5 Unbelievable 24 Hours Of Le Mans Drivers
Written by John Lamm // Photography courtesy of The Revs Institute
Driving 20-hour stints in the 24 Hours of Le Mans is very much a thing of the past. Not only are modern cars in the daylong classic very demanding, but the rules forbid it. These days a Le Mans driver can be behind the wheel only four consecutive hours in a 6-hour period and no more than 14 hours during the event.
Years ago, some drivers would just stay behind the wheel for hour after hour. There were a number of reasons for these marathon drives. Perhaps the second driver wasn’t considered trustworthy. He might have been ill. Or perhaps one driver got into a good rhythm and just kept at it. There was a rule instituted in 1953 that restricted how long drivers could stay behind the wheel, but it only limited them to 18 hours.
Here we want to make note of a few of the epic drives in the 24 Hours of Le Mans when it was much more a around-the-clock enduro and not a sprint race as it is today.
Luigi Chinetti – 1949
There was no doubt Luigi Chinetti knew how to drive to a victory at Le Mans. He’d done just that with Alfa Romeos in 1932 and 1934. The unknown commodity in 1949 was the Ferrari.
The company had only been building cars for two years, powered by Giacchino Colombo’s V-12. Ferraris had won the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio in 1948 and 1949, but this Le Mans was a headliner as it was the first time the French classic would be run after World War II. It was such an important step away from the conflict that even the President of the Republic, M. Vincent Auriol, was on hand.
Chinetti teamed with Peter Mitchell-Thompson, better known as Lord Selsdon. The Ferrari 166MM–serial number 0008 M– was the very car that won the Mille Miglia earlier in the year and Chinetti brokered the sale to Selsdon.
He also had personal strength. Phil Hill said of Chinetti, “He could meter out his energy. He would take a flight across the Atlantic in those days when it took a lot of time to make the trip from Europe and most of us ended up looking like wrecks. Not Chinetti, who had the stamina and ability to just go on and on.”
Most reports have Chinetti, then 48 years old, driving all but about 20 minutes of the race. At the finish, the Ferrari was one lap in the lead on the second place car, a Delage, and also won the important Index of Performance.
Louis Rosier – 1950
A former Resistance fighter and a Renault dealer in Clermont-Ferrand, Louis Rosier started the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans at an apparent disadvantage. His Talbot Lago T26 GS may have looked to be a Grand Prix car with lights and cycle fenders, but with its 4.5-liter straight-6 it wasn’t the latest technology compared to Ferrari’s 166MMs. Remember, Luigi Chinetti had won with a similar car the year before.
Co-driving with his 25-year-old son–listed as Jean-Louis to avoid confusion–44-year-old Rosier then had to stop early on to replace a rocker shaft in the valve train. Back in the race, he set the pace, driving the first 100-mph lap at Le Mans. The Ferraris began to fail and by lap 165 the last of them was parked.
There is some apparent confusion about just how much time Jean-Louis drove, but most reports from the era put his efforts at somewhere around 30 minutes. Louis Sr. did the rest, even hanging in after catching an owl in the face during the night, cutting him and smashing his goggles.
Despite the engine repair, the errant owl and what must have been a bit of fatigue, Louis Rosier won the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans by a lap over another Talbot Lago.
Eddie Hall – 1950
Eddie Hall hadn’t intended to race the Bentley he bought in 1933, but after using it as a reconnaissance vehicle for the 1934 Mille Miglia, in which he was to compete an MG K3 Magnette, he changed his mind.
Rolls Royce owned Bentley by then and hadn’t intended to have them raced, but Hall convinced them otherwise and they assisted him. He entered the famous Tourist Trophy race with the Bentley and although he was the fastest in the field in 1934-35-36, he always finished 2nd on handicap. For that last year, Rolls installed a 163-horsepower, 4 1/4-liter engine and Hall had Offord & Sons fashion a new streamlined body for the Bentley. That’s the form in which Hall’s car can be seen in the Collier Collection at The Revs Institute.
But that’s not quite how it looked when Hall entered the Bentley in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans. Temporary bodywork rounded off the front end and provided a coupe-like top for the big car. To say the least, the Bentley looked 17-years ancient up against the styling of the Aston Martin DB2s, the Touring-boded Ferraris and Briggs Cunningham’s Cadillac Type 61 Sedan de Ville.
Yet, Hall beat all the Ferraris, the Caddy and one of the Astons by finishing 8th overall. He was 50 years old at the time, drove the race solo and then retired to his apartment, which overlooked the harbor in Monte Carlo.
Briggs Cunningham – 1952
One of the favorite cars in the Collier Collection is the 1952 Cunningham C-4R with its Chrysler Hemi V-8. Considered by some to be the essence of what a race car should look like, it was one of three entered for the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans, two roadsters and one coupe.
There was no denying the Cunninghams were fast, but they also had a problem with their Alfin brakes. This required a deft touch with the cars, which is not necessarily compatible with racing. Before midnight, the coupe and one roadster were finished, possibly due to over-revving while trying to compensate for the brakes.
Briggs Cunningham was paired in the other roadster with Bill Spear, who he knew “liked to go like the hammers of hell.” Not promising considering the clutch was beginning to slip.
The other problem was Spear’s eyesight. Cunningham had once overheard a doctor at Road America advise Spear that with his eyesight he should never drive without his glasses. On the Briggs Cunningham website “Mr. C” is quoted as recounting, “As I drove along at Le Mans that night all I could think of was what the doctor at Road America had said, and all those overtaking problems at Le Mans and the fog that probably would come in again in the morning. So I just stayed with it until late Sunday.”
That totaled up to 20 hours of driving, working the C-4R up to 4th overall at the finish.
Pierre Levegh – 1952
It’s likely the ultimate tale of endurance at Le Mans is that of Pierre Levegh.
Reports say that the Frenchman–born Pierre Bouillin–had attended every 24 Heures du Mans since it began in 1923 and he wanted a French car to win. In 1951, Levegh finished fourth with René Marchand and they were teamed in 1952, like Rosier in 1950, in a Talbot Lago T26 GS, this one fitted with a sports car body.
The main competition included Jaguar, Ferrari and, back in competition for the first season after World War II, Mercedes-Benz.
Jaguar had won in 1951, but added an ill-advised nose design for 1952 that had them retired within the first four hours. The Ferraris began to fade. But not the Mercedes 300 SLs. Levegh pushed on with a pair of the Mercedes not far behind. Around 2 am, the Frenchman took the lead.
Mercedes seemed content to shadow the Talbot, which had built a healthy lead. With each stop, Marchand, Levegh’s wife and Tony Lago did all they could to get him out of the car, but he refused. At one point Marchand reportedly even tried to physically remove the exhausted driver, but was pushed away.
After almost 23 hours it finally happened. The 300SLs rushed by, but no Talbot. The soon-to-be hero, Pierre Levegh, was now a national villain.
There are two reports of what happened. A common one is that Levegh was so exhausted he over-revved the engine and it blew. Another that came out years later was that Levegh knew from the start that there was a problem with the bottom end of the straight-6 and he felt Marchand wouldn’t have the fine touch to keep it running.
We’ll never know, of course, because it all ended in tragedy.
Levegh came back to finish 8th in 1953 and retired in 1954, again in Talbot Lagos. His epic drive in 1952 was rewarded by Mercedes in 1955 when he was teamed with American John Fitch in one of the company’s stunning 300 SLRs. That’s what he was driving when he was launched over the back of Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey and onto the embankment in front of the main grandstand where he and at least 82 others died.