Whether involved as a racing team, as an LMP prototype manufacturer or as an events agency, ORECA has always maintained a constant, solid, passionate and enthralling relationship with the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A story which began exactly 40 years ago.
June 11th 1977: as the blue and white #16 Alpine A442 lined up on the starting grid of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Hugues de Chaunac could not imagine that this was going to be the very first page of the most important chapter in ORECA’s story. Though the founder of the ORECA Group had always had in mind to compete in that challenge, he could not have imagined the role that this legendary event was about to play in the thriving and growth of his company. This year, ORECA will be taking part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the 23rd time, bringing operational support to Toyota Gazoo Racing and also having fourteen of its prototypes, manufactured in-house, as part of the line-up. The company is very proud and it is a great joy for Hugues de Chaunac, who has always been so eager to take on challenges. With him, we look back at this first entry which was both historical and… actually very brief!
– In which context did this opportunity for a first entry arise, back in 1977?
“Personally, I’ve always been interested in this race – not to say fascinated – particularly around the time of Matra. It was probably that great experience which made me want to get involved in this challenge. But ‘wanting to’ is one thing and actually ‘doing’ is another… In spring 1977 this opportunity came up with Renault. Together with Elf, we’d been partners on the Formula 2 programme for two years – by the way, our drivers Didier Pironi and René Arnoux performed really well that year. A couple of weeks before Le Mans, Renault decided to enter one additional car. Considering our close relationship, they offered me the incredible chance to line up that car. Though there were only six weeks left before the race, I jumped on the opportunity.”
– What do you remember of this first entry?
“It was very short notice, perhaps the decision was even made too late. We had to organise everything very quickly, which probably penalised us in our preparation, even though at the time, managing a car for the 24 Hours of Le Mans was totally different from what it is today. We arrived at Le Mans with barely no experience at all yet full of enthusiasm, which only such an exceptional opportunity can trigger. It was quite daring, but I don’t regret at all having dived into this adventure in this rushed way!”
– Enthusiasm which got cut short after the first lap…
“Indeed, the adventure ended shortly after the start during the first lap… and with a car on fire! At the time, we were in charge of operating the car and Renault had delegated engineers and mechanics to take care of the engine part. After investigation, it turned out that one of the engine mechanics had not tightened an oil hose. So straight after the start, it started leaking on the turbo, and caught fire. Obviously there was a lot of disillusion then, because we didn’t even get the chance to take part in the race, which was very frustrating. It wasn’t the team’s fault. In a way, it actually motivated us even more to come back to Le Mans a couple of years later with the BMW M1. Regardless of this first entry outcome, we would have come back anyway, I was really interested in this race.”
– 40 years later, how do you feel about the race and the way it has evolved?
“At the time, we came to Le Mans with our little Formula 2 ‘commando team’, which meant about twelve people, including those from Renault. It’s totally different today where each single detail is scrutinised by several people. There’s more experience and knowledge involved, and therefore also more means. It is said that the 24 Hours of Le Mans are a real sprint nowadays, which I think it’s particularly right. Because the top priority today is to spend the least amount of time in the pits, whereas back in the days, the cars were definitely less reliable and time management in terms of repairing was an integral part of the race. Obviously we were looking to limit that amount of time too, but on the other hand we also knew that the car would have to stay in the pits at some point, just to change brakes for instance. Today the level is so high that reliability has to adapt. When a car is taken into the pit box for repairs, it usually means that there’s little chances left for it to win. Something which clearly remains constant though is the passion around this race. Legendary duels with great manufacturers such as Ford, Porsche, Ferrari, Matra, Renault, Toyota, Peugeot and Audi… The cars do change, technology progresses, but the enthusiasm from the general public remains the same.”
– If someone had told you on that 11th of June 1977 that, 40 years later, 14 cars manufactured by ORECA would be on the starting grid of the 2017 edition of the 24 Hours, what would you have felt?
“First, it was impossible for me to imagine that ORECA would live so long! Since 1977, we’ve structured and consolidated the company, so that it could last in time, and it’s not that easy in such a field as motorsport. Thanks to that work, we’ve been able to meet objectives, related to the sports aspect, which was my first goal. One of my other dreams was to manufacture race cars that could win. We’ve eventually managed to do that too. There’s been victories with the ORECA 01, then the 03… With the 05 we’ve won the last two editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in LM P2… And I couldn’t anticipate it all obviously. Just a year ago, I couldn’t imagine that we’d have fourteen cars on the starting grid. It’s a fantastic surprise. It also gives us responsibilities, and at times like this, there’s no way we’re going to rest on our laurels.”