Particular motor races have a special place for many enthusiasts. The Indianapolis 500, Daytona, your national grand prix, the Monaco Grand Prix or Italian Grand Prix are typical and justified calls. One that continues to hold appeal for many Brits is the Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans – the Le Mans 24 Hours. Held every spring from 1923 to 1939 and then again from 1949, it combines endurance, glamour, history and dogged achievement in what is recognised as one of the world’s leading motor sport events, and has attracted manufacturers from around the world. Is there any other single event outside North America Henry Ford II would have put that much effort into?
We Brits have a special place for it – the history of success by Bentley (1924, 1927–1930, 2003) and Jaguar (1951, 1953, 1955–1957, 1988, 1990) are enough to secure that, along with the success of British drivers – more Brits have won than any other nationality, led by Derek Bell with six wins. Every June, there’s a large number of British enthusiasts camped in the surrounding forests for the weekend and also for the bi-annual Le Mans Classic in July.
The (clockwise) circuit is comprised partly of discrete track and partly public road, obviously closed for the occasion and fitted with safety barriers.
It has inevitably evolved over the years but elements of the public road are easily discernible though.This video is of Mike Hawthorn, driving a Jaguar D Type in 1956, as a publicity event during practice in the preceding days to the race. Hawthorn had won the previous year (the year of the tragic disaster when 84 spectators were killed).
Hawthorn, equipped with state of the 1956 art in car camera and recording equipment, takes us round the circuit, avoiding cyclists and routine traffic. He still laps in well under five minutes, compared with the fastest lap in the race of four minutes twenty seconds, which he claimed. For reference, the fastest lap in 2020 was 3 minutes 36 seconds – the winning Toyota did 387 laps compared to 1956’s 300.
Hawthorn had mechanical issues – a cracked fuel line caused a misfire and cost him and his co-driver Ivor Bueb over 20 laps but they fought back to a creditable sixth place, with fastest lap as well.
Another Jaguar, driven by Ninian Sanderson and Ron Flockhart won, from Stirling Moss and Peter Collins in an Aston Martin DB3S and a Ferrari 625LM third. Quite a podium. And the winning car, below, has recently been auctioned for over $21million, a record for a British car
Jaguar won again in 1957, to claim a hat trick.
Hawthorn had a parallel career as a grand prix driver, and in 1958 won the Formula 1 Championship for Ferrari, the first British driver to do so, just pipping Moss to the title and losing his close friend and teammate Peter Collins at the Nurburgring. He promptly retired, at the top of his game and as survivor, only to die in a road accident just a few months later.
Hawthorn is sometimes overlooked, having a lower profile now than Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart, for example, but his achievements, bravery and sportsmanship deserve note and respect, as well as his “work hard, play hard” attitude. And, yes, he always raced wearing a bow tie.