Everyone went away to prepare for the actual race, with a feeling that the German cars, though fast, would probably not last and that Ascari and Gonzalez were going to give as good as they got. Between Fangio, who was fastest, and Marimon who was fifth fastest there was only 2.2 sec. difference, so that there was the making of a repetition of the fantastic race witnessed last year on this circuit.
By the time the sports cars were ready for their final practice it was raining quite hard so there was very little activity, Jaguars doing only a very few laps, Bristol s not turning out at all, while the four-camshaft open Porsches, driven by Polensky/Frankenburg and Veuillet/Olivier, were out for the first time, as was the 750S Ferrari, the car that was second at the recent Monza race, now driven by Maglioli/Manzon. Three Gordinis appeared, a 2 1/2-litre with five-speed gearbox, driven by Guelfi/Pollet, a 2-litre for Rinen/ Loyer and a four-cylinder 1,100 c.c. for Mlle. Thirion/Gendebien. The Belgians, Claes/Herzet had the latter’s 2-litre Ferrari, previously a coupé, now fitted with a two-seater body on the lines of A C-type Jaguar, but looking rather bulky for a 2-litre car.
Saturday was spent on final preparation, which varied from the complete Bristol team standing about in their best clothes with their hands in their pockets, so ready and confident were they, to Cunninghams who were furiously changing an engine and H.W..M. who were trying to find time to run-in a rebuilt engine. For the Grand Prix cars it was the ceremony of scrutineering, which involved mostly the painting of the official numbers and a quick look at the driver’s licence and a scrutiny by a doctor to see if they were fit.
The three Gordinis turned up in time for all this, and Behra’s had new 2LS front brakes, with new drums with very thin finning while the car also retained the five-speed gearbox as at the Spa meeting. With first and reverse on the right of the gate, second and third on the left, fourth and fifth being in the middle, was clearly an extra gear on the lower end of the ratios for use when starting from rest.
Les Douze Heures De Reims
By late afternoon on Saturday the sports cars were lining up the paddock, the Jaguar team looking most impressive wrapped in transparent plastic bags, with JAGUAR printed across though the distinctive tail fins were enough advertisement.
As darkness approached the weather became distinctly cold ominous for July and rain clouds were everywhere; as midnight approached the cars were lined up ready for a Le Mans-type and spots of rain were falling gently. At the fall of the flag who could actually see the flag ran for their cars, while the rest either followed the man next to them or anticipated the start, and it was Guelfi in the 2 1/2-litre Gordini who was first away.
The “traffic-jam” as everyone shouldered their way under Dunlop bridge was hair-raising, it being bad enough in the daylight at Le Mans, but here in the darkness it was impossible. There were no casualties and the end of lap one saw Moss going at a pace way out on his own, followed by the other Jaguars, the Cunninghams, Maglioli, Behra, on the 3-litre Le Mans Gordini that had arrived at the last minute, and the rest of the field stringing out behind. On his third lap and with less than 15 minutes of the 12 hours gone Moss was lapping the tail of the field, which gave a good indication of the task that was being set the drivers of the really fast cars.
As things sorted themselves out Maglioli got into his stride and streaked through into second place and started gaining on the flying Moss, while Behra began to move up with the Gordini. Abecassis stopped at the pits with the H.W.M. and as the mechanic blipped the throttle a loud bang and a pool of oil heralded the car’s retirement with “mechanical trouble.”
Moss was setting such a pace that after only 30 minutes racing he was lapping the Bristol team, and they were not hanging about, but Maglioli was gaining on him, doing the most fantastic dicing amongst slower cars as he went over the brow past the pits, passing some on the right and others on the left, without lifting his foot, and behind him Behra was driving in a like manner, being almost on the grass on occasions. The Ferrari got within 10 seconds of Moss and then settled down while Behra had passed Wharton and was closing rapidly on Rolt, when, just before the first hour was up the Gordini rammed the Jaguar fairly and squarely in the tail as they braked for the far hairpin, both cars stopping at their pits next time round. The Jaguar suffered only from damaged cowling and a furious driver, while the Gordini had smashed headlamps and a damaged radiator which put paid to its racing.
