When Bruce McLaren won Le Mans

Heritage

This weekend, while the Formula 1 focus will firmly be on the brand-new street circuit in Baku for the inaugural European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan, the race also coincides with the flagship endurance motorsport event of the year – the Le Mans 24 Hours.

The jewel in the crown of endurance racing attracts huge attention for all the right reasons – the admiration of the speed, agility, concentration and tenacity of both cars and drivers continue to leave fans gripped and in awe just as it always has since its first iteration in 1923.

The 84th 24 Heures du Mans at the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe also marks the fiftieth anniversary of victory at Le Mans by none other than our founder, Bruce McLaren. Driving a works Ford entry alongside co-driver Chris Amon, the race was another example of the spectacle of Le Mans we know and love – full of drama, intrigue, twists and turns and, in this case – a dramatic conclusion and the closest finish in Le Mans history.

To commemorate Bruce’s spectacular achievement, we delve into the archives and revisit an original race report from the most prominent publication of the era – Motor magazine – which conveys the excitement and drama of that thrilling weekend, fifty years ago.

 

24 Heures du Mans

Report by Philip Turner and Anthony Curtis

Le Mans 24 Hours, June 18/19 on the 8.36 miles Sarthe circuit. Weather fine but cool with occasional showers.


The first six – General Classification

 1stB. McLaren/C. Amon (7-litre Ford GT Mk. 2)3,009.5 miles125.4 mph
 2ndK. Miles/D Hulme (7-litre Ford GT Mk. 2) 3,009.5 miles125.4 mph
 3rdR. Bucknum/R. Hutcherson (7-litre Ford GT Mk. 2)2,909.2 miles121.2 mph
 4thC. Davis/J. Siffert (2-litre Porsche Carrera 6)2,834.9 miles118.1 mph
 5thH. Herrmann/H. Linge (2-litre Porsche Carrera 6)2,826.4 miles117.8 mph
 6thDe Klerk/Schutz (2-litre Porsche Carrera 6)2,818.0 miles117.4 mph

 
The race

There was something special about Le Mans this year, when most people expected Ford at last to topple Ferrari from his perch. Worried looking Ford executives in Dearborn had received a small card which, on one side, carried a map of the Le Mans circuit and on the other side a message: “Henry [Ford] Expects You to Win”. Heading the Ford onslaught were the eight 7-litre Ford GT Mk. 2s, of which three had been entered by Shelby America Inc., three by engine tuners Holman and Moody and two by Alan Mann from Britain.

In spite of the multiple entry system the teams seemed to work as one; there was none of that sense of “too many generals and too few firemen” that one gained last year. The big Peugeot garage on the outskirts of Le Mans where the cars were housed was a picture of orderliness with the eight cars plus a spare, all of which had been air freighted from the States, ranged side by side, as though on a production line. To look after these jumbo cars with their massive engines and gearboxes were an army of jumbo-sized mechanics, none of whom looked as though he weighed less than 14 stone. It was truly a considerable operation that Ford had launched, and to lead his troops to victory had come Henry Ford II in person. Which was very fitting as it was entirely due to his great enthusiasm that Ford had embarked on a competition programme in the first place.


After the cars had been wheeled into position there was a sudden last minute flurry of tyre changing to keep the huge crowd amused, for with but 20 minutes to go to the 4pm start, it had begun to rain. Only slightly, but sufficient to turn everyone’s thoughts to rain tyres. There was not a single un-occupied seat in the vast stands, not a single perching place for a one-legged sparrow on the great sweep of embankments overlooking the start area, and the excited roar of the crows swelled and rose as Henry Ford was handed the Tricouleur of France to start the race. The French commentator counted off the seconds as though the world’s end approached. Down came the flag, and once again we heard the characteristic Le Mans sound – a pattering of hurried feet, then a deep silence broken only by slamming car doors as the drivers launched themselves aboard, a pause until an engine fired with a roar, and a blast of sound swept the whole long line of 55 cars. The whole field was under way with Graham Hill’s ford in the lead.

By the end of the first hour Gurney (Ford) led from Hill (Ford), Bucknum (Ford), Rodriguez (Ferrari) and Miles (Ford). And the leading car had already lapped all but 15 of the 55 starters. Then came a flurry of refuelling and wheel-changing stops as the pessimists who had started on rain tyres changed back again, and the order changed from minute to minute.

