Matters of Moment, July 1955

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Le Mans

The tragic accident involving so many spectators which happened in the early stages of this year’s Le Mans 24-Hour Sports-Car Race at Sarthe calls for a strong and heartfelt expression of sympathy to all those whose relatives and friends were involved. This, the worst disaster by far in the history of motor-racing, has touched-off some panic and irresponsible opinions in the daily Press, and it is necessary to take a calm and reasoned view of the matter.

That the race was continued after the accident has been a subject of criticism, yet he who ordered it to go on was undoubtedly wise, because a sudden cessation of racing would have concentrated spectators in the crash area, led to greater alarm and despondency, and jammed roads, apart from spelling, in all probability, the end of Le Mans.

The French Government wisely banned further road-racing in France until safety precautions had been investigated. That was sensible, but suggestions that all future motor-racing should be banned are farcical. Racing survived the calamities of Paris-Madrid, 1903, Brooklands did not close after crashes involving spectators in 1930 and 1938, and Le Mans will outlive this unhappy and terrible affair of 1955. The Motor thinks that perhaps now is the time to abandon sports-car racing as at present practised, because it is becoming so fast as to be dangerous and Lance Macklin, the British driver involved, according to the News Chronicle, wants stock-car racing at Le Mans, by which he doesn’t mean what many newspaper readers will think he means!

This is the wrong attitude to take, surely, because Grand Prix racing involves extremely high speeds, now achieved at Le Mans and the problem facing organisers is to render circuits safer for all forms of racing. Reverting to whether or not the race should have been stopped, let us remember that the 1952 Farnborough Air Display was not stopped, nor abandoned on the Sunday, following the accident there which killed 26 spectators, although on that occasion experimental aircraft (which presumably had not “passed the scrutineers”) were diving at supersonic speeds over the heads of an unprotected crowd. That Show goes on and so must motor-racing; indeed, Farnborough Council still advocates “Speed-in-the-Air” in 7-in, letters on placards at the approaches to this town.

As to the race itself, it seems possible that the Fangio/Moss 300SLR Mercedes-Benz would have won had not Mercedes-Benz withdrawn this and the Kling/Simon car after Levegh’s sad accident, because it was well in the lead (by two laps) and running comfortably within itself at the time.

The victory of Hawthorn and Bueb with the latest D-type jaguar is creditable indeed, from both technical and “cockpit” aspects. From the technical because here is a car, not the largest in the race, possessing a decided “under-bonnet” similarity to the Jaguar Mk. VII saloon and XK140 sports car, which was used by Hawthorn to break up the opposition (it did this to the big Ferraris), during which it set a phenomenal lap record of 122.39 m.p.h., yet which then ran trouble-free through the 24 hours to win the race comfortably at 107.08 m.p.h. for the 2,594 miles it covered, with the privately-entered D-type Jaguar of Swaters-Claes in third place — splendid indeed! From the “cockpit” aspect on account of the magnificent adaptation by Ivor Bueb to this very fast big car under highly-responsible and unhappily-tragic conditions, to which he graduated, with high honour, from nothing bigger than 1,100-c.c. experience.

By winning the 3-litre class and finishing second in the race as a whole, the Aston Martin so ably driven by Collins and Frere wiped out much past misfortune.

The finest performance of all, however, was that of the three Porsche cars which were placed fourth, fifth and sixth, behind far larger machines and beating so convincingly the 2-litre Bristols, a 2-litre Frazer-Nash, and the 2-litre Triumphs. This notable performance by these rear-engined 1 ½ -litre cars with direct-air-cooling, driven by Frankenburg/Polensky, Seidel/Gendebien and Glockler/Juhan, thoroughly justifies their unconventional design and “dates” those cars to which the water-jug has to be taken periodically. Type 550s, this brilliant Porsche trio had the four-camshaft engine which develops 110 b.h.p. at 6,200 r.p.m. — and, obviously, reliability to match this output. It was a foregone conclusion, not news, that they would beat the 1 ½-litre M.G. team, these cars finishing 12th and 17th, after losing Dick Jacobs’ car in an accident.

Porsche also won the Index of Performance and the Final of the 21st Biennial Cup race.

The Bristol team finished high up (7th, 8th and 9th) and winner of the 2-litre class, albeit not trouble-free, with the Stoop/ Becquart Frazer-Nash not far behind them, while the Triumph TR2s contented themselves with another demonstration of consistent reliability way back in the field. British cars, then, did exceedingly well at Le Mans this year and the value of Jaguar’s third victory (they won the 1951 and 1953 races) was emphasised by a sticker reading “Jaguar Wins Again at Le Mans” which appeared on Coventry advertising hoardings carrying Jaguar advertisements on the Monday following the race. The efficiency and reliability of the Haynes-designed 3 ½-litre twin overhead-camshaft Jaguar engine has again been convincingly emphasised.

Backing up the great Porsche domination of the 1 ½-litre class (in which an Osca was fourth), Porsche were first and second in the 1,100-c.c. class, suffering none of the “vapours” which delayed the Cooper-Climax in that category, while D.B. took 750-c.c. honours.

Yet, when all is said and done, Le Mans this year is a race we would prefer to forget. But the Jaguar victory was, we hope, a tiny morsel of consolation to Bill Lyons for the death of his son, J. Michael Lyons, in a crash on the way to the race. To the bereaved through the Austin-Healey/Mercedes-Benz accident go the deep feelings of motor-racing followers the world over, with a special thought for the Levegh family. Levegh will be remembered always for his gallant lone attempt to beat Mercedes-Benz in the 1952 race and it is bitterly ironical that he should have died in one of these cars this year through no fault of his. In withdrawing their remaining cars as a mark of respect for the great French driver and the spectators who died with him, Mercedes-Benz acted correctly.