Sports Car and Lotus Owner, Vol. 1  No. 9,  July  1957

 What a Performance

British Cars Scoop the Pool at Le Mans   

by Ian Smith


Full impact of the magnificent victories in this year’s Le Mans Twenty-Four hours Road Race did not strike me until about thirty hours after the race was over. The race had marked an outstanding victory for Great Britain, in particular Jaguar and Lotus. As I stood in the dark on Sunday evening beside the lake in the grounds of the magnificent Chateau de Chevemy there was more time to think clearly, away now from the noise and hustle of Le Mans. We had just wined and dined magnificently as the guests of the Automobile Club de 1’Ouest — the prizes had been distributed and the speeches delivered. Le Mans was over for another year.

To say that British cars had burnt up the race, the results of which we had just celebrated, was no overstatement. In fact, so complete had been the conflagration that only the embers of a 2-litre class win and a 1500cc class win were left to foreign-built machines.

Up to the day of the race I had been fully occupied in the Lotus camp and so had not seen a great deal of the preparation of the other British cars but their performance at the practice sessions had shown great promise. Lotus this year had brought five brand new cars to the race -- a remarkable achievement for a small firm. Owing to the heavy racing programme over Whitsun, work on these cars had been severely delayed and had virtually taken place during the week after Whitsun. The two private entrants, Dalton/Walshaw and Hechard/Masson had collected their 1100cc cars on the weekend before the race, but the three Team Lotus cars were still being built in the main square at Dover on the Monday afternoon as the transporter awaited a passage on the midnight boat. By some heroic driving the transporter arrived at scrutineering exactly two minutes before the scheduled time and the three team cars followed the private entrants past the many scrutineers tables. At one time Lotus cars alone filled the long “Verification” shed. The mechanics saw very little of their beds before the Wednesday night as they toiled in the garage at their head­quarters at Mayet, some 18 miles from the circuit, preparing the cars for the first practice session.

The five cars which had been specially built for the race were not much different from the standard Eleven model. They all had the new wishbone front suspension and were fitted with Coventry Climax engines. Certain detailed mechanical alterations had been made to ensure a trouble free run of twenty-four hours. Outwardly the main departure from the standard body shape was the high back, and the curved screen which with the side screens was moulded into the raised rear bulkhead. The passenger side of the car was covered from screen top to bulkhead top by a “two-way-stretch” elastic tonneau which gave the car the shape of a very low saloon with an opening through which the driver could put his head. It had been planned to make the tonneau cover pneumatic so that when inflated the top surface would have been firm. However, lack of time prevented this. Unfortunately, these tonneaus did give trouble in the race when drivers were bothered with vibration from them and in two cases they tore and had to be cut away.

The car around which the main interest centered was the little 750, proudly displaying the Biennial Cup Roundel. Unlike the other Lotuses this car had bolt-on magnesium alloy disc wheels— a tyre change was not anticipated since the car was so light and every ounce of weight had to he saved,

The French-entered Lotus was also based at Mayet and on the Wednesday afternoon joined a most impressive line-ahead run to the circuit for practice. Following the low green cars round the course from Mulsanne to the pits was most exhilarating as I watched their squat shapes go twisting through the corners — as steady as a rock. In fact the American driver Jay Chamberlain was so intent in following the fleet of little cars that he forgot his vehicle was a conventional Ford saloon and made a most interesting exit from Indianapolis corner.

Practice showed that both the 750cc car and the 1100cc car, which was still a reserve, were highly satisfactory. Cliff Allison and Keith Hall were soon at home and without any trouble were lapping in the low five minute twentys. Peter Ashdown and Alan Stacey took things gently to start with as both of them were new to the Sarthe circuit. However, Peter soon turned in a 5 minute 1 second lap and Alan replied with two 5 minute 3 second laps. Jay Chamberlain also tried this car and equalled Peter’s fastest lap. There were several snags with the twin-cam 1500cc car and the drivers did not have much time on the circuit with it. MacKay Fraser recorded the fastest lap of the session with 4 minutes 35 seconds. Practice had started at 6 o’clock and all the drivers were able to have some daylight practice before they were confronted with the difficult task of estimating whether the head­lights behind were from such as a 4 ˝ -1itre Maserati traveling at 170 mph or 750 cc Panhard which would stay behind. Graham Hill, reserve driver for Team Lotus tried the 1100cc car to be driven by the Frenchmen Hechard and Masson and put in some laps at under five minutes. His best was 4 minutes 56 seconds. Team Lotus therefore returned to Mayet in fairly confident mood with fastest practice times in both the 750cc and 1100cc classes. There was much work to do on the 1500cc car and some very fast practice times by the 1500cc Porsches of Maglioli/Borth and Herrmann/Von Frankenburg to beat.

