Lafosse was a hands-on and talented driver and left his mark in single seaters as well as prototypes, and touring cars. He died at Le Mans when his Rondeau crashed on the Mulsanne Straight.
Tough on the race track and controversial but beloved outside it, Jean-Louis Lafosse was born in Dakar, Senegal, on 15 March 1941, when the African country was still a French colony. A hands-on and talented driver, this former Gordini driver left his mark in a wide variety of series - both in single seaters as well as in prototypes, and even in touring cars. His curriculum includes a European Formula 3 Championship by teams, a Golden Medal for his France Championship in closed circuits and two podia in the European 2-Liter Sportscar Championhsip and in national touring car racing. However, Lafosse’s name is intimately linked to the race that brought him international fame and that would be his ultimate challenge: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Lafosse had its first outing at that mythical race in 1972 and, right on, obtained an excellent result. Sharing a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 of the Scuderia Filipinetti with Mike Parkes and the Swiss Jean-Jacques Cochet, he conquered a remarkable seventh place overall and third in the GTS class. In 1973 Lafosse would come back to Le Mans with a Lola T282 - Cosworth DFV engine; the car, also driven by Reine Wisell and the Belgian baron Hughes de Fierlant, was withdrawn from competition after twenty hours when, after having experienced clutch problems, its oil pump gave up. Lafosse would drive return for a seat in a semi-works Ferrari team the next year, but his fortunes would not improve as the Dino 308 GT4 retired in the fourth hour of the race when a wheel terminal broke down.
Lafosse’s great race au Mans would be 1975. That was a transitional year: after Porsche stopped its factory involvement in 1972 and Ferrari did the same at the end of 1973, Matra decided to withdraw from sportscar racing after winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the third time in a row in 1974. This left the race open to private teams and small manufacturers; also, the oil crisis forced the Automobile Club d’Ouest to adopt new rules limiting the fuel consumption to forty liters per one hundred kilometers, and a minimum of twenty laps was to be completed between refueling stops - changes that were not welcome by the fans and the media. Such rewriting of the rules had another effect: it dislodged the race from the World Championship of Makes - the official name of the world sportscar championship that year.
The Ligier team was scaling gradually up its involvement in the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1970, when it debuted at the race with a grand-touring model JS1 driven by Jean-Claude Andruet and Guy Ligier himself. In 1974, for example, two cars took the start of the race and the JS2 - Maserati of Jacques Laffite and Alain Serpaggi was classified eight overall. Such a continuous improvement, plus of course the absence of works cars, included Ligier’s name amongst the top names for an outright win in 1975. Their main opponents would be the favourite Gulf-Mirages of John Wyer Racing, several private Porsche Carrera RSR, the lonely but always fast De Cadenet-Lola of Alain de Cadenet and Chris Craft and a few old Porsche 908. Incidentally, the fact that Ligier ditched the Maserati engine in favour of Ford-Cosworth units in two of its three cars only enhanced its profile as a serious candidate to the laurels. It is worth mentioning that 1975 marked the beginning of Ligier’s association with its long-time sponsor, cigarette brand Gitanes, bringing a significant income of funds that allowed Guy Ligier to much improve his cars. In fact, that was to be Ligier’s last commitment at Le Mans before making the jump into Formula 1. It was in this context that Jean-Louis Lafosse joined the French team, and he was to be paired with the reliable Guy Chasseuil in car number 5. Ligier’s line-up was quite impressive, as top sportscar drivers Henri Pescarolo and François Migault were aboard sister car number 6; the third vehicle, numbered 97 and the only one equipped with a Maserati engine, had Formula 1 racers Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Jean-Pierre Jarier at its wheel.
When Jean-Marie Balestre - then president of the Fédération Française de Sport Automobile and already a much-debated figure - dropped the green flag for the race, the two Gulf-Mirage launched ahead of the pack and opened a commanding lead, switching positions time and again. In the meantime the other teams - notably the Ligiers, the de Cadenet and the top Porsche privateers - opted for a more prudent pace, surrounded by fuel consumption worries and betting that John Wyer’s cars could not keep that rhythm until the end of the race. Additionally, Lafosse and Chasseuil’s car was affected by niggling problems that slowed them down at the beginning of the race. On the fourth hour of the race Beltoise and Jarier - maybe trying a little too hard - crashed their car. Ten hours later it was the team leading vehicle of Pescarolo and Migault abandoned followed a puncture. This left the French hopes on the hands of Lafosse and Chasseuil.
