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The Swiss Connection - by Phil Henny

During the 1950s the Le Mans-winning Ferraris captured the imagination of a certain young Swiss. In 1959 Carroll Shelby’s Aston Martin came along, and Carroll’s victory opened a brand new vision of what the ‘sixties were going to be. Guess what - a year later Enzo was back at it, and won Le Mans six straight years.

As an apprentice precision mechanic in the 1960s, that same young Swiss, Phil Henny, was fired by those heady days, and so wanted to be a part of it all. And now he has written these words exclusively for Fortyfication magazine...

Georges Filipinetti, a wealthy property owner, and the Ferrari importer for Switzerland, spent huge sums equipping his team with Porsches, Ferraris and Alfa Romeos. Based in the Château de Grandson, on the edge of Lake Neuchatel, the team tackled F1, rallies and endurance racing. Always with style and panache, he employed respected names such as Jo Bonnier, Ronnie Peterson, Vic Elford, Phil Hill, Jim Clark, Reine Wisell, Gerhard Mitter and many others. Georges Filipinetti fostered Swiss drivers as well, including Joseph Siffert, Herbert Mueller, Heinz Schiller, Tommy Spychiger, and Dieter Spoerry. All got their International starts with the Scuderia Filipinetti.

In January 1966 I started working for Filipinetti, not in the castle by the lake, but in Geneva, for a new company called Performance Cars Ltd. I was in charge of street car registration and race car preparation for his new dealership importing Lotus, Shelby Cobra and Shelby GT350.

The Filipinetti Ford GT40s

The first of their Ford GT40s, P/1033, was shipped to Geneva, Switzerland from the Ford Advanced Vehicles Ltd production plant in Slough, Buckinghamshire, England, on January 14th, 1966. The car was shipped unpainted and incomplete as it was destined for the Graber coachworks where it was to be completed, trimmed and prepared as a very special road car for Georges Filipinetti, patron of Switzerland’s celebrated Scuderia Filipinetti racing team.

In late February, Ford GT40P/1039 arrived in Switzerland and was shipped to the castle where Franco Sbarro started its preparation. On March 1st, GT40P/1040 was also delivered to the castle. Originally Franco Sbarro was in charge of the Ferraris at the Scuderia Filipinetti. When the Fords came in to be prepared at the castle, Claude Sage employed Jo Siffert’s former mechanic Michel Piller to help Franco cope with the extra work. Very quickly the whole ambiance degraded to chaos... Michel and two other very professional mechanics couldn’t stand Franco’s bricolage (DIY or rough work - Ed)... and quit within a few weeks!

By early April, both cars went back to FAV, in England, to be properly prepared and taken care of en vue of the preliminary 24 Hours test. In late March 1966, Claude Sage, Scuderia Filipinetti’s manager, who felt pretty satisfied with my way of handling the Shelby store in Geneva, informed me that I would be going to the early-April Le Mans test weekend, in charge of both of Filipinetti’s Ford GT40s, #1039 and #1040.

The Le Mans test in April was quite another new experience for me. Our drivers for the trials were Willy Mairesse, Herbert Mueller and Innes Ireland. I was very excited to meet the ex-Ferrari works team driver, Willy Mairesse, and our best Swiss representative, Herbert Mueller, although I do not remember seeing Innes Ireland around. GT40 #1039 was allocated race #12, and GT40 #1040 became #12B.

The cars having received new and wider Goodyear tires, our first job as mechanics was to cut down that beautiful bodywork to make the tires fit without them touching the body. After Tech Inspection, we were ready to go. I had a lot of admiration for the Scuderia Filipinetti’s latest acquired driver en provenance of the Scuderia Ferrari: Willy Mairesse. For the first time, as a race mechanic I was going to be wrenching for one of the best. Claude Sage, our Directeur de Course, impressed me as well. Before the time trials, on a rainy day, Claude gave us a brief introduction and recommendations, warning the drivers and the crew concerning the conditions of the track.

Herbert Mueller went out first at the wheel of #1039, and registered a time of 3m43.4s. He let Willy Mairesse take over, and unfortunately, we never saw that car again. During his first lap, approaching the “Indianapolis” curve at very high speed, he lost control and went off the road, destroying #1039. Willy himself was OK! #1039 was sent back direct from Le Mans to FAV to be completely rebuilt. I couldn’t believe it. This beautiful, brand new machine was history in less than a few minutes driving on the track. According to Claude Sage, it was a very instructive and important weekend for Scuderia Filipinetti.

