The Le Mans 24 Hours – in retrospect

June 20th-21st

This year the Automobile Club de l’Ouest introduced a new feature in the running of the Le Mans 24-hour race by holding a test-day on the circuit as long ago as last April, and at which various competitors were able to try their new cars. At that time the speed of the 3-litre V12 Ferraris was so impressive that it seemed certain that they would win the race, as the only likely opposition was going to come from Aston Martin and they were not quick enough to be taken seriously. Practice during the week before the race rather confirmed this view, for even with Moss at the wheel of the Aston Martin any of the six Ferrari drivers seemed able to cope with him.

After making his usual flashing getaway, Moss led at the end of the opening lap but not by any great margin, and Gendebien and Silva Ramos had him well in sight. Behra had made a very poor start in the third works Ferrari and was catching up fast, so it seemed certain that the Ferrari team could deal with the only fast Aston Martin. The Feltham team had made strict tactics for their three cars, whereas the Ferrari team had been told nothing in the way of race strategy. Moss was given a free hand on the leading Aston to do as he wished, and he was obviously going to try and do another Nurburgring by building up an enormous lead before handing over to Fairman, but with the Le Mans circuit demanding engine power rather than driving skill, this tactic was not working. Salvadori was running to a fixed lap time, irrespective of what the leaders were doing, and Shelby was to do likewise when he took over. Trintignant in the third works Aston Martin, and his co-driver Frere, were expected to lap consistently 2 sec. slower than the number two car, and in this manner Reg Parnell anticipated having his cars spread through the head of the field in strategic positions, each one being stressed less than the one ahead of it. Ferraris obviously had no such idea and all three cars were straining to catch Moss. After 1¼ hours of racing Behra took the lead and the other two Ferraris were close together in third and fourth positions and, realising he did not have the maximum speed of the Italian cars, Moss made no attempt to hold on to Behra, preferring to run a consistent, yet fast race, rather than strain the car unnecessarily.

When the first pit stops began to take place, for refuelling and driver changes. Ferraris did a strange thing by bringing all three cars in at the same time, and for a while pandemonium reigned as the whole team of mechanics went to work. It seemed that the idea was to get the whole business of refuelling over in one fell swoop, whereas Aston Martin preferred to stagger their pit stops, taking each one separately and calmly. With Gurney taking over from Behra the leading Ferrari went on drawing out ahead of Fairman, while Phil Hill was closing up in third place, and Allison was back in seventh place with gearbox trouble, and finally the engine broke as a result of the gears jumping out. Just before dark more trouble struck the Ferrari team when Phil Hill was slowed by his carburetters flooding, and then Fairman brought the Aston Martin in with the oil pressure sagging on corners. As he was nearly due for a refuelling stop the reason was simply low oil level and nothing to worry about, and he returned later and handed over to Moss, the car being filled with petrol and oil at the same time. Moss had not gone far before he ran into engine trouble due to part of the air intake duct breaking away and going into one of the cylinders, so the score was one Ferrari retired and one Aston Martin retired.

The whole picture of the lead of the race had now changed completely, and though the Behra/Gurney Ferrari was well in the lead, it was followed by the Ecurie Ecosse D-type Jaguar driven by Ireland/ Gregory, both drivers going extremely well and leading the works Lister-Jaguars which were using identical engines. Aston Martin tactics were paying off now, for the Salvadori/Shelby car was now third and their remaining car was comfortably in seventh place, with between them the Ecurie-Ecosse Tojeiro-Jaguar, the Bueb/Halford Lister-Jaguar and the troubled Gendebien/Hill Ferrari. The Porsche factory had entered two 1,600-c.c. RSK Spyders and it looked as if they were making a bid for an outright win rather than a class victory for both teams were going strongly. Herrmann/Maglioli and Bonnier/von Trips were lying eighth and ninth. and Porsche reliability in previous Le Mans races indicated that they would be certain to have a car in the first three finishers, if not in the lead. Their first setback came just after 9 p.m. on Saturday, when the Herrmann/Maglioli car blew its engine up, which was most unusual for the Stuttgart firm. The Dino 196 Ferrari of Scarlatti/Cabianca, of which much had been expected, also blew its engine up about this time, and as if to show that engines were to be the weak point of the 1959 Le Mans race the Hansgen/Blond Lister burst its Jaguar engine in no mean fashion.

