The Best Becomes the Worst
Le Mans (Sarthe), June 12th
The Le Mans 24-hour race gave promise of being a gigantic battle this year, and on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the race the cars were presented for scrutineering. The official scrutineering saw that the cars were as quoted on the entry forms and that they complied with all the regulations; it took place in the town of Le Mans and it was rather ominous that continual rain showers occurred throughout both days. The cars passed along a line of check points, each group of officials looking after one particular aspect of the regulations, and then the cars were placed on a patch of sawdust and the engines revved up to see if the exhaust system blew sideways or downwards. This last formality lost much of its point when the rain came for the sawdust became sodden and lay like sand, but nevertheless the informal party atmosphere of this piece of officialdom continued.
The regulations governing cars entered for Le Mans are complex in the extreme, with the result that thinly disguised Grand Prix cars can be entered under a dubious title of “prototypes,” so that the entry of 70 cars that passed the scrutineering, of which 60 were actually to take part in the race, could be divided into three groups. There were the virtually standard sports cars, such as the three TR2 Triumphs, the Austin-Healey 100S, the M.G.s and the Frazer-Nashes; then could be grouped the racing/sports cars that could be purchased by keen types, such as Aston Martin DB3S, D-type Jaguars, 3-litre Monza Ferraris, 2-litre Maseratis, 550 Porsches, Cooper-Jaguar, Connaught, Kiefts, Lotus, Arnott, Osca and Stanguellini, each with their works models that were just that little bit different; and, finally, the “Grand Prix Formule Libre” cars, such as the 300SLR Mercedes-Benz, the 4.4-litre Ferraris, the Offenhauser-Cunningham, the V12 Lagonda, 450C Bristols, the 3-litre Maseratis, the 3-litre Gordini and the central driving-seat Panhards, D.B.s and Cooper 1,100. The first group, of standard sporting cars, looked most out of place among the rest of the cars.
The major issue, for the Grand Prix d’Endurance, as the free-for-all event is known, obviously lay between the best of the second group and the bigger cars in the third group, and the official title of the Le Mans race was apt for once, with the accent on “Grand Prix.” Just how all the drivers were going to cope with the powerful machinery remained to be seen, but Mercedes-Benz were obvious favourites with three cars driven by the teams Fangio/Moss, Fitch/Levegh and Kling/Simon, while being only of 3-litres capacity they were also in a good position for the handicap classification or Index of Performance as it is known. The cars were virtually the same as used in the Mille Miglia, but had the addition of two new innovations. Remembering the experiments carried out in practice in 1952 with an air brake fitted to a 300SL coupe, the Stuttgart firm had incorporated this in their open two-seater SLR models. It took the form of a double skin across the full width of the tail of the car, just behind the driver’s head, and this panel was hinged at the rear and raised to the vertical position by two hydraulic rams, like telescopic shock-absorbers. Power for this movement was supplied by a pump driven off the gearbox, the hydraulic pressure being sustained all the time the car was moving. A short lever protruding from the dashboard operated a valve that permitted the hydraulic pressure to go to one or the other side of operating pistons, depending whether the lever was moved into the up or the down position. This airbrake was intended to be used at the end of the Mulsanne straight, where the cars would be doing 175 m.p.h., and a toggle mechanism on the gear-gate automatically lowered the flap when second gear was engaged, that being the gear used for Mulsanne corner. Another innovation connected with braking was a system of oil squirts that could eject oil onto the linings of the drum brakes. Although this sounds absurd at first glance, there was reason. If a brake lining developed a rough spot and began to snatch or lock, a squirt of oil made it inoperative until the rough spot was worn away, for an inoperative brake was less dangerous than a locking one. Beside the air-brake lever were four push-buttons, one to each brake drum, for operating this device. Due to the air-brake flap across the tail the the fuel filler was moved to the rear of the petrol tank, and in consequence had to have a long protruding neck in order to be at the same height as the top of the tank. The whole appearance of the SLR models was not pretty, but was functional.
