The Marathon de la Route, an 84-hour epic endurance race run between 1965-1971, was an event that pushed both car and driver to breaking point. With some really unique rules, this race must go down in history as the world’s longest motor race. It was certainly one of the most demanding motor sport events ever, and yet so little of the race is known.
Broken down into its constituent parts, the Marathon de la Route translates into: marathon – a test of endurance, especially in a competition; and, de la route – of the road. In reality, the Marathon de la Route was nothing other than an extreme endurance race and was referred to by competitors as the ‘World’s Longest Motor Race’, a name which went some way towards describing this epic test of human and mechanical stamina and survival.
But the Marathon de la Route, created to replace the equally tough Liège-Rome-Liège rally, would only enjoy a short existence, being run between 1965 and 1971. The Marathon’s predecessor, Belgium’s Liège-Rome-Liège, was little more than a thinly disguised road race over some of Europe’s toughest mountain roads. For the first thirty years, from 1931-1960, the race was called the Liège-Rome-Liège but between 1961-1964 it was re-routed and re-named the Liège-Sofia-Liège.
The year 1955, the Liège-Rome-Liège’s silver jubilee year and a decade before being superseded by the Marathon, saw a record entry of 141 of Europe’s finest long-distance race and rally drivers. Despite this record entry, only 56 teams would complete the gruelling 3100-mile route which saw the factory Mercedes-Benz 300 SL driven by Pierre Stasse and Olivier Gendebien take the honours. The route took in six countries and included more than 30 mountain passes, and was completed in just over 90 hours of almost non-stop driving. Other top sports car contenders included Lancia, Porsche 550 Spyder, Alfa Romeo Zagato, BMW, Jaguar, Triumph and many other top marques, while the driver’s contingent was bolstered by the likes of Jacky Ickx, Herbert Linge and even Nuvolari’s mechanic!
Far from being the sole domain of the big and powerful sports racing cars, the Liège-Rome-Liège rally often saw winners coming from amongst the smaller, more nimble contenders such as MG, Porsche, Alfa Romeo and others. However, spectator and driver safety proved difficult on the difficult public roads where competitors had to contend with normal cars, livestock and other local challenges lurking around almost every corner. Together with the challenging logistics of getting stricken cars repaired, eventually forced the organisers to reconsider the future of this event.
With the sharp growth in traffic around Europe in the 1960s, and the increased performance of these sports racing cars, spurred on by fierce manufacturer and national rivalry, it was only a matter of time before this ‘open’ road race would cease to be run on public roads. Hence the Marathon de la Route was born with the first of the new format races taking place between 24-28 August, 1965. Herbert Linge agrees, “In those days they couldn’t get the permission to drive on the old roads, so they moved it to the Nürburgring for 84 hours.”
Why did motor manufacturers subject their vehicles to such a tortuous test as the Marathon de la Route? The answer for Porsche, was probably the same as for all manufacturers who participated, as Günter Steckkönig explains, “Mr Bott, the Chief Engineer in Development at this time, said that we should always take our new systems or new development work to the Marathon de la Route as a test. He told us that it was always much cheaper to do this race than go to the ‘Ring for testing [privately].
“We did a lot of test driving on the south circuit anyway, because it was only 7.7 km and you completed one lap quicker compared with the north circuit, and therefore obtained more results.”
Participating in the Marathon de la Route was like driving three and half Le Mans 24-Hours, back-to-back, and the only drivers really used to this race duration were rally drivers. Herbert Linge again, “Many of the drivers in this race came from the big rallies in Europe, like the Liège-Rome-Liège and Tour de Force. They were used to this long-distance driving and also the night time driving.”
Manufacturers liked the event because it gave them an opportunity to test their cars and any new components as Linge explained, “They did not have too many spectators there, so if something went wrong it was not so bad. And it was also a very good test for them before their new models went into the production.”
The Marathon was created with some of the strangest, but also the most interesting rules, of any motor sport event of the time. For instance, teams had to complete the same number of laps in the last twelve hours as they had done in the first twelve hours. Another rule was that in the first four hours you could take a maximum of 30 minutes for one lap, and after the first four hours you had to complete one lap every twenty-four minutes, as any teams exceeding this time resulted in disqualification (one lap of the combined North and South circuits was 28.265 km).
