Matra - the French team's glory days 13 Jul 2006
The Renault team's strong form has been the most recent reminder of the engineering expertise of French companies. But 40 years ago the innovative French-owned Matra team made a similar impression when it burst onto the racing scene.
Matra was originally an aircraft company which diversified into racing when it acquired the assets of a bankrupt team, to which it had been supplying glass fibre bodywork. Company boss Jean-Luc Lagardere was quick to spot the potential of an involvement in motorsport. He hoped it would help garner publicity for a range of road cars that the company was developing. Lagardere moved into both sportscar racing - enjoying considerable success in the classic Le Mans endurance race - and also into single-seater racing.
The company quickly developed a reputation for innovative engineering and did well in Formula 3 and Formula 2. In 1967 Jacky Ickx shocked the Formula One world when he took his F2 Matra to what would have been third place on the grid for the German Grand Prix - despite having vastly less power than the 3.0 litre-engined Formula One cars.
But Matra was not satisfied with the lesser formulae, striving instead for the bigger prize of Formula One glory. The company made its debut in the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, where Jean Pierre Beltoise failed to qualify. It was an inauspicious start, but Beltoise went on to take back-to-back seventh place finishes in the American and Mexican Grands Prix that year.
1968 proved to be the company's breakthrough year. Jackie Stewart was driving for the team, the young Scottish ace having been enticed away from BRM, and the car was being run by Ken Tyrrell, who would eventually become a very successful Formula One constructor in his own right. With power from the legendary Ford DFV engine and innovative ultra-light construction, the combined pace of the package was obvious from the start, with Stewart taking a third-place grid position at the inaugural race of the season in South Africa.
Beltoise drove in the second and third rounds of the championship by himself, but Stewart was back for the fourth race of the year in Belgium, putting his car second on the grid after qualifying and then retiring after his car ran out of fuel. At the following race, the Dutch Grand Prix, Stewart could be denied no longer, taking a brilliant victory from team mate Beltoise, with third-placed Pedro Rodriquez's BRM trailing a further 94 seconds adrift. Stewart won again in Germany and the USA, ending the season as runner-up in the drivers' championship to Graham Hill.
The following year proved to be the pinnacle of Matra's time as a Formula One constructor, with the team now being entirely run by Tyrrell under the banner of Matra International. Stewart was dominant throughout the season, taking six wins and seven podium finishes to win the drivers championship by a 26-point margin over second-placed Jacky Ickx.
The victory proved to be the team's swan song. The following year the partnership with Tyrrell ended and Stewart was gone. Matra continued in Formula One racing until the end of 1972 but never won another race. After withdrawing the company went on to become one of France's largest industrial conglomerates, producing an early home computer and inventing the people carrier family car with the creation of the Renault Espace.