With this in mind and keeping an eye at the times clocked by the Gulf cars Guy Ligier decided to change strategy, letting Lafosse and Chasseuil increase the pace of number 5 up and up, and the car begun a steady climb through the classification. Throughout Sunday morning the duo continued to gain terrain; the public noticed their effort and shouts the names of the drivers when the car passes in front of the tribunes. As it had happened during the three consecutive Matra wins of 1972, 1973 and 1974, shouts of "Allez les Bleus" could be heard at the Le Mans grandstands. Ligier mechanics frantically signed to Lafosse and Chasseuil to go faster, but the car is now not only racing against its competitors, particularly the Gulf-Mirages: it is also a fight against time, as the race is due to finish at 16h00. Excitement keeps building up, and a great celebration is heard when the blue car overtakes the Gulf-Mirage of Vern Schuppan and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud. However, there is no time to catch the other one, driven by Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell; Lafosse and Chasseuil finish the race in second place, only one lap behind the leaders. The difference between the two cars in terms of relative distance covered was of less than half a percent after twenty-four hours of competition. It was a great result to Ligier but a sad defeat as well, which can possibly be attributed to the too conservative pace on the early phases of the race.
Lafosse left a good impression and was invited by John Wyer, now racing under the banner Grand Touring Car, to join his team and its Mirage GR8 - now without Gulf sponspoship - for an assault to the 1976 24 Hours race. Incidentally, the event was to be held under a different recipe, as the unpopular fuel consumption restrictions of the year before were eliminated. Such decisions brought a Porsche works effort back to Le Mans, and motivated Renault to do the same. The ACO also tried to add further spice to the pot by signing agreements with NASCAR and IMSA; this ended by adding rather improbable entries to the race, such as a monstrous Dodge Charger and a scary-looking Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. Both cars inadequately prepared for the event, would be the two first retirements of the race.
Paired with another former Ligier mate, François Migault, Lafosse drove aggressively albeit consistently throughout the race, winning an great dice against the de Cadenet of, as usual, Alain himself and Chris Craft for second place. This was though not enough to take him to the highest step of the podium, which was conquered by Jacky Ickx and Gijs van Lennep aboard a works Porsche 936. Despite another "almost", Lafosse and Migault were much heralded after the chequered flag: they only lost to the Porsche factory team, undoubtedly the best sportscar organization of the planet, leaving behind everybody else - in spite of having large part of the bodywork of the car in the closing phase of the race. This included the other Mirage, driven by Derek Bell and Vern Schuppan and which was expected to be John Wyer’s leading car in the event. The two consecutive second places obtained by Lafosse at Le Mans made of him a common name in the French households in the mid-1970s.
And it was as such that Lafosse was hired by the WM team of Gérard Welter and Michel Meunier that had raced at Le Mans for the first time the year before. Welter was actually the head of Peugeot Styling Department, and the squad counted on some tacit and unofficial support from that French manufacturer. During the 1977 Lafosse, who drove besides compatriots Marc Sourd and Xavier Mathiot ,fought with a car plagued by problems until the fifteenth hour, when it was disqualified for failing to complete the minimum distance required at that point of the event.
Disappointed with such a result, Lafosse ended his relationship with MW. He and his friend Claude Ballot-Léna approached the French ASA Cachia team next year; their plan was to drive a private Porsche 935, aiming for the Group 5 class win; as an overall victory had become an unattainable goal with the full-fledged works involvement of Porsche and Renault and their Group 6 cars. However, ASA Cachia was also contacted by a trio of Brazilian drivers - Paulo Gomes, Mário Amaral and Alfredo Guaraná Menezes - and as these latter were better funded, the team closed a deal with them. This left Lafosse and Ballot-Léna with few options besides getting a drive in the IMSA-type Ferrari 512 BB in a joint-venture between French Ferrari importer Charles Pozzi and the JMS team. This was an uncompetitive car - soundly beaten by Porsche within its class - and Lafosse race ended in a retirement when the transmission broke after seventeen hours. The fact the talented Brazilians finished the race in an excellent seventh place despite not having any familiarity at all with the track while he endured an unpleasant race surely made Lafosse bitter about the whole affair.
Despite that, somehow Lafosse’s name appeared in the entry filed by ASA Cachia for the 1979 race but, instead, he joined the Gelo Sportswear Racing team to race a similar Porsche 935. This seemed to be an excellent plan: Renault moved to Formula 1 after having won the race in 1978; Porsche, not willing to spend its Deutsche Marks in another update of the 936 Group 6 car unless significant opposition was faced in that class, withdrew its official sportive engagements. Once again the race was open for grabs to privateer teams, and Gelo - a consortium spearheaded by John Fitzpatrick - was of one of the best of them. The two Gelo Porsche 935s - Fitzpatrick, Lafosse and German Harald Gross in one car and Liechtensteiner Manfred Schurti and German Hans Heyer in another - lapped closely for most of the initial stages of the race. And as they raced, together they retire: in the fifteenth hour both cars would suffer engine failures just a few minutes apart. It was another frustrating year to Lafosse.