The Ferrari was now slackening its pace and it dropped back seconds a lap, obviously in trouble and just after 1.15 a.m. Maglioli brought it into the pits and retired with trouble in the transmission. In a few minutes the race had changed its character completely from an interesting battle between Jaguar, Ferrari and Gordini to a Jaguar walk-over, for neither the Cunninghams nor the American-owned 4 1/2-litre Ferrari could keep up with the Coventry pace, which Moss was still keeping up, for after 1 hour 40 minutes of racing he had lapped the entire field, his team mates included. No sooner had he done this than his Jaguar went onto five cylinders and he stopped for a change of plugs, taking the opportunity to refuel at the same time. This dropped him back to fourth place at the 2 hour point, behind Wharton, Fitch (Cunningham) and Gregory (Ferrari) with Rolt, Johnston (Cunningham), Laurent and Manussis following. In the 2-litre class the Gordini of Loyer/Rinen was way ahead of the rest and the Maseratis and the lone French-owned Ferrari were mixing it with the Bristol team. The two works Porsches were going well, that of Polensky/Frankenburg being up with most of the 2-litre cars.
Refuelling stops now began and car after car came in, some being taken over by the second driver, others going on again without a change, and the time taken varied enormously, from the very good to the awful, and altogether these routine stops went on for more than an hour, during which time the order of the race underwent something of a reshuffle.
When Wharton handed over the leading Jaguar to Whitehead at their refuelling stop Moss went into the lead, having already refuelled while changing plugs, and he now went on to build up a firm lead from Whitehead, with Walters now in the Cunningham in place of Fitch, some way behind, followed by Rolt, Cunningham himself, Gregory and Manussis, with Rinen still keeping the 2-litre Gordini comfortably ahead of its rivals. By 3.30 a.m. a thick rainy-mist was falling and conditions were really foul, but the Jaguars had now worked themselves into 1-2-3 positions, in the order Moss, Rolt and Whitehead, strict team order. The Bristol team refuelled and changed drivers very slickly though the Wilson/Mayers car was delayed for a time while plugs were changed due to having become wet, as following closely behind other cars in the rain caused water to travel up the air intake and onto the engine. Shortly after 4 a.m. there were signs of dawn breaking but no sign of any improvement in the weather conditions and Moss now stopped for fuel and handed over to Walker in one of the quickest of the pit stops. With a third of the race over there were 40 of the 41 starters still running, in spite of the furious pace being set in the various classes by Jaguar, Gordini, Porsche and Panhard, though naturally the weather conditions had slowed things down which gave the mechanism a more comfortable time.
Walters was thundering along relentlessly in the second Cunningham and soon after 4.3t0 a.m. he displaced the third Jaguar and a few minutes later the leading Jaguar did not appear on time and it was seen beside the road just after the Thillois hairpin. Walker had been driving for barely half-an-hour when the prop-shaft universal broke and the car was abandoned, this letting Whitehead into the lead, now followed by Walter and Hamilton, but this did not last long for Whitehead stopped to get a new visor and have the curved perspex screen cleaned as visibility was very bad, even though it was now daylight. This stop meant that the Cunningham went into the lead, but only for about 20 minutes as it then came in to refuel and both remaining Jaguars went past. At half-distance there were still 35 cars running, the first three being Hamilton, ‘Whitehead and Fitch, with the Gordini still well ahead of the 2-litre class, Porsche leading the up-to 1,600-c.c. cars and Panhard the babies.
The 2 1/2-litre Gordini of Guelfi/Pollet was running very well until now, when the clutch packed up and after a pit stop it had to be started on the jack and then dropped down and away. The Fitch/ Walter’s Cunningham now showed signs of distress and stopped for water, the cause seeming to be a blown off-side gasket and the time arrived once more for a welter of refuelling stops and driver changes. As these were taking place the weather improved and by 7.30 a.m. the sky was clear and warm sun was shining, which though pleasant for the sports-car drivers, was even more encouraging for those concerned with the Grand Prix later in the day.
The race order was now Rolt/Hamilton, Wharton/Whitehead, Fitch/Walters, Laurent/Swaters, these two having been going like clockwork, Cunningham/Johnston, Gregory/Biondetti, Manussis/ Dunham, Loyer/Rinen and Polensky/Frankenburg, the last two easily leading their classes. This order remained, with the exception of the Manussis/ Dunham Jaguar, which the latter spun off into a cornfield, and now the weather had improved the Jaguars speeded up, both Hamilton and Wharton setting up new lap records, the latter finally setting it at 2 min. 43.8 sec. The H.W.M. of Gaze/Whitehead was still going regularly and got past the leading Porsche, though the 2 1/2-litre Gordini was dropping back, due to the earlier clutch trouble, and at 9 a.m. the 2-litre Gordini coasted into its pit completely out of fuel.