In direct contrast the factory D-type Jaguars were sleek and smooth and certainly the best streamlined cars present, with longer noses than last year and the curved Perspex windshield blended very nicely into the headrest and tail fin. The whole finish of the Jaguars was superb and, claiming 275 b.h.p. and having a very low drag coefficient, they were the favourites where maximum speed was concerned. Fundamentally the same as last year’s D-types, though now having a steel frame of square-section tubing, and retaining Dunlop “corners,” which is to say disc brakes, wheels and tyres by that firm, they were clearly going to be in the running, though their driver ability was partly an unknown quantity. The three teams were Hawthorn/Bueb, Rolt/Hamilton and Beauman/Dewis, while, in addition, two production cars were in the hands of the Belgian team Swaters/Claes and the Americans Walters/Spear.
The third side of the leader triangle was the Ferrari team consisting of Maglioli/Hill, the last Pan-American race rivals, Castellotti/ P. Marzotto and Trintignant/Schell. The three cars were identical, being six-cylinder 4.4-litres with engines modelled on the “Squalo” Grand Prix engine as regards valve angle and head layout, while the chassis was similar to the 750S Monza, having coil-spring and wishbone i.f.s. and de Dion rear with a high-mounted transverse leafspring. New wide, heavily ribbed brakes were fitted and offset wheel rims allowed the whole brake to be in the air stream. The tail was full of fuel tank and an additional tank was fitted alongside the passenger seat, with a filler coming out of the near side of the body. Compared with its rivals the 4.4-litre Ferrari looked a monster, and by all accounts was one to drive, but if sheer power was going to count the Maranello cars were in the lead.
Not to be overlooked was the 4.1-litre 12-cylinder Lagonda driven by Parnell/Poore, its engine unchanged from last year but having DB3S-type suspension front and rear coupled onto a light multi-tube frame that formed a box-like centre backbone to the car. This was another monster, but a nice friendly one. Somewhat less formidable, but nevertheless not to be overlooked, were the three works Aston Martins, driven by Collins/Frere, Salvadori/Walker and Riseley/Pritchard/C. A. S. Brooks, all three cars looking “the same as you can buy” but like the Lagonda fitted with Girling disc brakes and offset wire wheels, but having four-speed gearboxes in place of the Lagonda’s five-speed one. Due to the offset wheel rims the Aston Martins had to have a valance attached to the body side to bring it out wider than the rims.
The two 3-litre Maseratis were the ones used at Monza recently and the teams were Behra/Musso and Mieres/Perdisa, but it seemed unlikely that they would have enough speed to cope with the bigger cars. Equally, the Cooper-Jaguar of the Whitehead brothers could hardly be expected to deal with the giants, nor could the brand new 3-litre eight-cylinder Gordini of Manzon/Bayol, for it was barely finished when presented for scrutineering. The 3-litre Offenhauser engine in the Cunningham looked very pretty and the car was beautifully made, but could not be considered a serious rival to the top cars. The rest of the entry could only hope for class wins or attempt to beat the handicap formula, while those that finished last year could compete for the Biennial Cup.
The Austin-Healey of Macklin/Leston was a normal factory-prepared 100S, its shortened exhaust pipe with wide-mouthed end making it sound like a tractor when ticking over, while the TR2 models were so standard they made hardly any sound at all. Disc brakes were certainly popular, the Healey using them, two of the Triumphs having them on the front only and the third one on all four wheels, while the Lotus-Climax of Chapman/Flockhart used them, those at the rear being inboard. Of the other British entries, the Bristol 450s were now open with an enormous headfairing and tail, looking like a Grand Prix Connaught, and the drivers were Wisdom/Fairman, Keen/Line and Wilson/Mayers, with the Australian driver Brabham as reserve. Two production Frazer-Nash Sebring models were in the hands of Stoop/Becquart and Odlum/Vard, while the neat Le Mans M.G.s with 1 1/2-litre B.M.C. engines were as standard as works cars can get and driven by Lockett/Miles, Jacobs/Flynn and Lund/Waefiler, the last a Swiss driver. Two Kiefts were entered, the sleek little 1,100 Climax-engined one of Rippon/Merrick and a rather tatty-looking one with 1 1/2-litre Turner engine driven by Baxter/Deeley. A very well-finished but somewhat large Arnott-Climax was in the hands of Russell/Taylor, the first the well-known “500” driver and the second not the well-known “500” Taylor. To complete the very large contingent of British cars there were the 1 1/2-litre Connaught of MacAlpine/Thompson and the little rearengine Cooper-Climax of Wadsworth/Brown, looking like a Formula III car.