By the second hour, the race had assumed a certain pattern which pit stops were not greatly to disturb for some hours. The pressing Ken Miles had taken the lead for Ford aided by co-driver Denny Hulme, and the next three places were swapped among the Gurney/Grand Ford and the Ferrari P3 of Rodriguez and Ginther, and Parkes and Scarfiotti with the McLaren/Amon Ford holding a watching brief in fifth position.


At around 11.30pm, seven and a half hours after the start, there came a multiple shunt at Tertre Rouge involving Schlesser’s Matra-BRM, the Cortanze/Piot Alpine and the Parkes/Scarfiotti Ferrari, Scarfiotti being brought back, shaken but unhurt, in the course car. The loss made a big dent in Ferrari’s chances. Hopes of a Ferrari victory began to recede even further when the Rodriguez/Ginther car first made an unscheduled pit stop and then came in again just before two in the morning. Whatever fate might have in store for Ford, the might of Modena had been broken with only half the race run.

Four o’clock and all’s well if your name is Henry Ford. With 12 hours to go, the first six places under your belt and nothing bigger than two litres higher than 12th you can relax a little. Something with the eight name on it ought to win.

Just before 10am, the leading Ford of Gurney and Grant came in for a routine pit stop. Large men jumped about with almost Italianate fervour, two leaping skywards on to the quick-lift jack to raise the front end for the brake discs as well as the pads and wheels to be changed, all of which took some six minutes. But within the hour the massive car limped in to its pit to retire with over-heating bothers, loss of oil and general debility.


So now only three Fords remained of the 13 that had started the race, but these three were first, second and third with McLaren and Amon in a Shelby American car leading from their team mates Miles and Hulme and the Holman Moody car of Bucknum and Hutcherson. Slowly the morning dragged by. Most cars were maintaining their positions and hoping to heaven they would last, rather than going motor racing. Only at Le Mans on just one Sunday afternoon in the year does each hour contain at least 600 minutes.

At 2.45pm – a little over an hour before the chequered flag, the McLaren/Amon Ford, at that time running in second place, came in for its last routine refuelling stop and set off again with McLaren at the wheel, just 2 min. 15 sec. behind the leading Ford of Miles and Hulme. Slowly McLaren closed the gap between the two Fords and when the Miles/Hulme car made its final refuelling stop for 1 min. 20 sec. the leading car set off again with only 40 seconds advantage. In four laps McLaren caught right up on the leader but then held station some two seconds behind it.

By now each pit stop was being cheered most heartily by the bigger than usual crowd that had come to see the finish of this duel of the Titans. Half an hour to go and three English bobbies on an exchange visit appeared in front of the pits, no doubt to view with horror all these foreigners exceeding the 70 limit – and on a Sunday, too! Then came the rain in a sudden vicious shower which slowed the cars still further. The Fords dropped to over five minutes a lap, their helicopter type windscreen wipers – said to cost more than the engine – working overtime in the spray. Ten minutes to go, and a number of blue overalled men appeared in front of the control tower laden with trestles and planks which they hammered together into a presentation in double quick time.

Five minutes to four, and the three leading Fords came past in a compact group.

Then it was four o’clock at last and those drivers who had timed things right crossed the line to receive the chequered flag without having to embark on another lap. A roar of excitement from the crowd as up from White House came a blaze of headlamps and there were the three leading Fords coming in almost in line abreast. It was difficult to say who crossed the line first.


“Who’s won?” cried everyone, for really it was impossible to tell whether the Miles/Hulme car or the McLaren/Amon one had crossed the line first. An enormous crowd of photographers and “me-toos” collected on the road in front of the control tower; the police produced a large rope; “Heave-ho, heave-ho,” cried the crowd, as though encouraging a tug of war team.

Then the public address system gave its usual ice cream chimes for an important announcement and silence fell. “Car No. 2 has won,” it stated. So Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon won the fastest, longest – in terms of distance covered, at 3,009.5 miles – Le Mans there has ever been. And they won by just 20 metres, for the Le Mans regulations state that in the case of a dead heat the relative positions in which the cars were arranged at the start will decide the issue.

As Ken Miles’ Ford was some 20 metres nearer to the starting line than the McLaren car, Bruce had therefore covered a greater distance in the same time and so was the winner.

The verdict shocked Ford who had tried to arrange a dead heat and it shook Ken Miles and Denny Hulme who thought they had won. But this last lap upset in no way altered the fact that Ford this year established complete domination at Le Mans and Henry Ford II looked a very happy man as he stood on the presentation platform between his victorious drivers. Knowing how swiftly the platform had been erected we kept our fingers crossed…