21émes Grand Prix d`Endurance les 24 Heures du Mans 1953
Circuit Permanenthe de la Sarthe
Date: June 13th and 14th, 1953
Conditions: Warm and dry
Track Length: 13,492 metres
Distance: 4088.064 km
Fastest Lap: Alberto Ascari, Ferrari, 4:27.4 = 181.642 km/h
Average Speed: 170.336 km/h
After the formation of the World Sportscar Championship in 1953, of which Le Mans was a part, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and many others began sending multiple cars backed by their respective factories to compete for overall wins against their competitors. Unfortunately this fierce competition would also lead to tragedy with an accident during the 1955 race in which the car of Pierre Levegh crashed into the crowd of spectators, killing more than 80 people.
I Drove At Le Mans
by Phil Walters
When the officials opened the Le Mans race circuit for practice this year, it was a crucial moment for the Cunningham team. One of the three cars Briggs Cunningham entered in the great 24-hour French race was brand new. It had just been finished. It was so new it had yet to be driven flat out. We had designed the new two-seater specially for the Le Mans course, which got us the fish eye from some of the experts. It is my personal belief that independent front suspensions do not have any advantage over a properly designed beam axle for road racing. The solid front axle we designed was lighter and allowed us to use extra-large brakes by moving them in away from the wheels. Consequently we got better brake cooling. We were told solid front axles wouldn't function correctly over 100 mph. We knew better, but there was still some strain as I wheeled the car out for its first practice laps at around seven or eight o'clock in the evening. There was still plenty of light. It isn't completely dark until around ten in France at that time of year (June 13-14).
Before long, I knew the C-5R was just as we had planned. It behaved perfectly - not only at 160-170 mph, but in the corners as well. With that off my mind, I took another lap or two - looking the 8-mile, 675-yard course over. It was about the same as last year - a well-kept high-speed road, putting great emphasis on brakes and acceleration. Leaving the starting line, a broad four lanes sweep uphill past a long row of pits on the right and five big grandstands on the left. The road curves to the right around the Automobile Club de l'Ouest's two-story clubhouse and under the huge Dunlop tire - which is a bridge over the course for spectators. After this high-speed bend, the road continues up over a rise and down into the "Esses," where the brakes and gearbox get a workout in slowing for the quick left and right curve.
Then the road passes under the other Dunlop bridge and over a spectator underpass into Tetre Rouge Corner - another sharp one. Up to this point, about a mile from the start, there is a steep bank on each side of the road, about five feet high, which is lined with woven sticks. One false move and the driver finds a badly bent and scratched car on his hands. After Tetre Rouge comes the long top-speed stretch, over three miles long, leading into Mulsanne Corner. There is no question about Mulsanne: it has to be taken slowly. This means braking and shifting down from 160 or 170 mph to 30 or 40 mph. From Mulsanne to Indianapolis and Arnage Corners - which occur one right after the other - there's a curving straight about a mile long. The stretch to the finish about 'IVz miles beyond Arnage has several fast bends, the most famous being the White House (Maison Blanche).
The start of the 1953 Le Mans.
Phil Walters Cunningham is pictured left.
Phil Walters leading the first lap of the 1953 Le Mans.
Phil Walters in foreground, John Finch behind.
Briggs Cunningham (back to camera).
Phil Walters prepares to take over.
One of two Austin Healeys that competed at the 1953 Le Mans.
They came in 12th and 14th places.
Porsche coupes had special racing bodies. Rear fenders had fins welded on to conform to F.I.A. regulations.
Huge 4.5 litre French Talbots promised to be a threat.
Three ran; only one went the distance, finishing 8th.
Calm before the storm. A stock XK-120 Jaugar passes under Dunlop
Bridge during practice session before the 1953 Le Mans.
Cunningham C-5R rear view.
Cunningham C-5R front view.
Cunningham C-5R side view.
Cunningham C-5R engine bay.