Following what seems to be a tradition at Le Mans, there was now a fire as Russell in the Cooper-Monaco rammed a Stanguellini at Whitehouse, both cars being burnt out but the drivers escaping comparatively lightly considering the wreckage. Between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. the lead changed when the Gurney/Behra Ferrari had a headlamp fall to bits and two stops were made before the trouble was cured, and this let the Salvadori/Shelby Aston Martin into the lead, for about the same time the Scottish D-type Jaguar engine went up with a bang. Meanwhile the second works Ferrari cured its flooding trouble and began to regain ground rapidly, so that by midnight on Saturday it was in second place behind the Aston Martin, with the other Ferrari third; then came the Bueb/Halford Lister-Jaguar, but not for long for it, too, burst its Jaguar engine in a big way, so the second Aston Martin now moved up to fourth position, followed by the Flockhart/Lawrence Tojeiro and the first of a row of Porsches.

In the early hours of the morning Gurney broke the-gear-lever off the Ferrari and after stopping to have a piece of tube rammed over the stump he later handed over to Behra, who shortly afterwards returned to the pits with steam coming from the left-hand set of exhaust pipes, and that was that. The Tojeiro-Jaguar was also having engine trouble, for the head had warped and it was losing water, so it had to limp on until the required 30 laps, or 251 miles, had been completed since the previous refuelling stop. By that time the damage was beyond repair and it joined the rest of the Jaguar-engined cars in the dead-car park, all having gone out with engine trouble.

After 2 a.m. the Salvadori/Shelby Aston Martin had a long pit stop during which time fuel and oil were put in, rear wheels changed and new brake pads fitted to the Girling disc brakes, all this work having to be done by two mechanics and a refuelling man. Although this meant that the car was now in perfect trim, it had let the Gendebien/Hill Ferrari take the lead and get one whole lap ahead. By now Porsches were lying fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, and it looked as though their bid for an outright win might come off. At 4 a.m. the situation was unchanged, except that the Ferrari had increased its lead to two laps, this being half-distance, the Trintignant/Frere Aston was third and the four Porsches still followed, with the Bonnier/von Trips car leading on Index of Performance.

As Sunday dawned fine and bright the Porsches ran into trouble and first the 1,600-c.c. retired and then the works 1,500-c.c. car of Barth/Siedel wrecked its engine, and any hope of a Porsche victory was lost, for they had clearly stretched things too far. During the next hour the Beaufort/Heinz Porsche succumbed to engine trouble, and now a new facet of the race made itself apparent, for privately-owned Gran Turismo Ferraris were now in fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth positions, all of them having been running faultlessly, and though not as fast as racing/sports cars they were now profiting from reliability. This situation now continued for some time, with only 20 of the original 53 starters still running, and it seemed unlikely that either of the Aston Martins would catch the lone Ferrari, even though the Italians were still pretty chaotic in their pit stops compared with the Feltham team, who were a model of discipline and efficiency, a driver change and refuel with petrol and oil taking little more than 50 sec., carried out in complete silence, whereas the Ferrari took as much as 4 min., amidst a lot of shouting and confusion.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday morning the weather was perfect and it seemed that no further drama was likely to happen, for everyone was circulating in that confident, steady manner that usually marks the last hours of a Le Mans race. The order was Gendebien/Hill (Ferrari), Salvadori/Shelby (Aston Martin), Trintignant/Frere (Aston Martin), Hugus/Erickson (Porsche), and then the four Gran Turismo Ferraris. Just after 11 a.m. Gendebien arrived unexpectedly at the Ferrari pit with his engine showing signs of overheating and the mechanics increased the fuel-pump pressure in the vain hope that the trouble was being caused by weak mixture in the hot morning sunshine. One lap later the car was back and a check was made on the oil level and water was poured on the fuel pump in the hope that vapour locks were causing the weakness to the carburation, and the consequent overheating. They could not check the radiator level as the car was still in its 30-lap non-refuelling period, so Gendebien set off again with 1½ laps lead to try and keep going slowly, and meanwhile Phil Hill was woken up and told of the trouble. At 11.45 a.m. Gendebien returned to the pit and after a quiet consultation the car was withdrawn before the engine was wrecked completely, for all the cooling water had leaked away through a cylinder liner joint failure, and to break the seal on the radiator before a period of 30 laps ended would have entailed disqualification and to have gone on would have wrecked the engine. A very sad pair, Gendebien and Hill had to give up with victory in sight, and this left the two Aston Martins now comfortably in first and second positions. Almost unnoticed while the leaders were in trouble, the two remaining Porsches both blew their engines up at Mulsanne, almost simultaneously, and that left only 17 cars still running, of which three were in a sick condition.