Of the rest of the entry there was an imposing array of six Porsche Spyders, all standard but prepared by the factory, and two entered by the firm, driven by Frankenburg/Polensky, Glockler/Juhan being 1,500-c.c. models, and a third, of Duntov/Veuillet, being a 1,100-c.c. model. A Swiss one was driven by Ringgenberg/Gilomen, a French one by Olivier/Jeser and a German one by Seidel/Gendebien. A lone 2-litre Gordini was that of da Silva Ramos/Pollet, and a well-worn 2-litre Maserati that of Tomasi/Giardini, while a rather ungainly looking special Salmson 2.3-litre was with Colas/Dewez, a French team. The usual row of Panhard flat-twin models were about the place, driven by drivers known and unknown, the D.B. versions being almost pure single-seaters, with an apology for a passenger’s seat, the Panhard factory cars and the Monopole factory models making attempts to look like sports cars and less like aeroplanes. Included in the 750-c.c. class was the Nardi of Damonte/Crosetto, a twin-boom affair like Taruffi’s record-breaking “Tarf,” that should have never passed the scrutineers as a sports car or even a prototype sports car. Providing the passenger had no body, legs or arms, he could have been carried; but then Le Mans has always been a spectacle and it provided the “nonsense-writers” of the daily papers with much copy.
Wisely enough, the first practice period took place in the dark of Wednesday evening, and straight-away drivers were intimidated into feeling their way round before trying to be too clever. Added to this the weather still drizzled slightly so that only the Grand Prix drivers pressed on. As speeds go up the road past the pits seems to get more narrow, and there were some hair-raising near-misses as fast cars went by at 130 m.p.h. and others drove slowly along looking for their pit among the blaze of lights and signs. Eventually the inevitable happened and Neubauer signalled Moss to leave the pit, driving the Fitch/Levegh car, just as a D.B. was coming in. The resultant crash did not hurt the Mercedes-Benz apart from a dented tail, as Moss had the presence of mind to accelerate really hard just as he sensed the impact, but the D.B. bounced off into the side of the pit-counter and trapped Jean Behra and two press-men who were standing innocently by, with resultant damage to the French driver’s leg that put him out of the race before he had started to practise.
The next night there were nearly two hours of daylight practice and speeds would have been enormous but a day of rain kept the track slippery. By the time it got dark a wind sprang up and the surface dried, and Mercedes-Benz began to go really quickly, reducing the lap record from 4 min. 16.8 sec. down to 4 min. 15.1 sec. There was still a lot of bumping and boring going on and the Lotus received a dent in the tail from a Porsche, and the Arnott smashed itself to pieces against the retaining wall just after the pits, the driver, Peter Taylor, being quite unhurt but the car was out of the race.
On Friday night a short period in the dark from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. gave everyone a final opportunity to make sure their lights were right and that the cars were going well; a surprising number turned out, though Aston Martins were content to run only one car. Jaguars were seeing well with only two headlamps, though most people used additional spotlamps, there being no compulsion to use yellow bulbs this year. The 3-litre Gordini was at last screwed together and Bayol set off to see how it went; he had not gone for many laps when he overturned on the brow of the hill before the Maison Blanche S-bend, writing the car off completely and damaging himself seriously. Practice was held up for a time and when it resumed most teams had done enough, though the Porsches went round and round, seemingly trying to wear their cars out before the event.
