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THE RECENT LE MANS was won by Toyota Gazoo Racing for the fifth straight year. Not a Le Mans record, with both Ferrari (1960–1965) and Porsche (1981–1987) having six-year streaks.
All this reminded me of Bentley’s Le Mans domination in the late 1920s. And this in turn got me researching the marque’s first Le Mans, which happened to be the first ever 24-hour endurance race at the Sarthe circuit. Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits gleaned from two beautiful books, Bentley The Story and Bentley A Racing History, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.
The Venue. The inaugural Grand Prix d’Endurance de 24 Heures took place at Le Mans on May 26–27, 1923. Expect next year’s event to be historically hyped. However, what with a 1936 labor dispute followed by World War II and its aftermath, 1940-1948, the 2023 event will be celebrating the year, not consecutive runnings.
What’s more, Le Mans, 130 miles southwest of Paris, had hosted motor racing on earlier circuits. In 1906 the Automobile Club de la Sarthe organized the first French Grand Prix, indeed, the world’s first motor race named a Grand Prix. Its winner received a grand prize of 45,000 French francs, equivalent to 13 kg of gold, something like $772,000 in today’s dollar. This first French Grand Prix was run on a 64-mile road circuit east of Le Mans.
The inaugural endurance race in 1923 ran on a 10.72-mile circuit that had hosted racing since 1920. The roads ran from the outskirts of Le Mans to the village of Mulsanne and back. The start/finish line with pits opposite grandstands was half-way up the return.
Wikipedia notes, “For the spectators’ comfort and entertainment through the event, cafés and a dancefloor with jazz-band were set up behind the stands. There was also an area for people to use radios to pick up classical music broadcast from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Generators provided power for the public address system and lighting around the spectator area, and a long scoreboard was manually maintained giving the cars’ positions and laps completed and target distance.”
The Bentley Response. In Bentley A Racing History, David Venables describes Walter Owen Bentley’s thoughts on the Le Mans proposal: “When WO was told, his reaction was ‘I think the whole thing is crazy. Cars aren’t designed to stand that sort of thing for twenty-four hours.’ ”
However, enthusiast John Duff, a Canadian born in China, had already set a Brooklands record in September 1922, when he solo-drove his Bentley No. 141 for two 12-hour stints averaging nearly 87 mph. (Neighbors required the circuit be shut down each night.) Andrew Frankel notes in Bentley The Story, “Sitting in a bare aluminum seat that was too short for his lanky proportions, Duff had to be lifted from the car at the end of the first 12 hours and carried off to the Hand and Spear pub where he spent the night.”
Frankel calls Duff one of the first Bentley Boys, “a gutsy driver as ever sat behind the wheel of a Bentley.”
Though WO was reluctant, Duff persuaded him to lend assistance to an entry in the inaugural Le Mans. Frankel describes WO’s compromise: “He also provided two mechanics for the race and Clement [the works’ test driver] as a co-driver. The car itself, Duff would have to buy. WO’s view, even after acquiescence, had not mollified: ‘No other British manufacture was supporting the event and I thought they were probably very wise; I viewed the whole thing with the gravest suspicion.’ ”
Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll see how John Duff, Frank Clement, and Bentley did at the inaugural Le Mans. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022