1949 Le Mans 24 Hours report

History
Author

3Bimport

Taken from the July 1949 issue of Motor Sport

Before the war Le Mans was a household word in British motor racing circles, as well it might be, with British cars winning this gruelling 24 hour sports car race outright on six occasions. The Germans did much damage to the famous circuit during the war and only this year has the Automobile Club de l’Ouest been able to revive this classic of sports car classics.

As soon as it was announced that the race would be held entries began to pour in, and the list closed at 52, of which 15 hailed from this country, 33 from France, one from Italy, two from Czechoslovakia, and one from Belgium. Apart from those racing to qualify for next year’s event, there were three distinct races, the Grand Prix d’Endurance, divided into the usual capacity classes and a mere matter of going as far as possible in the 24 hours between 4pm on June 25 and 4pm on June 26, the Biennial Rudge-Whitworth Cup race, for which the entrant has to qualify the first year by his car finishing (in this case the 1939 race), and then contest the car afresh next year, and the Annual Cup race, decided on a formula based on mileage covered balanced against engine size.

In 1939, the last year until last month that the race was run, Wimille and Veyron’s 3.3-litre Type 57SC Bugatti won outright at 86.35mph, Gordini and Scaron’s Fiat taking the Biennial Cup. The lap record stood to the credit of Robert Mazaud’s 3.6-litre Delahaye, at 96.7mph. Then, because to finish in a 24 hour race is a great feat anyway, team performances take on a very great significance at la Sarthe.

The course measures 8.68 miles and skirts the town of Le Mans. From the pits and tribunes the course runs towards the right angle at Terte Rouge, along the main Le Mans-Tours road, curving right-handed into Mulsanne straight, past the Café de l’Hippodrome to Mulsanne corner. So drivers come to the left-handed corner at Arnage, near the aerodrome where British visitors land, and then the road twists and wriggles to the notorious White House corner and so back to the start.

As usual the races are strictly for sports cars, but this time bona fide ‘prototypes’ are allowed to race with the catalogued models, as the organisers did not wish to hamper post-war developments. The usual regulations that so make the atmosphere of this great race were enforced. Repairs could only be carried out with the aid of spares and tools carried in the cars and then only by one assistant besides the driver. Fuel tanks were sealed and refuelling permitted only after 25 laps had elapsed since the start or a previous refuel, calling for a range of 210 miles. Proper precautions were called for to ensure that headlamps wouldn’t extinguish themselves as one motored back at full lick through the short (but inky) summer night. And so on and so forth – so that the atmosphere was almost that of the great days of our Bentley triumphs.

From an early hour people streamed to Le Mans, where the atmosphere is quite unique. Gay flags floated in the breeze above the roof balcony of the magnificent new concrete pits and, opposite, vast concrete stands accommodated keen and critical crowds such as only France can produce. The sun shone from a torrid sky, so that the tar became sticky on the roads and the coloured equipe vans behind the pits glinted colourfully in the strong light, while, behind, the green of the woods and fields formed a backcloth to the memorable scene. With the crowds picnicking all around the course, the loud bands, the scantily-garbed girls in the depots, and aircraft arriving at Le Mans airfield, all the ingredients of a first class continental motor race were present in full measure.

Safety arrangements were excellent, with a sand-wall and fence before the tribunes and fencing and barbed wire at the corners. The whole tribune area was well policed and press men were handsomely looked after in their lofty and extensive press stand, where they sat at school desks and received food boxes and wine tickets at generous intervals.