From midday Saturday enormous crowds poured into the circuit and the complicated business of checking everything that is carried on the car and sealing the petrol, oil and water fillers went on, for Le Mans regulations are legion, and, apart from wheels and tyres, no spares or tools are allowed in the pits, all must be on the car, while no fluids can be taken on before 32 laps have been covered. During practice the Mercedes-Benz drivers had found that the air brake was useful on nearly all the corners and on some bends it was possible to go through without touching the foot brake, merely checking the speed with the air-brake. Consequently the automatic lowering mechanism on the gear-gate had been uncoupled and all control was by the dashboard lever. The usual pit paraphernalia of lap chart, signalling boards, illuminating lamps, jacks, wheels and tyres began to fill the pits, as well as the friends and relations of everyone connected or unconnected with motor racing, and as 4 p.m. drew near the sun was warm, the track dry, and a record Le Mans was expected.
The cars were lined up in echelon in order of engine sizes, with the Lagonda at the top of the line and Parnell, who was taking first driving spell, nearest the starter’s flag. Some of the confusion that reigns at Le Mans can be gathered from the fact that the Lagonda, at the head of the line of 60 cars, was opposite the Nardi pit and the Nardi at the end of the line was opposite the Lagonda pit, these two cars having the extreme ends of the pit-front.
Leaving the turmoil and confusion in the starting area, a quick trip was made across the centre of the circuit to the right-hand curve in the back straight, just after Tertre Rouge corner, and there the stillness of a warm summer afternoon was only broken by the “flap-flap” of a circulating helicopter and an occasional light aeroplane. Even on the stroke of 4 p.m. all was quiet and still, but a few seconds later the screaming roar of a pack of cars could be heard way off in the woods surrounding the “Esses” and then a red car appeared round Tertre Rouge and thundered down the straight, followed by another red one, then two Jaguars, and after that the road became filled with a mass of brightly-coloured cars with noises varying from the unholy scream of the Mercedes-Benz to the penetrating bang-banging of the D.B.s. After a while all was peace and quiet again and it was possible to reflect on what had just gone by. Castellotti was leading from Maglioli by sufficient distance for him to peer intently into his mirror to try and gauge how much lead he had gained through the first few bends; Hawthorn was hard behind Maglioli and then came Beauman. Salvadori was well up among the early numbers, in spite of having been 24 on the grid, Fangio was hemmed in somewhere about the middle of the field, and Rolt was surrounded by a mass of tiny blue cars, having muffed the start. Round they came again with Hawthorn now in second place, but Castellotti still way out on his own, and the rest followed in the order Maglioli, Walters, Beauman, Salvadori, Swaters, Levegh, Parnell, Trintignant, with Fangio fairly galloping through the traffic and Rolt doing likewise farther back. By the third lap Fangio was in fourth place and the next time round the leaders were lapping the little D.B.s and Panhards, so that what had been an empty quiet French route-nationale, now became a road full of fast-moving cars in a non-stop hurly-burly of overtaking, and the 1955 Le Mans race was well and truly under way.
By the end of the first half-hour the field began to sort itself out and some semblance of order began to appear. Castellotti was setting the pace with the 4.4-litre Ferrari, with Hawthorn and Fangio close behind, then came Maglioli, Walters, Levegh, Kling, Beauman and the two 3-litre Maseratis of Mieres and Musso close together, followed by Salvadori and Collins a length apart, and then Rolt, who was still making up for his bad start. During the next 30 minutes the notes read like this: “Fangio closing on Hawthorn,” “Fangio right behind Hawthorn,” “Castellotti still out on own,” then “Fangio in second place, 4.50 p.m.” and immediately afterwards, “Hawthorn second at 4.55 p.m.” — “Rolt on Beauman’s tail.”
