Jacky Ickx – the quiet hero

David Malsher
Belgian racing legend Jacky Ickx demonstrates a Ferrari 312B<span class="copyright">Motorsport.com</span>
Belgian racing legend Jacky Ickx demonstrates a Ferrari 312BMotorsport.com

Belgian racing legend Jacky Ickx demonstrates a Ferrari 312B

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images

When listing Ickx’s achievements, his tally of six wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will always be a landmark, for he held the outright record for Le Mans wins for well over two decades. But the Belgian also showed true greatness in his Formula 1 days.

When listing the best Grand Prix drivers who, for a variety of reasons, missed out on the World Championship, Sir Stirling Moss stands alone of course. But there are also strong cases to be made for Gilles Villeneuve, Tony Brooks, Dan Gurney, Carlos Reutemann, Chris Amon and Ronnie Peterson. And Ickx truly belongs in this group.

Not that the 73-year-old (he turns 74 on New Year’s Day) Belgian would ever be immodest enough to say such a thing himself. Indeed, he is more likely to observe that he didn’t quite have the dedication necessary to be consistently great, because between races he liked to think about anything other than racing. Even now, he doesn’t live in the past. While he has accumulated an immense number of trophies and memorabilia, they aren’t on display. The only motorsport picture hanging in his Brussels home is not of himself but rather a portrait of Jimmy Clark.

But if racing is only part of Ickx’s own story, he is a significant part of racing’s history, and that’s what last weekend’s award was all about. Autosport’s founder Gregor Grant died just a few months after Jacky’s first win at Le Mans, but he would surely have been proud to see ‘his’ trophy given to a driver so infused with greatness.

#1 Rothmans Porsche Porsche 962C: Jacky Ickx, Jochen Mass<span class="copyright">Motorsport.com</span>
#1 Rothmans Porsche Porsche 962C: Jacky Ickx, Jochen MassMotorsport.com

#1 Rothmans Porsche Porsche 962C: Jacky Ickx, Jochen Mass

Photo by: Philippe Hubert

Ickx’s potential could be seen early on. Soon after switching from trial bikes to racing cars on hard surfaces, he won the 1965 Belgian Touring Car championship in a Lotus Cortina, and the following year conquered the Spa 24 Hours in a BMW 2000TI.

He was swift to make a big impression in open-wheel cars, too. In ’66, at a very wet Formula 3 race at Silverstone driving a Tyrrell, Ickx was forced to start from the back of a 30-car grid yet carved through the field to finish third. Yet even this startling performance would be overshadowed by his qualifying effort for the 1967 German Grand Prix, when Ickx set the third fastest time… in an F2 Tyrrell-run Matra MS7.

Yes, the car was nimble around the Nurburgring, and the 1.6-liter four-cylinder FVA Cosworth had a less brutal powerband than its 3-liter ‘big brother’ DFV, but still it was giving away some 160hp to the V8s of Cosworth and Repco, and the V12s of Weslake, Ferrari and Honda. And there were enough straights on the fearsome 14.2-mile Nordschleife for that to make a huge difference. One can only conclude that the contribution made by Ickx in the corners was immense… and indeed he was eight seconds faster than the next quickest F2 car!

Prodigious speed around the Nurburgring would become one of Ickx’s calling cards in the years ahead. Another would be his pace in the wet and, having been snapped up by Enzo Ferrari for 1968, the new young regenmeister won only his ninth ever Grand Prix, at another daunting course, Rouen-les-Essarts. Despite missing two races after breaking his leg in a crash during practice for the Canadian GP, Ickx would still take fourth in that year’s championship.

Jacky Ickx, Ferrari, German GP, 1968<span class="copyright">Motorsport.com</span>
Jacky Ickx, Ferrari, German GP, 1968Motorsport.com

Jacky Ickx, Ferrari, German GP, 1968

Photo by: Sutton Images

A season at Brabham followed and would produce two more wins, at Mosport and the ’Ring, and runner-up in the championship to Jackie Stewart.

A return to Ferrari for 1970 saw Ickx emerge as the only title threat to the Lotus 72-mounted Jochen Rindt. But following the Austrian’s fatal accident at Monza, Ickx was left in an unenviable position – trying to do the right thing by Enzo Ferrari while also not wishing to beat a driver who was unable to defend his points lead. Such was Rindt’s advantage, Ickx needed two wins and a second place from the final three races to overhaul his deceased rival’s tally, but then came victory at Mosport and pole at Watkins Glen…

However, a fractured fuel line during that US Grand Prix dropped the Ferrari to fourth place at the finish, and with the conscience-wrestling pressure lifted by the championship being awarded to Rindt posthumously, Ickx went to the finale in Mexico City and dominated.