With four hours still to go the Gran Turismo Ferraris, all privately owned and driven by amateur drivers, were now third, fourth, fifth and sixth and those people who had no faith in Aston Martin reliability at Le Mans, from past experience, could visualise a Gran Turismo car winning. However, for once the David Brown cars held together and they finished first and second, bringing victory by reliability, careful planning, coolness and discipline which was a fine example of how to approach the Le Mans 24-hour race.

Thus was the story of those competing for the outright win, but what of the others, for most of the 53 starters had little hope of winning but were either intent on a class win or the Index of Performance Handicap, or the new Fuel Consumption Handicap. In the 750 c.c. class a strong force of works D.B. Panhards, three of them using new twin o.h.c. engines, were opposed by Stanguellinis, Oscas, two Saabs and two Lotus XVII. To begin with it looked as if there would be a good battle between the Stacey/Green Lotus and the Osca driven by the Rodriguez brothers, but the Italian car burst an oil gallery leaving the Lotus on its own, way ahead of all the D.B.s, while the second Hornsey car was having distributor trouble and eventually the leading car went out for a similar reason, leaving the French cars in charge of things. The 1,500 c.c. class had a strong entry of Porsches, one being a works car, two privately owned new RSK’s and an old RS and with them were three Lotus Elite coupés.

As already mentioned all the Porsches retired, mostly with engine troubles ranging from broken valves to broken crankshafts, and this left the Lumsden/Riley Lotus Elite to win the class. This privately entered car ran like a clock throughout the 24 hours, being about the only car that did not have any work done on it. The other two Elites were a different story, for the Scottish-owned one driven by Clark/Whitmore had constant trouble with its starter motor getting cooked from the engine heat and the French-owned one had distributor trouble which caused overheating and the red hot exhaust pipes set the wiring on fire and the whole car was burnt out. In the 1,501 to 2,000 c.c. class there was every possibility of a fierce battle, with the winner being well placed in the General Classification. There was a single works-supported Ferrari Dino 196, a Cooper-Monaco, three works Triumph Specials with twin-cam engines, two 1,600 c.c. works RSK Porches, a 2-litre twin-cam Climax-engined works Lotus with new rear-mounted five-speed gearbox, and privately-owned A.C.Bristol, Frazer Nash and twin-cam M.G. Trouble was rife throughout this category and the production A.C. Bristol was the only finisher showing that the tortoise-hare act is not a myth. The Ferrari burst its engine, the Cooper crashed, two of the Triumphs put their fans through their cooling systems, the third one had oil pump trouble less than two hours from the finish, the Lotus XV was delayed in the night by breaking a wishbone due to faulty assembly and then blew a large hole in the side of its engine, the two Porsches blew up and the M.G. had numerous bothers including hitting a dog and wrecking the front end while the Frazer Nash finished up on a sandbank. The A.C.-Bristol which is used everyday as a normal sports car was driven to and from the race and was a wonderful example of how to confound the experts and the racing world.

Most of the competitors in the 2,001 to 3,000 c.c. class have been dealt with in the story of the race, especially those who vied for the lead at one time or another though in addition there were two American-owned Testa Rossa Ferraris, one retiring with a broken rear axle and the other due to going off the road and damaging some oil pipes, and a Belgian one which had engine trouble. An experimental Aston Martin coupé was also in this class, being a DB4 body chassis unit with a 3-litre version of the old 3.7-litre racing engine and fitted with a five-speed gearbox. It was no real match for the G.T. coupe Ferraris and quit early with engine trouble.

The most outstanding feature of this year’s Le Mans was undoubtedly the mortality among engines, all the Ferrari works cars withdrawing because of engine trouble, most of the Porsches, all the Jaguar-engined cars and so on. The Le Mans circuit, with its very fast, long straight, is one on which engine power is more important than driver skill or road-holding, and being a 24-hour race engine reliability is as necessary as performance. In all categories and all types of car engine failure was predominant and the production engines proved to be much more reliable than the specially built racing engines, apart from the two victorious Aston Martins. — D.S.J.