The Le Mans 24 Hour race carries with it more tradition and history than any other event in the minds of most people and the occasion of the 21st Grand Prix d’Endurance, on June 13/14, not only continued this position, but celebrated the 21st birthday by being the first occasion when over 100mph has been averaged for the whole 24 hours.
This wonderful achievement was recorded by APR Rolt and J Duncan Hamilton driving a factory-entered XK120C Jaguar and they averaged over 105.5mph, thereby winning the special award for the first car to achieve more than 100mph for the 24 hours. So fast was the pace set by the leaders that the first seven finishers all averaged over the 100mph mark.
As always happens, the few weeks before the Le Mans event is full of rumour and speculation and performances in other races are always watched closely in order to judge the possibilities of a 24 Hour win. This year, if anyone had suggested that Jaguars would have swept the board, with four cars starting and finishing in first, second, fourth and ninth positions, they would have been considered to be out of touch with current affairs, for it was well known that the Coventry firm were competing with the same models they used in 1951, whereas everyone else was preparing special new models.
Right up to the first evening’s practice there was never a suggestion that the Jaguars had a hope of winning, unless everyone else blew up, but when Moss began to put in some laps at 4min 32sec, comfortably as fast as any of the opposition, it was time to think again. At 4.00pm on Saturday June 13, it was still not certain that they could hope to be in the running, unless the opposition fought against each other so furiously as to blow each other up, but 24 hours later it was a different story. Jaguars had set the pace from the fall of the flag, had held the pace for the whole 24 hours and had command of the race at a speed never before realised, which caused all but two of the opposition to retire or drop right back. The Coventry firm had achieved the impossible not by reason of luck or chance, but by winning the fiercest battle ever fought on the Sarthe circuit.
At 4.00pm on Saturday the flag fell and the whole field set off in a free-for-all race for the next 24 hours. Moss and Parnell both made very good starts from positions way down the line, obviously out to set the pace for their respective teams (Jaguar and Aston Martin), as was Villoresi (Ferrari). At the end of the first lap there was a very strong impression that everyone was soft-pedalling and trying not to go too fast and Allard led the field, which was closely bunched among the faster cars. The first few laps at Le Mans mean very little and it was not until the end of the first half-hour that the picture became really clear. Rolt had put in a record lap at 173.667kph, Moss was leading the field, closely followed by Villoresi, Cole (Ferrari), Rolt, Fitch (Cunningham), Kling, Fangio, Sanesi (all in Alfas) and Hawthorn (Ferrari).
At first it was thought that the Italian cars would all battle against each other in a delightful demonstration of Latin excitement, but it was not so. The Alfa Romeos were clearly playing a team game of waiting, running in close formation, Fitch and Walters with the new Cunningham were being pace-makers, while Cole was running a lone race. Allard lasted hardly any time at all and retired after four laps with a collapsed rear suspension that severed a brake pipe, the French-driven Nash was soon in trouble and Hawthorn came in with a loose brake pipe, but not before he had raised the lap record to 174.16kph. Rolt pushed this up to 174.905kph and Kling was timed at 245.065kph over the flying kilometre.
By 5.00pm the order had settled down, although the average speed was enormous, over 175km being covered in the first hour by the leader, which was still Moss, followed by Villoresi, Rolt, Cole, Kling, Fangio, Sanesi and Fitch. It was now clear that Jaguars were really a force to be reckoned with, as were Ferraris, while the Alfa Romeos looked as though they were taking the role that Mercedes played last year. The Talbots and Lancias were quite outclassed, as were the Aston Martins. The lap record continued to fall, going first to Sanesi and then to Villoresi, while the Ferrari pit forgot the regulations and topped up Hawthorn’s brake system with fluid before the specified 28 laps had been covered, thereby being disqualified. The Poore/Thompson Aston Martin was in trouble with its valve gear and then Moss dropped the lead to Villoresi and came into his pit for a plug change.
Sanesi continued to record fastest laps. Rolt made up for Moss’s stop by taking the lead and just before 6.00pm Fangio retired with a piston gone in his Alfa Romeo. The pace was still at a fantastic figure and it was Jaguars who were setting it, causing the Italians to press their machinery very hard. By 7.00pm, after only one eighth of the time had elapsed, the Rolt/Hamilton Jaguar led from the Ascari/Villoresi Ferrari, followed by Cole/Chinetti, Sanesi/Carini, Kling/Riess, Trintignant/Schell, Mieres/Guelfi (both Gordini), Whitehead/Stewart (Jaguar) and Fitch/Walters. Already the first five cars had gained a lead of two laps over the rest, while naturally the little cars were way back.