Jacky Ickx, Ferrari 312B leads Pedro Rodriguez, BRM, Clay Regazzoni, Ferrari 312B lead the field into Parabolica, Monza, 1970 Italian GP<span class="copyright">Motorsport.com</span>
Jacky Ickx, Ferrari 312B leads Pedro Rodriguez, BRM, Clay Regazzoni, Ferrari 312B lead the field into Parabolica, Monza, 1970 Italian GPMotorsport.com

Jacky Ickx, Ferrari 312B leads Pedro Rodriguez, BRM, Clay Regazzoni, Ferrari 312B lead the field into Parabolica, Monza, 1970 Italian GP

Photo by: LAT Images

Ickx would score only two more grand prix wins – in the wet (of course) at Zandvoort in ’71, and at the Nurburgring (of course) in ’72 – bringing his F1 victory tally to eight. Ferrari’s poor reliability – and a truly wretched car in 73 – persuaded him to leave for Lotus, a team still trying to make sense of its troublesome and overcomplicated 76 while also running the five-year-old Lotus 72. It wasn’t a happy time, particularly as Ickx felt the team was centered around Ronnie Peterson. However, a brilliant win at a soaking Brands Hatch in the non-championship Race of Champions, after passing his Ferrari replacement Niki Lauda around the outside of Paddock Bend, reminded everyone of the brilliant potential that just needed to be tapped – and strapped into a decent car.

By 1975, the Lotus 72 – now in E-spec – was not a winning car, and being classified second in the catastrophic Spanish GP barely lifted Ickx’s spirits. He would depart the team before the season was over, and then mark time in Frank Williams’ struggling outfit in ’76, before again switching midseason, this time to Ensign. His rides with the little English team were only sporadic however.

In ’79, Ickx made a return to F1 to sub for the injured Patrick Depailler at Ligier, and he grabbed two top-six finishes. However, ground-effect chassis provided little feel and Ickx knew he was no longer giving 100 percent, unable to match the pace of his very good but not brilliant teammate Jacques Laffite.

However, in the right car Ickx was still phenomenal. The ‘second’ iteration of Can-Am – basically Formula 5000 cars with sportscar bodies – produced powerful machines that were hard to drive, and the field was full of young future open-wheel stars and established sportscar experts. Yet the same year as his F1 career was fizzling out, Ickx won the Can-Am title for Carl Haas.

Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, Ford GT40<span class="copyright">Motorsport.com</span>
Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, Ford GT40Motorsport.com

Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, Ford GT40

Photo by: LAT Images

Of course by then, Ickx was already a sportscar legend. As long ago as 1968, he’d racked up four wins in the Ford GT40, and the following year he scored his first win at Le Mans, driving a John Wyer-run Ford GT40 with Jackie Oliver. It remains one of the greatest performances ever seen at La Sarthe, Ickx tricking Porsche’s Hans Herrmann into thinking the Ford was running low on fuel on the final lap, then slipstreaming the 908 down the Mulsanne Straight, before nipping ahead to win by a few car lengths.

Three years later, Ickx was pivotal in winning the 1972 World Sportscar Championship for Makes for Ferrari, scoring four wins with Mario Andretti, one with Brian Redman and one with Clay Regazzoni. There were a couple more wins with Redman for Ferrari in ’73, a triumph at Spa in ’74 driving a Matra MS670 with Jean-Pierre Jarier, and then in 1975, he shared the Le Mans-winning Gulf Mirage with Derek Bell. A year later, ahe was a Porsche driver, sharing 935s and 936s with Jochen Mass, and the Le Mans-conquering 936 with Gijs van Lennep.

But it was Ickx’s 1977 performance at Le Mans that became legendary. When the 936 he was sharing with Henri Pescarolo broke down, Ickx was switched across to the sister car of Jurgen Barth and Hurley Haywood which had also suffered mechanical strife but was still running, albeit in 41st place and nine laps down. Through the night and the rain, in two near-four-hour stints, Ickx charged, and when it was dry he reset the lap record several times. By 5am the 936 was up into second place. When the leading Alpine-Renault broke four hours later, the lovely Martini-striped Porsche was into the lead.

There was late drama when the engine dropped a cylinder, but the Porsche mechanics disconnected the ignition cable and the now five-cylinder Porsche limped to the flag in Haywood’s hands. Appropriately for such a brilliant performance, this fourth Le Mans victory saw Ickx match the then-record for Le Mans wins held by fellow countryman Olivier Gendebien, and Ickx ranks it as his greatest race.

