MATRA: Formulas For Success

by Edouard Seidler

    Some car stories could almost be described as fairy tales. So, once upon a time there was a man called Marcel Chassagny who had two reasons for living - for his business of pioneering advanced technical projects, and for golf which he pursued enthusiastically when there was any spare time, which wasn't often. Out of the blue, in the autumn of 1964, a business calamity found him creditor of a man who had spent his life dreaming about and making specialist cars, but who had got nothing out of his passion, except debts.

     Marcel Chassagny, president of Engins Matra, suddenly found himself in possession of an engineering workshop, a racing team, and a few cars he never expected to own. The firm which had been started by enthusiast Rene Bonnet (previously the "B" of DB cars) became Matra - a name which up until then had stood for inter-space missiles and other secret activities, but which from that moment on was to be involved in motor sport, industry, and furthering the reputation of the "blue cars" on the world's racing circuits. Five years later - incredible progress - the marque Matra was to become World Champion in Grand Prix racing. In 1964 however, it was incredible to think that Engins Matra would make cars - racing or sports models, but the Company's outlook was to give its engineers interesting work, and if they made racing cars they would have a rewarding exercise which they could talk about. Missiles and space vehicles were interesting and absorbing but secrecy was the watchword with those products. The Company's designers and technicians were highly skilled and used to producing unusual and highly accurate work a series of racing and sports cars would give them something new to get their teeth into, and if successful it would add to the lustre of France.

     Before the war Chassagny was manufacturing aircraft fuselages for Sud-Est. In 1941 he founded Matra although at that time of the Occupation he didn't have any real idea what his company's activity area would be. One thing he was sure of that Matra was going to be the best. At first he sold technical "knowhow", and then added cannons to his wares. He sold aircraft cannon for he knew about fuselage design, and to arm aircraft was a natural for him. By 1945 he was supplying and fitting conventional aircraft weapons, and soon he was making weapon launching pads which gave him a sort of French exclusivity.

     Chassagny admits he often had to go back to square one and he quotes his friend Sylvain Floirat (who became his business partner in 1957) who said, "To make a business successful one has to try two or three times. It is not money which makes us restart but a foolish sort of mind."

     In 1951 Matra employed 800 and Chassagny decided that air-to-air missiles were the coming thing in armaments, so he abandoned conventional weapons to concentrate on the modern remote- controlled instruments. Matra's first big contract for this form of weapon was for the French Mirage jet-fighter, followed by another for the Aeronaval Crusader, and then for various foreign aircraft. The weapon was designated R530, so when Matra made their first car they called it "M530" for luck. The indications were that Matra was to become an "international firm" and he set the wheels in motion to ensure that the company's products varied enough to obviate complete dependence on service contracts. By 1961 Matra employed 1300 and the firm was involved in space research. They joined an alliance called MESH (Matra, Erno-Germany, SAAB-Sweden, Hawker-Siddeley Dynamics-Britain), and used their knowledge of remotecontrols and service matters to build-up contracts with civilian enterprises. By now the firm was making refrigeration equipment, plastic marine hulls and a host of other products.

     Jean-Luc Lagardere,, 38-years-old manager of Engins Matra says although they got into car manufacture unexpectedly, it was maybe not so unexpected as all that since their ever-mounting list of products certainly moved in the automotive direction. Lagardere is a typical French businessman, bright, highly active and enthusiastic. He did not endear himself to the rest of the motor industry when he announced that, "Anyone can build a car". Years later; after Matra have won the Formula I Championship title, swept the board in Formula 2, and achieved high placings at Le Mans, there are still many who have never for given him for that seemingly brash statement. The same people would, let's face it, be pleased to witness the commercial collapse of the Matra 530 road car - the Company's first attempt at a production car, and in the difficult field of "saloon" models. The fact is many people regarded Lagardere as just plain cocky as far as racing was concerned, but he did his best and it would appear he did well! In a way he was being realistic when he made the pronouncement. "A team must know exactly what they are doing, and why they are doing it. My job has been to get it across what the aims were, and to carry the job through. The team knew we could go a long way and their efforts proved what I said in the first place," says the Matra manager.

