Sir John Whitmore

Le Mans 1959

It was the greenhorn’s dream to drive at Le Mans, a long-term goal: yet it happened withing one year of his first race. And it involved some ‘creative’ pitwork…

I had only really started racing in 1959 when I first drove at Le Mans. I had done a few races in 1958 in a Lotus Six to get my licence, but for '59 I had managed with the help of my friend and mentor Alan Stacey to get one of the first Lotus Elites out of Colin Chapman. Stacey was my great supporter – he convinced Chapman that I was worth a car.

In the early part of the 1959 season I was fairly successful I won most of what I did, and in the Daily Express trophy meeting at Silverstone I diced with Chapman, also in an Elite. He beat me in the end, but he obviously noticed me: only one month before Le Mans I was in the farm office when my secretary said "There's a Colin Chapman on the line." Well, I thought it was probably a seed salesman. But it was the real one, and to my amazement he said "How would you like to drive at Le Mans?"

To drive at La Sarthe had been my teenage dream; I had thought it would form the highlight of my racing career, and suddenly here it was, just about 11 months after my first race. I was to share an Elite with Jimmy Clark. Of course, he was starting out at the same time, he was simply another rising young driver. I'd already met him at Mallory Park in March and watched him win in his Elite when I non-started in mine.

So off we went, staying in L’Auberge St Nicholas in Mayet, outside Le Mans. The works team regularly stayed there, and ours was a 'works' car. Of course, what Chapman meant by 'works' was that he would supply the car and someone else could run it for him. Ours was run by Border Reivers – the Clark connection. All the Lotus drivers were there – Graham Hill, Alan Stacey, Cliff Allison. Hill brought an air pistol with him and managed to shoot out some of the hotel windows. We were sitting around while I translated a French newspaper, and I read out an item about one of the drivers having a wooden leg. Jimmy asked, "Who is that?" "Well, it's me," says Alan, and Jimmy refused to believe him. Next morning Jimmy came into the room I was sharing with Alan, and saw the leg lying there. He was so embarrassed he disappeared for about two hours. He later came to me asking "Is he very upset?" and wouldn't show his face again until I managed to convince him that Alan thought it was a great joke.

When we came to scrutineering Chapman had brought a Seventeen, a diminutive version of the Eleven powered by a 750cc Climax. Of course the French could see it would walk all over the Panhards in the Index of Efficiency, and they weren't having that. They found about 30 things wrong with it, a great long list. So Chapman sent it home in a Bristol Freighter which was at the airport, changed everything they had complained about, and had it back the next day. Then they declared it was 'not in the spirit of the regulations', which was true, of course, because the regulations were there to ensure a French winner. They allowed it to race 'under review', which meant that it would only be thrown out if it won. Conveniently enough for everyone, it broke.

We were one of two Elites, Peter Lumsden and Peter Riley were in Lumsden's car, and there was a lot of excitement over the cars, as they hadn't been seen much before. We were number 42, which is not considered a good number at Le Mans; a lot of drivers were unhappy to be given it, but it didn't bother me. Our times were a good 15sec faster than the other Elite; it was only later that we found we had a lower axle, which meant that on the straight we were running continuously at 100rpm over the maximum rev limit. But it didn't seem to mind.

Our problems began on lap two with a misfire. Jimmy stopped and we found that the starter motor had stayed engaged. We lost 13 minutes fixing that, and he restarted 52nd out of 53. By the end of his stint we were up to 38th, and I got it up to 26th during my session. But the starter motor was broken, and we weren't allowed to change it. So we devised a scheme: when we took the motor off to 'repair' it, we pretended it was burning hot and we plunged it into a bucket of water to cool it. But we had another motor in another bucket, and while someone distracted the marshal we swapped buckets and fitted the new motor. We changed it four times, pinching starters from every Climax-engined Elite which had come down with the team.

We had one other minor electrical problem, but really the car ran like clockwork. I was on the last session, and we were due to stop 20 minutes before the end, but we were worried about not being able to restart, so we decided to slow down and cut out the stop. Before long I caught the Lumsden Elite and we ran together for a while. Then we caught the winning Aston Martin, and ran with him too. We crossed the line right behind him just after 4pm, which should have been the end, but because the race had started 20 seconds late we hadn't quite done 24 hours, and we all had to do another lap. But we got there – quite an achievement with a Lotus! Only 13 cars finished that year; it was very hot even at night, which takes its toll on a car. We finished 10th overall, and second in class behind the other Elite; without our starter problem we would probably have won the class and very possibly the Index of Efficiency.

On the emotional side, well, here was this green guy who'd just started racing, and in 11 months had driven at Le Mans – my principal objective in life achieved so soon. It was a terrific boost to my confidence, and a turning point; it put me on the map in my own eyes as well as in others'. The Border Reivers were so pleased they invited me to Charterhall to drive the Lister-Jaguar when Clark was busy somewhere else. I won both races, not that there was much opposition, but it gave me my first taste of power.

For Le Mans the year after that Elite drive I was down to be reserve driver for the Border Reivers Aston Martin, but was asked to partner Innes Ireland in the 2-litre Elite after Jonathan Sieff had his awful practice accident in the 1300. That was one of a tragic series of injuries and deaths of people who had been lined up to drive that car, including Mike Taylor and my great friend Alan Stacey, killed just a week before at Spa. lnnes was very upset, saying the car was jinxed, and sat up all night turning things over and over. Finally he said “I can't make you do it – if you were killed it would be the end". So we withdrew the car, and Innes said he had to get out of there. I gave him the keys to my minivan and he drove straight back home.

Many drivers hated Le Mans, but not me. I had seen the 1955 accident when I went down camping with friends, but even that hadn't put me off. I always had romantic feelings for Le Mans, and apart from sitting out the 1960 race I drove there every year of my career.