A Maserati at Le Mans

Testing a Maserati 300S in the Le Mans round of the FIA European Historic

Moss 4 min. 49 sec., read the pit signalling board hung out in front of me at Mulsanne Corner , and there, in the mirror, sure enough, the familiar number seven on the nose of a Maserati 250F. This was a weird sensation, the turning back of the clock over twenty years, except that twenty years ago I would have been driving a school desk on this hot, sunny Thursday afternoon, instead of tussling with the wheel of a racing Maserati with the trident badge of Stirling Moss, every schoolboy’s hero, breathing down my neck on this last lap of practice.

It was nostalgic, but not a dream. We were practising for the second round of the 1978 FIA European Historic Championship and Moss had come out of retirement to drive, and eventually win with, Anthony Bamford’s JCB Maserati 250F in this prestigious round held before the start of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures Du Mans, at Le Sarthe on June 10th. My Maserati was the sports racing development of Moss’s 250F Grand Prix car, the 300S, the classically beautiful 3-litre car with which Maserati set out to win the new World Sports Car Championship from the much more powerful Mercedes in 1955. They failed to win, finishing fourth in the Championship that year, improving to second in 1956, but the 300S, of which approximately 26 were built from the 1954 prototype, chassis number 3051 (now owned by Michael Johnson in Northern Ireland), to the last, chassis number 3080, delivered in June 1958, took many important victories along the way. Moss had several wins in the model and continues to regard it with affection, the nearest thing in its delectable handling to his beloved 250F.

My 300S was chassis number 3072, one of the later cars, which Maserati records show was completed, or may have been delivered, on April 27th 1957. It had been kindly loaned to me by my good friend Victor Norman, whose superb Ferrari 250GT SWB Lightweight Berlinetta I tested in last November’s Motor Sport. I am deeply grateful to Vic for not only loaning me this valuable historic car, but also for delaying its much regreted sale to a new owner in order to fulfill his promise to me of a drive in the Le Mans race.

This immaculate, and very original, red 300S has no known history, as is the case with many racing cars which found their way to South America, as this one did, probably when new. It was found in Brazil and brought to Britain by Colin Crabbe about three years ago. Crabbe recalls driving it through the centre of Sao Paulo, “to see how it went!” From appearances and mechanical condition it had not had a great deal of use. Incidentally, Crabbe knows of three more of these rare sports racers in Brazil, but regrets they are not worth retrieving today because Brazilian prices are now higher than for European examples. Crabbe sold 3072 to Scotsman Jeffrey Johnstone. A rather disastrous engine rebuild by one firm after an internal calamity was eventually sorted out by Ted Bailey, whose thorough workmanship has ensured no further problems. Johnstone ran this Maserati in about six races, while Norman, who acquired it from him in May 1977, has run it in two, winning his class in the first round of this year’s British Group 1 Historic Championship at Thruxton, but defeated in the Brands Hatch race by a fouled plug on the line. Many spares have been acquired along the way, so that 3072’s engine block is topped by the head from 3054 with 3072’s head currently a spare.

The 300S was Maserati’s first “production” over two-litre sports racing car, a more potent contestant for the World Championship than the two-litre A6GCS. Although conceiving it from the start in early 1954 as a sports racing derivative of the 250F, Maserati shied up several blind alleys in development until the final form shaped into the first true 300S, 3051, late that same year. Engine development stages, all based on the straight-six 250F engine, included a normal 2-j-litre 250F engine detuned to run on petrol, two 2.8-litre versions and an overbored 3- litre unit. The final version of the 300S engine kept the 84 mm. 250F bore size with the stroke increased from 75 mm. to 90 mm., the capacity being 2,991 c.c. In external appearance and in all except stroke and detail design the 300S engine was effectively identical to the 250F. It had a cast aluminium block with pressed-in liners, a seven main bearing crankshaft, gear driven, twin- overhead camshafts in the aluminium cylinder head, which contained hemispherical combustion chambers and two plugs per cylinder operated by two Marelli distributors, one each side of the engine’s front end. The valves had triple coil springs and were operated from the wide lobe camshafts by finger-type followers. The long stroke of the 300S engine demanded that the camshafts had a greater lift than those of the 250F. Triple, twin-choke, 45DC03 Webers were fitted. A three-element (two for scavenging, one for feeding), gear-driven pump on the front of the engine circulated oil through the dry sump system.

In its original form the 300S engine gave 245 b.h.p. Larger valves and an increase in compression ratio from 9.25:1 to 9.5:1 lifted this to 260 b.h.p. at 6,500 r.p.m. for the 1957 models. This would be the specification to which 3072 was built, although the head from 3054 would have had small valves.

The 300S aluminium body was mounted on a large-diameter, steel tube chassis. Into this Maserati placed 250F running gear, including front coil spring, wishbone suspension, the wishbones beautifully crafted out of polished, forged steel, the De Dion rear end with transverse leaf spring and a four-speed, allsynchromesh constant mesh transaxle with straight cut gears. A handful of later cars had five-speed transaxles - 3072 has four speeds. The multi-plate clutch remained at the engine end of the propshaft.