Many of the other British cars were circulating well on the Wednesday evening. The new AC/Bristol of Rudd/Bolton sounded very hearty as did also the new DBR2 3.7-litre Aston Martin of Peter and Graham Whitehead. Most outstanding was the speed of Tony Brooks in the 3-litre Aston who put in a lap in 4 minutes 6.5 seconds -- 122.5 mph.

Mike Costin and his hard working mechanics worked all day Thursday from the early hours to prepare the 1500cc car for practice in the evening. It was decided not to run the 750 and 1100 cars again.  Rumour had it that owing to Wednesday night practice casualties there would be room for the third 1100cc car to run — Peter and Alan were full of glee at the prospect of their first twenty-four hours race.

After experimenting with carburettor settings the twin-cam engine really settled into its stride and MacKay Fraser circulated in 4 minutes 28 seconds. Jay Chamberlain was still learning the circuit but put in several laps around the 4 minutes 35 seconds mark. Then just before the light began to fall Colin Chapman, who although Team Manager this year had nominated himself as reserve driver on all the cars, decided to try the new car for himself. His knowledge of the circuit, gained from competing in the previous two years showed immediately — his first flying lap was 4 minutes 37 seconds, then 33 seconds, then 32-28 and finally 4 minutes 26 seconds. A new 1100cc lap record — something for Porsche to think about. It was a happy pit which realized that their cars now held fastest practice times in the 750cc, 1100cc and 1500cc classes. Jubilation was dashed when just before midnight MacKay Fraser stopped at Mulsanne with an engine showing unmistakable signs of a dropped valve — the twin-cam bogy had struck again.

Colin Chapman tried to think of ways and means of replacing the damaged engine but time was too short and so it was decided to concentrate on the other two cars. The 1100cc reserve car was now definitely a starter — some consolation for the loss of the 1500cc car. However, it did mean that Ashdown and Stacey would have to hand over “their 1100” to “official” works drivers MacKay Fraser and American Jay Chamberlain who had come 8,000 miles to compete at Le Mans.

The other British cars had fared quite well in practice, both Jaguar and Aston Martin teams being quietly confident, and the AC/Bristol and the Frazer-Nash of Stoop and Jopp were hoping to make up in regularity what they lacked in overall performance. The new Climax-engined Arnott saloon was rather slow, appearing to suffer from an excess of weight. The Cooper was not as fast as would be expected due to overheating trouble.

The detailed history of the race from the patter of feet at 4 pm on the Saturday afternoon to the cheers of a quarter of a million people on the sun drenched Sunday twenty-four hours later, has now been told by radio, television and the daily newspaper. In the race for the overall distance win the Italians do not appear to be able to temper their desire to go flat out from the fall of the flag — the result is that one by one potentially very fast cars just add numbers to the dead car park. This does not minimize in any way the magnificent Jaguar achievement whereby this marque finished 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. The winning car of Ron Flockhart and Ivor Bueb was a 3.8-litre car and was lapping consistently at 115 mph. The fine weather enabled this pair, both previous Le Mans winners, to set a new distance record for the event of 326 laps 2731.1 miles.

At the other end of the scale the speed of the 750cc Lotus pulverised the opposition who were striving for the very lucrative prize for winning the Index of Performance. First the DBs and Stanguellinis either crashed or suffered mechanical failure in their efforts to match the progress of the little green car. Then Porsche took up the challenge and when the cars of Magiloli/Borth and Herrnann/Von Frankenberg had disappeared that of Storez/Crawford made a desperate bid until with but one hour to go the crankshaft broke. Throughout the race the only speed instructions which had gone out to the 750cc drivers were to slow down and spare the car. It lapped consistently throughout the race at between 5 minutes 20 seconds and 5 minutes 30 seconds, except in the last few hours when it was slowed even further in view of its gigantic 16 lap lead. Pit stops followed a regular pattern every 35 laps for refueling and driver changes — at no time was it necessary to use a spanner on the car.

The 1100cc car, driven in the race by MacKay Fraser and Jay Chamberlain, also ran like a train with lap speeds about half a minute faster then the 750. At the time when the Porsche was menacing its second place on the Index of Performance MacKay Fraser speeded up and was lapping consistently at 105 mph — not bad for 1100cc. The only attention, other than routine replenishment, required by the second Team Lotus car was the changing of one rear tyre — an operation which was very swiftly carried out by the very keen mechanics. No praise is too great for the Team Lotus mechanics who were handling the pit work magnificently — after a week of ceaseless work on preparation of the cars.

The race ended with thirteen British cars in the 21 classified finishers. Jaguar filled the first four places in the over 3-litre class, the Aston Martin of Colas/Kerguen won the 3-litre class, the AC/Bristol came second in the 2-litre class, Lotus first, second and fourth, split by the Cooper in the 1100cc class, and the 750 cc class was taken by the Index winning Lotus.

Click here for Jay Chamberlain's recollections.