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1954 LE MANS—A DUEL IN THE RAIN

IT OCCURRED more than 60 years ago, but the epic battle of the 1954 Le Mans remains fresh in my memory. It was a classic one of brute force versus finesse, Italian volatility versus English understatement, one car bred for a thousand miles of rough Italian roads, the other specifically designed for the billiard-table-smooth Sarthe circuit of France. Add in horrendous weather at Le Mans that year.

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Jaguar D-Type. Image from http://www.the-blueprints.com.

For 1954, Jaguar introduced the D-Type. The car was mechanically similar to its C-Type (which had won at Le Mans in 1951 and 1953), but innovative in its monocoque construction and aerodynamic refinement, both following aeronautical practices. So new was the D-Type that it appeared unpainted at the spring 1954 Le Mans test sessions.

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Ferrari 375 Plus. Image from “The Ferrari Tipo 340 & 375 Sports Cars,” by Keith Davey & Anthony Pritchard, Classic Cars in Profile, Volume 4, Doubleday and Company, 1968.

By contrast, Ferrari followed a traditional approach: Bigger is better. In 1953, its 375 MM had evolved into a successful sports racing car, the name identifying its Mille Miglia heritage and 4.5-liter V-12 engine (375 x 12 equaling 4500 cc). For the 1954 season, the V-12 retained its 84-mm bore, with stroke increased from 68 to 74.5 mm. This gave a displacement of 4954 cc, an output of 344 hp at 6500 rpm and a new name, the 375 Plus.

The D-Type couldn’t hope to compete in power. Its 3.4-liter XK inline-6 produced 250 hp at 6000 rpm. Even so, the D-Type’s tidy frontal area and advanced aerodynamics gave it a top speed of 172.87 mph down the 3.7 miles of the Le Mans Ligne Droit des Hunaudières (aka Mulsanne Straight). The Ferrari 375 Plus topped out there at 160.13 mph.

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The Jaguar D-Type was particularly aerodynamic, albeit with less power than the Ferrari 375 Plus. Image from http://www.motorauthority.com.

What’s more, Ferrari drivers thought the 375 Plus was a beast. Earlier in the year, one of them found it so unwieldy that he withdrew after only quarter distance of the Mille Miglia’s 1000 miles.

The 22nd Grand Prix d’Endurance les 24 Heures du Mans took place on June 12 and 13, 1954. In those days, the classic Le Mans start was still in effect: Drivers ran across the road to their cars aligned diagonally and gridded according to displacement, the largest ones first.

Le Mans start chaos straightened out, the Ferraris of Frolián González/Maurice Trintignant, Robert Manzon/Louis Rosier and Umberto Maglioli/Paolo Marzotto emerged first, second and third. Ferrari dominance continued, with the D-Type of Stirling Moss/Peter Walker assigned the role of rabbit and moving up into third by the end of the first hour.

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The trio of Ferraris leads the first lap. Image from Classic Cars in Profile, Volume 4.

Before long, the first of several storms moved through and drenched the circuit, to the detriment of the Ferraris’ evil handling and abundance of power. Not that Jaguar was without problems: The D-Types were plagued with fuel-line clogs traceable to filters that proved overly efficacious with the questionable gasoline provided by the organizers. The team solved the problem by rerouting each car’s fuel line past its filter.

Race attrition came first to Ferrari with failure of the Maglioli/Marzotto car’s gearbox around midnight. Soon to follow was the Moss/Walker D-Type with problems of its innovative disc brakes (most cars of the era still used drums). Other broken gearboxes eliminated the Peter Whitehead/Ken Wharton D-Type and Manzon/Rosier’s 375 Plus (stuck in second gear around dawn).

By dawn, each team was down to a single car, the González/Trintignant 375 Plus running first and the Duncan Hamilton/Tony Rolt D-Type several laps behind after its fuel-filter problems.

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A rainy pitstop for the D-Type. Image from http://www.jaguar.com.

With breakfast came heavy rain giving the Jaguar a chance to attack the Ferrari’s multi-lap lead. When the rain eased, the Ferrari could resume using its greater power. Then, around noon, with four hours still to go, yet another storm passed over the circuit and the D-Type maintained the gap.

At 2 p.m., with two hours to go, the 375 Plus had a two-lap lead. At 2:45 p.m., Trintignant brought the Ferrari in for a routine stop and driver change. González got in—but the Ferrari refused to fire up. It took seven minutes for mechanics to fix the problem (likely a soaked ignition system). When the 375 Plus came back on the circuit, the gap had shrunk to 97 seconds.

Then the rain really came, with thunder and lightning all around the 13.5-mile circuit. Hamilton upped the D-Type’s pace and pared off another 11 seconds. Amid frantic signals from his pit, González had eased up (he had neither slept nor eaten for the past 24 hours).

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The Ferrari 375 Plus, victorious at Le Mans, 1954. Image from http://www.24h-lemans.com.

The last few laps, the rain abated. The 375 Plus beat the D-Type by 105 seconds, 2.5 miles ahead after more than 2500 miles of racing. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

2 comments on “1954 LE MANS—A DUEL IN THE RAIN

  1. Anton Thortzen
    April 9, 2015

    What a race, what a finish and what a car to give Ferrari it’s second Le Mans victory. Must have been tough to drive/wrestle the heavy 375 to victory. I believe Ferrari ditched the 375 soon after and concentrated on less successful 6-cylinder sports racingcars in the following years. Maybe he should have stuck with the 12-cylinder concept!!! Wish I had been there to witness the battle with Jaguar. I was there in 2011 and the finish was far closer that year with Peugeot loosing by just 14 second to Audi in a frantic race to the very end, but that’s an entirely different story.

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