Besides the Ford GT40, other Filipinetti race cars and future team drivers also participated in this laborious and memorable weekend. That same weekend, I also learned, as a newcomer, how dangerous, subtle and emotional racing is. It was Ford’s first test in the rain for the MkII program. Their five hundred-plus horsepower machines with extra-wide rain tires would give them an idea of the comportment of such a beast on top of a film of water, called aquaplaning. The driver who pushed the hardest was Walt Hansgen. As more rain fell, the faster he went. Almost every car had re-joined the pits, and Hansgen was probably the only one still running. It became a one-man exhibition. Being almost next to the Ford pits, we could see a mechanic showing a SLOW pit board to Hansgen.

The 46-year-old veteran roared past again... and again... then a loud noise... and everybody looked at each other!

He almost made it. At 150mph, totally out of control, he decided to take the escape road, on the right side before the Dunlop Bridge. Unfortunately, entering the escape road he hit the right guardrail, bounced back to the left, flipped over and finally came to rest. The car looked like it had passed into a crusher - but the fuel tank didn’t leak. We all stood around waiting. It took a very long time to get Hansgen out, after cutting the car apart.

In the meantime, a yellow was shown to the very few cars left on the track. Across our pits we saw the Directeur de Course entering the track, driving his personal Ferrari, and going against the traffic, a terrible manoeuvre; emotions were running high. Walt Hansgen was taken to a local clinic, and later in the afternoon was flown by helicopter to a US hospital in the city of Orleans. They kept him alive for five days, but he never regained consciousness.

We all went back to Switzerland. I went back to the Performance Cars garage, Franco went back to the castle on the lake, and #1040 was sent back to FAV. Five weeks later we would all meet up again at Le Mans for the 34th edition des 24 Heures du Mans, on June 18th and 19th, 1966.

My next trip to Le Mans came on June 14th, a few days before the race. I took with me a very good friend of mine whom I had met while working for Swiss driver Maurice Calliet. His name was Steve Shuttack, born in the US of an American father and a Swiss mother. I thought that it would be a great idea to have somebody with us who could speak English properly, as we were going to Le Mans with an American car, prepared in England by FAV. My English at that time was very limited! Claude Sage thought it was a great idea.

The Filipinetti team stayed in a château outside Le Mans, with Franco Sbarro and the Ferraris. Steve and I went straight to La Chartre-sur-le-Loir, where our rooms and garage was with the FAV team at the famous Hôtel de France.

Four GT40s stayed with us, turning the place into a mad house: #1001 Jacky Ickx & Jochen Neerpasch (60) - #1017 Innes Ireland & Jochen Rindt (12) - #1038 Peter Revson & Skip Scott (56) - #1040 Dieter Spoerry & Peter Sutcliffe (14).

It was a really memorable week for me, to be associated with all those famous drivers, owners and mechanics. Affiliated with our car, by John Wyer, was Ermanno Cuoghi. Later he became Niki Lauda’s mechanic with the Scuderia Ferrari F1 team, after winning Le Mans in 1968 and 1969, and helping Porsche win the 1970 and 1971 championships, with the Gulf-John Wyer GT40s and 917s!

Ford Advanced Vehicles had delivered the cars direct to the Hôtel de France, and quite a performance had started in the hotel parking lot, with four cars receiving their last preparations. The first outing to the track was on Wednesday, for technical inspection and a few warm-up laps. A very surprising decision by David Yorke (then the manager of the Essex Wire Team cars driven by Revson-Scott and Ickx-Neerpasch) was to ask all the mechanics to get in their cars and follow him to the circuit about 16 miles away. In those days that’s what the mechanics did.

Of course within a couple of miles from the hotel, everybody started to stand on it and have a good time. Each outing, after day or night practice, I had the best time of my life driving this brand new Ford GT40 back and forth from the track. This really insane practice finally ended in the early ‘70s after a fatal accident near Arnage.