The leading Cunningham was still keeping its place but getting very hot and steaming merrily, though dropping back from the Jaguars, and then soon after 10 a.m., with only two hours to go, both the larger-engined Gordinis succumbed, the 2 1/2-litre with its clutch completely useless and the 2-litre with a broken gearbox, and for the other competitors the sun disappeared and rain began to fall again. With only one hour to go the Maserati of Portago/Chiron, which was third in its class, arrived at the pits in a cloud of oil smoke and was withdrawn without even opening the bonnet, and the two works Jaguars were now unassailably in the lead from the Belgian Jaguar and the American Ferrari, followed by Cunningham/Johnston and Fitch/Walters, the latter’s car getting hotter and hotter.
The leading Porsche was now eighth in the General Classification, ahead of the first of the 2-litre class, which was Picard/Pozzi with the Ferrari Mondial; while the brothers Chancel were leading the French small-car race with their works Panhard. A Jaguar victory now seemed certain and at 11.30 a.m., with only 30 minutes to go there was a big stir as Hamilton brought the leading Jaguar into its pit with smoke coming from the differential. It was very dry and unbelievably hot, wisps of smoke coming out from under the rear wings for a long time after it had stopped. Whitehead now went by into the lead as oil was squirted into the Rolt/Hamilton car’s rear axle and with 20 minutes still to go Duncan motored very gently away, under dire threats from Rolt if he broke it.
After one lap he stopped just before the finishing line to await the end of the 12 hours, while Whitehead continued in the lead. In spite of this trouble Hamilton was still in second place, the yellow Jaguar not yet having made up the distance, and just to be sure of not infringing any regulation about the time taken for the last lap of the race, Hamilton did another very slow lap during the remaining 10 minutes of the race and this kept him ahead of the C-type car, so that as the 12 hours was completed Jaguars finished first, second and third, followed by the 4 1/2-litre Ferrari, the Cunninghams of Cunningham/Johnston, Fitch/Walters, the H.W.M., the leading Porsche, the Mondial Ferrari and the Bristol team in line ahead formation, just as at Le Mans.
It had been a race run under horrible conditions, but a deserving victory for Jaguar, even though there was a good deal of luck mixed in with it. The speed of the leading Porsche was almost indecent, causing embarrassment to quite a number of larger-engined cars, and the H.W.M. did well to last out 12 hours on its first appearance.
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1954 French Grand Prix / Le Grand Prix de l’A.C.F
Grand Prix racing starts a new era
Fangio was imperious in the W196, putting his Mercedes on pole
Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images
After a break for lunch, or sleep for those who had been up all night, the Grand Prix cars began to line up in front of the pits and warming-up of engines and plug changing went on while the crowds grew larger. It was interesting to notice a distinctly new note in this immediate pre-race uproar and that was the eight-cylinder exhaust note of the Mercédès-Benz cars, added to which the mechanics were warming them up on a constant throttle opening at 3,000 r.p.m., unlike the violent blipping that was going on with Ferraris, Maseratis and Gordinis, some of the Maseratis in particular appearing determined to throw rods out of the side before the race started. As the starting time approached the cars were wheeled down the road past the grandstands, mostly with their drivers walking along behind, to the accompaniment of applause from the crowds. Fangio was clearly the favourite of the day, though Gonzalez received a huge ovation as he was expected to be in the thick of the fight.
Ascari on a Maserati was still a relatively unknown quantity, but it was good to see Hawthorn walking behind his Ferrari, and knowing that there was at least one Englishman good enough to be in the thick of this battle of the giants.
