Heroism was part of the Le Mans story from the very first race. The fastest car in the field and the only foreign entrant was John Duff’s Bentley. But it was ill prepared for the roughness of the circuit and soon enough a stone punctured the fuel tank, stranding Duff four miles from the pits. Undeterred, he ran all the way to alert his co-driver Frank Clement who stole a policeman’s bicycle and rode the wrong way around the track to repair the tank, some say with a wooden bung, others merely chewing gum, and continued racing. Just imagine if you will, pedalling down towards Arnage with the race going on around you. Their efforts were not repaid: although the car smashed the lap record, too much time had been lost to do better than fourth.
Raymond Sommer is, I think, the greatest of all unsung heroes of motor racing. He was the first person to win a race in a Ferrari, single-handedly beat the might of the works Alfa team both before and after the war and on occasion could beat Nuvolari in a straight fight. By 1932 he’d done Le Mans once but retired. He’d already won his class at the Spa 24 hours in a big old Chrysler that year but for Le Mans, he went and bought an Alfa Romeo 8C and teamed up with Luigi Chinetti to do the race. His car was nothing like as fast as the factory Alfa Monzas up the front so at the start he let them run away and wear each other out. Unfortunately, Chinetti got ill after only three hours driving, so Sommer drove alone through the night and the following day as car after car fell out of the race. It was only his second Le Mans and he won it despite being asphyxiated by a broken exhaust.
Herr Hitler ensured there weren’t too many opportunities for great Le Mans in the 1940s, but the 1949 race does warrant a mention here. Seventeen years after illness sidelined Sommer’s team-mate Chinetti, now it was Chinetti’s time to step up to the plate.
His car was a Ferrari and before you think that automatically confers some kind of unfair advantage, remember the company was barely two years old, his 166MM displaced just 2-litres and was entered not by the Scuderia but an English gent called Lord Selsdon. Unfortunately, his aristocratic patron got sick after just two hours, leaving Chinetti 22 to complete on his own, the longest successful stint ever at Le Mans. It was also the first time a marque had won the race at its first attempt (if you exclude Chenard et Walcker that won the inaugural event), a feat repeated just once since, by McLaren in 1995.
No shortage of choice here. I’d like to say 1953 and the tale of how Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt won after being found drunk in a pub – their car having been excluded in scrutineering – and told they were racing after all, but it turns out it’s not true. So instead I’ll go for 1959 because Aston Martin are on pole in the GTE Pro category this weekend and I think its sole outright triumph in the race needs recalling.
As for the race and Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori’s win, I’d ask you to bear in mind that Shelby had a heart condition and that they vanquished an almost unimaginably strong Ferrari contingent in the DBR1 that was already in its fourth season of racing. The plan had been only to do Le Mans that year, in the end, Aston won the World Sports Car Championship.