Refuelling was done using a normal petrol pump before the pits, but tyre changes and driver changes were done at the team’s pits. Every stop in the pits exceeding one minute resulted in a one lap penalty deducted from the team’s total lap count. In this way, pit stops were very short, and so repairs could be carried out in one of three ways: firstly, a driver could do any repairs out on the track with the spares and tools he carried in the car. Another option was to carry out repairs in a dedicated area away from the pits, a kind of parc ferme, where the driver could repair a broken part. A team engineer or technician could offer advice but he had to stand outside of the designated area and could not bring tools or parts to help with the repair, he could only offer verbal assistance.
Herbert Linge, winner in 1968 recalls with amusement, “You know, we found a lot of parts along the circuit. Sometimes you might find a drive shaft in the woods, or drivers who lost a fan belt after driving for 20 hours, they would find a fan belt somewhere in the hills and you put it in the car and bring it back to the parc ferme.”
No penalty was incurred if repair work was done in the parc ferme, but as you had to drive past your pit to reach this area, you had effectively started a new lap and so a driver could pull into this area to work on the car but he would still have to complete his lap in twenty-four minutes. The driver would always have to keep one eye on the clock and if the repair was going to mean that his lap time would exceed the twenty-four minutes, then he would have to leave the repair incomplete and return to finish the repair perhaps the next lap.
The third repair option was to stop in the pits where it was possible for two people, perhaps the driver and one mechanic, or two mechanics, to work on the car. This, however, had to be done with the twenty-four-minute rule in mind, and with the lost lap penalty being applied for every minute stopped in the pits. A car was only allowed to be stationary in the pits for up to twenty minutes, beyond which the team would be disqualified.
However, in order for the teams to effect repairs on their cars, which over 84 hours were subjected to extreme punishment, a relief window was provided where repairs could be done for a period of up to twenty minutes where no penalty would be incurred. This window of opportunity occurred between laps 75-80, again between laps 150-155, and between laps 225-230 and also between laps 300-305. So, if a team could ‘save’ up their repairs for a distance of 75 laps (or approximately every 2120 km), then these repairs could be carried out without penalty during this time.
Günter Steckkönig again, “I think it was also very interesting for the engineers and technicians. I think it was a nice event.”
Scrutineering was done at the Palais de Princes Eveques (Palace of the Prince Bishops, now the Palace of Justice) in Liège (Lüttich) after which the cars were driven from Liège to the Nürburgring where the race started at one ‘o clock at night. Setting the grid for the Marathon was quite a straight forward affair as no conventional lap qualifying was undertaken for grid positions, instead the race authorities simply placed the fastest cars at the front and that was the order in which they would start.
Marshalling an event like the Marathon over three and a half days at the Nürburgring was no easy task, and the Belgian Army played a big part as Günter Steckkönig explains, “Around the circuit a lot of soldiers were positioned, and every time a car came into the pit, a Kommissar was on hand to watch what was being done. Just like at Le Mans, you had to notify the Kommissar that you were now taking over the car as driver.”
The young Steckkönig did his apprenticeship at the Porsche factory in 1953, and later on went to technical school returning to Porsche in the chassis department (Fahrwerkversuch).
From 1962, he worked in the Fahrwerk und Fahrwerkversuch (chassis testing) department doing a lot of tyre testing for all the production cars but also test driving almost all the racing cars. Much of this testing was carried out at the Südschleife.
“I would say that Herbert Linge was the number one test driver at the Porsche factory at this time, and I had the chance to learn a lot from him,” said Steckkönig.
Günter Steckkönig retired from Porsche in 1992.
The Early Days
The first running of the Marathon de la Route (24-28 August, 1965) at the Nürburgring saw a rather tentative field of just 35 starters amongst which were some rather unexpected entries. Far from having any sporting pretensions, the Czechoslovakian Tatra 603-2 was a roomy, almost limousine-sized vehicle built exclusively for officials and the secret police in the former Eastern Bloc country. Powered by a 2.5-litre V8, the large four-door Tatra did surprisingly well in competition, finishing third and fourth overall in the 1965 Marathon, and this was followed in 1966 by a 1-2-3 finish in class (4-5-6 overall).
