By Andrew Frankel I’m sitting here looking at a list of 35 newly designed cars…
A Battle Between Brute Force and Science
Le Mans (Sarthe), June 13th
Almost every year the approach of the 24-hour recent Le Mans is heralded by great fanfares of trumpets and the promise that this time is going to be the Le Mans race of the age. Equally, almost every year, a few weeks before the event, last-minute withdrawals are announced, new cars are not ready, or drivers are put out of action, and the feeling arises that the race is going to be a flop: but each year the Le Mans race becomes bigger and better, faster and more furious, and invariably turns out to be the Le Mans race of the age. This year was no exception for, in spite of all the pre-race alarurns and excursions, the race provided a wonderful battle between Ferrari and Jaguar right up to the very last minute, and though last year’s record distance was not beaten, due to bad weather conditions, it saw the closest finish since the early 1930s.
After the withdrawal of Lancia, coupled with the fact that Ferrari was not sure what cars he was going to enter, it looked as though Jaguar were going to have a walk-over, and before race week began the 1954 Le Mans event did not look very encouraging. Austin-Healey had also withdrawn their team, but, apart from the bad taste in which the withdrawal was presented, their abstention did not really interest anyone from the Grand Prix d’Endurance point of view. By the time the scrutineering had been completed and the first of the practice periods began, things took on a new interest and it was obvious that a big battle was in the offing. The Jaguar team were making every effort to win and concealing the fact from no one, but Ferrari were out to do their utmost to prevent it and had entered three 4.9-litre open two-seater cars, concentrating their whole effort on one type this year. The Jaguars were indeed things of beauty to behold, their overall dimensions being reduced to an absolute minimum for a 3 1/2-litre car and the shape made every effort to reduce wind-drag, while the combination of small square tubing and aluminium panelling forming the chassis frame made for very light weight. The well-tried Jaguar six-cylinder engine was redesigned with dry-sump oil system, consequently reducing the overall height, and the three Weber carburetters were fed by an air tunnel incorporated in the tiny radiator opening in the nose of the car. The front suspension followed normal Jaguar double wishbone practice, as did the gearbox mounted on the rear of the engine, while disc brakes, were retained, though new Dunlop magnesium-alloy wheels on knock-off hubs were used. The whole bearing of the new Jaguars was one of pure science, abstracting the maximum from the minimum, no detail that would make for speed and endurance being overlooked. Since their initial appearance the head fairing behind the cockpit had been given the addition of a tail fin, but the only reasonable excuse for this seemed to be that it presented the only flat surface on which to paint a racing number; however, it added to the general “projectile” appearance of the car, which all went towards demoralising the opposition. The team of drivers for the three Jaguars were Moss/Walker, Hamilton/Rolt and Whitehead/Wharton, and it would have been difficult to improve on them from English circles.
In direct opposition the three Ferraris entered by the factory were of 4.9 litres and identical with the Mille Miglia cars; in fact, the first of the trio was the actual car that Gonzalez drove at Silverstone recently. Admittedly their V12-cylinder engines were of vast capacity, but the general build of the cars was also massive and, in contrast with the sleek Jaguars, the Ferraris were unashamedly brute-force machines, thrusting themselves through the air by sheer power and looking ready to devour anything that might be in their path. Built on a chassis almost identical in layout with the old 4 1/2-litre Formula I car, with normal Ferrari-type i.f.s. by wishbones and transverse leaf-spring, aided by rubber in compression, de Dion rear axle, with the gearbox coupled to the differential, and with enormous hydraulic brakes, the “four-nines” looked really fierce and as tough as the Jaguars looked delicate. The three cars were to be driven by P. Marzotto/Maglioli, Gonzalez/ Trintignant and Rosier/Manson, a good mixture of talent that could tackle any conditions.
These two teams were obviously the main challenge for the outright win in the 1954 Le Mans, and would set the general pace of the event. As the two leading “stars,” on whom no one seemed willing to make judgment as to the outcome, they were interesting to compare, as both possessed the same potential result from two widely different approaches. Whereas Jaguar had built their team of cars with Le Mans as the main objective and designed to produce enormous average speeds round an almost flat, perfectly surfaced track, Ferrari had built his cars to withstand everything and anything, from the arduous Sicilian mountains and loose cart-tracks of the Tour of Sicily at 50/60-m.p.h. averages, or the generally appalling conditions of the Mille Miglia with its long, straight sections on which the only limit to speed is the road surface, to Silverstone aerodrome racing or the perfection of the Le Mans circuit. It was to be a battle between science with brute force, with no obvious advantages on either side.