Normally, in a 24-hour event, the happenings of the first few hours are of little importance, but by 5 p.m. it was obvious that Fangio and Hawthorn had lost interest in the Grand Prix of Endurance and were only interested in the Grand Prix, and, in fact, were reliving the Reims race of 1953, only this time Hawthorn had a-British car with which to do battle with the World Champion. Only a few feet apart, the Mercedes-Benz and the Jaguar raced round the 13.492-kilometre circuit and in no time had swept straight past the Ferrari of Castellotti and were setting up new lap records time and again. This battle between the German car and the British car went on throughout the next hour and tended to absorb the whole interest of the race, even though there were 54 other cars using the same track. However, during the excitement of this fight, there was time to notice that Salvadori and Collins were still running close together, as were the other two Mercedes-Benz and the Porsches of Frankenbarg and Glockler. MacAlpine had been keeping the Connaught in the slipstream of one of the Bristols and the 1,100 Cooper had led the 1,100 Porsche for a while. Rolt was now ninth, having started about 59th, and the slow Kieft-Turner was at its pits, while the Lagonda was not proving as fast as was anticipated. The Nardi had spun off the road at the far end of the course, and Mieres had broken his 3-litre Maserati’s transmission.
At 6 p.m., just two hours after the start, there was only 2 sec. separating Fangio and Hawthorn, and they were a minute ahead of Castellotti. The Jaguar driver had made a record lap in 4 min. 6.6 sec., a speed of 196.963 k.p.h. (approx. 122.5 m.p.h.), and yet still the lead was changing frequently and there was no attempt to ease up. The pace was so terrific that there were only five other cars on the same lap as the leaders, these being, in order, Castellotti, Kling, Levegh, Bolt and Walters; Beauman and the rest being overtaken. The 2-litre Maserati was just managing to keep in front of the 2-litre Gordini, while the Porsches were going indecently fast and the Bristols were making no attempt to hurry or be hurried. At 6.20 p.m. changes of driver and refuelling began, and Marzotto took over from Castellotti and Poore from Parnell, while the two leaders, still only a second or two apart, were about to lap the other two Mercedes-Benz. The note at 6.30 p.m. reads that Hawthorn had dropped back a long way from Fangio, while Hill had taken over from Maglioli, and Kling had come round on his own, Levegh being missing. Suddenly, on the far side of the course, an ominous column of black smoke could be seen rising, obviously coming from the pit area, but no word was given of what had happened and even while walking back to the pit area there was little knowledge that a major catastrophe had taken place.
While making inquiries as to what had been happening, another column of smoke arose down by the Maison Blanch corner, and it was learned that Jacobs had overturned his M.G. and was badly injured. Meanwhile, the pit area was chaos, with police and officials trying to get injured people away to hospital. From the Aston Martin pit the rear half of the chassis frame of Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz could be seen opposite on top of the earth embankment, the whole thing still smouldering after the enormous fire caused by the burst fuel tank and the magnesium sheet bodywork. The complete front suspension assembly, with the wheels, the inboard brakes and the chassis tubes had broken off the rest of the car when it struck the concrete wall of the foot-tunnel leading to the pits, and this assembly had swept through the massed crowds like a bolas, while the complete power unit had gone into yet another part of the crowd, and the resultant death roll was well over 80, while poor Levegh was killed instantly. Three cars had been involved, Hawthorn’s Jaguar, Macklin’s Austin-Healey and the ill-fated Mercedes-Benz. Accounts were obviously blurred as the human mind cannot take in everything that happens at 130 m.p.h., but Hawthorn had just lapped Levegh and Macklin before pulling into his pit, Macklin had swerved to avoid the Jaguar and the Mercedes-Benz had struck the retaining bank trying to avoid the Austin-Healey. They had all been travelling at different speeds, and the German car had bounced over the bank, onto the concrete wall and then split in two; the Austin-Healey spinning to rest, a battered wreck.
The race, as such, virtually finished at this point, for official news became non-existent, the scoreboard went completely haywire, and the Rolt-Hamilton Jaguar suddenly gained a full lap. Rumour was rife about every possible viewpoint of the terrible accident, and there were two factions, a rather hysterical one that wanted to stop the race there and then, and a more sober one that realised a sudden cessation of racing would cause panic not only among the crowds round the pit area but all round the circuit.