     In 1964 when Matra took-over Rene Bonnet, the industry hardly regarded it as a significant move, and certainly no outsider ever imagined such an illustrious history would be the outcome. But the Matra team had spirit and determination, and as Marcel Chassagny says in his book, "It is difficult to imagine anyone achieving suceess when those in charge of a project do not believe in its success." At 66 Chassagny is president of Matra, and his friend Fioirat, late of Breguet, pioneer of colour television and of Europe 1, is his partner, but both admit that Lagardere is the working boss.

     Lagardere soon steered his mind along automotive channels. He forsook his DS 21 and his chauffeur and took a "Djet" from the Bonnet stock. He soon discovered its limitations. In races the Djet couldn't live with the Alpine-Renault M 64s, and commercially it wasn't in the same street as the Alpine Tour de France berlinette. As soon as he had evaluated the product Lagardere engaged Phiiippe Guedon from Simca to sort out the matter.

     Lagardere decided, like so many motor manufacturer's of the past, that to sell cars it is necessary to race. Particularly as the production car was to be a high performance model. The Matra manager realized that racing success spelled publicity and in 1965 the company announced their intention of pursuing a limited racing programme. The team really went to work, for it was on 25 February the original Formula 3 Matra was put on paper and by 27 May it raced for the first time. Powered by a British Ford engine it was by no means easy to get the project running easily and quickly. Not only was the car brand new but the driver, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, was an ex-racing motorcyclist who had previously driven for Bonnet, and who had experienced a dreadful crash at Rheims the year before. The crash had left him with a badly scarred body and a stiff arm.

     At the factory people began to get impatient at the slow progress. Some even wanted to call it all off. "Wait until Rheims,said Lagardere, "if Jean-Pierre wins we carry on. If not.

     Two months after the first trials the car was a much more efficient machine and it was a hot July Sunday at Rheims in the Champagne country. Out of the entry there were ten cars capable of winning, but it was the blue Matra with Jean-Pierre at the wheel that took the chequered flag first. What a wonderful moment for the little French driver who had nearly died on the same circuit the previous year. Onlookers saw a remarkable victory but they didn't realise that the win was instrumental in the decision for Matra to stay in racing. "Today we decide to carry on, we have reached the point of no return," said Lagardere. In that first year of Formula 3 Matra annexed seven wins, three second places, and a third. It marked the beginning of an ascendancy story. In such a progress story an above-average man is needed to steer the project along. It was necessary to gain efficiency as quickly as possible, so it was decided that whenever the works at Velizy could not produce a particularly specialised component, it would be made "outside" until Matra were able to cope with any and every job. It was therefore decided to use Ford-Cosworth engines for the single-seater cars, and BRM motors for tlie first prototypes. The latter move prompted some observers to opine that the Le Alans cars were BRMs in Matra paint. Formula 2 was also regarded as a good category in which to participate, and an alliance was formed between Matra and Englishman Ken Tyrrell. That move provided Matra with two exceptional drivers, Stewart and Ickx. Graham Hill, Hubert Hahne, Pedro Rodriguez and Ludovico Scarfiotti also joined the Formula 2 ranks at the wheel of Matras alongside the official works drivers Beltoise and Schlesser.

     The Matra successes began to pile up. In May 1966 Beltoise won at Monaco in the Formula 3 race. On the 7th of August the same driver gained Matra's first Formula 2 trophy, at the Nurburgring. The year 1956 had been a good one for the marque which had built 12 single-seaters, and had quickly gained the reputation of constructing the world's best racing chassis. Fifteen victories had been gained with the Formula 3 chassis, with a national title for Matra driver Johnny Servoz-Gavin, and Beltoise was French Champion in Formula 1 and 2 ahead of his team-mate, the late, lamented Jo Sehlesser.