Following these two powerful teams were the rest of the field, amongst which there were many possible winners. Cunninghams were over again in full force with two of the old Chrysler-engined cars driven by Cunningham/Benett and Spear/Johnston and the Cunningham-prepared 4 1/2-litre Ferrari driven by Fitch/Walters. The American cars were the vast thundering monsters of 1952 unchanged except for detail work, their 5 1/2-litre V8 Chrysler engines fitted with four double-choke Solex carburetters and with huge sir scoops on the front brakes. The Ferrari entry from this stable was originally a production 4.1-litre America model, now with a 4 1/2-litre engine and covered in Cunningham modifications, most interesting of which was a weird and wonderful system of liquid-cooled brakes. The brakes themselves were more or less normal Ferrari ones, but additional cooling was provided by pumping liquid through specially-made brake-shoes by means of yards of piping and two pumps driven from the engine. The liquid, of presumably a glycol base, removed heat from inside the normal hydraulic brakes and was then cooled itself by passing through two radiators built into the nose of the car in the shape of headlamp cowlings. The Ferrari two-seater body had been copiously rebuilt by Cunningham, but retained the Italian shape with the exception of the radiator aperture, which was shaped like the Chrysler cars. All three cars were the usual pure white colour with double lines of blue along the central axis of the car.
The row of cars entered by David Brown were the next most formidable contenders and he had thrown in literally everything he had, so that it was quite impossible to decide quite what was the policy behind the organisation. In the past it has usually been Ferrari who threw in a mixed handful of models, hoping that one contained the ingredients to win the 24-hour race, so that it was rather pleasing to see a British concern in a position to field a selection of four types, all serious contenders. Under the Lagonda banner was the brand new car that made its debut at Silverstone, its wonderful V12 engine calling forth admiration from all quarters. There is usually some fashion in engine design that a new engine must contain, such as two plugs per cylinder, or two overhead camshafts, or one carburetter choke to each cylinder, but never has anyone gone the whole gamut as thoroughly as the Lagonda engineers in producing the new 4 1/2-litre engine. It has everything that current design considers essential, and the resultant bonnet-full of machinery was a sight to please the most hardened motor-racing eyes. From all other aspects the Lagonda unashamedly took inspiration front the DB Aston Martins, even to the shape of the two-seater body, so that it was not always easy to distinguish the Lagonda from a DB3S at a distance. It was a big car, without question, but not by Ferrari standards, and was every bit as exciting a monster as the Italian cars; the drivers were Poore/ Thompson. Next in the list of David Brown entries was a normal 2.9-litre DB3S Aston Martin fitted with a Wade supercharger mounted on the left-hand side of the engine and driven by a shaft from the accessory drive at the front of the engine. It was surmounted by a Weber carburetter and so neat was the installation that only the tiniest bulge was required in the standard bodywork. This car, driven by Parnell/Salvadori, was really an afterthought to fill in the blank entry left by the fact that only one Lagonda was ready for the race. Two entries had been reserved by David Brown for Lagonda cars and rather than leave a blank the blown Aston Martin was prepared and substituted as Le Mans regulations considered a supercharger to effectively multiply the cubic capacity by 1.4, so that the Aston Martin engine was considered to be 4,091 c.c., thus putting it in the same class as the Lagonda. In their correct place in the capacity list were the rest of the David Brown entries, the DB3S Aston Martins. Two were the new coupé models, as pretty as any car that has yet appeared in green, driven by Bira/Collins and Graham Whitehead/J. Stewart, and the other was an open two-seater model driven by the American Shelby and the Belgian Frere, the car being painted in white and blue like a Cunningham. With five cars to look after and control the David Brown organisation was mighty busy, especially bearing in mind that there were four different models. All Lagonda and Aston Martin enthusiasts, and Le Mans enthusiasts for that matter, must surely owe David Brown a debt of gratitude that he continues to keep two such famous racing names in existence when he could easily combine the lot and run the cars as DB Specials, or Brown’s.
Talbot did not enter any official cars this year but three Talbots were running, these being the privately-owned ones of Levegh, Rosier and Blanc. The first two were last year’s cars, Levegh sharing his with Fayen and Rosier lending his to his son and Meyrat, as he was in the Ferrari team. The third car was entered by Grignard, whose own car was smashed completely in a crash at Montlhèry recently, and was the property of Blanc, being a very early Grand Prix Talbot converted to sports trim. While being unable to challenge the main opposition this year, it always had to be borne in mind that anything can happen in 24 hours and while speed was essential, reliability was also at a premium.
