Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans

The Le Mans race cannot make a claim to fame as being the best motor race, nor can the Sarthe circuit be considered the best on which to race; the organisation is not beyond reproach, new are the regulations. There are many faster, more difficult, more severe, more interesting, more exciting motor races in Europe, but on one count Le Mans stands unchallenged. It is the longest motor race. From 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 11th, until 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 12th, the competitors have to drive round and round the 13.461-kilometre circuit, racing or touring, depending on what they are trying to achieve. In fact, for the competitors the event starts on December 2nd of the previous year, for that is the opening day for the receipt of entries and from then until the start the competitor or team manager can spend all his time in preparation of the car and minute study of the vast list of regulations. Le Mans is indeed the longest motor race.

From midday Saturday until 3 p.m. the pit area is complete chaos, with all the cars lined up in echelon in front of their pits, the faster cars at the beginning of the pits, the slower cars way up the other end, this being to avoid the really fast cars having to cover the whole length of the pit area when stopping during the race. During this initial three hours, cars are finally checked by the scrutineers, tanks are drained, refilled and sealed, pits are organised and a vast crowd mill about the cars. In spite of the fact that the paying public cannot get access to the pits the crowd on the track is enormous and walking from one end of the pits to the other one can almost guarantee to see everyone and anyone who is connected with motor racing. Even though a drizzling rain was falling, this year was no exception and it was like an annual garden party, which in fact the Le Mans race really is for everyone except the poor suffering drivers, mechanics and pit personnel.

Just before 3.30 p.m. the chaos reached untold heights, for after some 400 Vespa riders from all over Europe had gone past on a parade, followed by a very fine 1939 Le Mans Delahaye which was not supposed to have been there, the 55 competing cars had to be completely reshuffled, with the slow cars at the beginning of the pits and the fast ones right away at the far end, ready for the start. By 3.45 p.m. they were lined up in echelon with the DB4 G.T. Aston Martins at the head and the 701-c.c. Fiat-Abarths at the end.