     Then the rumours started to circulate about a Matra Formula 1. During the following winter Lagardere met Jean Prada. Young and full of enthusiasm for motor racing, Prada was the chief of ELF, the new French petroleum group. ELF were looking for a way to launch their products and to gain publicity. Racing and success would be the ideal media, and would also provide their technicians with valuable experience. In February 1967 the Matra-Elf association was announced officially at Monte Carlo. A few days later the Matra-Elf allianee won four races in the Argentina Temporada series, Beltoise winning the Formula 3 events, ahead of Jaussaud and Servoz-Gavin.

     Back in Paris the Matra management were looking ahead. Formula 1 was obviously going to be a very expensive exercise needing more than just Elf's assistance. Matra went to the French government which at that time was ready to subsidise a French racing team. It was obviously a scheme which could raise French prestige and car sales in all corners of the world. But no success could also spell a lowering of prestige and sales. It was an important decision to take, and many were the discussions which took place between Matra and Renault in the Ministry offices. It is now a matter of conjecture whether or not the Regie tried hard enough on behalf of Jean Redele of Alpine, but it is a fact there was but one fact on the prime minister's desk when the final decision was takcn.

     It is now history that Matra were the chosen ones to build a Formula 1 car to represent France, and in April 1967 Jean-Luc Lagardere invited journalists to Matra 's new premises to hear the announcement that the French Government had granted them a loan of six million francs (about half-a-million pounds sterling) to build a blue Formula 1 car for the glory of France. Matra's manager also introduced to the press the designers and technicians who were to be charged with the task of producing a brand new V12-cylinder racing engine. Monsieur Martin had left Simca to design and build the new engine in conjunction with specialists from Moteur Moderne, a firm of consultants. It was announced at the same time that the V12 would be on test by the end of the year, and that it would make its debut in the Monaco Grand Prix of May 1968. It was Matra's ambition to take the Driver's World Championship in 1969, and to win Le Mans by 1970 and so their new motor was modelled on the evergreen Ferrari V12.

     Many were the criticisms levelled at Lagardere's ambitious plan, but it made the Matra team more determined than ever to make the boss's promises come true. December 19 saw the first trials of the new engine at Saclay, and just two days before that Jackie Stewart who had joined the new "Matra-International" team, tested an experimental Matra Formula 1 car at Montlhery and at Kyalami in South Africa.

     In the meantime it had been a remarkable 1967 season. At the very beginning, in March, Vidal, Weber, and Jaussaud were the best of the French Formula 3 drivers, on Matra, and Pescarolo won eleven races with the same car, starting the season at Barcelona and Monaco. With their virtual invincibility in Formula 3 Matra decided to climb the ladder to Formula 2. Stewart won at Albi ahead of such established champions as Clark, Rindt, and Brabham. Ickx won the European Trophy - a trophy which was to become Matra's exclusive property as Beltoise won it in 1968 and Servoz-Gavin in 1969.

     The year 1967 was the time of preparation for long-distance racing. First came the Type 620, fullowed by the 630. The first prototype crashed tragically during the March Essais at Le Mans, killing Roby Weber, Matra 's new driver. The 630, not yet powered by the new V12 motor had been fitted with a 4.7-litre Ford V-8 as a temporary measure. The same car had previously been powered by a 2-litre BRM V8 engine, and had been progressing tremendously from race to race. Pescarolo won at Magny-Cours and took a class win in the Coupes de Salon. Beltoise set a new lap record in the Auvergne Trophy race, and took fourth place after 155 laps.

     It was in 1967 that Matra presented their new road car, the mid-engined 530 Coupe Spider, at the Geneva Show in March, The car was powered by a Cologne-built 1.7-litre Ford V4, and it wasn't long before Matra learned it was easier to build racing cars and win races with them than to make and sell productron cars. They experienced endless difficulties in production and the 530's effective launching was considerably delayed.