There were three more cars among the big ones, an XK120C Jaguar owned by the Belgian Ecurie Francorchamps and driven by Laurent/Swaters, a 3-litre eight-cylinder Gordini driven by Behra/Simon, and a works 4 1/2-litre Ferrari coupé, driven by Baggio/Rubirosa. Of these three entries the Jaguar was severely written off on the way to scrutineering and Jaguars very sportingly rushed, over a spare factory 120C, with disc brakes, Weber carburetters and painted Jaguar green. In deference to the International racing colour rule a yellow band was painted along the centre line of the car. Originally it was thought that the Belgian car could be rebuilt if a new chassis frame was sent over, but it was damaged so badly that a completely new car was needed. The Gordini was identical to last year’s car, having central driving position and an eight-cylinder engine on the same design as the six-cylinders, but this year it had the innovation of disc brakes manufactured by the French Messier company. The Ferrari in this group was a fine machine in the hands of drivers who would be laughed out of a Silverstone club meeting. Apart from being driven so badly that it was passed by 1 1/2-litre cars on the straight, it was a danger to serious competitors and should not have been accepted. Unfortunately it was not alone, in being in the way, for some of the smaller cars were being equally slowly driven, or were just naturally slow and should also never have been accepted.
It is not against the tiny French cars that this complaint is made, for the 610-c.c. Panhards were doing over 100 m.p.h. and were as serious in their preparation and organisation as Jaguar or Ferrari, while the DB cars were out to win the Index of Performance Handicap, but when the 1,100,c.c. Osca of Fernand/Macheiraldo, the TR2 Triumph of Wadsworth/Brown, the Kieft-M.G. of Hitchings/Trouis, the 1,100-c.c. Kieft of Rippon/Black, or the Renault of Faucher/Hebert cannot keep up with 610-c.c. Panhards or 750-c.c. DBs, it is time for the organisers to start refusing entries. Le Mans lap-speeds for the top drivers are now around 113 m.p.h., so that any slow car is bound to get in the way, but as the race is run for all capacity classes this must remain one of the hazards; however the time is fast approaching when a sliding scale of qualifying speeds will have to be rigorously applied. With the faster cars exceeding 170 m.p.h. there is no room for cars that will not exceed 100 m.p.h., for a speed differential of 60 m.p.h. is about the limit of safety. This harangue is not necessarily directed at drivers’ ability, but a combination of that coupled with slow cars, brought about by not being fully appreciative of Le Mans conditions in 1954.
The list of top-line cars described previously were clearly going to provide the pace-makers and presumably the winners, but from 2,000 c.c. downwards there was the makings of some interesting competition for class wins. At 2-litres the three Bristols of Wisdom/ Fairman, Keen/Line and Wilson/Mayers were basically as finalised in the record runs at Montlhèry last year, being the 450 models, their six-cylinder engines having three double-choke Solex carburetters, topped by a row of air-straighteners of Bristol design on a new cylinder head. Compared with the finish of the many beautiful 403 models in the car parks, the 450s looked rough, but closer inspection showed that detail finish of vital parts was excellent, there being no waste of time and money on non-essentials. In opposition were two standard Frazer-Nash coupés, one the Swedish owned one that ran in the Mile Miglia, driven by Nottorp/Andersson, and the other the car that ran last year, now painted blue and driven by Becquart/Gatsonides; in addition was the already well-used car of Peacock/Ruddock, the two-seater well known in National events driven by the former. There was a lone Maserati, the factory cars arriving too late to pass the scrutineering, and this was a black A6G, driven by Portago/Tomasi; also there was a 2-litre Gordini as used in many sports-car races already, driven by Rinen/Moynet. Another Gordini of similar aspect, but with a 2 1/2-litre engine, was being driven by Guelfi/Pollet and in the same class, 2,001 c.c.3,000 c.c., was a DB2 coupé with DB3 engine. In the up-to-1 1/2-litre class there was to be a serious contest between three Porsches and two Oscas, with the three German cars driven by Claes/Stasse, Frankenburg/Glockler