FIVE Things You May Not Know About Le Mans 1955
There’s apparently a new motorsport film out starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon. No, I don’t know too much about it either, but it’s said to be quite good and focuses a lot on Ford v. Ferrari – hey, good title! – and their various exploits at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Once again, it’s given us the barely veiled motivation we need to trawl through the photography archive, and that, somewhat inevitably, led us to the most famous race to ever take place at La Sarthe in 1955.
Now, everybody unfortunately already knows about the horrific circumstances that led to the deaths of Pierre Levegh and well over 80 people in the packed grandstand his airborne Mercedes 300 SLR landed in (the archive footage is still harrowing to watch). It’s one of the darkest moments in motorsport history, one that led to the banishment of motor racing in Switzerland until 2018 and Mercedes-Benz withdrawing from motorsport altogether for over three decades.
Dig beneath that sickening details though and you will find some other notable pieces of Le Mans trivia. For example…
1. Ken Miles and Colin Chapman made their Le Mans debuts.
In Ford v. Ferrari, Christian Bale stars as Ken Miles, a noted mechanical engineer and former staff-sergeant in the British Territorial Army tasked by Carroll Shelby to help develop the Cobra, the Mustang GT 350, and, of course, the GT40. A fruitful relationship it turned out to be too: aboard the GT40, Miles finished 2nd and 1st at the 12 Hours of Sebring in ’65 and ’66, and took a memorable win with the ‘Mk.II’ at Daytona in 1966. Were it not for the intervention of team orders, Miles’ 2nd place at Le Mans in 1966 alongside ’67 Formula 1 World Champion Denny Hulme could easily have been a win too.
What’s often forgotten though is that Ken Miles’ first encounter with Le Mans actually came more than a decade earlier. Alongside fellow Brit John Lockett, the former USAC Road Racing Champion finished a solid 12th overall in the diminutive MG Cars EX.182, narrowly pipping the Porsche KG 550 RS Spyder of Auguste Veuillet and Zora Arkus-Duntov in the process. We’ll come back to that in a second.
Slightly further up the grid meanwhile, a young precautious engineer by the name of Colin Chapman was also making his Le Mans debut, doing so aboard the ‘Lotus Engineering’ Mark IX he’d developed. Before turning his keen eye full-time to the discipline his cars would go on to dominate during the 1970s, Chapman proved himself a very impressive pedlar on-track, chalking up national wins at Aintree, Snetterton, Goodwood and Silverstone. The credentials of teammate Ron Flockhart meanwhile, who went on to win back-to-back Le Mans’ in ’56 and ’57, were also beyond reproach.
Unfortunately, Chapman’s Le Mans debut ended in ignominious fashion. Shortly before half-distance, the Lotus patriarch went wide at Arnage and only just managed to avoid Don Beauman’s beached Jaguar D-Type. Reversing back onto the track earned both Chapman and Lotus the black flag. A second DNF one year later, this time alongside Herbert MacKay-Fraser in a Lotus 11, represent Chapman’s only entries at Le Mans.
2. Mike Hawthorn began, what would later become, an event record.
Despite being directly involved with Levegh’s fatal accident, and with Jaguar having controversially decided against withdrawing from the event, Mike Hawthorn went on to win the ill-fated 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955. It was the first of an eventual three wins for the D-Type at La Sarthe, a hat trick that makes the shark finned big cat the joint-third most successful car in Le Mans history, but few were in the mood to champion Jaguar’s achievement that weekend. Indeed, amidst the subdued celebrations and accusations of guilt, a picture was taken of a smiling Hawthorn supping champagne (“unrepresentative,” according his official biographer) and run in L’Auto-Journal the next morning with a withering caption: “Ä votre santé, Monsieur Hawthorn.” Your good health, Mr Hawthorn.
It’s all the more unfortunate that, alongside the most controversial victory of his career, Mike Hawthorn also set into motion a Le Mans record in 1955. One that still stands 64 years later.
Britain’s first Formula 1 champion set fastest laps at Le Mans for Jaguar in 1955 and 1956, and did so again for Ferrari in 1957 and 1958. That run of four consecutive fastest laps is unsurpassed to this day, and only Jacky Ickx recording his fifth fastest lap at Le Mans in 1985 prevents Hawthorn from holding the record outright.
3. Aston Martin celebrated its then-best result at Le Mans.
Having arrived on the Le Mans scene for the first time in 1928, Aston Martin had entered every 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1931 by the time the ’55 race rolled around. Bizarrely, in those intervening 23 outings, the British marque had only two outright podiums to its name at Le Mans. Charles E.C. Martin and Charles Brackenbury finished 3rd aboard an Aston Martin 1½ Ulster in 1935, while Eric Thompson and Lance Macklin, whose name will unfortunately live in Le Mans infamy, took their DB2 to the final step of the podium in 1951.
All that was about to change though, for at the 1955 race, Peter Collins and Paul Frère finished 2nd aboard Aston Martin Lagonda’s DB3S. And thus the door creaked open for a run of success at La Sarthe for the British marque. One year later, Collins, now teaming with future knight of the realm Stirling Moss, again took the DB3S to 2nd place, and in 1958, half brothers Peter and Graham Whitehead claimed another 3rd place for Aston with their privately-entered DB3S. Sandwiched in-between was an ‘S3.0’ class win for Jean-Paul Colas and Jean Kerguen in 1957.
All this of course was on the run-up to Aston Martin’s first, and thus far only, outright win at Le Mans in 1959, Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby dutifully taking the honours aboard the DBR1.
4. Porsche KG continued its undefeated streak.
If you’re unfamiliar with Porsche’s almost sarcastic levels of success at the 24 Hours of Le Man, firstly, how are you here? Secondly, sit back and don’t interrupt, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
Germany’s favourite sports car manufacturer – sorry Audi – currently holds the record at La Sarthe for most wins (19), most consecutive wins (7), most 1-2 finishes (12), most podium lockouts (8), the highest number of cars in the overall top 10 (8), the most fastest laps (14), and the most consecutive pole positions (6). And that genuinely is just scratching the surface.
Said gargantuan success got off to a good start in the early 1950s, with Porsche KG winning every class it entered at Le Mans from 1951 to 1958. In ‘51 and ‘52, Auguste Veuillet and Edmond Mouche piloted the 356 SL Coupe to ‘S1.1’ victory. In ‘53, Richard von Frankenberg and Paul Frère led home a Porsche 550 Coupé 1-2 in ‘S1.5’, and one year later, the Porsche 550/4 RS Spyder was victorious in both the ‘S1.1’ and ‘S1.5’ classes. In ‘55, von Frankenberg, now partnered with Helmut Polensky, led home a 550 RS Spyder 1-2-3 in ‘S1.5’ to continue the company’s streak.
Ironically, while Aston’s run of form peaked with its win in 1959, Porsche’s momentum went off the cliff that year, as none of the five 718 RSKs nor the sole 550A made it further than the 20-hour mark.
5. The 1955 race set a new distance record.
Boggles the mind, doesn’t it? How is it possible that the most cataclysmic race in Le Mans history was not only allowed to continue but completed a greater distance than any of the 22 editions that had come before it? Well, the superior pace of Grand Prix machinery that had gradually become commonplace at the event admittedly had something to do with that, but still, it’s a sobering reminder of ‘safety’ in motor racing during the 1950s.
Come the chequered flag, Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb had completed 307 laps of the 13.461km La Sarthe circuit, amassing a combined distance of 4135.38km. That was three laps and just over 47km further than the previous best, recorded by Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton in 1953. Also for Jaguar.
*Images courtesy of Motorsport Images