Trouble was rife and the Parnell/Collins Aston Martin had spun on some oil and crashed, the blown Talbot had seized its brakes solid, Graham Whitehead had taken over the Bristol from Macklin and then had the engine fall apart causing a minor fire and a crash in the process and the Rosier/Bayol Talbot was out, as was the Lurani/Mahé Fiat which had de-arranged its valve gear almost as soon as the race started. Hamilton took over from Rolt and lapped steadily in 4min 35sec, which was five seconds faster than last year’s record and a speed of 176.623kph, while Moss stopped again for plugs and then discovered the fouling was being caused by a dirty fuel filter; this was removed and the car then went properly again, he and Walker setting about getting back among the leaders.
As darkness approached the Ferrari-Jaguar battle continued unabated, between the teams Ascari/Villoresi and Rolt/Hamilton with the Alfa Romeos not far behind, the Ferrari recording a lap at 179.194kph. By 9.00pm 15 cars had already dropped out and with pitstops and changes of drivers the order underwent a shuffle, though Rolt and Hamilton were still well in the lead. Following were the two Alfa Romeos, Kling/Riess and Sanesi/Carini, followed by the Ferrari of Ascari/Villoresi, the Cunningham of Fitch/Walters, and the Jaguar of Whitehead/Stewart, all on the same lap. Then came Trintignant/Schell in the 2.5-litre Gordini, one lap behind, followed by Cole-Chinetti, the Marzotto brothers (Ferrari), Mieres/Guelfi and Moss/Walker, the last car back on form and making up time. So furious was the pace that the small cars were outclassed on handicap as well as speed and the Rolt/Hamilton Jaguar and the Trintignant/Schell Gordini were equal on the Index of Performance handicap.
Lancias were going well, but not fast enough, though they sounded immensely fast and it came as a surprise when Bonetto and Valenzano went out with engine trouble by 10.00pm. Through the early hours of the night the Jaguar pace continued with little slackening of speed, lapping at 4min 46sec in the darkness, and still the Ferrari of Ascari/Villoresi hounded away at their heels, occasionally taking the lead during pitstops, while the two Alfa Romeos were comfortably in third and fourth places, apparently content to sit and wait. The Moss/Walker Jaguar was pulling up and by midnight had got back into ninth place and one hour later was seventh. The speed and endurance of the Jaguars was nothing short of remarkable and the consistency with which Rolt/Hamilton circulated, with laps as quick as 4min 37sec, was unbelievable.
The small hours of the morning saw them still in the lead on distance and on handicap and with no sign of tiring, while the leading Ferrari was now losing ground, handicapped by having no clutch. By 3.00am another Alfa Romeo was out, when the Sanesi/Carini car has its rear suspension collapse and still the Jaguars went on, with the Whitehead/Stewart car now in fifth place behind the Fitch/Walters Cunningham. Abecassis and Salvadori had withdrawn their Aston Martin with oil getting into the clutch and the remaining car of the team was still sick with valve gear trouble, spending some time at the pits while the exhaust camshaft was removed in order to replace a broken tappet piston. By now the field was reduced to 32 runners and if the pace did not slacken it looked as though many more would fall out, for it did not seem possible that the Jaguars could continue at this mad pace. Continue they did, however, and cars fell by the wayside at frequent intervals, but not the Coventry products, they just went on and on, never missing a beat, while even the standard 120C of the Belgians was running like a clock.
The last of the Alfa Romeos was withdrawn when something unexplainable happened to it and it stopped before it became expensive and the second Bristol also burst its engine, this time more seriously, causing quite a major fire in the cockpit which burnt Wisdom rather badly. Another Lancia went out, this time Taruffi and Maglioli, the Mairesse/Grignard works Talbot stopped, leaving only Levegh and Pozzi circulating slowly buy the 1093 standard but faster than last year. Although the Ascari/Villoresi car was still putting up a fight it was very lame, for the clutch would not free at all and it as using a lot of water. After each pitstop it had to be driven off on the starter in bottom gear until the engine fired and once or twice it nearly failed; especially after Ascari had left all lamps ablaze during a pitstop! However, in a win-or-burst attempt it was driven hard the whole time, but it had no effect at all on the remarkable Jaguar of Rolt and Hamilton that now had a lap lead, and was still leading on handicap, which was a remarkable feat that caused the French to check their sums over and over again.
The night had been very clear and fine, but as the dawn approached a certain amount of damp mist hung about, making conditions very tiring for the drivers, Hamilton handing over to Rolt with the remark that he had just had the worst three hours of driving he had ever known. Their windscreen had been smashed early in the race and both were suffering from wind buffeting, but kept up the pace, nevertheless, with an average speed of well over 170kph (105mph). In the early hours of the dawn all the Jaguars came in for routine pitstops, for fuel, oil and tyres and there was a moment’s consternation when the Belgian car, driven by Laurent stopped to investigate a loose plug lead just as the pits were preparing to receive Walker, who was making up time fast and due to hand over to Moss. The yellow car was put right and quickly shooed off, to the surprise of the driver who was unaware of the fast approaching works car.