     There was a limited market for the type of production car Matra had pinned their hopes on, and because of the manufacturing difficulties the development of the Company was also retarded. Although the production department was but a small one, it represented a capital investment of some 25 million francs (about 2 million pounds sterling). Compared to Engins Matra's investment of 350 million francs however it was still small beer.

     The French public was not aware of the production department's troubles and were just wildly enthusiastic to see the "blue cars" begin the 1968 season, The V12 engine was unveiled with pomp and ceremony at Velizy on 11 January and Jean Girbas of the Express wrote, "The Matra Formula 1 car is a genuine effort, it will be an entirely 'blue car' and will soon have the flags waving, and even Basque berets will be raised." And so the public gained in enthusiasm, even forgot the origin of the engine. As long as the car was blue it was France. Beltoise was entrusted with race-development of the V12-engined Formula 1 car, and Stewart for his first season had the Tyrrell directed car with developed Ford-Cosworth VS engine. At Kyalami in the first Grand Prix of the season Stewart showed that Matra had a good man. The Matra was Ford-powered and so new it was only undercoated, but that didn't deter the little Scot who took the lead at the start, and was still third when he had to retire after 43 laps when his engine blew-up. At the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama Stewart had a badly cracked wrist due to a Formula 2 accident and he was unable to drive his MS 10 with Ford-Cosworth engine. Beltoise took over, led the race for four laps, but then lost nine laps due to oil trouble. The little Frenchman gamely got back into the race however, set a new lap record, and finally finished fifth.

     By the Monaco Grand Prix in May the Matra MSII Vl2 was ready to show itself to the world, but it was a bad time for France. The country was racked with strikes and industrial troubles, TV was on strike, and Paris was afraid of a new Revolution. In spite of all tile difficulties Matra got to Monaco, Servoz-Gavin driving Stewart's Ford-engined car (the Scot's arm was still troublesome) led the race for the opening three laps but retired when he broke a half-shaft coupling. Beltoise in the new V12 held sixth place for four laps until retiring on the 12th.

     The Belgian Grand Prix on tile tricky, ultra-fast Spa-Francorchamps circuit brought into sharp focus the potential of the new Matras. Stewart's arm was improving and, back in the cockpit he showed he had lost none of his magic while he had been temporarily laid up. He took the lead and stayed there until one lap before the finish when the car ran short of fuel. Tyrrell's feelings can well be imagined. So can Stewart's. The Matra International car finally finishcd fourth, and Beltoise in the MS 11 took eighth place.

     Then it was the Dutch Grand Prix on the little seaside circuit at Zandvoort. It was the wettest "Zandvoort" for years, but its an ill wind . . . Or rain! Matra were raeing on Dunlop's latest, ultra-efficient "wet" tyres, and thc "Day of Glory arrived", said the French newspaper L'Equipe. Stewart led the race from the third lap and Beltoise held second place. It was certainly a Blue Grand Prix, the cars finishing in first and second places - the best performance by French cars and drivers on the Zandvoort circuit since Rosier won there with his Talbot in 1951.

     Stewart had missed two races due to his arm injury but he was still very much in the running for the World Championship until the Mexican Grand Prix at the end of the season. On poor tyres he took third place in the French GP at Rouen3, and sixth in the Bntish GP at Brands Hatch while Beltoise was still struggling to get the V12 engine both powerful and reliable.

     In the German Grand Prix on the awesome Nurburgring Stewart took the lead from the first to last lap, driving unbelievably fast in heavy rain and thick fog. His engine blew-up in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on lap 43 when in the lead, but Servoz-Gavin in the other MS10-Ford passed Ickx's Ferrari on the last lap and took second place for Matra. Beltoise was fifth. The United States Grand Prix saw another victory for Stewart but he lost his chance of the Championship title in the Mexican Grand Prix which followed it after a tremendous battle with Hill. Such was the performance and potential of the Formula 1 ears that the French public became indifferent to the successes of the Formula 2 machines. They expected Matra to pull off the 1969 World Championship, and to win at Le Mans. In the meantime the 1968 Le Mans 24-hours was staged in September instead of traditional June because of the troubles of the previous May. Matra will never forget that Le Mans, for they had entered but one car and progress seemed so slow that few believed it would get to the start line. There were also many who had little faith in its chances. Months earlier when the Vl2 engine was introduced, Lagardere had said, "We are not foolish enough to think a Formula 1 engine will last for 24 hours, and we shall modify it accordingly to win in 1970."