Now that the cars were in position one could take final stock of the entry, and the accompanying race chart gives the driver pairings. Altogether there were five Aston Martins, the Essex Racing Stable of John Ogier fielding two G.T. cars, one driven by Fairman and the French rally driver Consten, and the other by the well-known Australians. Ogier also entered a DBR1/300 with new engine having the exhaust ports on the left instead of the right and an altered valve angle, this being number 4. The other sports Aston Martin was the old one of the Border Rievers. Number 1 was a white G.T. with Zagato bodywork as were the other two, driven by two Frenchmen. The American team run by Briggs Cunningham had three cars running, numbers 6, 7 and 24, comprising two of the latest Tipo 63 Maseratis with 3-litre V12-cylinder engines in the rear, all-round independent suspension, 5-speed gearboxes and tails covered in slots and louvres with four vast exhaust pipes sticking out of the top. These 12-cylinder engines were developments of the 1957 Grand Prix engine, with the inlet ports between the camshafts of each bank, a 60-degree vee angle, two plugs per cylinder and three double-choke downdraught Weber carburetters on each bank. Coil ignition was used, the distributors being driven from the train of timing gears and mounted in the vee of the engine. Cunningham had two versions of this engine, number 6 having a bore and stroke of 70 x 64 mm. and number 7 having 75 x 56 mm., both giving 2.9-litres capacity. Both cars were white with blue stripes, and the third car of this team was a 2-litre 4-cylinder front-engined Tipo 60, the original type of ” birdcage ” chassis Maserati; Briggs himself was co-driving this car, number 24. A third 12-cylinder Tipo-. 63 Maserati, with yet another bore and stroke variation of 68 x 68 mm., still giving 2.9-litres, was number 9, a Scuderia Serenissima entry, and they also had a rear- engined Fiat-Abarth Spider with 4-cylinder twin-cam engine of 701 c.c. which was number 8, and a Ferrari 250 G.T. number 16. All told there were eleven Ferraris competing and the factory had four of these. Numbers’ 10 and 11 were their main force, being front-engined V12-cylinder cars with all-round independent suspension, 1961 aerodynamic bodies with tail-” spoilers,” and six double-choke downdraught carburetters. Number 23 was a V6 rear-engined car of 2.4-litres, the 12-cylinder being 2.9-litres, and number 12 was a new 250 G.T. car using a sports six-carburetter Testa Rossa engine and having an even prettier and sleeker coupe body than the standard 250 G.T. Ferraris. The North American Racing Team, run by Luigi Chinetti, had five cars running, number 17 being a V12 sports car identical to the factory cars and being looked after by the factory pit staff. Number 18 was a brand new 250 G.T. painted in Rob Walker’s colours, with right-hand drive and being driven by Moss and G. Hill under the N.A.R.T. entry. Number 19 was another 250 G.T., American owned, and number 20 was a combined N.A.R.T. and E.N.B. entry; also run by N.A.R.T. was number 43, a small Osca, driven by Cunningham’s son. Number 21 was an Austin Healey 3000 hard-top looking truly ” Le Mans ” with fillets, bulges, louvres, lamps and bits and bobs all over it, entered by the Ecurie Chiltern. The Ecurie Ecosse had two entries, number 22 their Cooper-Climax, repaired after Nürburgring and using alloy wheels all round as the scrutineers would not allow different wheels front and back, unless two spares were carried, and a hard-top Austin Healey Sprite (number 46) with large Perspex wrap-round rear window made by Austins. The works twin-cam Triumphs, numbers 25, 26 and 27, were having their annual outing, showing every sign of good preparation and out to do a typical 24-hour endurance run rather than a cut-throat race, rather like Bristol used to do with their 450 coupes. Numbers 28 and 29 were true private-owners, being standard A.C. Ace-Bristols with hard-tops, the first a French entry and the second a Swiss one. The Porsche factory had four entries, numbers 30 and 32 being very beautifully finished coupes on the new 1961 RS chassis, having the roof cut-off short to form a rearward entry for cooling air and carburetter air for the flat-4 Spyder engines. These two cars had every appearance of prototype cars for next year’s G.T. racing and were as well finished inside the cockpit as a production Abarth Carrera. Number 33 was an open version of the 1961 RS model and Number 36 was a works Abarth Carrera. The French Porsche Agent entered number 37, another Abarth Carrera, painted blue and looking the nicer for it. Numbers 34 and 35 were the Rootes-entered Sunbeam Alpines, the first being a Harrington coupe conversion and the second a standard hardtop. Like the Triumph team they showed an air of detailed preparation for this event only with endurance rather than performance being the objective.

There were four standard single-cam Coventry-Climax Lotus Elites, numbers 38 and 39 belonging to Team Elite, numbers 40 and 41 being French entries. A fifth Elite was number 51, entered by U.D.T.-Laystall and having an experimental 750-c.c. twin-cam Climax engine, and running with its eye on the Index handicap prize. Number 42 was a works Austin Healey Sprite having a pretty G.T. coupe body and not the usual type of afterthought hard-top, and was being looked after by the Healey family, while number 58 was Ted Lund’s works supported M.G.-A twin-cam with coupe body that ran last year. Finally there were two groups aiming for the £4,000 prize money for the Index of Performance handicap and nothing else. These were the D.B. Panhards entered by Rene Bonnet and the works Abarth team. Number 45 was a new D.B. venture, being an open 2-seater, or tank, with the engine and gearbox behind the driver and driving the rear wheels. All the others were F.W.D. cars and all used the flat-twin engines. Numbers 47, 48 and 52 were 850-c.c. coupes and 5; and 54 were 702-cc. open 2-seaters. Opposing them were 55 and 56,which were Abarth twin-cam coupes with 701-c,c. engines behind the rear axle line and a 7o5-c.C. Spider with the engine in front of the rear axle line, similar to the Serenissima car number S. This reversal of the engine position on the Abarth Spiders and the D.B. tank is what Porsche did years ago when they made their first Spyder model. Finally number 60 was in at the last moment, being another works Abarth coupe with 850-c.c. engine and driven by the two New Zealanders, Dennis Hulme and Angus Hyslop, who were making their first acquaintance with both Le Mans and Abarth.