The starting line at Reims is some way before the pits and grandstands so that after the start is given the field are really under way as they pass the Tribune d’Honneur, which makes a most impressive sight. From practice times Fangio, Kling and Ascari were on the front row, with Gonzalez and Marimon just behind, then came Bira holding a very worthy third-row place, accompanied by Hermann and Hawthorn. In row four were Trintignant and Salvadori, followed by the rest of the twenty-one runners, the Gordini team being at the back line due to not practising. As the flag fell the front row moved off in perfect unison and then Ascari’s car hesitated and he was passed by most of the field, but Fangio and Kling made no mistake and streaked away into the lead, their acceleration so evenly matched that they went under the Dunlop bridge side by side, already a 100 yards in the lead from Gonzalez, Hawthorn, Marimon and the others. Meanwhile poor Ascari was vainly trying to make his Maserati keep up, though obviously something had broken in the transmission and he passed out of sight of the pits with the rest of the field and only completed the first lap. Down the long hill to Thillois the two leading Mercédès were only a few lengths apart, but Gonzalez was in there with them and already these three had left the rest, there being quite a gap before Hawthorn, Marimon, Bira, Mieres, Hermann and the others appeared on the skyline. Round the Thillois hairpin Gonzalez had the stumpy Ferrari right up with the two sleek Mercédès and as they finished that first electrifying lap he got between them and it was Kling who led. The next lap saw Fangio in second place and already Gonzalez was dropping back, the German pace was much too hot, though Hermann was not so outstanding, being bottled up in mid-field with the Maseratis of Bira and Mieres. Now that the cars had spread themselves out a bit Fangio got past Kling and the two Mercédès were obviously already in complete command, for Gonzalez pressed the Ferrari as hard as it would go, but he could not keep up, though he was well ahead of Hawthorn and Marimon. Way ahead of all the independents, and some works cars as well, Bira was driving like never before, making his new Maserati really go, while at the back of the field Behra was forcing his Gordini through, getting involved in terrific dog-fights with the other runners as he worked his way up from the back of the start. On lap five Hermann had got well into his stride, passed Hawthorn and Marimon and was attacking Gonzalez and for three laps these two battled furiously, though now nearly 20 seconds behind the leading pair, who were keeping company with apparent ease. Gonzalez was trying all he knew to prevent the Mercédès team getting in 1-2-3 position and he was being most effective until on lap 13 the Ferrari engine gave up the unequal struggle just as it rounded the Thillois hairpin and the car spun, fortunately leaving enough room for Hermann to squeeze by. Gonzalez restarted and toured into the pits, but the battle was over and the streaks of oil all over the Ferrari bonnet were a good indication of how severely it had blown up.
The racing order is aignalled, as Silver Arrows boss Alfred Neubauer watches on
Joseph McKeown/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
With Gonzalez out the Mercédès-Benz team were now in complete command, in the order Fangio, Kling and Hermann, there being 5 seconds between the first two and 38 seconds between the two German drivers. With this battle going on at the front of the field there was a tendency to overlook the others, but for five laps there had been a terrific battle between Behra, Mieres, Salvadori, Villoresi and Manzon, they being three abreast at times and all trying hard, while Bira was way ahead of the lot of them having a very comfortable run on his own in sixth position. Hawthorn and Marimon had been pressing each other and the Ferrari was the first to give way, it doing so with a big bang, similar to that of Gonzalez, and Hawthorn was nearly into the village of Gueux before he could stop the car, there being oil all over the tyres from the blow-up. Wharton was not happy with the Owen Maserati, the prop.-shaft still causing a terrible vibration, and Macklin had stopped the H.W.M. when a big-end went. Behra won his battle and got away from the other four; he then became involved with Trintignant and together they surrounded Bira, but the little prince was not giving way and this three-cornered battle was one of the highlights of the whole race. Passing and repassing, running alongside each other, none of them would relax the pace. On the 20th lap they arrived at the braking point for Thillois hairpin literally side by side and just when it was going to be too late the blue-and-yellow Maserati braked first, with the result that the two Frenchmen went ahead, but Bira had timed it perfectly and as the Gordini and the Ferrari ran wide, scrabbling round the corner, the Maserati accelerated through on the inside in one of the neatest and slickest tactical moves seen for a long time. Bira was now away on his own, Trintignant behind and Behra had to stop at his pit as he had rammed the retaining fence in this excitement and the Gordini nose was flattened. This little drama had been taking place a long way behind the leaders, and although it started as a battle for fifth place it ended in the winner being third in the race, for Hermann, after setting up a lap record, had stopped at Thillois in a cloud of smoke and no sooner had Marimon taken over third place than he had to stop at the pits for new plugs and dropped to the back of the field.
So furious was the pace that cars were dropping out all round the circuit, Salvadori pulling off onto the grass as his rear axle bevels stripped, the weak point of the new Maserati it would seem, and Schell had stopped just beyond him with a reluctant fuel pump. With only a third of the race run Fangio and Kling were circulating in close company, having broken up all possible opposition, but at the expense of their team’s third car, and there was now the unusual situation of a private-owner being in third place. Behra was furious at having been led up the escape road and damaging his car as a result and after the mechanics had made sure the car was roadworthy he rejoined the race, but not until a little pantomime had been enacted. In pushing in the front of the car the “alligator” bonnet became buckled and the catches would not fasten properly so a mechanic was trying to bend things to make them fit. Behra was in the cockpit with the engine running and itching to get away and he lost his temper with the mechanic, leaping out and struggling with him as he thought he could do the job better. Then the engine of the Gordini died and Behra tore his helmet off in a rage and stamped away purple in the face. Having seen Gonzalez sitting calmly in the pit at Le Mans with the 24-hour race about to be taken from his hand in the last hour, and Fangio quietly watching the Belgian Grand Prix of 1951 disappear before his eyes while mechanics struggled to remove a jammed wheel during a pit-stop, it made one realise that the masters of the game are no ordinary people. Behra’s unnecessary exhibition when he was only losing fifth place looked rather pathetic and he must have realised it too, for when the bonnet was fixed he climbed back in and went off without a word, but now right at the back of the race.