We all agreed that the C-5R was in fine shape. Without winding much over 5,000 rpm (we knew the Chrysler engine would turn up 6,000), we were able to take a shade oft Ascari's 107.6-mph lap record of last year. Practice ended at about one in the morning. Fangio had turned a lap at 108 mph in the 3.5-litre Alfa coupe - which didn't worry us too much as we knew we could duplicate it it we had to. The main thing was to remain in the race and finish. We had checked the records and found that the winning speed at Le Mans averaged about 3 mph increase each year. A 5-mph gain over the winning Mercedes lap time last year (96Vz mph approximately) wolild give a car a fighting chance, while the 104 mph we planned for the C-5R amounted to a safe margin of 7 mph over the record.
Thursday practice found a lot of the boys hot to go. Villoresi, who would co-drive with World Champion Ascari in the 4^4-litre Ferrari coupe (the other two factory-entered coupes were 4.1-litres), turned a lap at over 109 mph. Fast, but the Ferraris had blown up last year even though Ascari set the lap record. It looked like they were in for a repeat performance. The 2.9 Aston Martins practiced very beautiful new roadsters - but didn't seem too much of a threat. The French press ran pictures of a supercharged version, but for Some reason it didn't start. It was on Thursday that one of the V-8 Pegaso roadsters, driven by Jover, came through the sweeping bend under the first Dunlop tire and went into a skid. In correcting, Jover slid into the bank of earth and woven sticks. The car rebounded across the road and Jover was thrown out and seriously injured. We later heard that he had been flown back to Spain, where he died on the operating table. On account of this, the other Pegaso was withdrawn before the rare, completing the run of bad luck that started when a fire at the Barcelona factory destroyed the cars originally intended as entries.
Very few cars practiced Friday. Ascari was reported with a lap speed of 112 mph; a Jaguar had gone around at 110 mph. It rained early Saturday morning, but cleared before dawn. Weather reports assured us of good driving weather during the race hours - 4:00 p.m. Saturday to 4:00 p.m. Sunday. As the day wore on. a seething mob flowed through the entrance gates. It was said there were over 300,000 people by starting time, which was easy to believe. Some estimates ran as high as 800,000. The grandstands were packed to overflowing. People were swarming over the balconies above the pits. Up as far as Tetre Rouge Corner, both sides of the road were thick with humanity. Camping areas became thickly dotted with house trailers and tents. Fine dust got kicked up and settled over everything. Loudspeakers, placed every few feet along the course, blared French dance tunes with boogie-woogie thrown in once in awhile. Dance pavilions were set up and shops sold candy, food, and all kinds of refreshments. Church services were held three times a day. The car parks were full and the airport back of the stands was getting more and more filled with planes. A big crowd of American soldiers had been flown in from some place nearby to see the race.
As 4:00 p.m. approached, the Gendarmes formed a long line on the grandstand side of the road and moved slowly across, sweeping everyone - photographers, crews, and team members - off the course and out of the way. No onfe was allowed back in the road except the drivers who were starting the 24-hour haul. The way we planned it, Bill Spear was to drive last year's C-4R roadster at the start and Briggs Cunningham would take over after about three hours or so; the C-4R coupe would be started by Gordon Benett with Charles Moran standing by; and I would drive first in the C-5R, turning it over to John Fitch later. We took up positions inside small white circles painted on the asphalt across from the pits where the 60 cars, each parked at an angle, pointed toward the first curve. Largest-displacement engines were in front, the cars growing progressively smaller toward the rear. The C-5R sat third from the head of the line, right after the Cunningham-Spear roadster.
A supercharged 4.5-litre French Talbot headed the group - Le Mans rules put blown cars in a class twice their size. Back of my car were the Benett-Moran coupe, two Allards, the blown 2.5-litre Lancias, the Ascari-Villoresi 4.5-litre Ferrari, unblown Talbots, Nash-Healeys, 4.1 litre Ferraris, and so on down to the small-displacement French cars. The playing of the national anthems of the competing nations broke into the bedlam of crowd noise. Then the announcer began to count the seconds toward 4 o'clock. A tremendous silence fell. Not one of the spectators said a word. Before we realized it, Faroux, the organizer of the event, dropped the flag. We all dashed to our waiting cars. I got across the road fast and into the C-5R Cunningham. The engine fired up on the first push of the starter. As we rounded the first turn, I was the first under the big Dunlop tire and up the hill. The Allard No. 4 (with Sidney Allard driving) wrs very close behind - moving fast. I thought I glimpsed the light-colored stripe on the nose of one of the blown Lancias right behind the Allard and the Cunningham coupe right behind that.