In 1966, against all the odds, victory went to the BMC works team of Andrew Hedges and Julien Vernaeve driving a rather battered looking MGB. Without taking anything away from the gallant MGB, it was rather a race of attrition as the frontrunners slowly fell away, including the yellow Equipe National Belge Ferrari 275 GTB which crashed when Lucien Bianchi’s co-driver went off the road through sheer exhaustion. Driven by Roger Enever/Alec Poole, the second works MGB retired on the morning of the final day with a broken half-shaft. Only 14 cars were still running at the end with the MG being the only survivor in the GT category.
Porsche’s Marathon debut: 22-26 August 1967
As explained earlier, Porsche treated the Marathon as a test platform for new developments and components. As a result, their 1967 steed was packed with new bits, the most significant being the new Sportomatic gearbox which was fitted to two of the three cars, while the third car had a conventional manual gearbox.
Porsche technician, Günter Steckkönig, was one of the pit crew for the 1967 race in which Hans Herrmann, Jochen Neerpasch and Vic Elford won outright in their 911 R. This sports model, a very important link in the eventual development of the 911 RS (1973), established a series of 14 international and five world records at the Monza track in 1967.
The Porsche of Berger/Meert left the road, badly injuring the triple Tour de France winner Georges Berger, who later died. The Porsche 911 R Sportomatic of Elford/Herrmann/Neerpasch won the event, with the Mini Cooper of Fall/Vernaeve and Hedges (Andrew Hedges won the event in 1966 driving an MGB) in second and the Volvo of Christofferson/Wängstre finishing third. Of the 43 starters, only 13 cars finished in 1967.
Porsche Again 1968: 20-24 August 1968
Entries for the Marathon increased to 60 cars in 1968, although the final number was down to 51 cars at the start.
Porsche had some new weaponry at its disposal for the 1968 event as its 911 now boasted the new 2268 mm long wheelbase body. Although the lead car was entered as a 911 R, this car was not a full spec ‘R’ as it was fitted with an uprated 911 S engine developing 170 bhp which now featured Bosch mechanical fuel injection.
Herbert Linge remembers, “This year we had the 911 with the new front suspension and also with the first fuel injection, this was the first 2.0-litre with mechanical injection.”
After about six or seven hours, Herbert Linge had a problem with the mechanical injection pump which he had to repair himself. This took him six minutes and so they lost six laps which raised a question for the team, should they continue at the same speed as before or push to catch up the lost laps.
Linge picks up the story, “We decided to push the car during the night so we drove flat out and after about ten hours we had recovered the six laps and so we took the lead again. It was a fantastic race, but you know, a lot of cars had mechanical problems and actually, it was very tough driving what with the weather conditions, the number of cars and the difference in speed of those cars. For the drivers, it was very tough.”
The 1968 Porsches were all fitted with the new front suspension, as Günter Steckkönig confirms, “In 1968 we had three 911s fitted with hydro pneumatic McPherson suspension, that is with the spring and the damper in one unit.”
To illustrate how well the Porsche team was prepared for this event, the mechanics practiced changing the entire front strut assembly in such a way that it was not necessary to bleed the brakes each time the front callipers were removed – this operation was completed twice during the race, each time in just four minutes!
According to Steckkönig, the longest task they had to perform was the complete removal and replacement of the rear axle. This procedure, which involved the rear half shaft and brake assembly on one side took just sixteen minutes, and this could be completed within the 20-minute window during one of the ‘free’ repair opportunities.
Günter Steckkönig recalls with amusement, “We heard noises from the rear axle maybe 30 laps before, so we tried to drive the car until such a free repair window, then we could do the repair without penalty, and it was okay!”
Contrary to expectations, Steckkönig admits that he enjoyed the race, “If you drive at the Nürburgring, you have to concentrate every second, and that was a sport for me.”