     In spite of the statement it was a Formula 1 engine which roared its presence in the 630 when it appeared on the Sarthe circuit on 28 September 1968 with Servoz-Gavin and Pescarolo at the wheel. The whole Matra team journeyed back from Canada specially for Le Mans, fitting it in between two Grands Prix. Colonel Crespin, sports director of the "Ministry of the Young" engineered the trip regarding it as very necessary for morale. "I brought only a toothbrush," team manager Le Guezec announced, "but I doubt if I shall be here long. I expect to sleep at my home in Paris!" But Servoz-Gavin felt confident, and Pescarolo was to prove during the night that he was in the mood. It was an odd race. After only one lap the Matra was in at its pit, the mechanics trying unsuccessfully to make the windscreen wiper function. Yet after only one hour's racing the blue ear was 16th, although there were few who looked upon it as any sort of threat. After eight hours however the Matra was in second position behind the Ford GT40 which was ultimately to win in the hands of Rodriguez and Bianchi. It was a hard night for the Matra and its drivers. The rain poured down, and there was no windscreen wiper. Servoz-Gavin was very fed-up but Pescarolo kept quiet and kept driving. He took the wheel three times in succession . The vast crowd in the grandstands were getting more and more excited as finish time drew nearer. Pit stops were getting quicker and quicker as mechanics strove to catch up on time. At 11.49 A.M. the Matra came in for a wheel-change, but the new tyre burst and suddenly the car caught fire. It was soon extinguished but the rear-end was destroyed and the French car's fine effort was finished. Lagardere learned a great deal from the 1968 season. His first thoughts were to keep the V12 engine in Formula 1 for '69, but on reflection he decided to further develop the motor away from the races. Participation continued with Cosworth-Ford engines under Englishman Ken Tyrrell's banner - "Matra-International"- with Stewart and Beltoise as drivers. Lagardere's thinking was that the well-developed Ford Cosworth engine could win the World Championship for Matra while the works concentrated on development of the V12 so that Le Mans could be won in 1970.

     Stewart's meteoric year is now history. He won in South Africa, Spain, Holland, France, and Britain. He was leading the Monaco GP when a half-shaft coupling broke, and was second to Ickx at Nurburgnng after gearbox troubles slowed him. His win at Monza virtually sealed the World Championship for him and Matra - the remainder of the races were pure formality. Beltoise, who didn't always get the best cars, proved he is one of the world's best drivers. He was sixth in South Africa, third in Spain, second in France, sixth in Germany, third in Italy, fourth in Canada and fifth in Mexico. In the 1969 Le Mans race Matra took fourth and fifth places. The three-liire enginc of the Matra did well against the larger "Sport" engines, and its chances in 1970 would be even brighter if the up-to-five-litre engines weren't permitted.

     So where does Matra go now? The company have gone racing with efficiency, realism, and love of the game. There are some who think their success has been due to government sponsorship, but it takes more than money to make such a project work. And anyway the government loan was spent a long time ago. A big commercial success with the production cars would have been of great assistance, but it was not to be, and after their good racing season Matra are looking for another subsidy.

     Nevertheless, in 1970 Matra will race entirely with their own engines. Stewart arid Tyrrell have gone to March, the new marque destined to makes it debut in the South African Grand Prix, in March. As this is written rumour has it that Matra may form an alliance with Simca, the Chrysler-owned French manufacturer. Will such a partnership help Matra?