Froilán González, the man who prevented a winning Le Mans debut for the D-type, talks to Tony Watson about how the elements worked against him and with him in that great race
“That was a very long race” for race read do-or-die battle against the weather, against his own brutal Ferrari and against Jaguar’s svelte new D-type. Jose Froilán González is not a man for overstatement. A sturdy, burly individual, he was used to toughing it out wrestling unwieldy Chevrolets over mauling roads for 20 hours, from Buenos Aires up to Salta, had been a key part of his motorsport schooling. And that was only the first leg of the 6000-mile Gran Premio America del Sur.
Gonzalez was in his pomp in 1954. Back at Ferrari after Iwo years with Maserati, he was enjoying his most successful spell in Europe. In the five weekends spanning May 8-9 to June 5-6, he chalked up four wins. Three of these were in non-championship Formula One races — Bordeaux, Bari and Silverstone — and the other was aboard that muscle-bound sportscar, the 4.9-litre 375 Plus, at Silverstone.
And yet the prospects of a good placing for him and co-driver Maurice Trintignant at Le Mans on June 12-13 looked bleak. Gonzalez’s raised eyebrows speak volumes as he explains his car’s initial wayward antics on the Mulsanne Straight: “In the First practice laps, we would reach about 5500rpm, some 155mph. We were expecting 175mph, but it would weave all over the place and it was impossible to go faster in those conditions. Luigi Bazzi from our team phoned the factory for advice, although he already suspected that the problem lay in the front suspension.” This weaving had not been an issue during Gonzalez’s sideways-to-victory effort at Silverstone a month before, but none of that fast circuit’s straights resembled the Mulsanne.
After the call to Italy, the mechanics got to work on the front suspension, modifying its leaf springs and castor settings. These changes did the job and when he took the car onto the track again, Gonzalez found it was not far from the cat’s whiskers: “From then on, we thought we could do quite well in the race. On the long straight, the car now reached about 177mph with no trouble. Nice to drive — and that engine, it was terrific. It hod so much torque.” Cautiously optimistic of a good result before the start he may have been, but the D-type was much in Gonzalez’s mind: ‘We knew it would be difficult to beat the new Jaguars. And they had such good drivers, like Duncan Hamilton, Stirling Moss and Tony Rolt. Also, we wondered how the Cunningham team would do; with their big American engines, they were very fast, especially on the straights.”
Just like Jaguar, the Scuderia had entered three cars, all 375 Plus examples, one of them — the Silverstone winner — having been driven down to Le Mans after the Daily Express meeting. Louis Rosier/ Robert Manzon and Paolo Marzotto/ Umberto Maglioli were the team’s other nominated driver pairings. Early-morning showers on Saturday proved a sampler of what race conditions would turn into less than two hours after the start. But on a momentarily dry track, it was Gonzalez who came by ahead of the pack first time past the pits, his team-mates and the three D-types in close attendance. And that’s how they continued, the top six swapping positions — Gonzalez lost his lead to Moss at one stage — until the first series of pitstops: “I could get away from the Jaguars a bit in the curves and esses opposite the long straight — we had more torque — there was not much difference on the straight, but their cars braked better.”
Brakes had been a major matter of concern for Ferrari before the race and, indeed, they were in a parlous state by the finish. But things would have been much worse had not the heavens opened 90min into the race. “All that amount of rain helped to cool our brakes,” explains Gonzalez. “Without that, I don’t know what would have happened. Although at times we had been quite a way out in front, I thought that in the end we would not be able to win, or even finish, because of how fast our brakes were wearing out.”
Meanwhile, the sole surviving D-type was relentless in its pursuit. Recovering from delays early in the race, the car driven by ’53 race winners Hamilton and Rolt took chunks out of the lead Ferrari’s advantage to be on the same lap by Sunday morning — by which time there was only one 375 Plus left in the race, too.
“Our team’s other two cars went out because of transmission problems, one of them, I think, with a broken clutch,” says Gonzalez. Given that those big Ferraris were prone to lunch their transmissions, did this not weigh on his mind, especially during those final hours? “Not really, because I was thinking all the time about the brakes. Luckily, Trintignant was sharing the car with me: he was fast and really knew how to look after the car.”
Around mid-morning, an errant backmarker cut across Rolt’s path, forcing him to pit for repairs, and allowing the red car to again increase its lead to over a lap. But last-minute suspense awaited when Trintignant came in to hand over to Gonzalez at the final pitstop.
“The two bock wheels were changed, I think. And then a big problem: the engine wouldn’t restart,” remembers Gonzalez. “We lost a lot of time. The mechanics could not find the problem and it was a long time before they got it going again. Leaving the pits, it still didn’t sound good, then, when I accelerated a bit more, it went back to normal. What probably caused this were some ventilation scoops in the front of the car — a lot of water got into the engine bay.”
With both cars once again on the same lap, the climax of this 24-hour race turned into a 60min sprint. In the monsoon conditions of that last hour, Hamilton initially reeled in the Ferrari, although Gonzalez managed to respond and stabilise the gap during the last 30min so that just over 90sec separated them at the finish. Yes, as Gonzalez recalls, it was a long race. But it was a hard-fought one, too. The Argentinian’s renowned stamina had been well and truly put to the test: “I remember driving for many hours, many hours. I hardly slept at all during the race and practically didn’t eat anything.”