In 1980 the 24 Heures du Mans finally returned to the schedule of the World Championship of Makes, and Lafosse would sign to race with one of the very best private Porsche teams - Kremer Racing, of Cologne-based brothers Manfred and Erwin Kremer, that had won the race the year before with Klaus Ludwig, Bill Whittington and Don Whittington. Lafosse was to share his car with Ted Field and the brave American driver Danny Ongais but, as in 1979, it was again a case of a promising race turning bad due to engine problems when the car stopped at the eighth hour. With alternate cycles of sun and torrential rain, that was to be a historical race: no less than twenty-nine cars occupied the head of the classification table during the event, which was finally won by a Le Mans local Jean Rondeau and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud at a wheel of a car built by the first, beating the official Porsche team and its privateer escorts in true David-beats-Goliath style.
By 1981 Jean-Louis Lafosse, then forty-year old, had already embarked into a semi-retirement of sorts as far as racing was concerned; his main activity was the company Gotti Méca, of which he was the owner. Despite that, and the streak of unlucky results he had faced since 1977, his reputation remained intact; thus, it was not a surprise when Rondeau approached Lafosse to drive one of his cars in the 1981 race. A deal was quickly done, and Lafosse was paired with Jean Ragnotti at the wheel of model M379 C, chassis #004, numbered 25 for the race and painted in red, black and cold colours as per the scheme of sponsor Calberson. Rondeau was making an herculean tour-de-force for the 1981 race, assembly five cars for its attack: besides Lafosse and Ragnotti in one car and Henri Pescarolo and Patrick Tambay in another, 1980 victors Rondeau and Jaussaud would be back to fight for the Group 6 and overall win. The team also had two cars - François Migault and Gordon Spice in the number 7 and Philippe Streiff, Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jacky Haran in the number 8 - entered as GTP class runners.
During the qualifying sessions Ragnotti, with a lap of 3min40.32s - good enough for the tenth spot on the starting grid - was the faster than Rondeau, and it was decided that the first should take the green flag. The pole position was scored by the Porsche 936 of Ickx and Bell; the Rondeaus were slotted fourth (Pescarolo/Tambay), fifth (Rondeau/Jaussaud), tenth, fifteenth (Migault/Spice) and twenty-eighth (Haran/Streiff/Schlesser).
Contrary to tradition, the race was to start at 15h00 - one hour earlier than usual due to the general elections. Ragnotti imposed a quick rhythm and, thanks also to a timely fuel strategy, climbed to third pace at the end of the first hour. After eighteen laps the car was brought to the pits for refueling and a change of drivers: Lafosse left the pits at 16h12, but just ten minutes later came back for a few adjustments, before leaving again one minute later. Approximately at the same time Thierry Boutsen would suffer a massive accident just before the Mulsanne kink, when his WM was traveling at some 350 km/h. The car hit the guard-rail and lost entire rear end; Boutsen was untouched, but the marshal Mabillat was killed and two of his colleagues were seriously injured. The race was neutralized and, for the first time in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans the cars were driven around the circuit at slow speed and led by the pace car. The race was resumed twenty-nine minutes later.
Lafosse concluded the second hour of the race in seventh place and continued to increase his pace as the car gets lighter and lighter. And it was then, at 17h03 of Saturday, 13 June 1981, that tragedy struck. Less than half-an-hour after he green flag was flown again, Lafosse, still in seventh place and just about to complete his stint, was driving down the Mulsanne straight a little behind the Lola T600 - Ford of Guy Edwards, Emilio de Villota and Juan Fernández, at the moment with the first at the wheel. Suddenly, a little before the restaurants located at the main straight, a point where the Group VI cars were already at full speed in fifth gear, the Rondeau turned sharply to the right - probably due to a collapse of the front-right suspension -, impacting the guard-rail in a terrible shunt right before a marshal post. Two marshals, Mr. Galliene and Mr. Hardy, were hit by the car and its debris and were seriously injured. The Rondeau bounced back, spinning across the track, and crashing against the left guard-rail before stopping in the middle of the course hundreds of meters later. The car was completely destroyed, particularly its front end; Lafosse, fully exposed, was killed instantly. Some attributed Lafosse’s death to the fact that he preferred racing with the safety belts very loose, but the sheer violence of the crash and the level of damage experienced by the Rondeau made the accident unsurviveable.
Photographic evidence taken just before Lafosse’s accident indicate that the car had been damaged prior to it, including a picture showing a loose right headlight lens, pieces of grass in the central frontal air intake and bumps in the bodywork. Also, the lip around the lower edge of the front bodywork is missing in this picture. Therefore it is quite likely that Lafosse, running in a light fuel load, had an off at some other point of the circuit just before the accident when he was trying to speed his pace around the track. The damaged caused by this excursion was fundamental for the suspension or tyre failure that led to the accident at the Mulsanne straight. This meant the end of a man that, as Christian Moity and Jean-Marc Teissèdre once wrote, had a deserved reputation of courage and friendliness that ought to be added to his racing results.
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