and Hermann/Polensky, while the Italian cars were driven by Macklin/Leygonie and Giardini/Peron. The three Porsches were the new 550 models, the prototype of which ran in the Mille Miglia. They were open two-seaters, with the engine and gearbox behind the driver, but in front of the rear axle, suspension being i.f.s. at the front by trailing links and torsion bars and with swing-axles on torsion bars at the rear. All three were fitted with the new four camshaft engine, the layout being still on the Porsche air-cooled flat-four principle, while each pair of cylinders had a large 40 DCM downdraught Weber carburetter and distributors on the ends of the inlet camshafts supplied current to two plugs per cylinder. The three cars were perfectly turned out and identical in every detail, only coloured flashes along the rear wings giving identity, these being blue, green and red, for the pairs of drivers in the order mentioned. A fourth model was running, driven by Olivier/Ountov, with yellow flashes, being identical in all details, but having an 1,100-c.c. engine. The two Italian Oscas were the normal production two-seaters, of a shape and finish that reach perfection, and fitted with new cylinder heads with two plugs per cylinder fired from a distributor mounted on the front of the engine driven from the camshaft idler gear. Against the 1,100-c.c. Porsche were two Kiefts, the fibre-glass bodied car with 1,100 c.c. Coventry-Climax engine that still needs a lot of development, and the other a central steering position model that would have been a big car with a 2 1/2-litre engine, so it was not surprising that the 1,100-c.c. M.G. engine could not drag the size and weight along very fast. Also in this class, as last minute entries, were the Osca of Fernand/ Machieraldi and a Gordini driven by Gendebien/Pilette. From here to the end of the 57 starters was a long line of blue cars built around Panhard or Renault components, and whereas in the past many have been standard models suitably tuned, the French are so conversant with the changing times of Le Mans, that, this year only one of the fourteen cars bore any resemblance to the standard model. A popular idea was to make a 550 Porsche out of Renault components, which is to say that the Renault engine was reversed and put in front of the rear axle. Among adherents to this theme were three cars built by Rene Bonnet, his first excursion into Renault realms, all previous ideas being around Panhard bits, of which three examples were entered. Panhard themselves entered four cars, with their eye on the Performance Index and two had the very aeroplane-like bodies used last year but further improved in streamlining, one a coupé on very similar lines and the fourth a normal two-seater, entered by Mononpole. Among all these little blue cars was a lone red model, a tiny Nardi powered by a 750-c.c. Crosley engine and fitted with a body inspired by the works Jaguars; it was driven by Damonte/Gacon, but looked too delicate to last 24 hours.
By 3.45 p.m. on Saturday, June 12th, the 57 starters were lined up in front of the pits and the starting area was rapidly clear of all but the drivers. As is normal the cars were placed with the largest capacity cars nearest the flag, the others being placed according to engine size, the 610-c.c. Panhards being at the end of the row. Three practice periods had taken place during the week preceding the event, the first having almost everyone out, but no real speed being shown, everyone merely saying they were getting their lights in order, for many hours of darkness form part of the Le Mans race. On the second practice period some daylight running was included and no punches were pulled, everyone tried all they knew, with the result that Jaguar and Ferrari showed marked superiority over the rest of the field, though the Lagonda and the blown Aston Martin were impressive, as was the American Ferrari, while the 1 1/2 Porsches were indecently fast for the size of their engines. The third and last practice period saw a quiet calm descend and there was a distinct lull in the pace, with the exception of a very quick lap by Walker (Jaguar) and Maglioli (Ferrari), both in 4 min. 18 sec. — 188.225 k.p.h., just to show each other who was master! For the rest it was a case of not breaking anything before the great day, and at 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 12th, the great day started.