In reasonably quick time Moss was away, certainly wasting no time in getting into the driving seat, though the pit work was not as smooth and confident as one would like to see; it was quick enough, but lacked the certainty of the Ferrari team. The Jaguar team were controlled by two signboards, one indicating faster, steady, slower or come in by a simple and clear movable arrow, the other giving lap times with plus or minus amounts clearly marked in black and white, illuminated at night by a hand-directed floodlight.
The Ferrari pit were urging their cars on with an impressive single-piece self-illuminating sign, like an advertisement hoarding, in the centre of which was a square containing the Ferrari ‘horse’ with a light behind it which flashed on and off. Similarly a slashing light Shell sign on the tableau indicated a refuelling stop. Put signals varied with the teams, some being over-complicated, others restricted to a minimum, while one of the smallest cars had the largest board of the lot.
By the time the early morning mists had cleared and the Jaguar pit was full of frying eggs and bacon, Rolt and Hamilton were still a lap ahead of the lame Ferrari which was nevertheless still going hard; three laps behind came the Fitch/Walters Cunningham a lap ahead of the Jaguars of Moss/Walker and Whitehead/Stewart./ Two more Ferraris followed, the coupé of the Marzotto brothers, the open Cole/Chinetti model, the 2.5 Gordini, Cunningham and Spear in last year’s open car, Levegh/Pozzi with the only remaining Talbot, González and Biondetti with the first of the Lancias and the Belgian Jaguar. While everyone not driving was contemplating breakfast, a regrettable disaster happened at White House when Cole crashed in his Ferrari and was killed instantly.
Still the leading Jaguar kept up the pace, now supported by the Moss/Walker car that was gradually creeping up; lap times were still around the 4min 34sec mark and the Ferrari was not letting up a bit. Shortly after 8.30am there was much excitement when the leading Jaguar and the leading Ferrari both made routine refuelling stops at the same time, while Moss moved up another place when the leading Cunningham came in for refuelling.
At 9.00am the field had settled down to 31 runners and by mid-morning the sick Ferrari was dropping back fast, now in fifth place due to unexpected stops to discuss the clutch trouble. Rolt and Hamilton were now way out in front, but they could not ease up as the leading Cunningham was now beginning to heap on the coal and challenge the Moss/Walker Jaguar for second place. Just how hard it was trying was seen by its speed over the flying kilometre which went up to a record of 246 and then 248kph, but Jaguars were in full command and speeded their man up accordingly.
The sick Ferrari was finally withdrawn at 11.00am having dropped back to sixth place and there was only the Marzotto car left to challenge the English speaking teams, but it could not do it and circulated in fifth place, keeping an aye on the mirror for the Gordini of Trintignant and Schell which was not far behind. On handicap the French had at last got their sums right and a DB was leading, though meanwhile the leaders on distance continued at a speed well over last year’s lap record. Normally in this 23 hour race the leading car can afford to slow up by midday on Sunday, and lap at anything over 30 seconds slower than the fastest laps, but with the Cunningham still pressing hard in third place, the two leading Jaguars were kept going at a seemingly impossible speed.
With three hours to go the pace slackened a little, but the average was still over 170kph and not far short of last year’s lap record, and there were 27 cars still running, the last of the Lancias having disappeared out on the course. In the closing stages the order did not change and as Hamilton took over to complete the last stage of the race he was followed by Moss, Fitch, Stewart, Giannino Marzotto, Trintignant making a final bid to catch the Ferrari, Cunningham himself, Tornaco, the Cunningham coupé and Johnson with the Nash-Healey.
The two Austin Healeys, though some way back, were still running like trains and looking remarkably clean, while the two super-Porsches were beginning to get into formation for a typical German finish, winners of their class. The little cars were still going round, some fast, some slow, some only just, and the DB was still leading the handicap event. As the leaders started the last hour, both Jaguars and Cunningham began to have their bonnets split, due to fastening catches breaking and Moss stopped to tear a piece of his away, as did the leading Cunningham, while Stewart looked to be in danger of losing the whole of the side of his bonnet.
All the cars were still sounding very healthy and were lapping at over 100mph, and when 4.00pm arrived the whole Jaguar organisation relaxed, sure in the knowledge that they had cracked up the whole of the Continental opposition with a two year old car and had more than made up for their debacle of last year and their Mille Miglia retirements. It had been an Anglo-American victory in a most outstanding manner, and while Jaguars cannot afford to become complacent they can enjoy a wonderful success, won after one of the fiercest battles Le Mans has ever witnessed.