23rd - 24th June
55 starters 18 classified finishers
Out of a record 114 applications,the Automobile Club de l'Ouest in Le Mans accepted the FIA limit of 55 entries, 20 of them homologated Grand Touring cars running for Championship points and 35 of them "prototypes" running for glory.
Le Mans was originally a race for stock touring cars but has long since become a straightforward spectacle. The organizers seem to have a guilty conscience, for they keep trying to get back to "reality." (In this they have a lot of influence on the FIA's CSI.) They announced that this year's race would be for GT cars only. Second thoughts then arose and the desire for a grand spectacle prompted them to permit up to four-liter "prototypes" of GT cars. Since the freshly banned Appendix C sports cars were three liters or less (and had to have wider cockpits than GT rules specify), observers were hard put to tell which way the organizers were headed.
"Bull-headed" could well have been Colin Chapman's comment. His slipper-like Lotus 23s with his own twin-cam heads on Ford 1,000-cc engines were halted at scrutineering; first because the front and rear wheels were different (four- and six-bolt) and, when that was altered, because the cars were not "within the spirit of the regulations." More freely translated from the original French, this meant the 23s looked as though they could easily beat the little French cars on handicap-and where would Le Mans be without a French winner?
The last two days before the race were devoted to day anq night practice, adjusting headlights and installing fog lights and readying the pits for the exhausting 24-hour test that lay ahead. On Saturday morning, Eugenio Dragoni, Ferrari's new team manager, also got some Sarthe static. The 2.4 V - 6s ( G T prototypes? ! ) were allowed through scrutineering on the condition that the too-long bolts mounting the seats be shortened so that the 12-cm ground clearance... would actually exist. Scant hours before the start, the ever-alert officials found that the test block (see photo, left) wouldn't pass under the cars, brusquely told Dragoni to cut the bolts within the hour or pack up. His tart reply was that they grant final approval in 10 minutes or he'd put the cars on the truck to Modena. Zut - what a storm! But the 2.4s started, and who'd dare look to see whether the ground clearance was truly there?
When the flag went down at four p.m., Fernand Tavano won the foot race across the pit straight. (Perhaps, being a Le Mans resident, he knows that part of the course well.) However, it was Graham Hill in the Aston Martin 212 who got around the 8.36-mile super-smooth circuit first. Having barely managed an under-four-minute practice lap, Hill rather shook the vast Italian contingent with his 500-yard lead over Gendebien (whose Ferrari had practiced in 3: 56.) This wasn't a sprint effort but simply the result of an excellent start.
Next time around the order. was reversed; the Rodriguez 2.4 Ferrari and the Hansgen and Trintignant 4.0 Maseratis following closely. Parkes was digging his Ferrari GT out of the Mulsanne sandbanks, and by the time he got back on the course 1956 co-winner Sanderson was retiring the TVR. After one hour, Gendebien still led the Aston, but all three Maseratis were ahead of the Rodriguez Ferrari. While Ferrari had numerical strength (15 of the 55 en tries), Dragoni must have been just a little unsettled to have only one car in the first five, albeit the leader.
In the next hour, however, the fleet Rodriguez brothers brought the little 2.4 Ferrari from sixth to within four seconds of second place. By the third hour they were in the lead. The Hansgen/McLaren Maserati, was second and the Phil Hill/Gendebien car was third. Only three other cars were on the same lap (44) and the Masson/Zeccoli Fiat-Abarth led on the Index of Performance handicap by only .003 from the over-all leaders.
Extreme optimists started rooting for the Mexicans, reminding themselves that not since Ferrari's first Le Mans victory (in 1949, Luigi Chinetti and Lord Selsdon) had the overall winner also taken the Index.
In the second three hours, the Maserati fell back some seven laps and the Hill/Ginther Aston Martin fell back (25-minute pit stop while a sweating Lucas man replaced the armature so the' generator would charge) and then out (with no oil pressure). The Hill/Gendebien team had retaken the lead, their edge over the 2.4 varying from a quarter minute to a half-lap.