With 55 cars setting off for 24 hours of racing and every likelihood of half of them being running at the end it would be an impossible task to chronicle all the excitement and drama of each and every one of them; in fact, details of the events of only one car from the moment it entered the race to the finish would more than fill a whole copy of Motor Sport, including all the advertising pages. Therefore the following is but a condensed summary and it is as well to read it in conjunction with the accompanying Performance Chart. The run-and-jump start was a superb victory for Jimmy Clark with the old Aston Martin, but his lead lasted only as far as Tertre Rouge. Michael Parkes was nearly last away in number 11, the engine refusing to start, yet by the end of the opening lap he was up with the fast group having overtaken something like forty-five cars in one lap, including some quite fast ones. Thompson in Maserati number 7 could not get the engine going and after a suitable time had elapsed officials allowed chief Maserati mechanic Bertocchi to assist. He opened the lid on the tail and by controlling the throttles by hand got the engine going at once, while Thompson operated the starter switch. This car’s eventual fourth place overall was entirely due to Bertocchi for had he not intervened the battery would have been run flat. It was a question of knowing one’s engine. With no serious opposition the Ferrari team were going to cruise round in command with number to setting the pace, but Pedro Rodriguez thought otherwise and took the lead, so that 10 and 23 had to go faster than their pit was demanding. Even so, Ginther was ” cruising ” in the rear-engined car, lapping at just over 4 min., whereas the car was capable of 3 min. 55 sec. The Scuderia Ferrari were backing the V12-cylinder cars as being known factors as regards reliability for 24 hours, the V6 was more in the nature of an experimental entry. The only car that looked like staying with the leading Ferraris was the Cunningham-entered Maserati number 6, driven by Hansgen. During the first hour we saw just how fast a standard Ferrari 250 G.T. could go for Moss in 18 was in amongst the sports cars and leading the DBR1/300 Aston Martins, and he had a few hundred r.p.m. in reserve down the long straight. The DB4 G.T.s were just not in the picture though the French owned white one was incredibly fast on the straight, being timed at 260 k.p.h., which was as fast as any of the G.T. Ferraris (about 161 m.p.h.). The works 12-cylinder sports Ferraris 10 and 17 clocked 265 k.p.h., as did the 2.4-litre rear-engined V6 Ferrari, while all three 12-cylinder Maseratis did 260 k.p.h.