A hush fell as the drivers lined up opposite their cars and Charles Faroux instructed the timekeeper to raise the tricolour. As it swept down the line of the men broke and, in what seemed a moment, Chaboud’s Delahaye, a vicious two-seater with vast aerodynamic wings, swept off in the lead, followed by Paul Vallée’s Talbot, which overtook Hay’s Rolls-Bentley as it got away. Next came Rosier (Talbot), Grignard (Delahaye), Veuillet’s Delage, Johnson in the 2.5-litre Aston Martin, Chinetti’s Ferrari, Dreyfus’s Ferrari and Leblanc’s Delahaye. Slow to move off were Villeneuve’s Delahaye and Walker’s Delahaye driven by Tony Rolt. Hémard had to ease his Monopole out to clear Flahault’s stationary Delahaye, while the Singer and Fairman’s HRG were very hesitant and poor Jack Bartlett in the Healey saloon didn’t get off until the car had been rocked to unglue the starter and then pushed, some three minutes being lost thereby.

At 8.00pm Grignard’s Delage ran out of fuel just short of its pit and the driver was deservedly clapped as he pushed the car the remaining distance – French crowds are like that. Calmly he grabbed the chock to place beneath a rear wheel before refuelling. Alas, 14 minutes were lost before petrol could be got through to the carburetters. No time was wasted when Pozzi relieved Chaboud of the leading Delahaye. The Jones/Haines Aston Martin came in for two minutes at 8.17pm, ‘Dunlop Mae’ casting his eye at the Dunlops.

Up to this point the retirements were: Johnson (Aston Martin) after six laps; Eggen (Alvis) after six laps; Clark (HRG) after 10 laps and Folland (Aston Martin) after 26 laps. The Monkhouse/Stapleton Aston Martin had had weaker carburetter needles fitted to cut down its fuel consumption, which caused overheating and, after a lap sans coolant, it too was retired.

The situation now became dramatic, as race situations will. Chinetti lost seven and a half minutes at his pit, resuming just as the other Ferrari appeared in sight, and at the same time Flahault’s Delahaye commenced a series of pitstops, the engine reluctant to restart, so that 43 and a half minutes were lost the symptoms suggesting slipped timing. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Pozzi in the leading Delahaye caught fire at Mulsanne, and it must have been half an hour before, amid a feverish ovation, he coaxed his stricken car to the pits, in the dusk, sans lights! Then Dreyfus came in to refuel, overshot his depot, jumped out, and nimbly rolled his car back.

Between 1.00 and 1.30am the Veuillet Delage had a very prolonged stop, with something amiss in the transmission, while Vallée’s Talbot was retired, so that the Louveau Delage became second and Culpan’s Frazer-Nash third. The Scott/Gee HRG was limping round, terribly sick – the mixture had weakened, Gee had pushed in from White House, the burst block was patched, but one more lap was all the car would do.

The grim hour of 2.00am saw the Ferrari a lap ahead (the average now 85.3mph) of Louveau’s Delage, with the Culpan Frazer-Nash a creditable third and Gérard’s Delage fourth, ahead of the Rolt/Jason Henry Delahaye, which, alas, retired about 3.30am. A further bother in this pit was the arrival of a fierce flying insect, killed eventually by a deft mechanic.

The night section was notable for the great variety of lamps in use. Gérard’s Delage had two yellow spotlamps and two headlamps, the Aston Martins four Lucas lamps in a row, but Rolt was content with two tiny sidelamps to back his two headlamps; the Leblanc Delahaye had triple lamps, as had Lachaize’s DB, while Trouis’ Riley had but one yellow headlamp, likewise Pozzi’s Delahaye.

By 3.00am Gérard’s Delage was second to Louveau’s, having caught the Frazer-Nash, while Selsdon still led. Louveau was being regularly signalled by a torch shone on a number board.

At 4.00am the Ferrari had three laps lead and the Maréchal/Mathieson Aston Martin was fifth, three laps behind the Frazer-Nash. A ‘to let’ sign had now appeared before Rolt’s pit, where they had packed up and gone.

The crowd on the balcony clapped – at 4.26am mark you! – as Selsdon took over the leading Ferrari from Chinetti, who had driven the car continuously up to this point. The engine fired after the started had spun for what seemed an age. The Bouchard Delahaye resumed its repeated pit calls, but loud claps greeted the refuelling of the Flahault/Simon Delahaye, now fully recovered, but back to 11th place. Grignard’s Delahaye was reluctant to restart and more than one man appeared to be working on it.