Relentlessly the two Mercédès-Benz went round and round, never more than a few seconds apart, with Fangio in the lead most of the time but occasionally letting Kling set the pace. Bira was a very firm third, though half a lap behind, and he was followed by Trintignant, Manzon, Villoresi, Frere, who was driving his Gordini works car very regularly, then Rosier, Marimon and Behra. Villoresi stopped to change a plug as his Maserati had gone a bit flat, and Rosier then toured in to retire, while the two Mercédès-Benz went by side by side with Kling scratching his nose, so comfortable was their pace, though they were lapping around 2 mins. 35 sec. Mieres stopped very quickly when a piston broke, after having driven hard with his 1953/54 Maserati and at half-distance, the race being over 61 laps, there were only eight cars left running out of the 21 starters, the last to go being Marimon, whose gearbox stopped working. The whole race had now fizzled out and it had become a Mercédès-Benz demonstration run, all the more remarkable as it was their first race with an entirely new car. Trintignant with the only remaining works Ferrari now began to slow and was caught by Manzon, and a lap or two later the red car stopped at its pit with smoke coming from the wrong places and withdrew. Until now the weather had been kind, but rain began to fall as the last works Ferrari withdrew and this hindered Bira who was getting his lensed goggles steamed up. Being too short-sighted to drive without them he slowed and Manzon caught and passed him, taking third place behind the German cars. Frere stopped for oil and Villoresi for more plugs and steadily the leaders reeled off the laps, the rain stopping towards the end. This allowed Bira to speed up again and be rapidly approached Manzon in the closing stages, while at the same time Fangio and Kling began a neck-and-neck dice for the last 10 laps of the race, just as Frere stopped at his pit with smoke coming from the Gordini rear axle, which put paid to any hope of finishing.
Fangio is mobbed upon winning
Joseph McKeown/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Side by side the two Mercédès-Benz passed the pits and nose to tail they went down the back straight, first Fangio leading then Kling, and it looked as though team orders had gone by the board and they were racing against each other, though their lap times were only 2 min. 36 sec. For the last five laps they crossed the line side by side and as they started on the 61st round it was Kling who had a lead of a few inches. Down to Thillois Fangio led and as they came up the final straight Kling pulled out of the Argentinian’s slipstream and tried to pip him on the line, but failed by a matter of yards, and triumphantly, having conquered all opposition at the expense of one of their own cars, the Mercédès-Benz team finished the 1954 French Grand Prix. This last-minute scrap rather overshadowed a similar one for third place, for Bira got past Manzon on lap 58 only to be repassed as they came up the final straight, a lap behind the leaders, for the Maserati ran out of fuel and Bira had to coast over the line and lost third place. In addition the final bevels had stripped so it was just as well that he was a lap behind the winner for the car could not have done the full 61 laps. Villoresi arrived fourth, three laps behind and last to come in was Behra with the dented Gordini; six finishers out of a field of 21 starters told the story of the pace set by the German cars and with private-owners third and fourth, Grand Prix racing had certainly started on a new era of science versus the rest, with the rest found wanting.
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For lapping at over 200 k.p.h. in practice Fangio received 50 bottles of best champagne.
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After the race Fangio was merely content with yet another well-deserved victory. Kling, however, was elated for to him it was the satisfying result of months and months of hard work, testing and developing the cars for this first victory.
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Altogether Mercédès-Benz collected £1,800 in prize money, while the mechanics received £80 from the club.
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At one point in the race the first car and the last car were running on fuel-injection, Mercédès-Benz and H.W.M.; with the exception of the other two German cars, all the remainder were on Weber carburetters.
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It says much for modern tyre design that no one changed tyres during the race. Continental serving the Germans, Dunlop for Manzon, Englebert for Bira and Behra, and Pirelli for Villoresi.
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It was interesting to watch Fangio and Kling trying to discuss the Mercédès during practice in Spanish and German. Neubauer eventually played interpreter.