The LeMans Story by Georges Fraichard (first published 1956)

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The LeMans Story by Georges Fraichard (first published 1956)

WHO made Le Mans what it is today? The organisers? - We've already given them their due. The host of officials, mechanics and pit-men? - They play a big part, certainly; but the crowds are hardly aware of their existence. This leaves the drivers - the men whose skill and courage bring the fans in their hundreds of thousands to watch the great 24-hour race, year after year. The men to remember.

Since the first race of 1923 there have been only two triple winners. Greatest record, and one that isn't likely to be broken, was that of Woolf Barnato, who drove Bentleys to victory in three successive years - 1928 - 1929 - 1930. Next comes Louis Chinetti, who won in 1932 - 1934 - 1949. His first two wins were with Alfas, his last with a Ferrari. Four men have won twice: Andre Rossignol, Tim Birkin, Raymond Sommer and Jean-Pierre Wimille. Only five times has the winning crew on distance also gained a victory on Index of Performance: Barnato-Birkin (Bentley) in 1929, Barnato-Kidston (Bentley) in 1930, Lord Howe-Birkin (Alfa-Romeo) in 1933, and Lord Selsdon-Chinetti (Ferrari) in 1949.

Raymond Sommer and Fernand Vallon have each competed in 10 races at Le Mans, and Louis Chinetti raced there 11 times. But the doyen of them all was Just Vernet, who competed 12 times, although he never bettered the sixth placing gained at his first appearance, in 1931. But enough of statistics. Let's get down to personalities.

What Sort of Men?

I've had the good fortune of having known, since 1926, nearly all the champions and many of the lesser-known drivers. I've shared their troubles and their joys, and can say that their attitude to life is that of healthy, well-balanced people. Admittedly, they like their moment of glory - but victory seldom goes to their heads. "We had a bit of luck," they say. They love their calling and freely accept all its risks. The courage they display on the track they often carry over into their private lives - and here, too, It sometimes leads them to take chances as deadly as any encountered in a race.

I met Robert Benoist in Handaye, when, as a very young journalist, I was sent by a Paris evening paper to report the Spanish Grand Prix. I had no passport and it looked as if I would not be able to cross the frontier, when Robert Benoist handed me a pair of overalls and offered me a seat in his racing Delage. At the frontier post the gates were flung open, and I heard the Customs men shout: "Vive Benoist! Vive Delage!" That time he was to win easily and become world champion. We became good friends, and I saw him many a time during the German occupation, when he was giving further proof of his patriotism. The Germans arrested him, put him in a concentration camp, and then hanged him.

I knew Louis Chiron, a beginner then, but already famous. He amassed the best list of international successes that it is possible to have, but he never won at Le Mans, and I think he must bear a grudge against Franco Cortesse for having put the car in a ditch when they were leading in 1933! I still see Guy Moll's smile, that lucky young man to have been so soon picked out by Enzo Ferrari. He was, with Berndt Rosemeyer, one of the amazing finds of the time. Rosemeyer was killed trying to break the record for the fastest road speed in a powerful Auto-Union car; the Algerian prodigy was killed at the peak of his glory, in August 1934, on the Pescara circuit. It was I who picked him up. His accident had been a fearful one. It was presumed that a gust of wind, coming just as he was about to pass a competing car at about 135 m.p.h. in his Alfa-Romeo, had made the car swerve to the left-hand side of the road. It tore down 15 young trees before smashing itself against a culvert in the ditch. Both Rosemeyer and Guy Moll were only 24 when they died.

I shall never forget the difficult beginnings of the careers of Jean-Pierre Wimille, of Raymond Sommer, of Rene Dreyfus. Of these three great champions only Dreyfus remains alive. Nowadays he runs a restaurant in New York. Wimille and Sommer, past winners at Le Mans, died in the way they would no doubt have wished. Jean-Pierre died during practice for the Argentine Grand Prix, when he was at the summit of his glory; Raymond, that most intrepid of drivers, courageous and headstrong, was the victim of a fatal accident in a second-rate event at Cadours.

I would like to recall the champions of other years who are still with us, but only the names of men once popular and who have since disappeared come to my mind: Gerard de Courcelles, Antonio Ascari (father of the late Alberto Ascari), both killed while racing; the kind Campari, Borzacchini and the smiling Czaikowsky, all killed during one meeting at Monza; Guy Bouriat, Louis Trintignant (brother of Maurice), that master Achille Varzi, Robert Mazaud, Willy Williams, who, like Robert Benoist, died in deportation during the war, Emilio Villoresi (brother of Luigi), and how many others!

I remember the battles between the drivers of the Amilcars and the Salmsons at Le Mans. Andre Morel and Yves Giraul-Cabantous were the heroes, with Casse and de Marmier. Louis Rosier, who has been champion of France since 1949, first raced at Le Mans in 1938. During the war he had been a brilliant member of the Resistance, together with Maurice Huguet, who had been his co-driver at Le Mans, and immediately after the Liberation he once again took up motor sport. At Le Mans in 1950, after losing an hour changing a rocker shaft on his Talbot, he went on to win, driving for 23 out of the 24 hours, and breaking all the records as well.

