so many more. These stories have become part of motor racing lore, a testament to the magic of mototsport and rightly so. However there’s one story that is overlooked when it comes to Le Mans and it’s the story of Le Mans local, Jean Rondeau.

Jean Rondeau began racing at Le Mans in 1972 in privately entered machines. He raced these privateer cars until 1975 only finishing the race once. The cars and quality of racing was disappointing and Rondeau wanted the opportunity to build his own Le Mans weapon. After being on hiatus since 1971, the Group 6 prototype class was to be reinstated into the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1976. The prominent French factory teams such as Matra and Ligier felt as though they would be uncompetitive and didn’t want to use valuable resources to create a potentially expensive and uncompetitive prototype and decided not to return for 1976. With the void left by Matra and Ligier needing to be filled, Rondeau pounced and in 1975 Rondeau began raising the funds for his new racing enterprise. He started a local fundraising campaign and the operation gained the attention of Charles James, CEO of wallpaper company Inaltera. Inaltera bankrolled the cars Rondeau and his friends designed under the condition they bore the company name and the car took to the grid in 1976.

Initial results were successful as the Inaltera placed 8th in its first outing and won the GTP class. In 1977 the Inaltera cars placed 4th. ‘77 was the final year of Inaltera sponsorship before the wallpaper giant pulled its stake in the operation taking the chassis, engines tools and funding with them. Jean Rondeau was left with nothing and quickly pulled together a car with little money to contest the 1978 race with the cars running under his own name. The M378 Chassis placed a respectable 9th although it was a long way off the pace of the car from the previous year. The M379 deubuted in 1979 and placed one position down on the previous year’s effort. With his cars performing comfortably in the GTP, Jean Rondeau decided to adapt his M379 into a Group 6 racer for 1980. The development culminated in the M379B.

The 1980 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours is one that lives in infamy. The race start was considered the wettest ever (which is arguable considering the torrential downpour during the 2016 event) and there was controversy surrounding the Joest Racing “FrankenPorsche”, which was the only Group 6 Porsche racing as the factory didn’t want to compete against its customer 935s that raced in the Group 5 class. The Joest Porsche 908/80 (a 936 chassis that was claimed to be a 908) was the predicted favourite for the win. The rain at the start of the race made for a frantic opening few hours as cars gained and lost positions rapidly in the wet conditions. Once the track dried out the Joest Porsche began to rapidly advance its way up the order and in very little time found itself in the lead. Rondeau’s car also progressed in the dry conditions and found itself in 2nd place albeit well off the pace of the lead car. Lady luck appeared to be on the local’s side as Jackie Ickx broke the Porsche’s fuel injection belt causing him to lose 14 minutes and the lead. Rondeau and co-driver Jean-Pierre Jaussaud held the lead going into the darkness. The Joest Racing car once again showed its speed as it gave chase for the lead a second a time.

The Porsche, inevitably, overtook the Rondeau car and kept a steady lead as the clock continued to wind down. Reinhold Joest and Jackie Ickx didn’t push their car very hard thinking that the Rondeau and its Ford V8, which was typically used in single seater racing, didn’t have the reliability to maintain race pace for 24 hours. Joest and Ickx’s complacency would come back to bite them as gearbox failure let the Frenchmen back into the lead. With a three lap deficit the Porsche gave chase for the third and final time. The final driver change came with an hour and a half remaining, Jean Rondeau handed the car over to Jaussaud who was preparing to battle with the Porsche for victory. At this stage the gap was down to only two laps and the “FrankenPorsche” was still closing rapidly.

During the final 35 minutes of racing the gods of Le Mans opened the heavens once more. Jackie Ickx decided to pit for wet tires thinking that he could close the gap as the rain worsened. Jaussaud took a gamble and stayed on his slick tires praying that the track wouldn’t turn into the mess it had been only a day earlier. Ultimately, Jaussaud made the right call and the time lost in the pits for the Porsche meant that the plucky Frenchmen had maintained a two lap lead. For the first and so far only time in Le Mans history a man had won the race in a car that bore his own name and in doing so defeated the most successful marque to contest the 24 hours.

The victory of 1980 would be the high point for Rondeau and his cars. A 2nd and 3rd place in 1981 would be the next best result for his cars which slowly lost their competitiveness of the few years after their surprise win. Jean Rondeau was tragically killed in 1985 when the car he was travelling was struck by a train. A Rondeau hasn’t raced at Le Mans since one was privately entered in 1988 although the M379B continues to do the rounds in historic races.

Jean Rondeau is a testament to the determination, skill and luck required to be able to succeed at Le Mans and it’s stories like his that help cement the legendary status that the race still holds. That’s why he is an #UnlikelyHero

The previous #UnlikelyHero post is below, I hope you enjoy.


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