The crowds at Le Mans seem to get bigger and bigger each year and when Charles Faroux gave the signal to start there was hardly room for the public to cheer, let alone clap. As is traditional, the drivers ran across the road, jumped into the waiting cars and Le Mans 1954 was on. Manzon was the first of the Ferraris to get going and Wharton the first Jaguar, while Wilson in one of the Bristols was well up. The only car to be left on the line was the new Kieft of Rippon, but eventually the Coventry-Climax engine fired and all 57 cars were away. Away in the distance, beyond White House, three red specks appeared with a dark green one on their tail and a few seconds later the Ferrari team went by in the order Gonzalez, Manzon and Marzotto with Moss just behind. Already there was a considerable gap before Rolt and Wharton appeared, followed by Walters on the American Ferrari, Parnell with the blown Aston Martin, Levegh, Spear, Behra and Cunningham. In a surprisingly short time the whole field settled down and the Ferrari team kept in a small group, setting the pace, with Moss following them at his ease. These four were right out, on their own, with no one else in sight and equally Rolt had shaken off the rest of the field, which was being led by Wharton, in spite of having crumpled his nearside front wing on the opening lap. Most people were running to expected form and some above it, such as the Porsches and Oscas, which were in front of all the 2-litre cars, while Thompson with the Lagonda was behind all the Aston Martins. After the first hald-hour it was clear that Moss was playing a waiting game and making no effort to break any records, letting Ferraris set the pace, which they did with all three cars running in tight formation, until Moss moved in amongst them just to spoil their sequence. The weather was very dull and cold and when it shower of rain fell Rolt moved up among the leaders while Manzon dropped back a bit. After the first hour the order was Gonzalez, Marzotto, Moss in a group, then a gap before Rolt appeared and another gap before Manzon appeared, then already a lap behind came Behra, Walters, Levegh and Parnell. The leading Porsche driven by von Frankenberg, was already out with mechanical trouble and Macklin was leading the 1 1/2-litre class. With a new lap-record in 4 min. 20.8 sec. — 186.239 k.p.h. — Moss moved up into the lead for a brief moment and there was never more than a few yards between him and the two Ferraris of Gonzalez and Marzotto. Shortly after two hours had passed the leaders completed 30 laps and at this point the regulations allowed them to make a refuelling stop. Marzotto was the first to come in, at exactly 30 laps, and after filling up he carried on, though Rolt who came in soon after to refuel handed over to Duncan-Hamilton. Two laps later Gonzalez refuelled and continued, while Manzon handed over to Rosier. Shortly after these changes Jaguar’s fortunes changed also and first Hamilton, then Wharton and later Moss, all stopped at the pits with obscure troubles with the fuel system, and by the time filters had been cleaned, plugs changed, ignition systems checked much valuable time was lost and the three Ferraris were two laps ahead, with Gonzalez in the lead after setting a new lap-record in 4 min. 16.8 sec. — 189.139 k.p.h. Although the roads were dry again, there was a lot of rain in the offing and weather conditions did not look at all encouraging. Already there were retirements and troubles. Baggio had stopped getting in everyone’s way with the coupé Ferrari, by going over the top of the sandbank at Tertre Rouge, while Shelby had been off into the rough with the white Aston Martin. Levegh had crumpled the front of his Talbot and damaged his front suspension so had to retire, while Thompson had spun the Lagonda in a big way in the Esses before Tertre Rouge, crumpling the tail in so badly that it took him nearly 2 hours to get going again, only to have to withdraw when he reached the pits as there was no hope of getting any rear lights to work and darkness would soon be approaching. The American Ferrari spent a long time at its pit having a broken rocker removed so that it could carry on with only 11 cylinders working.
By 8 p.m. the field was really sorted out and Gonzalez still led from Marzotto, both on the same lap and neither having handed over to their co-drivers; Rosier was a lap behind, followed by Whitehead who was gaining rapidly after the uncalled-for pit stops. Salvadori dad taken over from Parnell and was keeping the blown Aston Martin going at the same pace and was now fifth in the General Classification, followed by Hamilton and the two Aston Martin coupés in the order Bira/Collins, Whitehead/Stewart. With darkness came the additional hazard of plunging into complete blackness once the pits and grandstand area was passed, for the illumination along the pit area was its usual brilliance and after the pits the only indications of the long fast curve under the Dunlop bridge were the little coloured lights on each bank, so that eyes were subject to continual changes of illumination, added to which the ever-present difficulty of passing slower cars was naturally more hazardous. Just before 10 p.m. Stewart in the second Aston Martin coupé and Meyrat in a Talbot were passing a slower car on the fast stretch between Arnage and White House when they collided, the Talbot being dented badly in the side, finishing up in the ditch, but with the driver unhurt, while the Aston Martin turned over and was completely written off, Stewart escaping with a broken arm from a wreckage that looked as if it should have killed him. Road conditions were now really horrid, for they were never consistent, the skies pouring out rain and drizzle in varying quantities, and occasionally things would almost appear to be dry again, so that drivers could never be certain of the road surface on two consecutive laps. During the darkness Trintignant took over the leading Ferrari and Maglioli took over the second one, while Whitehead had passed Rosier and was up in third place. By midnight Maglioli had stopped at the pits with gearbox trouble and had been forced to withdraw, and this let the Whitehead/Wharton Jaguar into second place, two laps behind the leading Ferrari and half a lap in front of the Rosier/ Manzon Ferrari. In fourth place was the Jaguar of Hamilton/Rolt, followed some way behind, but going strongly, by the blown Aston Martin. The third Jaguar of Moss/Walker was now at the pits with brake trouble and though classed in 11th position was virtually out of the race. The Porsche of Hermann/Polensky was comfortably in the lead in the 1 1/2-litre class and still leading all the 2-litre cars, the Bristol of Wilson/Mayers being in command of that class. The small cars were being led by the D.B. Panhard of Bonnet/Bayol and it was also in the lead on handicap. The 3-litre Gordini of Behra/Simon was in continual trouble with its ignition and had dropped right to the back of the field, but the 2 1/2-litre car was going beautifully, driven by Guelfi/Pollet.
