Best of British!
In a month when the frenzy of patriotism over Britain's Le Mans challenge reaches a peak, we reflect on Jaguar's last victory at the Sarthe thirty-one years ago.
1957 was a memorable year in many respects for the British at Le Mans. In a year when the Automobile Club de l'Ouest was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and lap and distance-records were shattered in all classes, the coveted Index of Performance went to a British entry, there were 12 British cars among the 20 finishers out of a field of 54, and Jaguar bowed out with a hat-trick, and five wins in total.
With the new World Sports-Car Championship regulations for 1957 encouraging prototype cars, production racers became obsolete, resulting in Jaguar withdrawing its D-type from competition after the 1956 Le Mans. Being very fast and reliable, however, it still stood a good chance in a 24-hour race against the experimental prototypes.
Duncan Hamilton and Ecurie Ecosse, therefore, bought ex-works D-types which the factory rebuilt with the new, larger, 3781cc engine.
Whereas Hamilton opted for Weber carburation, Ecurie Ecosse chose the new Lucas fuel-injection system which had worked well at Sebring earlier in the year. During practice at Le Mans, however, the team just could not get the 3.8 engine to run smoothly; it seemed very sensitive to changes in humidity.
"Wilkie" Wilkinson decided that the only way to solve the problem was by the arduous method of continually altering the settings and trying them until the problem was resolved. Along with Geoff Johnson of Lucas and patron David Murray he took the car onto the public roads on Saturday morning to give the car a final sorting.
Ron Flockhart, the 1956 Le Mans winner, and Ivor Bueb, ex-Jaguar works driver and 1955 Le Mans winner, were given this car, while Ninian Sanderson and Aberdonian "Jock" Lawrence drove the second string Ecosse entry with the well-tried 3.4 Jaguar engine. Duncan Hamilton shared his 3.8 D-type with Masten Gregory and a fourth D-type, the yellow and green Belgian 3.4, was driven by Paul Frère and "Freddy" Rousselle. The fifth private car was the French blue 3.4 of Jean Lucas and "Mary" (Pierre Brousselet).
The only other production cars entered were Dickie Stoop's 1954 Frazer Nash, the Ken Rudd AC coupé and a German-entered DKW. All the rest were new sports prototypes: 19 Italian, 11 French, six German (Porsches) and 10 British.
Aston Martin was still trying to win Le Mans and, fresh from its victory at the Nürburgring, had brought two DBR1s and a DBR2, the latter being a DBR1 with an experimental 3.7-litre engine. A French-entered DB3S completed the Aston line-up. There was also a pretty Arnott coupé, and Jack Brabham was entered in a Cooper with Ian "Puddlejumper" Raby, but the sensations of practice were the Team Lotus entries.
Colin Chapman planned to attack three class-records; the 1500, the 1100 and the 750. He also considered that the aerodynamically-efficient Lotus XI, with its powerful Coventry Climax engine, would stand an excellent chance of winning the prestigious Index of Performance. Frank Costin, the aerodynamicist who had designed the Lotus XI body-shape, had also designed a new low-drag wrap-around windscreen which fully met the letter of the FIA regulations for high windscreens, but was such a large double-curved affair that the cars were almost coupés!
The Index of Performance, as written, is a simple formula: "miles actually covered" divided by "distance set according to capacity". It is this latter minimum distance for each class which makes the system arbitrary. By dint of long ownership, the French considered the Index of Performance their own special preserve; for six of the previous seven years it had been won by one of the small aerodynamic French 750s.
Each manufacturer was invited by the ACO to enter only three works cars; any others had to be reserves. Chapman's paperwork for customs and scrutineering showed three entries, one 1500cc and two 1100cc, plus a reserve car. The reserve just happened to have a 744cc engine.
The largest of the Lotus entries was the 1475cc Climax FPF-engined car for American Formula One BRM driver Herbert MacKay Fraser and Californian Lotus concessionaire Jay Chamberlain. It was the latter's first visit to Le Mans, yet he did a 4min 33sec lap, when the previous year's outright record was 4min 20sec! Next out was Fraser, who shattered the 1500cc class record with a 4min 28sec, but Chapman, nominated as reserve driver for the car, then went round in 4min 25.2sec!
The next sensation was in the 1100cc class. Lotus' chief mechanic, one Graham Hill, went out in the brand-new French-owned Lotus XI and pulverised the 1100 record with a 4min 56sec lap.
With good things always coming in threes, the next event should have been foreseen. Chapman now called the 744cc Lotus XI an official entry, and re-labelled one of the 1100s as reserve. Lotus works driver Cliff Allison took the car round in 5min 24.6sec, more than 20 seconds faster than the previous best 750 time. The gauntlet had been thrown down.
Sceptics, and the French, hoped that the singleton British 750 class entry would not last — after all, the engine was actually a short-stroke Climax 1097cc — but although the red line was at 9000 rpm, Chapman gave his drivers instructions not to exceed 7500. The 1500 Lotus dropped a valve near the end of practice, as Chapman called in the reserve 1100.
Porsche brought the brand new 1498cc 7I8RS, three old 5500 and two 356A coupes. Maglioli in the 718RS could only achieve 4min 30sec in practice, five seconds slower than the Lotus.
France had eight entries in the 750 class; four DBs with Panhard engines, three Panhard Monopoles, and a VP with an exciting new Renault engine. There were two Gordinis, one a 2-litre six, and the other a very fast 3-litre eight, and lest the history books forget, two Dubonnet Talbots with 2.1/2-litre Maserati engines and attractive spyder bodies by Campana of Modena. One, however, was not fast enough to make the grid, and the second refused to leave it!
The Italians were the force: there were five Maseratis, ten Ferraris, plus three Stanguellinis and an OSCA to compete in the 750 class.
Maserati had to be most favoured, for it was at its apogee. Fangio had already won the first two Formula One Grands Prix of the season, and the big 4.1/2-litre sports-car had romped home at Sebring. The factory brought two of these monsters — the Sebring car for Behra and French Maserati concessionaire André Simon, and a second car for Stirling Moss and Harry Schell.
Frank Costin had designed a low drag coupe shape for Stirling Moss to give him that little bit extra down Mulsanne, but Zagato received a great deal of criticism from the Press for a very badly produced and finished body, and from Stirling for the lack of thought which had gone into driver-comfort. The coachbuilder had not translated the Costin design exactly and so the car was difficult to climb into; and once the driver was installed, it became apparent that his fresh air was being supplied direct from the engine compartment! Worst of all, the car was slower on Mulsanne than the spyder, although that may have been due to incorrect ratios being fitted so the car would only pull 5800 rpm when 6800 was available.
Sensations were becoming commonplace, for there was Fangio sitting on the pit-counter. Since the 1955 disaster, he had said that he would not race at Le Mans, but his Formula One Maserati contract had forced him to come. Hawthorn went out in the big 4.1-litre Ferrari, knocked over 15 seconds off his 1956 4min 20sec lap record, and recorded the first lap at over 200 kph; but Fangio then went out and bettered it, smashing the four-minute barrier. Hawthorn's partner Luigi Musso then put in a 3min 59.2sec, to which Fangio replied with a shattering 3min 58.1sec — a lap average of 127 mph!
The Ferrari force was a mixture of experimental engines and body colours: two 4.1s, a 3.8 and a 3.1, as well as 500 Testa Rossas, with Belgian yellow and French blue mingling amongst the Maranello reds.
Fifty-four cars lined up in echelon for the start: 19 Italian, 17 British, 11 French and 7 German (the French were ahead in the driver stakes with 46, then came Britain 26, America 10, Belgium 10, Germany six, Italy six, Holland two and one each from Sweden and Australia, with the usual disquieting mix of Grand Prix drivers and club racers). After all the excitement in practice, you might be excused for thinking the race would be an anti-climax. Far from it. With 29 Fl drivers in the line up for the 25th Grand Prix d'Endurance, we were going to be treated to a Formula One-style spectacle!
The start was still "run across the road to your cars" in 1957. Moss might have been quickest as usual, but the Costin coupé was difficult to get into, and then would not start, as running rival Peter Collins was first away in his Ferrari, leaving the obligatory black rubber in front of the howling horde pursuing him. Into the Esses for the first time it was Collins (Ferrari), Salvadori, Whitehead, Brooks (Astons), Gendebien (Ferrari), Guelfi (Gordini), Frère (Jaguar), Behra (Maserati) and Bueb (Jaguar).