Those Ford GT40s were absolutely gorgeous cars when they came from FAV. The quality of the fiberglass and fittings of the body parts were perfect. The seating was a totally different design from what we were used to seeing, as were several other components. Ford really revolutionized the design of their endurance racing cars. The new MkII had become very reliable after winning Daytona and Sebring, and Ford had sent eight MkIIs to La Sarthe, these being entered by Shelby American, Holman & Moody and Alan Mann.

The Filipinetti GT40 was very well prepared at FAV, but in the four days before the race we went through a complete check-up. All the hub-carriers were dismantled, the wheel bearings re-greased and every nut and bolt checked and safety-wired. We felt very satisfied and were looking forward to a great race. We had two very experienced drivers in Peter Sutcliffe and Dieter Spoerry. Both were familiar with the track, as it was not their first time at Le Mans.

The life of a racing mechanic is pure passion: first up and getting going in the morning, and last to leave the circuit or the garage at night. One would never happen to have a day off before a race. You always needed an extra day! 24-hours is the length of this race, but for a mechanic, it is more likely to be thirty-hour days!

We did the best we could and we were ready on time to form up in 19th position on the grid for the famous “Le Mans start” at 4:00pm. Thirteen Fords started the race, four of them MkIIs with the fastest times. We stayed in our starting position for a few hours, and our pit stops for refuelling every two hours were perfect. We had a longer stop for brake pads around 4:00am. Through the night quite a few cars retired due to accidents or mechanical failures, and towards dawn our position was improving.

We took the lead in the Sports 5000 class (eventually up to fifth overall, behind four MkIIs) and started to feel pretty good, having survived the night. Then, at 8:15am, Dieter Spoerry came in for a driver change, gas and tires. Four minutes later Peter Sutcliffe got in and was back in the race, still leading the Sports 5000 class.

Steve and I were very tired and decided to leave the pits and go for coffee. As we started walking away from the pits, we heard the P.A. system announce that car #14 had crashed near Tertre Rouge. It took us a while to find out what had happened, until Peter Sutcliffe reappeared in the pit and told us that the gas cap was obviously not closed properly. As long as he was in acceleration it was fine, but, under his first braking, gasoline came pouring out and he lost control and crashed heavily into the dirt bank. Luckily there was no fire.

What did happen is still unclear. In each pit at Le Mans there is a commissaire de course called the plombier (literally the “plumber”). As soon as the tank is full, the fuel man leaves the car and the plombier then comes in and closes the tank with wire and a lead seal. The gas tank cap on a race car in those years was called a Monza cap. It didn’t screw in; it opened or closed by hand pressure and was secured by a spring handle. Obviously, the plombier, while running his cable around the cap, had put some pressure on it and released the cap open.

Why does he seal it? At Le Mans you had three winners. The big winner is the one who covers the most kilometers; the others included the winner of the Indice au Rendement Energétique, a pretty complicated formula made up of the mileage run, the number of gallons of gas used and the size of the car’s engine, adjusted by an unknown coefficient. And that’s why they plumb (seal) the tank so nobody can add or withdraw any fuel from the tank without it being noted.

It was a huge victory for Ford, finishing 1 - 2 - 3. It was not what the drivers wanted, and it is still talked about fifty years later. What Henry Ford II wanted was, “Win on Sunday and sell cars on Monday” ... and that’s what he got. Within minutes of the win, back in Dearborn, Michigan an enormous banner hidden on the roof top of one of their highest buildings was deployed, “FORD WINS LE MANS”.

For Steve and I, it was not exactly champagne and glory. We had to go back to the garage, get the tools, clean up and drive back to Switzerland. It had been a long journey but we learned a lot, we did enjoy it, and we will never forget it!

Two months after Le Mans, Steve decided to go back to the USA. By the end of the year he was working for Dan Gurney at AAR in Santa Ana, California. In November 1966 I quit the Scuderia Filipinetti, and in January 1967 I flew to Los Angeles and started working for Shelby American. In April, Steve quit Gurney and came to Shelby who needed more mechanics for Le Mans 1967.

In June we were both back at Le Mans with Shelby American, crewing on Fords, Steve crewing on the blue MkII driven by Hawkins-Bucknum, whilst I was on the Gurney-Foyt MkIV, the winner!

Next time, I will tell you about what it was like to work at Shelby American…