During the small hours of Sunday morning the leading Jaguar ran into gearbox trouble and had to retire, but the Hamilton/Rolt car was gaining ground rapidly and was only 14 minutes behind the second Ferrari. The leader was still Gonzalez/Trintignant, with two laps in hand, and into fourth place had come the Aston Martin coup driven by Bira/Collins, a few seconds in front of the blown car. The two Cunninghams were still thundering round making a fantastic noise, guaranteed to stop anyone from sleeping, and were sixth and eighth, while the 120C driven by the Belgians was doing a very regular run and was now seventh. The Swedish-driven FrazerNash was disqualified for refuelling too soon, 30 laps being the minimum between stops, and the American Aston Martin came into the pits and a broken stub axle was discovered, which finished its motor racing for the day. When dawn broke the sky looked really fierce, and though it was not actually raining there did not seem much hope of fine weather to come. As it became light Bira began to have trouble with the steering on his Aston Martin, there being a tendency to tighten-up after leaving corners, and just after 4 a.m. he ran off into the ditch just before the point where Stewart had crashed. After ploughing his way along the ditch he struck a post and the car was thoroughly smashed, the Prince escaping with bruises and cuts. This was a great pity for the Aston Martin team as the car was in fourth place in the General Classification and in a nice position should the leaders run into trouble. The blown Aston Martin was still going, much to everyone’s amazement, including the team themselves, and at 6 a.m. the remaining Jaguar was in second place, two laps behind the leading Ferrari, which was still that of Gonzalez/Trintignant. The Cunningham of Spear/Johnston was fourth and when the Ferrari of Manzon/Rosier became stuck in second gear and had to withdraw, it moved up to third place. The leading Porsche had by now retired with mechanical trouble, leaving Macklin at the wheel of the Osca in the lead. The Bristol team were well in command of the 2-litre class, but more than 20 laps behind the Osea. As Manzon was about to withdraw the Ferrari, Macklin handed over to his co-driver, Leygonie, who promptly spun off the road and crumpled the tail of the car, but not so badly that it could not continue.
Of the two most powerful teams each had one car left, with Ferraris in the lead, but now Jaguars decided to throw caution to the winds and have a real go at catching the Ferrari, and Duncan-Hamilton began to wind things up in a big way at a time when most people want to relax and tour round. Trintignant was equal to it, however, and the two of them were lapping in under 4 min. 30 sec. which was a fantastic speed to be doing at 8 a.m. on the Sunday morning, but Jaguars were not going to let up. By this time there were only 25 cars still running and not all of those were very healthy, the official order being Ferrari, Jaguar now barely one lap behind, Spear/ Johnston (Cunningham), Laurent/Swaters (Jaguar), Cunningham/Benett (Cunningham), Parnell/Salvadori (Aston Martin), Guelfi/Pollet (Gordini) going as well as ever, Macklin/Leygonie (Osca) with a crumpled rear-end, Wisdom/Fairman (Bristol), Wilson/ Mayers (Bristol), Giardini/Peron (Osca) and Claes/Stass (Porsche), followed by the remainder of those left, with Bonnet/Bayol (D.B. Panhard) still ahead on handicap. The Bristol team was the only one left intact and were giving a fine demonstration of controlled running; the class win being their objective. Of the Frazer-Nashes only that of Becquart/Gatsonides was still running and that was having numerous delays at the pits.