But an hour later the amazing Rodriguez brothers were leading the race, Index and all. It was 11 p.m., pitch dark (though free of rain) and all one could see on the track was brilliant headlights sweeping by, lighting, up the barricades, at the turns for the spectators but rather little of the road ahead for the drivers. They would roar by, lights on the body sides illuminating the numbers hardly at all, and then streak away into the night showing only a pair of pale red lights which would brighten fitfully upon reaching the next turn.
Throughout the night the two dissimilar Ferraris raced on, swapping the lead back and forth, always on the same lap despite the pit stops, and gradually outdistancing all other competitors. At four a.m., the race's midpoint, the little one was 31 seconds ahead of the big one. (Rodriguez rooters still a wake had only minutes of hope left.) They were followed by three other Ferraris, the Hansgen/McLaren Maserati, three more Ferraris, two Jaguars, another two Ferraris, an Austin-Healey, a Lotus Elite and 18 other cars. Of these, 15 were fated to retire, but it was clearly going to be a Ferrari day.
Well before the sun rose it became clear that the Mexican national anthem would not be played this year either. At 4: 45 a.m., the game Little Mexicans'- car sputtered to a stop, one of its six pistons broken, and both the drivers' hearts. The Hill/Gendebien team, twice victorious here, clearly had only to ease its car along-but one never could be certain.
At 11 Sunday morning Phil Hill handed over to Gendebien and settled down in Shell Oil's "Welcome," a hospitality tent for drivers and journalists. "Le Mans is the biggest stroke job in the world, yet you've got to go to win it," he said before breakfasting on" steak, Tiger's Milk and strawberries. The long, rainless night was over, the sun was shining, a cool breeze was blowing, and everything looked, beautiful at Le Mans - especially their five-rap lead over Guichet/Noblet's Ferrari Berlinetta. It looked as if Hill and Gendebien would again win Le Mans and by stroking.
Actually, Phil had his fingers crossed. Just a few laps before coming in, he'd noticed the clutch slipping as he pulled away from White House a top-gear, back-off-slightly kink in the long straight approaching the pits. He had taken great pains to so inform Gendebien as they stood on the pit counter while the Ferrari was,refueled and its tires changed. Engineer Foghieri was told too, but elected to make no adjustments. As Gendebien pulled away from the pits, the engine sounded right, Olivier not letting it stall, though it wanted to, and the car seemed in perfect condition.
Under the Dunlop Bridge he went, up the hill and down into the Esses, virtually alone on the track, as only 20 cars were still running. He braked moderately for Tertre Rouge, downshifted, then roared down the Mulsanne straight. Each gear change was now made with greater care than ever; power was applied only when the clutch was fully home and shifts were made at lower revs than before.
Not all the race was run this gently. Phil managed finally to crack Mike Hawthorn's five year-old mark by lapping in 3: 57.3. (In practice he'd done an unofficial 3:56.0-nearly 128 mph.) Down the Mulsanne straight the car was timed at 184 miles per hour-over three miles a minute on gasoline.
In the five remaining hours, they, kept the car, going and the clutch , from slipping, winning by the same five-lap margin. They set no race record for distance, but Gendebien is the first driver to win four times and Ferrari is the first Marque to win six: (Three-timers are now Phil Hill, Luigi Chinetti, and Woolf Barnato, while Bentley and Jaguar each have won five times.)
The wirining car has a 3,968-cc V-12 engine derived from the Superamerica. It has six carbs and is rated 390 bhp at 7,500 rpm. It is front mounted in a strengthened 95.2inch wheelbase Testa Rossa chassis. The beefed-up TR five-speed gearbox is engine attached, taking the torque to an independently sprung rear end. Though the stylish-looking horizontal stabilizer behind the cockpit had never been tested effectively, it and the real glass windshield set into a form-fitting plastic one were used anyway. In effect, this was a coupe running with an open sunroof.
"Fie-ah-bool" Roberts, as the NASCAR driver was called by the exuberant French, dropped from third to sixth after an 80-minute pit stop when the refueled Ferrari flatly refused to start up. But it was the race he meant when he said, "It took too doggone long."