Mission improbable for 1953 LeMans winners

 

PAST IMPERFECT:Sore-heads from the night before did not deter one Jaguar team from clutching LeMans victory, writes Bob Montgomery 

THE CHRISTMAS and New Year holiday season is a time when, quite rightly, the annual message of not drinking and driving is hammered home. Thankfully, there are very few today who would question the validity of the message and how a growing awareness of it has saved lives in more recent years.

The simple fact that drinking impairs a driver's ability is accepted without question but incredibly, one of the most famous victories at the Le Mans 24 Hour race was achieved by two drivers who were. . . well, quite inebriated.

To win such a long and competitive race as the Le Mans 24 race drivers need to be at the peak of their fitness with a clear head and razor-sharp reactions. The last thing they need is a hangover. That Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton won the 1953 race in just such a state is one of motor racings stranger stories.

For the 1953 race Jaguar introduced disc brakes for the first time on their cars. It was believed that these would give their drivers a crucial advantage over the rest of the field which was equipped with the then normal drum brakes. Three "works" Jaguar 'C' Types were entered to be driven by Moss and Walker; Whitehead and Jimmy Stewart and, as reserves, Rolt and Hamilton. Rolt and Hamilton would only be guaranteed a start if one of the 60 accepted starters dropped out.

By late on Friday evening there had been no withdrawals and Rolt and Hamilton were informed that their services would not be required. Both drivers were somewhat larger-than-life characters, so it was little surprise that they went off and got drunk, in fact, very drunk, as they drowned their sorrows.

However, in the early hours of Saturday morning the Jaguar team manager, "Lofty" England, found the pair sitting on a pavement and informed them that there had been a withdrawal and that they were due to start the race in a few hours.

Despite the best efforts of all concerned the pair were still decidedly second-hand as the clock came around to the start time. Neither had any enthusiasm for participating in the race - so much so in fact that they had to toss a coin to see who would take the opening stint behind the wheel. Rolt lost the toss, and started the race.

Perhaps it was the fresh air but after an hour Rolt was no doubt surprised to find himself in third place behind the similar car of Moss/Walker and the Ferrari 375 of Luigi Villoresi and Alberto Ascari. Moss then ran into trouble with a blocked fuel pipe and the resultant stops to solve the problem dropped him to 21st place. This allowed Villoresi into the lead, but Rolt then set a new lap record and passed the Ferrari. Having taken over the Ferrari, Ascari responded and began a battle which was to continue right through the night between the two makes.

However, the Jaguar always had the upper hand, thanks to its superior braking and in the early hours of Sunday morning had pulled out a two lap advantage over its Italian rival. Around 8.30am it became clear that the Ferrari had a slipping clutch and sure enough, two hours later, it retired, leaving Rolt and Hamilton to continue to a most unlikely win.

Although exhausted over the last stages of the race, the pair managed to continue, driving 2,540 miles at an average speed of 105.84mph - the first time a Le Mans winner's average speed had exceeded 100mph.

As they were toasted for their win, one wonders if their own celebrations were not perhaps a little subdued.