Another Le Mans winner, Eugene Chaboud, is still keenly interested in the big events. Together with Sommer, Giraud-Cabantous and Louis Rosier, he has been one of the post-war French champions. He is a business partner of Charles Pozzi, who won a French Grand Prix (sports cars), and who is also a regular visitor to Le Mans. Many of my old friends have retired from racing, but others have seen their fame grow. Robert Manzon and Maurice Trintignant have both been French champions in Formula 2 racing, and Jean Behra topped this class in 1952.

The "Campionissimo"

I would not like to close these reminiscences without devoting a few lines to Tazio Nuvolari, the most brilliant driver Italy has produced. His daring was matched only by his virtuosity. And yet he used to be afraid, terribly afraid, while at the wheel of a racing car. He had cause to be, as his driving was absolutely hair-raising. I can still see him sitting astride the tail of his blazing Alfa-Romeo at Pau. Neither am I likely to forget his cries at another race, while an ambulance was taking him to hospital in Tripoli. His car had overturned at 125 m.p.h. with a burst tyre, and Nuvolari had the luck to land on a bed of leaves which broke his fall.

At the hospital it was established that he had cracked two vertebrae. The accident had occurred on the Thursday during practice. On the Sunday Tazio was brought to the circuit on a stretcher, carried into his car, started in the race, and finished fourth. The same evening, when he was brought back to the clinic, the surgeon put him into a plaster corset which he had to wear for several months.

Tazio Nuvolari, the "Campionissimo" as they called him at the time, had nothing of the athlete about him. He was short and small, and deep-set in his wrinkled face burnt two feverish eyes. Raymond Sommer used to say that Tazio was the greatest racing driver of all time. He was, he would add, the most courageous and congenial, the most obliging and modest man that one could imagine. Our champion had learnt much from his association with Nuvolari, and he was proud to have had him as tutor. "Tazio," said Sommer, "was the man with 74 international victories to his credit, often gained at the risk of breaking his bones - the man who was taken 17 times to hospital in a serious condition, the man for whom each race was a threat of death ..." And now both these great men have gone.

Through Vernet's Eyes

Many fine drivers have come up to replace them, but we need not speak here of the younger generation - their careers can be followed in the current Press. Let us, instead, try to see how a typical Le Mans driver feels about the 24-hour race. And who could be more typical than Just Vernet, veteran of 12 Le Mans contests? Vernet kept a diary of his Le Mans experiences, and he has allowed me to pick a few random highlights from it. Here they are:

  • 1931 - At last I am taking part for the first time in the famous 24-hour race. I team up with Fernand Vallon. Our car is a Caban, made by Yves Giraud-Cabantous. With its 1100 c.c. Ruby engine it will reach 78 m.p.h. Vallon starts the driving, but where has he got to? Raymond Sommer has started on his second lap, but my driver has not appeared. Here he is at last. He had to adjust a loose rocker, and then I get another shock when he is late again, at the same time as Rost had his accident. I learn later that he was one of the first to give aid to the injured driver. My turn to drive has now come. I feel nervous when the big cars pass me, but get used to it. We finish sixth in the general classification and first in our category with a 55 m.p.h. average. I shall come back next year.