Obviously driving for three and a half days is extremely draining, and sufficient rest is vital in order to maintain one’s concentration for this period. During the four to five hours between stints, Steckkönig had his own way of relaxing, “I went to the swimming pool in the small village of Kleinburg about three or four kilometres from the Nürburgring, and there I would swim [laughs]. And the first thing you ask when you come back is, ‘where is my car, is it still running?’”
Steckkönig recalls another amusing incident, “I remember we had one driver who said ‘if I had known that 84 hours are four days, then I would not have driven for you! Every day my wife calls and she says, ‘it is not possible that you are still racing there, it is not possible to do such a long race.’”
Typically, the Porsche drivers would drive for two hours on one tank of fuel but during the night they did double stints so that the other drivers could sleep longer. Staying alert and concentrating at speed in what was one of fastest sports cars of its day for extended periods of time placed a severe drain on the body for the drivers.
Comparing the Le Mans 24-Hour to the Marathon, Linge says, “Well, I think the Nürburgring was much tougher for the drivers. You know at Le Mans you could relax a little bit, I mean it was a tough race, but at the Nürburgring there was no place to close the eye [laughs], you always had to be on top.”
Victory in 1968 went to the two 911s of Linge/Glemser/Kauhsen and Steckkönig/Blank/Schuller, with each car covering more than 10,100 km.
The 1969 Marathon had grown once again to 64 entries, as more manufacturers entered the picture, some even going to extraordinary lengths to promote their entries with the attendance of celebrities. At the head of the entry list were three Argentinean Torinos, a 4.0-litre 6-cylinder car built by Renault and designed by Pininfarina. In support of their efforts, Fangio was in the pits and an Argentinean radio broadcaster was there to convey the team’s progress to their homeland many miles away.
Porsche were absent in an official capacity but Willi Kauhsen was there with a semi-works car while three other 911s made up the Porsche contingent. A certain Luca di Montezemolo drove a Fiat 125 S while other cars included Lancia, Capri GT, BMW, Mercedes, Opel, Mazda, Datsun and Alfa Romeo.
A change to the rules saw the abolition of the average lap speeds at the start and end of the race, with victory going to the team to cover the most distance. Unfortunately, the Torinos fell out and none of the Porsches appeared on the podium. Glory in 1969 eventually went to a Lancia, followed by a BMW and in third place was a Triumph TR6.
Safety in Numbers
Porsche attacked the 1970 event with three 914-6 sports cars, and although they were victorious, they did not have it all their own way. In fact, the semi-works Rover team from England brought a secret weapon in the form of a V8-engined prototype. Although the production Rover V8 passenger car featured GM’s Buick compact V8, it is believed that this prototype Rover was fitted with the similar size Oldsmobile V8.
The Traco (engine builders) V8 engined prototype was fitted with a 4.3 litre engine developing approximately 350 bhp and was based on the Rover 3500 P6 model. “The car was prepared for Rover by Mathwall Engineering in the UK and driven by Roy Pierpoint, Roger Enever and Clive Baker. It was well out in the lead of the 1970 Marathon before retiring with gearbox failure,” explained Stephen Laing, Curator of the Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydon, UK.
In fact, Porsche’s management in Stuttgart were decidedly worried when they learned that the Rover had disappeared into the distance and built up a four-lap lead but the team at the track assured their bosses that the Porsches were running to plan and that the Rover would soon bow out. As expected the Rover retired in the 14th hour with a broken gearbox mounting caused by an out-of-balance drive shaft.
Günter Steckkönig recalls, “Before the race we drew up a big plan, and we considered every possibility. Then we got a call from Zuffenhausen asking us what Porsche was doing behind this very fast car and what’s the matter with the Porsche team. But we continued with our fixed plan.”
As explained by one of the Porsche technicians, drivers tried to go for consistency not only in terms of lap times, but also in so far as the treatment of their cars, as the team’s goal was to complete the distance. Considering that materials in the 1960/70s were not as good as they are today, a driver would always have to take into account the fact that a race car must first finish the race in order to finish first. “For instance, with the clutch, if you shifted the gears, you had to press the clutch pedal precisely. And always, the shifting should not be too fast because of the synchronisation, we had always to think about the car,” he explained.