#5 Martini Racing Porsche 936/78: Jacky Ickx, Henri Pescarolo, Jochen Mass<span class="copyright">Motorsport.com</span>
#5 Martini Racing Porsche 936/78: Jacky Ickx, Henri Pescarolo, Jochen MassMotorsport.com

#5 Martini Racing Porsche 936/78: Jacky Ickx, Henri Pescarolo, Jochen Mass

Photo by: Philippe Hubert

Second places at Le Mans in 1978 and ’80 were followed by victories with Bell in the 936 in ’81 – they led virtually the whole way and won by 14 laps! – and the new 956 in ’82, when they led a works Porsche 1-2-3. Porsche had created a car that was perfect for the newly established Group C rules, even if the drivers often railed against the stringent fuel regs of the time that kept them from displaying their ultimate pace.

However, the two upsides of this championship were that 1) the top-level European sportscar scene became a lot easier to comprehend in terms of structure, and 2) there was greater recognition for the drivers, in that they actually had a title to chase. Appropriately it was Ickx who became the first WSC champion of the era with four victories – two with Bell, two with Mass – and he retained the crown in 1983.

A brilliant new German, Stefan Bellof, had by now arrived in the Porsche lineup, and while the experience of Ickx and Mass could still prevail by 1984, so that they won at Silverstone and Mosport, the combos of Bellof/Bell, Bellof/John Watson and Bellof/Hans-Joachim Stuck (in the Brun team) were potent enough to send Bellof to title glory in ’84.

The 27-year-old then focused more on Formula 1 in 1985, but made occasional WSC starts, and one such was for Brun in the Spa 1000km. He was attempting to pass Ickx’s works Porsche 962C around the outside at Eau Rouge when the pair touched, sending Bellof’s car into a guardrail with fatal consequences. Ickx was blameless, but it was hardly a surprise when the 40-year-old decided to retire at year’s end… nor that he signed off in style with victory at Shah Alam. It was his 19th triumph with Mass, and this is rightly regarded as one of the finest partnerships in the last 50 years of sportscar racing.

Start of the 1982 24 hours of Le Mans: #1 Porsche 956 of Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell takes the lead in front of #2 Porsche 956 of Jochen Mass, Vern Schuppan<span class="copyright">Motorsport.com</span>
Start of the 1982 24 hours of Le Mans: #1 Porsche 956 of Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell takes the lead in front of #2 Porsche 956 of Jochen Mass, Vern SchuppanMotorsport.com

Start of the 1982 24 hours of Le Mans: #1 Porsche 956 of Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell takes the lead in front of #2 Porsche 956 of Jochen Mass, Vern Schuppan

Photo by: Jean-Philippe Legrand

Eight F1 wins (11 if you include non-championship races) and 13 poles give some indication of Ickx’s ability; so do 37 World Sportscar victories, and of course 6 Le Mans triumphs. But his was a malleable talent, too. Perhaps drawing on his earlier touring car experience, Ickx co-drove with Allan Moffat to win the 1977 Bathurst 1000 in the mighty Ford Falcon XC GS500. Six years later, he won the Paris-Dakar Rally in a Mercedes G-Wagen.

There are many who have achieved far less in racing than Ickx, and possessed just a fraction of his talent, who have gone on to become far more famous, perhaps by becoming mouthpieces on TV, or attending every historic race meeting they can, or simply by riding the coattails of more accomplished co-drivers. They are fêted and you try not to begrudge them their efforts to self-publicize – until their spotlight casts into shadow a driver of Ickx’s quality.

I can’t profess to know Ickx at all, but have merely admired him from afar. As a kid who had just become addicted to motorsport as Jacky’s career reached its (still highly impressive) twilight, his was as big a name to me as Lotus, Ferrari, Lauda, Rosberg and even Andretti. Yet in everything I’ve read or seen about the man, Jacky tended to underrate himself – a very unusual quality for a top racecar driver. It’s one thing to be modest, it’s quite another to openly admit when you feel other drivers were superior, without presenting even a hint of an excuse.

These 2000 words really can’t do justice to Ickx’s greatness, and I’m not sure there is an English-language biography that does so. But I do know there should be. And I’m pretty certain it would need to be a biography. Leave it to Jacky to write an autobiography, and there’s a danger he’ll downplay his amazing skills.

Jacky Ickx with his wife, Khadja Nin<span class="copyright">Motorsport.com</span>
Jacky Ickx with his wife, Khadja NinMotorsport.com

Jacky Ickx with his wife, Khadja Nin

Photo by: Alastair Staley / LAT Images