At a time when Jaguar had all-disc brakes on the D-type, Maserati stuck to ribbed drums on the 300S. 5.00 x 16 in. Borrani wire wheels were fitted, shod with 6.00 x 16 and 6.50 x 16 tyres front and rear. The wheelbase was 91 in. the front track 51.2 in. and the rear track 49.2 in. Weight, empty, but with a spare wheel fitted atop the rear suspension, was quoted as 730 kg. All cars were built with right-hand drive.

The last time a Maserati 300S ran at Le Mans was in 1958. It failed to finish in the 24-hour race. Could I do better for the 300S over only seven laps of the fast, 13.64-kilometre circuit of the Sarthe just twenty years later?

Although Norman’s Rosso Racing company had the 300S ready for Le Mans in good time, my participation hung in the balance right till the last minute. Taking a racing car abroad is no easy matter, as I was to find out. There was insurance on the Maserati to arrange (£300 on the first £5,000 for the race, £10 for £20,000 on all other risks between leaving and returning to the Maserati’s Cirencester base). A carnet for the unregistered racing car had to be obtained from the RAC (in the arrangement of which the lady in the Pall Mall office was most helpful), requiring a bank guarantee to cover duty should the car not be returned to Britain. The driver must have a visa from the RAC Motor Sport Division to permit him to race abroad. In the midst of all the paper formalities I found myself without a tow car. Here, Gerry Marshall - Wingfield the rescue with a 1967 Jaguar 420, conveniently part-exchanged at his Marshall-Wingfield emporium. Then the loan of a trailer fell through. This became a really desperate situation from which I was saved by the generosity of Colin Page, of Blue-Line Car Hire, Brentwood.

To cut a long story short, I made it to Le Mans in time for scrutineering on the Wednesday morning, prior to the Saturday race. All the French scrutineers seemed to be bothered about was whether or not an external battery switch was fitted. Most of the British-entered cars, including the Maserati, lacked them. We cobbled one up quickly, without butchering the precious bodywork, with the aid of an old jump-lead and a spare cut-out switch which we mounted on a handy hole in the nearside screen pillar.

After scrutineering we had a respite until our one, four-lap practice session on the Thursday afternoon. At this stage, although the 300S had lived with me for several days I had yet to sit in it, let alone drive it. The trials of running a temperamental racing car from a distant era were yet to be learned. For a start it requires muscle: while the untemperamental D-types and Lister Jaguars can be moved about the paddock at will under their own power, this Maserati has to be pushed. The engine will not take kindly to running at low revs, even on the Champion N7Y warm-up plugs, the multi-plate clutch is either in or out - with a 70 m.p.h. first gear - and cannot be depressed for more than 8 seconds for fear of shattering the release bearing. No dynamo is fitted (the engine runs on magnetos), so starting, except on the startline, has to be assisted by jump-leads to conserve the on-board battery.

The engine had to be warmed up on its soft N7Ys well before practice and the race, then all 12 plugs changed for hard Champion N6oRs. As a precaution, new sets of plugs were used in both practice and the race.

Nothing could be simpler than the cockpit layout of the 300S, which made acclimatisation easy. There are only three, black-faced, Jaeger Switzerland dials to watch in the little alloy facia: a central, chronometric tachometer with red tell-tale needle; an oil pressure gauge, which ran on maximum all the time; and a water temperature gauge which didn’t budge above 65- 70 deg. The upright, leather trimmed, bucket driver’s seat is fixed, the wood-rimmed wheel with its central Maserati horn push (but no horn - it was put there for road events like the Mille Miglia) is quite close to, making a straight arm position impossible, and the alloy-knobbed gear lever is in a proper H-pattern gate, with a flick- over stop protecting reverse, over and down to the right. The closely-spaced alloy pedals hinge on the floor. A flick switch on the left of the facia operates the electric fuel pumps, there is a conventional ignition key, which turns an extra notch to work the headlights and the magneto switch on the right has positions 1 or 2 for testing individual “mags” and 1-2 for normal running. This was to be the first time I had driven any racing car remotely similar to this Maserati, so I approached practice with trepidation, worried by some comments of “it’s a handful,” reassured by Moss’s “it’s an easy car for the inexperienced.” Moss was right. Once I had the car rolling out of that first gear situation I felt absolutely at home in it - not at home enough to chuck it around with abandon, but enough to feel comfortably secure. The feeling came from excellent balance and direct steering. The drum brakes were more problematical, very effective in stopping power, but pulling violently to the right when cold - and they were cold several times a lap at the end of the long Sarthe “blinds”. But the biggest problem on lap times was going to be the gearing, for I was having to back right off down the Mulsanne Straight, letting the long-geared Jaguar engined cars fly past at least 20 m.p.h. faster. Nevertheless, we were a satisfactory ninth fastest overall, just short of a 100 m.p.h. lap in 5 min. 12.7 sec., 5.9 sec quicker than the Maserati’s owner in his incredibly lovely, ex- Ecurie Ecosse D-type, MWS 302, just totally restored by Lynx Engineering. Bobby Bell took pole with his Lister Jaguar, followed by Willie Green in Bamford’s 1957 Le Mans-winning D- type, Moss, Harper’s Lister Jaguar, Morris’s D- type, the Listers of Bowler and Ham and Drake’s D-type, which ran its bearings in the process.