During the second hour the M.G. burst its twin-cam engine and one of the Abarth Spiders went off the road, and Most of the fast cars stopped for fuel, some of them changing drivers as well. The rear-engined Ferrari 23 went for over two hours non-stop, which is why it led at the end of the second hour and quickly dropped back to its third place in the next hour. Fairman in number 2 was having trouble with a blown head gasket but Salvadori was still driving the Ogier DBR Aston Martin and going magnificently. His pit was being run by Aston Martin factory people and ex-team mechanics, and it was benefiting by it. The Ecosse Cooper-Monaco was proving fast in the hands of Dickson and was well placed, while amongst the small cars two of the D.B.s were in trouble with slipping clutches, but Hyslop was going extremely well in the Abarth coupe. Just after 6 p.m. as the third hour began, it started to rain and by 6.20 p.m. it was raining hard, and Hansgen crashed the Maserati at Tertre Rouge and Halford had a monumental crash in the Cooper-Monaco just after the pits. Both drivers were taken to hospital but injuries were not serious. The Australian-driven G.T. Aston Martin succumbed during the third hour, leaving only one car still running representing Feltham in the G.T. category. Before the rain had begun Pedro Rodriguez had set fastest lap in 3 min. 59.9 Sec. at 201.299 k.p.h. (125 m.p.h.), not quite as fast as Hawthorn’s 1957 record with the 4.1-litre Ferrari. At the end of three hours things began to settle down, including the rain, but the Rodriguez brothers were still forcing the pace, though Gendebien and Phil Hill were dealing with them but going faster than was necessary. During the fourth hour the works G.T. Ferrari lost time at its pit stop when the starter refused to work, which dropped it down to 13th place and the Scottish DBR1 was in trouble with the boot lid flying off, the time taken to fix it putting it back to 12th position. The Serenissima Tipo 63 Maserati number 9 was suffering from overheating and 26, one of the Triumphs, lost time through ignition trouble. The Moss/Hill Ferrari number 18 was going splendidly and at 8 p.m., after four hours racing, was lying in fifth place and had only just been lapped by the leaders. Just over half a minute covered the leading three cars while Parkes and Mairesse were keeping their car on the same lap. Shortly before 8 p.m. the Ecurie Ecosse had another set-back when Mackay crashed their Sprite at Whitehouse bend and injured himself badly. As the evening closed in the rain stopped and the circuit dried out but darkness came early on account of the heavily clouded skies. By 10 p.m. there were still forty-eight cars running, but 15 was about to disappear when its clutch flew apart, and 19 was having electrical trouble, while 11 had been delayed by the boot lid not staying shut and having to spend time having it wired down. The Gendebien/Hill Ferrari was leading by less than 60 sec. from the Mexican boys and the V6 Ferrari was still on the same lap. The Moss/Hill G.T. car was still only one lap behind, in fifth place, well ahead of the Salvadori/Maggs DBR1 Aston Martin, and number 7 the Thompson/Pabst Tipo 63 Maserati had crept up the leader-board remarkably well after its bad start. The works Porsches were not at all impressive, obviously being tuned for 24-hour reliability after the troubles in the Targa Florio and at Nürburgring, though probably not as drastically as someone suggested, by fitting VW engines !

The works Sprite (number 42) went out with sounds of engine trouble; and at midnight things seemed remarkably settled with forty-four cars running and the weather fine and dry. In spite of repeated signals to slow down the Ferrari number 17 was going as fast as ever, Papa Rodriguez urging both his young boys to press-on and win, and the works Ferrari pit urging them to ease up and stop forcing the pace so much. With factory Ferraris first, second, third and fifth and a private Ferrari, the Moss/Hill G.T. car, in fourth place it was madness to keep going so fast, However, it was indeed madness, in fact Mexican madness, and at midnight, after eight hours of racing, the Gendebien/Hill Ferrari had a shaky lead of one lap, or just over four minute’s. It was a freak lead, for the Mexicans had already refuelled and changed drivers, while the works car was about to come in, and sure enough by twenty minutes past midnight the Mexicans were back in the lead again. At 1 a.m. only eight seconds separated the two 12-cylinder Ferraris, and while watching this battle and the tenseness in the N.A.R.T. pit and the Scuderia Ferrari, pit, which were adjacent, number 18 suddenly arrived unexpectedly. Officially it was tying fourth, but due to number 23 having a regular refuelling stop it was temporarily in third position, which was remarkable for a G.T. car with so many of the sports cars still running. Moss was driving and he had seen the oil pressure falling and felt signs of the engine seizing. At the pits in the dark, with only torches and floodlights for illumination, it was difficult to ascertain the trouble and as there was plenty of oil in the sump the mechanics screwed down the pressure relief valve and Moss went away again. He was soon back as the engine was still trying to seize and this time when the bonnet was opened the engine was scintillating and very obviously out of water, though the temperature gauge showed no signs of stress, having stuck at 160 deg. F. Water was poured in, amid clouds of steam, and it ran straight out from the bottom hose, which was split. A new one was lined, the radiator filled, and Moss rejoined the race, not very hopefully for the pistons were nearly seized in the bores due to the heat and the starter would only turn the engine after oil had been poured down the carburetter. In a cloud of smoke, which said much for the plugs, the Ferrari coupe rejoined the race, but was once more back at the pits after only a couple of laps. A head gasket had split and the cylinder compression was blowing straight into the water system, and that was that; while checking this one of the mechanics noticed that the radiator fan had only two blades, whereas it should have had three. One had broken off and the reason for the split one was now obvious, but too late, and lust before 1.30 a.m. the car was wheeled away. The original loss of oil pressure was due to the overheating caused by the loss of water, the oil reaching such a high temperature and becoming so thin that the pump could not generate enough pressure. As the fan on a G.T. is mounted on a freewheel, turning purely by wind pressure through the radiator, no vibration in the engine could be felt when the blade broke off. In fact the fan need not have been there for it is only driven positively by an electric motor to prevent overheating its towns or in mountains, a thermostat switching it on when needed.