Gérard’s Delage came in very hot, but when the radiator cap was cautiously opened no steam came forth – ominous? Three and a half minutes later the car went on, suffering from chronic blow-by, smoke pouring from the bonnet. Then the Veuillet Delage refuelled, and it was soon in again. The carburetters caught fire, the extinguisher was empty, as the mechanic proved by hurling it into the put, and the flames grew quite serious before a proper extinguisher was put into action. The driver stayed in his seat – but got out when it was evident the car would be long delayed.

So the race went on, with routine pitstops and some having no semblance of routine. The slower cars that had not done their qualifying distance were flagged off, Phillips’ MG receiving the black flag. Momentarily, a larger car was baulked by Mahé’s amazing little saloon Simca, but the latter drew away from its rival round the curve beyond the pits, and the Ferrari swerved and skidded in avoiding Morel’s Talbot saloon as it drew out of the pit. The unhappy Flahault/Simon Delahaye, which had received such a brisk reception from the crowd, was pushed to the dead car park at 10.44am.

Came drama! Louveau brought the Delage in in dire trouble, but went on. Shortly afterwards Chinetti was stationary at his pit, with Louveau in again. On his first stop the plugs had been replaced, water added and the rear wheels changed, so we knew, now, that something more serious was amiss. The work was good, calm, but hand an hour was lost while extensive work was done on the engine, concluding with more new plugs – as with Gérard’s Delage, too much oil seemed to be getting ‘upstairs’. The Ferrari left first, but it, too, lost much time, work apparently being done on the front of the chassis, necessitating attempted removal of a headlamp. Meanwhile, the Frazer-Nash motored nearer to victory, sounding beautifully BMW. It certainly wasn’t Delage’s day, for soon after those intense moments involving Louveau and Chinetti, Veuillet had a short stop – for a moment no one saw him come in, in the concentration on Louveau’s car – which produced much Gallic shouting!

Chinetti now began to make occasional stops at his pit, presumably because he had such an excellent lead. Louveau remained second, in spite of another stop, but the Frazer-Nash, apart from slowing for a while due to a fuel vapour-lock, was going well, needing no water, although for much of the time Aldington drove, because the clutch refused to free, so that clutchless gear-changes were essential. Even this trouble finally rectified itself, and this new British car remained a splendid third.

Alas, just as we hoped to see Maréchal press for his third place, it was reported at 1.05pm that the Aston Martin saloon had overturned at White House corner, Pierre being seriously hurt. His brakes had, it seems, been absent for many laps. Claps greeted another pit departure, on the part of the Delage, but the leader’s position held without change – Ferrari, Delage, Frazer-Nash. Hot cars came in and were reluctant to restart, but still the order held. Grignard’s Delahaye, in particular, consumed vast quantities of both time and amps. Oil as well as smoke began to appear from Gérard’s Delage, and Veuillet’s Delage stopped frequently, while Bouchard had clouted a hazard with the offside front of his car. Yet bravely the men struggled to keep the cars going, and the onlookers – now 200,000 strong – showed knowledgeable approval, as they pressed closer to the rails in anticipation of the arrival of the President of the Republic. He came in a fine Renault escorted by many transverse-twin motor-bicycles and a FWD Citroën, to honour the first post-war Le Mans.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, this great sports car race ended, Chinetti victor for Italy in Lord Selsdon’s 2-litre V12 Ferrari. The Louveau Delage was second, in spite of many setbacks, while Aldington and Culpan very creditably brought the ‘High Speed’ Frazer-Nash ‘Competition’ two-seater home third. The Talbot saloon made up lost time and finished fourth, frantically waved down on its last laps and missing from the parade d’honneur, and Gérard’s Delage struggled into fifth position. The Thompson/Fairman HRG won the 1.5-litre class for Britain.

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