This year, for the centenary of the 24 hours of Le Mans, the film « Le Mans » by Steve McQueen is more re- levant than ever. Legends Magazine reveals some unknown aspects to you. The first is that this film, released in 1971, constitutes a beautiful revenge for Steve McQueen. Five years earlier, he had indeed wanted to make a film on F1, but he was outrun by John Fran- kenheimer who released in 1966 the feature film « Grand Prix ». The se- cond unknown aspect is that several racing cars of the film « Le Mans » had been provided by Jo Siffert. However, not all were real racing cars!
“But the insurance companies, afraid of the premiums they’d have to pay in the event of an accident, refused to take the risk. Otherwise, I’d have been running with Steve McQueen.”
Steve McQueen adored motorsport. As soon as he earned enough money, in 1956, he bought a Porsche 356 Speedster to race in California. However, only during a three month stay in London in 1961, for the filming of « The War Lover », his pas- sion for competition became devouring. At the wheel of a Mini, on the Brands Hatch circuit, he even participated in a race for touring cars punctuated by an excellent 3rd place. In England he also discovered the book “The Cruel Sport” which describes motor sport and its ac- cidents, often tragic. Steve McQueen decided to adapt this book to the cinema with director John Sturges. The latter learned, however, that John Frankenheimer wished to shoot “Grand Prix”, a film also inspired by this book, and that he had already contacted the Metro Goldwyn Meyer. Despite this, John Sturges began to shoot on August 1, 1965, at the Nürburgring, the first shots of this film whose title is “Day of the Champion”. Bernard Cahier, the author of most of the photos in this article, was on site and immortalized Stirling Moss behind the wheel of a Lola equipped with two voluminous came- ras. For reasons that it would be too long to mention and that the documentary “McQueen – The Lost Movie”, visible on Youtube*, explains very well, “Day of the Champion” will never be completed. Un- like “Grand Prix”, whose story, a little too romanticized, hardly pleases Steve McQueen. He would then pursue only one goal: to shoot a film about motors- port that is as authentic as possible. It would be “Le Mans”. For this film to be as realistic as pos- sible, Steve McQueen bought a Porsche 908 and signs up for the 12 hours of Se- bring, at the start of the 1970 season. In this event, which counted for the world championship and in which he shared the steering wheel of his 908 with the professional racing driver Peter Revson, Steve McQueen finished 2nd overall. This excellent result went around the world, thanks in particular to the photos of Bernard Cahier. And its 908 would be engaged at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970 with Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams, responsible for filming the race from the inside. A race in which Steve McQueen wished to participate with a Porsche 917 together with Jackie Stewart. “Insurance companies, frighte- ned by the premiums to be paid in the event of an accident, refused to take this risk. Otherwise, I would have run with Steve McQueen,” said Jackie Stewart in 2021, after going in Fribourg on the grave of Jo Siffert, who died 50 years earlier in Brands Hatch. Jo Siffert was about to play a very im- portant role in the film “Le Mans” for which he rented ten racing cars. But how did the negotiations evolve between the Fribourg racing driver and the produc- tion company of Steve McQueen? This was told by Paul Blancpain, Jo Siffert’s right arm. As a Porsche and Alfa Romeo dealer in Fribourg, in addition to its commitments in F1, F2, Endurance and CAN-AM, Jo Siffert was one of the busiest drivers in the history of motorsport and its many commitments would not have been possible without Paul Blancpain. The latter, a talented racing driver too, put an end to his career after having led the Porsche 908 of the Joest Racing in 5th place of the 1000 km of Le Castel- let in 1974. At the end of that same year, he emigrated to Brazil where, until 2008, he held a restaurant in Buzios, the local St-Tropez. This is where we met him the day after the 6 hours of Sao Paolo in 2014.
JO SIFFERT’S BLUFF
Sitting in the shadow of a magnificent flamboyant, with a breathtaking view of the Gulf of Buzios, made famous in the 60s by Brigitte Bardot, Paul Blancpain, a glass of Caïpirinha in hand, begins his story: “During the Monaco Grand-Prix in 1970, Jo Siffert had asked me to partici- pate in the negotiations with the two re- presentatives of Steve McQueen by giving me these instructions: “You will listen to what I will tell them and you will agree without being amazed.” The two Ame- ricans start by asking if we could rent them a Porsche 917 Gulf. Jo Siffert res- ponds immediately: “No problem, the Por- sche directors offered me one.” They then wanted a 917 long tail. Jo replied right away :“ Ok, I also have this one”, while I was wondering where… Same trick again for the two Chevrons, a Corvette, four Por- sches 911 and a 914. I swallow and try not to appear too surprised!” “The Americans also wanted an 11th car, but Jo Siffert replied negatively,” added Paul Blancpain. After the two Ameri- cans left, he told me that he had to say no at least one time in order to make all his lies credible! Of the ten cars he had clai- med to have, he actually had only one: the 917 Gulf! Seppi then said to me: “Go back to Switzerland and buy a used Corvette and some second-hand 911 which you will find in the classified ads of the Re- vue Automobile, and we will transform them in racing cars.” The second 917 was a 908 with elements in Polyester of Fran- co Sbarro and the Corvette, the four 911 as well as the 914 were only road-legal production cars. Seppi had told me that, to take some shots, they had no need to break the lap record! As for the noise of the engines, he pointed out to me that, anyway, they added it to the soundtrack of the film!”
THE MEMORY OF CHAD MCQUEEN
“On the set of the film, we quickly un- derstood that the Americans did not know anything about cars. Their finan- cial means, however, seemed unlimited. This was a superb financial operation, almost half a million euros today,” laughs Paul Blancpain. With its charm, Jo Siffert had managed to rent racing cars, some of which were not racing cars at all! It was ultimately not very serious and Chad McQueen, Steve McQueen’s son present on the set during his vaca- tion, keeps an emotional memory of Jo Siffert. “I was only 10 years old and all the racing drivers were very nice to me. However, there was one that surpassed all the others. It was Jo Siffert who brought me candies every time,” said Chad McQueen, met in 2011, in Califor- nia, with Derek Bell, a former teammate of the Fribourg racing driver. “Jo said to me: “I have bonbons for you!” I was very surprised by his kind- ness, as well as by the repeating of the two syllables: Bon-Bon. In English, we say candies and not bonbons. Even today, I have a lot of affection for Jo. And I think of him every day because I wear the same watch as him, » concludes Chad McQueen by turning his wrist. He then shows25 us a Heuer Monaco, one of those car- ried by his father in the film and not a current TAG-Heuer!
“On the set, we quickly realized that the Americans knew nothing about cars. On the other hand, they seemed to have unlimited financial resources. It turned out to be a superb financial operation, costing almost half a million euros today.”