While this drama had been taking place the two sports Ferraris were still in close company and at one point went past the pits side-by-side, which in the darkness was most impressive, the blaze alight from their combined eight lamps being quite something. During this early hour of the morning the 750-c.c. Lotus Elite went out with loss of oil pressure while lying second on handicap, and the Scottish Aston Martin lost a lot of time having its clutch operating mechanism modified, only to retire shortly afterwards when the whole clutch flew apart with a bang. The other sports Aston Martin was running steadily in fifth position now that Moss was out, but five laps behind the leader. The two New Zealand drivers in their little 850-c.c. Abarth coupe were still cracking along, lying 23rd overall out of 38 cars still running, and keeping up with Elites, and being ahead of the Sunbeams. The two 12-cylinder Ferraris battling for the lead were having their regular refuelling stops and driver changes each side of the hour, so that at 3 a.m. number to was leading by an apparent full lap and at 4 a.m. number 17 was seemingly a lap ahead, whereas in actual fact, during each hour they were still very close together. At 4 a.m., or half-distance, they were one lap apart on the wonderful IBM calculating machine, but a few minutes later, after they had both refuelled, they were together again, and at 5 a.m., they fooled the calculating machine completely by both refuelling before the hourly classification was published so for once the calculator showed the truth; they were exactly 27 seconds apart, with the Mexicans in the lead, and anyone watching, the race could see this quite easily. In the early hours of the morning tempers its the N.A,R.T. pit and the Ferrari pit were getting a bit frayed, tor obviously the works drivers should win, but Papa Rodriguez wanted his sons to win, and they agreed fully with their father, so the battle continued.

Number 35 Sunbeam, the hard-top one, was having trouble with its overdrive and a lack of pit discipline allowed a mechanic to put oil in the gearbox before the car had covered the requisite 25 laps since the last refuelling, so the car was disqualified. During the thirteenth hour the Serenissima G.T. Ferrari number 16 went out with a broken rear axle, having lost a lot of time earlier due to a broken throttle connection, and the factory experimental G.T. car (number 12) with the TR engine went out with engine trouble. At the fourteenth hour, or 6 a.m., the Gendebien/Hill Ferrari was leading officially by nearly half a lap, but at the 7 a.m. recount it was only 2½ seconds in the lead, the pit stops having evened out once again. Four laps behind, the Parkes/Mairesse car was lying a comfortable third, young M. J. Parkes going extremely well on his first drive of serious import. The rear-engined Ferrari had been delayed in the early hours of Sunday by consuming a great deal of its cooling water, but this trouble suddenly cured itself, presumably a thermostat or blow-off valve playing up, so it was now in fourth place six laps behind the leaders. The Salvadori/Maggs Aston Martin was still plodding along in fifth place, but ten laps behind the leading Ferraris, and the remaining rear-engined V12 Maserati, number 7, had dropped from sixth place to ninth place on account of cooking its plugs and having to have all 24 changed. Shortly after 7 a.m. the Mexican Ferrari developed a misfire and had to spend nearly 30 minutes at the Ferrari pits while the trouble was traced to it faulty condenser, so both it and a coil was changed, but it was very obvious that had it been car number 10 the stop would not have taken so long. Now the Rodriguez boys were back in fourth place and the works drivers were safely in the lead, but as if in retribution the factory team lost car number 23, the rear-engined V6 which had been running well in second place, its water troubles over. By a mis-calculation it ran out of fuel at Mulsanne on the lap it was due in for refuelling; in actual fact it should have been in a lap before, but the strain of controlling four cars from the same pit and dealing with the troublesome Mexican lads had overtaxed the lap-scorers and von Trips could not make it. He drove the car as far as he could on the starter motor but the battery soon gave out and that was second place lost. This put the Rodriguez brothers back into third place and once more they pressed on the loud pedal, lapping at 4 min. 02 sec., which was unheard of at this late stage in the race, and although the Gendebien/Hill car was five laps ahead they could not afford to drop much below 4 min. 15 sec. a lap for there were still seven hours of racing ahead of them.