The rain now came down really hard and the cars were completely lost in spray, but still Hamilton was pushing the Ferrari and when it came in to refuel at 9.30 ,a.m. Gonzalez took over while rear wheels were changed. There was a slight hesitancy in starting and this encouraged Jaguars, whose pit was next door, so that Hamilton was urged to push as hard as possible as it looked as though the Ferrari was beginning to tire. Down the long back straight times were being taken over a kilometre and the Jaguar was doing 251 k.p.h. against thy Ferraris 245 k.p.h., but this year the Ferrari had Grand Prix brakes which were proving better than the Jaguar’s disc type, while the 4.9-litre was showing an advantage on acceleration. Early in the race Moss had recorded 278 k.p.h. over the kilometre (approximately 173 m.p.h.), but conditions had been dry then whereas now rain was falling intermittently and the road never really dried out at all. By mid-morning the Jaguar, now driven by Rolt, was just over a lap behind, but still forcing the pace and it looked as though Jaguars were going to succeed in breaking up the Ferrari, for when Trintignant took over at the next pit stop the engine was even more reluctant to start, showing signs of lack of compression. With the rain having given over the Ferrari was able to use all its power, and when Rolt hit the bank on leaving Arnage and stopped at his pit to straighten the panelling, Trintignant got the Ferrari to two laps ahead. A slower car had drifted out just as Rolt was overtaking and had forced him off the road, but no serious damage was done and the pace continued. At one time it had looked as though the 1954 Le Mans was going to be a dull affair, but now things were looking up and it was not only becoming an endurance test, but a Grand Prix at the same time. With Hamilton back in the Jaguar it was lapping at 4 min. 39 sec. against Gonzalez, 4 min. 32 sec. and at midday on Sunday a further refuelling stop and subsequent hesitant restart by Trintignant had enabled the Jaguar to regain some ground and it was a little over one lap behind. The blown Aston Martin had for some time being showing signs of wear and now went out with a blown gasket, with only four hours to go to the end; it was the last of the David Brown cars to go and ironically the one that had had least preparation for the event. There were now only 23 cars still in the race and of these the remaining Porsche 1 1/2-litre was in trouble and was doing as little running as possible, the mechanics doing some very leisurely work on the brakes to waste time. The 1,100-c.c. Porsche was in trouble with its gearbox and going slowly, while Blanc’s Talbot was only just running. The two Cunninghams were still galloping along, but a long way behind the leaders, though in third and fifth place, in spite of the Spear/Johnston car having been off the road. In fourth place was the Belgian driven Jaguar going like a train and sixth was the 2 1/2-litre Gordini.
The weather was now really bad and rain was falling heavily, but in spite of this the Ferrari was ahead of last year’s average, but Trintignant had to ease as the roads became awash and Hamilton also slowed the Jaguar a little. During these slippery conditions Giraud-Cabantous spun off with the little V.P.-Renault and Giardini crashed his Osca. At 2.30 p.m., only 1 1/2 hours before the end, the Ferrari came in for a refuel and change of drivers and at this point it was nearly two laps ahead of the Jaguar. After the tank was filled Gonzalez jumped in but the engine would not start and there was a moment of panic. Gonzalez got back in the pit and the mechanics looked at a couple of plugs, nothing seemed wrong so once again Gonzalez got into the car, but still the engine would not fire and there seemed to be a lack of compression coupled with a general dampness about the ignition system. By now the Jaguar was in sight, but instead of passing it came into its pit as Rolt, who had recently taken over, wanted some new goggles. He did not realise that the Ferrari was stuck at its pit for it was surrounded by a crowd of officials, trade representatives and photographers, but the Jaguar pit waved him frantically on as he was now on the same lap as the Ferrari. He rushed off again in the pouring ruin while the two Ferrari mechanics worked feverishly to get the engine going. Meanwhile Gonzalez sat quietly on the pit counter, beyond expressing emotion, while Ugolini held his head and prayed. The Jaguar was almost in sight when the Ferrari engine fired and Gonzalez leapt in and was off, now only 1 min. 37 sec, in front of its rival.
During the next half-hour he increased this to 1 min. 55 sec, and as the rain was still falling Jaguars called in Rolt and put Hamilton in, who went away from the pits in a long slide as if doing a standing kilometre sprint. It was all or nothing now and Duncan had his jaw firmly set and was determined to push the Jaguar as hard as it would go. There was now one hour to go to the finish and Gonzalez. suddenly dropped his lap times to nearly 5 1/2 minutes, so that the determined Hamilton reduced the gap down to 1 min. 36 sec., but Ferraris urged the Argentinian to better things and he responded nobly and widened the gap to 1 min. 44 sec. by 3.30 p.m. If the two cars kept their speed to the end the Ferrari could not fail to win, but it was far from healthy and anything could happen, so Hamilton kept pressing on relentlessly. While all this excitement among the leaders had been going on the class-leading Osca, driven by Leygonie, had spun once more and this time smashed in the front. but, after waiting 15 minutes, during which time the car was moved by the marshals, he continued round to the pits, where Macklin took over, but it had to he disqualified for having received outside assistance. The Bristol team’s fine demonstration run was also slightly spoilt when Fairman spun his car into the barriers and damaged the front of the body, necessitating a stop at the pits to straighten things out.