    There is a wonderful atmosphere about this race. As this is a private notebook, I can write down that to help Giraud-Cabantous out of the sand we sent round a mackintosh in which a shovel was hidden. This was, of course, forbidden, and our ruse did not succeed. One of the marshals intercepted our envoy before he got to Giraud-Cabantous, and the trench-coat and shovel were displayed in the Clerk of the Course's office with a note inviting the owner to come and claim them. We took good care not to do so! I can write down another thing which no one except Vallon knows. Our crankshaft broke as we crossed the line.
  • 1932 - Vallon is again my co-driver, but this time we have an 1100 c.c. Salmson. Alas, we haven't got very far when our clutch gives out. I now know the bitterness of retirement, betrayed by a mechanism over which I had lavished such care. Vallon consoles me. We shall return next year.
  • 1933 - We stay in a small hotel at Laigne-en-Belin. The food is wonderful and Vallon likes it so much that he hopes the race will be put off for a time, but he is only too glad to confirm that the circuit has been further improved and the signalling made more effective. I was present at Mme. Siko's accident and the subsequent fire. It was terribly hot. A tree which she snapped on the way fell on the tail of our Salmson. Had I been a fifth of a second later, it would have come down on my skull.
  • 1934 - Daniel Porthault is my team-mate and we have a Lorraine which weighs two tons. It reaches 100 m.p.h. and its brakes are nonexistent. We keep up a 68 m.p.h. average, which is good enough for vs. At eight in the morning I break a valve. To be quite frank, it is my fault that we have to retire. Why did I let myself be drawn into a scrap with Gardner? I saw him in my mirror, smoking a pipe and making friendly gestures. For some reason this exasperated me, and along the straight I put my foot down hard. With the rev counter at 4200 r.p.m. I hear a slight metallic noise; from the engine came the smell of burnt oil, and that was that. Next time round my Englishman, still smoking his pipe, made signs of despair. At the end of the race he said to me: "I am so sorry; we were having such fun."
  • 1935 - I come back to the restaurant Saint Hubert, where I find Porthault and our Lorraine, underslung and faster, but holding the road rather like a wiper on a rain-coated windscreen. After struggling for 435 miles we give up. Two consecutive retirements - it's too much. Next year I shall come up with an 1100 c.c. car. Hindmarsh and Luis Fontes won the event, which they would probably never have done had there not been in the Lagonda pit a certain tall and lanky mechanic, who explained to Luis Fontes the A.B.C. of the gearbox. Fontes had left the broken-down car out on the circuit and was going to announce his retirement. Having had his lesson, he went back to the car, repaired it, and won!
  • 1949 - My car is a Simca coupe, which I have lovingly prepared. She is fast and holds the road marvellously. I drive from four o'clock till seven the next morning. When I hand over to Batault, I enjoin caution. Before he has completed his first lap, he has run out of road ... and destroyed in a few seconds a whole year's work. Self-restraint, they say, is a useful quality in motor racing.
  • 1950 - During practice, while Sommer and Rosier were lapping at over 100 m.p.h., Auguste Veuillet, who was driving a Delahaye, turned over at Tertre Rouge. He was taken to the clinic with blood streaming down his face, causing his friends much anxiety. A little later one of them telephoned the clinic to get news of him. Imagine his surprise to hear Veuillet's voice at the other end, saying: "It's O.K., old boy, quite O.K. I have damaged my eyebrow bone, that's all ...". I decided this year, against everyone's advice, to try my luck with a baby Renault. This is my tenth attempt at this race. My co-driver is Eckerlein. During the second hour I break a valve cotter.

    Thirty-five minutes are spent in repairing it. At the end of 24 hours we are third in our class at a 55.226 m.p.h. average. As usual, masses of people and some anonymous friends . . . For instance, during the night I noticed a torch flash three times whenever I passed Arnage. At daylight the torch was replaced by a small flag which was waved by an unknown couple. At the end of the race I did an extra lap to meet and thank my tireless supporters. "We have known you for many years," they told me. "Ever since your car caught fire in the Esses at Arnage!"

Scrutineer's Angle

We have now seen Le Mans through the eyes of a driver. But our picture won't be complete unless we approach it from yet another viewpoint - that of the officials, whose task is to see that all regulations are obeyed to the letter. Here are some extracts from a notebook kept by Erik d'Ornhjelm, which show how painstakingly every detail is checked by the scrutineers. This particular examination took place before the 1952 race. The fun started with the two Allards. The first one (No. 4) had forgotten his Customs Carnet, which must be shown before a foreign car is allowed to go to the start. Both cars had to add strips to their front^ wings before they would completely shield the tyre for 30 degrees forward of a vertical line through the hub.

The two Frazer-Nashes arrive on time and completely fulfil the requirements. However, one of them is to have its dynamo changed, so the new one will have to be stamped before the start. Here come the two DB-Panhards; they are late, and will have to pay a fine of £5 each. One has a closed body, which conforms to all the regulations though the fuel tank filler is not quite wide enough by a fraction of an inch. A mechanic puts this right with a pair of pliers. The two Lancias, one red, one cream (red is Italy's racing color, but national colors are not compulsory), will have to alter the position of the rear number, which is not far enough round to the right for the timekeeper to spot easily. The new number will have to be lit up.

The three works Aston-Martins are also late. Two others arrive punctually, they are identical DB2's of 2580 c.c. All the Astons have bonnets which open forward. On the inside of this bonnet is placed a lamp to illuminate the engine in case of repairs. They are asked to put a shield over these lamps, so as not to dazzle competitors coming up from the rear. Ferrari No. 62, of three litres capacity and entered by the works, will be driven by Ascari and Villoresi. The rear wings of this car do not cover the tyres properly and will have to be extended by about two inches. The windscreen-wiper has to be repaired, a hand-operated one must be fitted, and the white bulbs replaced by yellow ones. And so it goes on - hardly a car that doesn't need some change, however slight.

It's on Again

This completes our picture of Le Mans - the race that has done so much for the development of motor cars over the past 33 years, and which is still doing it. For, despite last year's dreadful tragedy, the great 24-hour race lives on. And when the flag falls at 4 p.m. on July 28, you can bet that Le Mans will have a full quota of 200,000-odd spectators jamming the enclosures around its circuit, cheering the drivers on.
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