The first lap showed how things were going to be. It looked more like a one-lap sprint than a 24-hour grind. Keeping within the planned rpm limit, I was about fifth at the end of the first lap. Up ahead, the Allard was leading with Villoresi's Ferrari hot behind and Moss pushing him in a C Jag. A blown Lancia had passed me and the Cole-Chinetti Ferrari (a roadster entered by Chinetti) was right behind, winding high through the gears. Rolt in another C |ag was in the bunch right around me, battling with the Hawthorn-Farina Ferrari coupe. From the way things were going, some of these boys would have to break up soon. The Allard that had gone around the first lap at the head of the pack dropped back and then stopped altogether on the fourth lap. Apparently part of the de Dion rear axle had broken, severing a brake line. Moss won the scrap with Villoresi and was holding the Jaguar in first place at 106 mph. One of the Nash-Healeys was the next to pay the price of the high speed ninth lap: burnt bearings. The Cole-Chinetti Ferrari was third with Rolt's Jag fourth, just ahead of the C-5R.
I don't know what the Alfa team strategy was, but the three-litre coupes dropped way back at the very beginning. Evidently they had underestimated what the speeds would be. However, there must have been a change of plans, for by the ninth or tenth lap they passed me within a few yards of each other - obviously intent on trying for the lead in the early laps. About this time, the Farina-Hawthorn Ferrari came into the pits to check the brakes and got the black disqualification (lag for adding brake fluid. Le Mans rules forbid taking on water, oil, or other fluid before the 28th lap. The V-8 Fiat, I understand, started badly, running on seven cylinders, and lasted only 8 laps.
At the end of the first hour (5:00 p.m.), the Cunningham C-5R was running like the proverbial Swiss watch. The engine revved easily to the 5,000 mark and the gearbox worked perfectly. The car felt like it could keep its pace all week long. I had dropped to eighth place, but still wasn't worried. Most of the leaders had to collapse in the next 23 hours. But they evidently didn't think so. Villoresi, racing with the Cole-Chinetti No. 16 Ferrari during the second hour, came around in his Ferrari at 106 mph. Number 16 pushed that up to last year's record - 107 mph. Villoresi answered with 108.2, and then Sanesi, Alfa-Romeo's test driver, made one lap at 110.1 mph and another at 110.3 - but the Jaguar still led.
On the 17th lap, Reg Parnell (Aston Martin), who had taken fifth in the recent Mille Miglia, skidded off the road in the Esses. He was unscratched. but the car was out for good. I heard later he wasn't sure how it happened. About that time, I re-passed Fangio's Alfa, which was quitting with a broken piston. Our planned average, by the second hour, moved me up two places to sixth. The car was functioning perfectly - brakes, steering, engine, everything - and it seemed to corner better than the jobs with independent front suspension.
The two remaining Alfas were just ahead. Cole and Chinetti's Ferrari was holding a very fast third behind the Villoresi-Ascari Ferrari. Something had happened to Moss in the leading Jag during the second hour - trouble with a fuel filter I believe - and he stopped a couple of times in the pits, which dropped him back to 21 st. The 4.5-litre Ferrari took over first for a few laps and then was passed by the Rolt Hamilton Jaguar. Sanesi in the first of the two Alfas in front of me broke the lap record again - 111 mph this time - at the end of the third hour and, because the lead cars began fuelling up, got into the lead for a few miles. I saw my pit signal and came in after about two hours and 50 minutes of driving. This gave me a chance to relax a little, wash some of the road grime from my face, and see what the other cars were doing.
Bill Spear, still driving the C-4R roadster, had gotten away to a good start at the beginning, but he kept to his pace according to plans and at the first hour was in 17th place with Benett in the coupe 24th. Spear's steady lapping moved him to 13th in the second hour and tenth in the third. Benett had moved from 24th to 18th in the second hour and held that position through the third. The Austin-Healeys - fine looking little cars - were back in 32nd and 33rd places, but running easily and smoothly. They handled beautifully and were harder to pass than some of the bigger cars - even though 1 understand they were changed very little from stock. The special streamlined Porsches seemed unbelievably fast for 1500cc cars.