Slowly the last few minutes ticked by and at 4p.m. on Sunday, June 13th, the chequered flag went out and the first to receive it was the battered Osca, followed in by Hamilton, Guelfi, then the three Bristols in line-ahead formation and in numerical order, and the rest of the remaining 20 runners, including a tired and ill Gonzalez, the winner of the 1954 Le Mans 24-hour race. It turned out that he had not eaten or slept throughout the 24 hours and it was sheer fatigue that had caused him to slow so violently during the last 45 minutes, only will-power making him respond to the pit signal for more speed.
When the total distances were calculated it was found that the Ferrari had won by only 4.09 kilometres after 24 hours of racing and, in spite of the appalling weather conditions, it had only just failed to beat last year’s record made under perfect conditions. The Bristol team-was the only one to finish intact and their speed and reliability, as well as their pit control, were applauded by everyone. Duncan-Hamilton’s driving in the rain was fantastic and he looked very haggard and worn at the end, but he had done his job well and so very nearly pulled off another win for Jaguar. To be beaten by Ferrari is no disgrace, and though Jaguars were expected to wipe up this year’s Le Mans race, the fact that they did not made no difference to the high esteem in which they are held by crowds. Ferrari went away victorious, the first time with a works car, but Jaguars could still hold their heads high for they had battled and lost, but lost honourably.
The handicap event on a calculated index of performance went, as always, to the small French cars, this time to the 750-c.c. D.B. Panhard driven by Bonnet/Bayol, and just how well deserved it was can be judged by the fact that they covered a greater distance than that recorded by Nuvolari/Sommer 20 years ago when they won the General Classification with a 2.3-litre Alfa-Romeo. Of the 20 cars running at the end only 18 were officially classified, as the Oscas of Macklin/Leygonie was disqualified and the Talbot of Blanc/ Nersessian took more than 30 minutes to complete its last lap.
Le Mans Shorts
But for Fairman’s slight error the Bristol team would have been the only one to come through the 24 hours unscathed.
* * *
The winning Ferrari was motoring for 23 hr. 35 min., the rest of the time was spent at the pits. The car that motored for the longest time was the Panhard-Monopole of Hemard/Flahault; it was stationary for only 5 min. 10 sec.
* * *
Remembering that Jaguars won in 1951 with the then new Type C, it is interesting how many private Type C models are about now. In 1957 will there be as many of this year’s models?
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Porsche reckon to have the Type 550 in production next spring.
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The Frazer-Nashes were absolutely standard and privately owned, yet did not get in the way through lack of speed.
* * *
Every time Macklin worked his Osca to the head of the class his co-driver took over and let it drop back again — most disheartening.
* * *
What a lot of people in the Press stand never make any notes — they must have remarkable memories, or perhaps they never make a report. Makes it very crowded for those who have to work and maddening for those who want to work.
* * *
The car park layout was brilliant as usual, any car being able to drive away freely throughout the 24 hours. Naturally there was a jam at the end when everyone wanted to drive away, but the gendarmerie, leapt about like race marshals, warning each line of traffic in turn to prepare to start in 30 seconds.
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Buses ran between the circuit and Le Mans every five minutes throughout the 24 hours.
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The trade houses nearly all had stands in a field behind the pits, in the form of a vast exhibition. A good idea as it kept the drinkers away from the pits and out of the way of the mechanics and team men who were trying to work.
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One could have spent the whole 24 hours being amused without ever seeing a car. There were film shows, television, cabaret shows, dancing, fairs, and all types of amusements going on the whole 24 hours. Truly there need never be a dull moment at Le Mans.
* * *
Prince Bernhardt of Holland insisted on accompanying Trintignant on the lap of honour in the 4.9-litre Ferrari. The lap was completed in a downpour of rain, but the royal enthusiasm for motor-racing was not damped.
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On eight consecutive laps in the vital closing stages, while the roads were flooded, Gonzalez had to overtake a slower car round the blind bend after the pits.
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In 1956 the A.C. de l’Ouest will celebrate its 50th anniversary and to commemorate the occasion the 24-hour race will he preceded by a 2 or 3-hour race for women drivers only, in Le Mans sports cars, so you have two years during which to train your wife or girl friend. Also it is hoped to hold a Formula I race at Le Mans for the occasion and a demonstration of past Le Mans cars is planned. If you have a genuine Le Mans car that has competed at any time since the inception you are invited to put it into original order and contact the club. If you can persuade the original driver to accompany it, so much the better, but, please, no modified or improved Le Mans cars — they must be as raced at the time; it is to be an historic demonstration.
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