As the warm summer evening drew to a close the Fangio/Moss Mercedes-Benz was drawing farther and farther into the lead, still followed by the Hawthorn/Bueb Jaguar, the Maglioli/Hill Ferrari, the other two Jaguars, Musso/Valenzano Maserati and Kling/Simon Mercedes-Benz. The pace-making Ferrari had dropped out with a split cylinder block, the Cooper-Jaguar had lost all its oil pressure and the American jaguar had ruined a piston. The Offenhauser-Cunningham was still going but slowly, and the leading Porsches were still being quite indecent by being 17th, 18th and 19th, just behind the 2-litre Maserati and Gordini and ahead of all the Bristols. The Odium/Yard Frazer-Nash had jumped out of top gear and bent its valves, and was behind the pits having a new head fitted as it was going to be driven home after the race.
As darkness came and lights were switched on a new set of rumours began to spread that Mercedes-Benz were awaiting news from Stuttgart as to whether they should continue racing or not, in view of the terrible casualties caused by their crashed car. A second of the big Ferraris went out with the same trouble as the first, and the Rolt/Hamilton Jaguar overtook Bueb and got into second place, though there was much argument as official bulletins were still few and far between, the scoreboard was not sure of itself, and the English loudspeaker news was in direct variance with the French announcements. Just after 2 a.m., when most people were at a pretty low ebb anyway and the effects of the crash were still making themselves felt, the two remaining Mercedes-Benz were flagged in and withdrawn. An official announcement said that the directors of Daimler-Benz had called a meeting in Stuttgart and decided to withdraw the remaining cars as an act of sympathy towards the many people involved in the terrible accident. At the time the Fangio/Moss car was well in the lead from the Hawthorn/Bueb Jaguar, while the other Mercedes-Benz was in third place, ahead of the Jaguars of Beauman/Dewis and Rolt/Hamilton. This withdrawal really took the last glimmer of interest from the race and as dawn broke a thin drizzling rain began which was the final and utter end of what had started out as a truly magnificent battle. Hawthorn and Bueb were now well and truly in the lead, the Jaguar running like a train and the second driver standing up extremely well to his first important race with a fast car.
The Lagonda had retired, having lost fuel from an unfixed filler cap until it ran out on the wrong side of the course. Salvadori and Walker had burst the engine of their Aston Martin, and the Pritchard/Brooks one had broken its gearbox. The third Aston Martin was now in third place and on the same lap as the Musso/Valenzano Maserati which was second. The list of troubles went on and the heavy rain which fell at 6 a.m. did nothing to help; the 2-litre Gordini suddenly went woolly and appeared no more, while the third car of the Jaguar team had to retire due to sinking itself into the sandbank at Arnage during the night, Beauman being unable to dig it out. Chapman had also had a melee at the same place and was rather obscurely disqualified for dangerous driving.
Shortly before 7 a.m. the Rolt/Hamilton Jaguar was stuck at the pits with a seized gearbox, unable to get moving, and after a lot of probing about by the mechanics it was reluctantly withdrawn. While this was going on the leading Jaguar stopped for fuel and a complete wheel change, and having plenty of time in hand the precaution was taken of putting more oil in its gearbox. Still the rain drizzled down, often having spasms of a downpour, and by mid-morning the Aston Martin of Collins/Frere was in second place, and then the Maserati clutch went and it suffered the same fate as the second Jaguar, having a healthy engine but unable to make use of it. The Offenhauser-Cunningham had been struggling round on top gear only, but had finally to give up with a tired engine. At midday on this dreary wet Sunday there were 21 cars left running and for four unending hours of rain they all went round and round until at 4 p.m. the race was thankfully finished with Jaguar still in the lead from Aston Martin, followed by the Belgian Jaguar and then three Porsches, three Bristols, a Frazer-Nash, and the lone Osca. All three Triumphs were running at the end, two of the new M.G.s, and the 1,100-c.c. Cooper just made it with a very ragged engine.
This 1955 Le Mans had been won by Jaguar at a new record speed, in spite of the poor weather conditions of the second half of the race, and altogether it was a fine demonstration of British reliability, by near-standard cars, but the general air at Le Mans was not one of overwhelming joy.
Results GRAND PRIX D’ENDURANCE–24 Hours-Dry Start, Wet Finish