It was this precision driving which helped Porsche to take the top three positions in 1970, an outstanding result. In a year in which Porsche had just won the most sought after crown in motor sport which had eluded them for so long, the Le Mans 24-Hour, to finish with a 1-2-3 in the Marathon was even more than they could have wished for. The third placed 914-6 of Ballot-Lena/Steckkönig/Koob was 20 laps ahead of the fourth placed car, a 1998 cc BMW. Only 23 of the 64 starters actually completed the race.
Although the grid was not short on quality, entries for the final event were down to just 39 cars in what was a rather dull race compared with previous years. In what was a rather processional race, the Group 2 BMW was out of the running early on and the bigger works teams who had participated previously failed to throw their weight behind many of the privateers. With the big players and the favourites out of the way, it was little wonder that an outsider took the chequered flag. First across the line was an Alpine followed by a BMW and third was a 1300 cc DAF prototype, considered by some to be the most interesting car in the race.
Legacy of the Marathon de la Route
Few will argue that the 84-hour Marathon de la Route ranks amongst the most difficult motor sport events ever, and this is largely due to the sheer length of the race. However, it is this very fact that most probably accounted for the low spectator numbers and the lack of manufacturer support.
With the Marathon having replaced the classic Liège-Sofia-Liège rally which itself was a 3000-mile event over a similar time period, it could be expected that spectators there would line the route where they lived and the organisers would not have to go to the expense of hiring a race circuit and providing facilities and all the logistics that go with closed circuit racing. It was then perhaps unreasonable for the organisers to expect any spectators to remain at the track for the duration of the Marathon, which meant that people would come and go with few staying on.
Added to this, it was not necessary for rally organisers to promote a rally heavily as spectators would make their own way to their favourite viewing spots. Herbert Linge explained, “If somebody is organising a 1000 km race at the Nürburgring, he can put it in different papers months before, which the rally organisers never did because sometimes they didn’t want too many spectators because they would have problems getting the roads cleared for the event. If they created too much publicity, they might have more problems getting permission to go through a town or a special city.”
It could be argued that having organised long rallies in this way, it was perhaps not considered a high priority to promote the Marathon too heavily. As a result, it was generally only the local newspapers that tended to cover the Marathon and this may be the reason for so little being known about this mammoth endurance race.
Once the competitors were finished the race at the Nürburgring at one ‘o clock midday, one of the drivers would then have to drive their car approximately 140 km back to Liège for final scrutineering at the Palais de Princes Eveques. Once again, the rules required that all drivers from the classified finishing teams had to attend the prize giving ceremony otherwise it meant disqualification.
Perhaps some modern-day drivers could learn a lesson or two from this legendary race, and not to leave the track in their private jet when their car fails to finish, especially when the race is only a couple of hours long. Competitors in the Marathon de la Route are to be hailed as true gladiators!
Marathon de la Route results:
|Year||Pos||Car type||Car no.||Drivers||Engine cc||Laps/km|
|3||Porsche 904 GTS||12||Ising/Degner||1966||309|
|2||Ford Lotus Cortina||31||Ickx/Staepelaere||1594||8808|
|1967||1||Porsche 911 R Sportomatic||14||Herrmann/Neerpasch/Elford||1991||350|
|2||Mini Cooper S||39||Vernaeve/Fall/Hedges||999||316|
|3||Volvo 122 S||17||Christoffersson/Wängstre||1780||316|
|1968||1||Porsche 911 E||28||Linge/Glemser/Kauhsen||1991||356|
|2||Porsche 911 E||30||Steckkönig/Blank/Schuller||1991||356|
|3||Lancia Fulvia 1.3 HF||9||Munari/Kallstrom/Pinto||1298||348|
|1969||1||Lancia Fulvia 1.6 HF||38||Kallstrom/Barbasio/Fall||1584||332|
|1971||1||Alpine A 110 1600S||2||Henry/Therier/Nusbaumer||1596||487|
|2||BMW 2002 TI||22||Hennerici/Kuhl/Hennerici||1981||457|
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto