1953 - Drunken charge

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Drinking all night is not the best way to prepare for Le Mans but it couldn’t keep two hungover Britons from victory. Andrew Frankel reports

Any decent reference book will tell you why the 1953 Le Mans was a significant race; mere figures say that, for the first time in the history of the event, the victorious car averaged over 100mph. And you need only the most basic specification of the winning Jaguar C-type to know that the crucial factor of that win was the Dunlop disc brakes lurking behind its wheels.

A race report will tell of the thrilling dice between the Jaguar and the more powerful Ferrari 375MM of Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi and give good reason to believe that, this was, indeed, one of the great Le Mans. But none of the above even hints at the extraordinary story surrounding the Number 18 C-type and its drivers that had already unfolded before the race had started.

Really, it should have been straightforward. The Jaguar team was no Le Mans rookie nor was the C-type an untried commodity. It had won the race in 1951 and suffered the humiliation of losing in 1952 thanks to its new aerodynamic bodywork failing to create sufficient air-flow to keep the engines cool.

For 1953, the same mistake would not be made. The Coventry cars returned full of confidence. They had their new braking system and Weber carburettors providing the 3.4-litre straight-six engine with the low down torque to combat the Ferraris with their 4.S-lit V12 motors. It was, however, the discs which provided the expectation of victory. The team knew that, unlike every other, the C-types would not have to nurse their brakes and it was this, every bit as much as the extra retardation which held the key to success. Brake drums, unless looked after, would fade in no time at all. The discs, on the other hand, could be stood on hard from lap one.

The drivers gave Jaguar further cause to smile. Of the six nominated to drive the Cs, two were previous Le Mans winners and one an emerging young star called Stirling Moss. The only car not to boast someone who had already stood upon the top step of this most famous race was the Number 18 car of Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt. It is they whom this story concerns.

It was the sheer speed of this car in Friday’s practice (in which Hamilton unofficially broke the lap record) which set the extraordinary train of events in motion. Moss, whose ‘C’ was proving less speedy, wanted to try a lower back axle ratio and the spare car was prepared and sent out to do a few warm-up laps in the hands of Jaguar’s chief tester, Norman Dewis. The problem was, the spare C-type also carried the number 18 and could therefore be construed to be a practice car which, under new regulations, was not allowed. Ferrari cried foul, their protest was upheld and Rolt and Hamilton were duly thrown out of the race. An appeal was granted, but not until the morning of the race and, knowing the historical intransigence of the French authorities, few believed it stood the slightest chance.

The two drivers were inconsolable. They had shared a ‘C’ the year before and watched while their team-mates and then, eventually, themselves retired. They decided to abandon their team and families and commiserate alone. All of their energies which had been marshalled to win Le Mans were now channelled in a rather different direction. They didn’t just have a few beers or even just get conventionally drunk. They drank, literally, all night..

They were found at 10:00am the following morning, in a restaurant called Gruber’s, now drinking coffee and nursing apocalyptic hangovers. Hamilton, in his brilliantly engaging autobiography Touch Wood described the scene thus:

“We were sitting there feeling ill, miserable and dejected when a MkVII Jaguar drew up outside “and William Lyons got out. He had paid a FF25,000 fine and we were back in the race. In six hours time the flag would fall. Neither of us had had any sleep and 24-hours of racing lay ahead. We ordered more black coffee and enquired if there was a Turkish bath in the town. There was not.”

Two hours before the race was due to start, Jaguar’s hot-shot drivers were feeling worse than ever and Hamilton knew they had but one chance or making the start. Left with no other choice, he ordered double brandies for himself and his team-mate.

The effect was remarkable. Tony Rolt kicked off the driving at 4:00pm, passing the pits after the first lap in seventh place behind the Moss Jaguar and the front-running Ferraris. But by the time afternoon turned to evening, it was Number 18 which headed the field, the Moss Jaguar having dropped out of contention with fuel supply problems. Thereafter there was just one race: that between the lead Jaguar and the Ascari/Villoresi Ferrari, the former boasting the better brakes and agility, the latter relying entirely on its brute power.

The battle raged on into the night, the lead swapping between Italy and Britain. The C-type was in a league of its own when slowing from maximum velocity on the straight for the hairpin at Mulsanne but losing time to the 375MM on acceleration away from the corners. Eventually, however, the balance started to shift inexorably in Coventry’s favour and, by breakfast time, the Ferrari was broken. Hamilton took the flag at 4.00pm, having driven almost his entire share with a broken windscreen and a broken nose, all a legacy of a birdstrike on the straight. Less than 30 miles behind and in a strong second place, came the Moss Jaguar, having battled its way back up through the field in a 22-hour flat-out sprint.

Far from being on the point of total collapse as you might expect after such an effort, Hamilton and Rolt set about celebrating their success in a style not dissimilar to that employed while drowning their sorrows some 48 sleepless hours before. It seems somewhat unlikely we’ll see a repeat of such scenes this June.

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