During the nineteenth hour the DBR1 Aston Martin split its fuel tank and ran out of petrol and had to retire, and by the default of others the Bonnier/Gurney Porsche RS coupe was now fifth, and the privately-owned G.T. Ferrari number 54 was fourth. After changing all the pings on the rear-engined Maserati Thompson and Pabst were going well again and regaining lost ground. On handicap the D.B. number 54 had been leading, closely followed by the Abarth number 55, but this battle was only visible on the IBM calculating machine, and as this was giving trouble the results were not too convincing. At 11.30 a.m, the leading D.B. arrived at the pits being pushed and was wheeled away, broken, so there was one result that did not need calculating by electronic mechanism, equally the pace of the Rodriguez brothers was plainly visible and a few sums on an old envelope were sufficient to indicate when they would catch Ferrari number 11 and retake second place. Equally a simple calculation showed that they could not hope to catch the leading Ferrari, but in spite of this they kept driving hard and made the Gendebien/Hill team keep awake. At midday on Sunday the Mexicans were in second place, but four laps behind the leader, and to gain one lap every hour was out of the question, but they kept pressing on nevertheless.

Just after 2 p.m. on Sunday, after 22 hours of racing, Ferrari number 17 came into the pits in a cloud of smoke and when the bonnet was lifted, Pedro, who was driving at the time, saw the engine covered in oil. The mechanics put it in gear and rocked it backwards and forwards to the accompaniment of a clonking sound, for a piston had broken and the fine run by the two young Mexicans was over. About the same time the blue Porsche Carrera number 37 went by making horrible noises from its engine and did not return, and the Stoop/Dekeart Austin Healey was smoking badly. Before the end of the 23rd hour the Austin Healey had succumbed to piston trouble and Porsche number 30 went out when its flywheel came loose, and Triumph number 25 was in trouble with an oil leak from a cambox, where a broken camshaft bearing had cracked the housing. The leading Ferrari was now touring round, having set up a new distance record thanks to the Rodriguez brothers pushing it along all the time, and at 3.15 p.m. the little Abarth coupe number 55, which was still challenging for the handicap, spun off and damaged itself. The last remaining Aston Martin, the white Zagato DB4 G.T., was lying ninth overall and was stuck at its pits unable to restart the engine due to a strange short circuit in the wiring system, and had to withdraw in the last minutes of the race.

As 4 p.m. approached the two remaining G.T. Ferraris, numbers 14 and 20, closed up to run together, and the five remaining D.B. Panhards collected before the finish line, and as the chequered flag came out they crossed the line in formation. Phil Hill drove the last session for the winning Ferrari and though he and Gendebien were popular winners, the ” moral victors ” in the eyes of the 300,000 spectators were the 19- and 21-year-old Mexican boys, for without them the 1961 Le Mans would have been a dreary procession.-D. S. J.

Le Mans 24 Hour – June 10th-11th – Mostly dry but dull

1st: P. Hill/O. Gendebien (Ferrari TR1/61 2,953-c.c. V12 Sport) 186.527 k.p.h
2nd: M. Parkes/W. Mairesse (Ferrari TR1/61 2,953-c.c. V12 Sport) 184.947 k.p.h.
3rd: P. Noblet/J. Guichet (Ferrari 250 G.T. 2,953-c.c. V12) 177.417 k.p.h.