The start of the race was a fiasco for me. Firstly the battery Only just found enough power to start the engine on the line. Then the starter dropped the flag immediately after showing the 30 sec. board: I hadn’t my visor down or the car in gear (remember the 8 sec. clutch dip) and Norman nearly rammed his own car from the rear. Poor David Ham, similarly caught out, engaged reverse on the row in front.

I can’t remember every detail of the race except for a brief dice with Norman, until the D- type pulled away on Mulsanne, and a superb scrap with Phillipe Renault’s C-type and John Goate’s sideways Aston Martin DB4GT, the 300S superior to both under braking and on the twisty bits, until their extra speed on Mulsanne took them away.

Alas, I had been misled on the rev limit. I stuck fastidiously to the 6,000 r.p.m. advised, backing off to 5,750 r.p.m. on Mulsanne, probably no more than 140 m.p.h. Not until I was back in England did I discover that maximum power didn’t occur until 6,500 r.p.m. In fact I probably lost out little except in top gear speed, for the long stroke engine became a bit lethargic towards 6.000 r.p.m. in the gears, but packed lots of punch between there and about 3,500, below which it would fluff if too much throttle was applied out of the slower corners like Arnage. With hardly a gap between third and top it paid to change up at 5,750 r.p.m. when using the 6.000 r.p.m. limit. At those speeds even the flat- out kink on Mulsanne felt leisurely, the Maserati reassuringly stable, although the dated aerodynamics could be felt as the car went light over the last blind brow. But the 300S was always a “handling” rather than “power and speed” car. It began to live round the kinks up to Arnage, the Curves round to the new White House, the handling neutral to oversteer on its L- section Dunlops, although I was too inhibited by the car’s value to indulge in classic four-wheel drifting. If the steering was accurate it was also heavy on my right hand, but the gearchange with short movements through the positive gate, was delightful, each move accompanied by a glorious six-cylinder roar from the two open exhausts.

Eventually the handling began to feel less predictable and the reason began to fly round the cockpit. Castrol R40! Its escape route from wherever was also taking it over the rear tyres, with dramatic effect in a high-speed spin at White House, when I lost a place to J.-F. Renault’s Cooper-Jaguar. But with seven gallons of “R” in the dry sump tank, I reasoned that I could finish with a bit of care. A slow spin at Mulsanne corner when the rear wheels locked was my only other drama.

Meanwhile, Moss and Green were having a terrific battle at the front of the field, though alas I could not see it. The Lister Jaguars of Harper and Bell had expired after setting the pace from the start, Harper’s having split a couple of liners on the first long blast down Mulsanne Straight and Bell’s having succumbed to bearing failure at the start of Mulsanne on his third lap. For most of the seven laps Moss tailed Green relentlessly, content to hold on the pressure from behind as long as possible. The thinking, waiting Moss of old was still there, to show through when he outbraked Green into the tight and oily Arnage on the last lap. Through the Porsche Curves and Ford Esses Green pushed the D-type to its limit in an affort to catch the flying Moss. The rest of us had half suspected that Anthony Bamford might have tipped Willie the wink to let Moss win should the opportunity arise, but if that was the case Green certainly wasn’t heeding his entrant’s word in this battle royal. Green made a last, desperate effort to pass the Maserati through the Esses on to the finishing straight, but “overcooked” it, spun through 360 degrees and gyrated once more under too much power in the atempted recovery. Moss crossed the line nine seconds ahead, to a rousing cheer from the excited crowd. To prove that this had been no stage managed finale, Moss had set the fastest lap of the race on the heated last circuit, with a time of 4 min. 36.7 sec., 177.463 k.p.h. Just like old times.

Forty seconds down on Green came Martin Morris in the green, ex-works D-type, OKV 3, from Michael Bowler in John Pearson’s Lister Jaguar. As for myself, soaked in vegetable oil from helmet to shoes and with a scarcely transparent visor, I was too late to haul back Jean-Francois Renault’s Cooper-Jaguar before the flag and had to be content with tenth place out of the 38 classified finishers. What mattered more to me was that the Maserati remained in one piece, but I was pleased too to have won the up to 1957 3-litre class from Chris Aston’s Aston Martin DB3S, proof of the 30oS’s competitiveness in the Historic Championship. - C.R.