When John Fitch took over from me, he was in ninth place because of our pit stop, but he soon made it up to sixth again, and then into fifth - always driving according to our plans. All three Cunninghams continued to run smoothly all night long. The French people really make a big holiday out of this yearly event. They are familiar with the cars and drivers, and keep close watch on the giant scoreboard - hundreds of feet long - above the pits across from the grandstands. When a favourite car moves up a place or falls back, they all cheer or groan. Every half hour or so, this year, a British announcer took over the P.A. system to give the standings, but the Cunningham team was never absolutely sure what he was saying.
While it was still light, about 8:30 p.m., the biggest Ferrari (4.5-litre) was still close behind the leading Jaguar and pressing hard. Finally, the Italian car came around in the lead, shifting down at the end of the pit stretch with the familiar Ferrari crackle. A little later, the announcer gave the news that the car had broken the record at 112.8 mph. Ascari was announced as the driver, but from the pits it looked like Villoresi. About 15 minutes later, the Ferrari came in for a pit stop to refuel and the Jaguar was in the lead again. As the sun sank lower, the two Bristol coupes (entered by Bristol Aeroplane Company) took on an unreal look. Their giant tail fins made it obvious that aircraft designers had had a hand in building them.
About 9:30 was the hour for the headlights (yellow, according to French law) to be turned on. There was talk now in the pits about the Jaguar disk brakes - a new development by the Dunlop Company in conjunction with Jaguar. Briggs had been testing this type of brake, but we hadn't gotten enough mileage out of them for this year's race. Jaguar. who have been working since 1946, had disk brakes that would withstand 36 hours of hard use. It was strange to accelerate past the Jaguars in the long straight, outrun them in top speed, and then shut off for the turn at the end-only to see the Jaguars go 100 yards or so further into the turn before braking. Our brakes. I'm sure, are the best of the conventional type ever developed, but nothing can stand up to the disk brakes.
When complete dark came, it was quite a sight. All the pits and grandstands were lit up. The crowd was in its gayest spirits. High overhead, a barrage balloon displaying the Maichal cat was illuminated by black light. The cars streaked by with their yellow headlights. Most cars carried two extra driving lights slanted out to the sides to illuminate the turns. The Ferrari and Jaguar duel kept up through the night. When Rolt and Hamilton came in for a pit stop, the Ferrari got by into first, but it was re-passed before midnight. Surprisingly, very few of the spectators seemed to go home or to town to sleep. They camped in tents or slept on the ground - with or without blankets. By dawn, the roadsides were as jammed as ever, thousands crowded behind the earth ba rricades.
There were few retirements between 0:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., but by 2:00 a.m. several cars had Faded away. One of the supercharged Lancia’s broke a rocker arm and was out. Later, the second Aston failed, 1 believe with clutch trouble. The Cunningham team was moving up. The C-5R was fourth and an Alfa was third (the other Alfa was dropping back with some unascertained trouble and finally went out). The 1500-cc class was left to the Porsches as the lone 1.5-litre Gorclini stopped and the Osca driven by Fred Wacker and Phil Hill broke its differential. At 2:00 a.m.. the remaining Alfa was gone from the race. The Moss-Walker Jaguar (at the tail end in the first hour) had used its fabulous brakes to move up to fourth. The C-5R was third. Though the lap speed was now over 10 pet. higher than the 1952 average, no one showed any signs of letting up.
About 3:00 or 3:30 a.m. the famous Le Mans ground fog began rolling in, making driving difficult, particularly through the pit straight. The glare of the pavilion lights in the fog made pit signals difficult to catch. The turn into the dark at the end of the pits seemed like jumping off into nowhere. The leading cars had to keep sharp lookouts to keep from ramming the slower ones. Most of the coupes had their windshield wipers working furiously. Both of the weird Bristols had now gone out with identical trouble. The engines seized and the rear wheels locked, skidding the cars off the course, where they caught fire when oil spilled on the red-hot manifolds. Tommy Wisdom, who was driving the second Bristol, was burned severely enough to necessitate a week's stay in a hospital.