At the end of lap one, Collins roared through three seconds ahead of Tony Brooks, having clocked 115.7 mph for the standing start lap! Moss was third, having overtaken twelve cars on that first lap, followed by Gendebien, Hawthorn, Salvadori, Bueb, Whitehead, Frère, Lewis-Evans, Lucas (Jaguar), Guelfi, Swaters (Ferrari), Scarlatti (Maserati), Sanderson (Jaguar) and Gregory (Jaguar). Behra's Maserati was already falling back.
On lap two it was Hawthorn, Moss, Brooks, Gendebien, Salvadori, Barb, Frère, and Whitehead, with Collins' Ferrari back in tenth spot sounding very rough. Next time round, Hawthorn had pulled out an incredible 7.1/2 seconds on Moss and Gendebien, with Bueb up into fourth place. Collins went into the pits and retired with a broken piston.
Hawthorn continued relentlessly. On lap six he was 19 seconds clear, on lap ten 30 seconds, and by lap fourteen 42 seconds up on Behra, now recovering in second place. Third was Moss, then Gendebien, Bueb, Brooks, Gregory and Salvadori — the race was between two Ferraris, two Maseratis, two Jaguars and two Astons.
As the fuel load lightened, the pace got faster and faster. On lap 20, Hawthorn had broken the magic four-minute barrier with a 3min 59.6sec (123.66 mph), while the Hamilton Jaguar was credited with fastest speed through the MuIsanne trap at nearly 180 mph. After two hours there were only seven cars on the same lap, and seven had retired. Among these were Moss' Maserati coupé with back-axle failure, the two Gordinis with over-revved engines, and the great French 750 hope, the VP.
If the spectators thought practice had been sensational, then the race had them on the edge of their seats, with records being shattered faster than the ACO could report them, and a drama on every lap.
After 30 laps the cars were allowed to refuel. Behra handed the leading car over to Simon, who promptly suffered the same back-axle failure as Moss, and had to push the big car for more than three miles in an attempt to get it back to the pits. At 6.30pm Flockhart overtook Brooks' Aston, and Jaguar went into a lead it was never to lose.
As ever at Le Mans, the "Grand Prix" might be over, but the race and the dramas continued. The Hawthorn/Musso and Gendebien/Trintignant Ferraris both went out with piston trouble (as had the Collins/ Phil Hill car); the Lewis-Evans/Severi car (Martino Severi was Ferrari's chief tester) lost its brakes but continued; the Aston Martins all suffered gearbox trouble and two were out by midnight; then Brooks hit the bank at Tetre Rouge and overturned, taking the new 718RS Porsche with him. Brabham had the clutch-cylinder come adrift but he fixed it and got back to the pits.
The second-string Ecurie Ecosse car had meanwhile been climbing steadily up the leaderboard, and at 7am it took second place from the Frère/Rousselle Jaguar. Ecurie Ecosse was now first and second, followed by two private Jaguars. Despite only having some 300 bhp, against the 400 plus of the newer prototypes, the reliability of the Jaguars was paying off.
Duncan Hamilton would have been up there in fifth place, but had had his own dramas. First, his lights went out when doing 180 mph at night on the Mulsanne straight, just before the kink. "I just guessed where the kink was," he said later, "and turned the wheel hopefully." He somehow got the car back to the pits at undiminished speed to fit new bulbs. Then the ignition started retarding itself, burning a hole in the exhaust manifold, and the cockpit started filling with smoke and flames. "The only way to keep from burning the seat of my pants," drawled Masten Gregory, "was to keep my foot to the floorboards." The Jaguar was just unable to catch the Lewis-Evans Ferrari in fifth place.
Still, the Ecurie Ecosse cars crossed the line in formation to win for the second successive year, with the French Jaguar third and the Belgian one fourth, and the sole remaining works Ferrari trailing in their wake.
The Belgian Ferrari 500TR came seventh, winning the two-litre class, with the white-and-blue Ed Hugus Porsche 550RS eighth, winning the 1500 class. Fraser and Chamberlain's Lotus won the 1100cc class in ninth, and Ken Rudd and Peter Bolton came tenth in the bog-standard AC Coupé followed by the French DB3S winning the three-litre class. The Lotus 750 came 14th overall, claiming its class and, as hoped, the Index of Performance.
It had been a great year for the British all round (with only five of the 33 retirements), but an even greater year for Ecurie Ecosse and Jaguar. GJ