At shortly after 6:00 a.m., a shock came to all of us. Tom Cole, who had been co-driving with Luigi Chinetti, was lapping very fast in the 4.1 Ferrari. As he came into the curve before White House, the car got into a skid and went off the road. Tom was thrown out and killed instantly. Tom was very well liked in Europe, having raced there all this year. He was a popular English sportsman who had become, or was becoming, an American citizen at the time of his tragic death. The hours from then on were the most difficult. Aside from the feelings of practically all of the drivers, now was the time when the teams began to get on edge. Everyone had been up all night with little or no sleep and the pace was beginning to tell. The big question was which cars could last out the remaining hours. Four o'clock in the afternoon seemed a long way off when I came into1 the pits at sometime after 8:00 a.m. The Cunningham crew got a big round of applause from the crowd for a fast pit stop. John Fitch jumped from the pit counter as the crew finished re-fuelling, flung the seat pad I had forgotten to remove high in the air as he vaulted into the car, and took off.
The order of the leaders from then to the end of the race was much the same except that the clutch on the 4.5-litre Ferrari couldn't stand the strain of competing with the Jaguar brakes. It began to slip badly about 9:00 a.m. By 11 o'clock, the Ferrari was completely out of the race. The Moss-Walker Jag had made up all the time lost and was now running second to Rolt and Hamilton. The C-5R Cunningham was second for a while during the Jaguar pit stop and then was third. The C-4R roadster was seventh and the coupe was tenth. And that was the way we finished - at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon - Fitch, tired and dirty in the C-5R; Briggs looking the same in the roadster; and Moran, tired but not so dirty because of the protection of the coupe. I don't think the Cunningham team did badly. Three cars started. Three finished among the first ten, in perfect running order, against the best sports cars in the world.
The man who deserves the credit is Briggs Cunningham - one of the best-liked people in the sports-car world. He has spent an enormous amount of time, effort, and money in the last three or four years developing America's only competition sports car. The Cunningham has brought America valuable prestige and friendship abroad - a much-needed factor which seems to be overlooked too often. The four-speed gearbox is a case in point. Briggs went to one of the leading transmission manufacturers and told' them how badly we needed something better suited to competition than the three-speed transmissions which were available. The company president was cooperative but was overruled by the sales department. The sales manager reported that a survey of the automotive industry indicated that no American manufacturer contemplated using a four-speed box in the immediate future. Briggs offered to pay the tooling and production costs on two boxes, but he was told lie would have to order 1,000.
We reworked and used a four-speed Siata gearbox (Fiat truck gears and U.S. parts) successfully this year, but Briggs would like very much to race an all-American car at Le Mans - and win. The Chrysler Corp. showed a very different attitude. Although they haven't been connected financially with the Cunningham cars, they have shown outstanding foresight in their cooperation -answering technical questions and supplying certain special parts. Furthermore, they have taken a great interest in the things we have learned about the Chrysler V-8 engine in racing. Some of these things will appear on future production cars. We hope Chrysler's wide-awake attitude will spread to other companies.
At any rate, the Cunninghams will be back at Le Mans next year - with disk brakes. The C-5R was the fastest car at Le Mans this year, which makes it look like a good basis for next year's winner.
Phil Walters was one of America's top sports-car drivers.
Index of Performance (7th Annual Cup)
Pierre Chancel / Robert Chancel
19th Biennial Cup
Pierre Chancel / Robert Chancel
5001 - 8000cc
Phil Walters / John Fitch
Cunningham - Chrysler
3001 - 5000cc
Tony Rolt / Duncan Hamilton
2001 - 3000cc
Maurice Trintignant / Harry Schell
1501 - 2000cc
Ken Wharton / Laurence Mitchell
1101 - 1500cc
Rickard von Frankenberg / Paul Frère
751 - 1100
Mario Damonte / "Helde" (Pierre-Louis Dreyfus)
501 - 750
René Bonnet / André Moynet
D.B. - Panhard
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