Le Mans hits 90

Bentley 3.0 Sport. Photo by James Mann

Bentley 3.0 Sport. Photo by James Mann

Last week was the 90th anniversary of the very first Le Mans 24 Hours. At 4pm on May 26, 1923, shortly after the onset of a rain shower, the starter’s flag fell; and, as the assembled cars (of which only one, a Bentley 3.0 Sport like the one photographed above, wasn’t built in France) scrabbled away on the roughly surfaced road, the rain turned to hail.

The inaugural enduro at Le Mans was billed as the first of three trials for the Rudge-Whitworth Cup, the idea being that after three years of competition the winner would be decided at a final run-off. The concept would not see the end of the decade and its description in The Autocar gives some idea as to why it didn’t find traction:

He would have been a clever man who could have indicated what constituted the basis of the Rudge-Whitworth Cup. A minimum distance had to be covered in the two rounds of the clock, this distance being in proportion to the size of the engine and rising from 503 miles for the 1100cc Amilcar to 968 miles for the big French Excelsiors. All those covering this distance would qualify for the following year’s race. Such a basis, however, left the race without a winner, and was as unsatisfactory for the drivers as for the public.

It was the entrants who, in effect, blew a raspberry at the idea that this would be a sedate reliability trial. As The Autocar’s correspondent noted, approvingly:

The first half hour indicated, however, that the great majority of the competitors had no intention of handicapping themselves by any considerations of a minimum distance, and that for a number of them it was going to be a race throughout.


Bentley 3.0 Sport. Photo by James Mann

Bentley 3.0 Sport. Photo by James Mann

Heavy rain made the 1923 Le Mans 24 Hours a miserable experience for all concerned – none more than Bentley drivers John Duff and Frank Clement, who raced without helmets or goggles throughout.

Duff, born in China to Canadian parents, was a colourful character who had, amongst other racing activities, acquired a 1908 Fiat Grand Prix car which he had campaigned at Brooklands until its engine blew in half. Having disposed of the Fiat’s remnants (to a fellow racer who would rebuild it with a 22-litre aircraft engine…) in 1922, Duff set his sights on the newly announced 24-hour race at Le Mans and entered a Bentley 3.0 Sport under his own name for the first edition of the vingt-quatre heures. In this enterprise he would be partnered by Bentley test driver Frank Clement, who duly gave the car its first test run along the company’s preferred route: out of the workshop and north up the A5 towards Stanmore, where Brockley Hill stood as a test of each Bentley’s ability to accelerate under load.

WO Bentley himself? He thought the race was a terrible idea, and only revised his opinion after witnessing his car giving ‘em what for.

Bentley 3.0 Sport cockpit. Phot by James Mann

Bentley 3.0 Sport cockpit. Phot by James Mann

Duff and Clement kept the leading Chennard et Walcker cars honest in the opening hours, but as darkness fell a stone penetrated one of their headlights. Chennard et Walcker offered to give them a spare but Duff and Clement elected to continue, reasoning that they would lose more time in stopping to change the light – with only one person allowed to work on the car at a time – than they would in muddling along with the holed one working intermittently. By dawn the Bentley was two laps down on the leader.

Duff took the wheel at 9am and set lap record after lap record in pursuit of the two cars ahead, but shortly before midday the Bentley spluttered to a halt. A stone had holed its fuel tank. Duff made best speed on foot back to the pits – a distance of three miles – while the stewards determined that Clement could borrow a bicycle to pedal back to the stranded car with what petrol he could carry once Duff had arrived. This he did, thoughtfully slinging the bicycle into the back of the Bentley so it could be reunited with its owner once he brought the car in.

Bentley 3.0 Sport engine – an in-line four. Photo by James Mann

Bentley 3.0 Sport engine – an in-line four. Photo by James Mann

Repairs cost over two hours, and while Clement broke the lap record once he returned to the course there would be no catching the leaders. Bentley would have to settle for fourth place.

Shifting the date to June for 1924 delivered better weather. Bentley won, but then in 1925 fell foul of a rule change which dictated that all cars had to run with their soft-tops erected until the first fuel stop, a minimum of 20 laps. Bentley hadn’t calculated the effect this would have on fuel consumption. The car photographed here (well, most of it – few cars of the period are fully original this long after the fact) stopped at the Pontlieue hairpin, out of fuel.

Bentley went on to dominate the race in the second half of the decade, breaking the domestic monopoly on the entry and setting the annual enduro on its way to legendary status.

You can read more – plug alert! – about the epic history of Le Mans and the cars that have competed there in Le Mans Legendary Race Cars: 90 Years of Speed, out this November, words by me, pictures by James Mann.


Bentley 3.0 Sport. Photo by James Mann

Bentley 3.0 Sport. Photo by James Mann

All In A Good Cause

New book features pictures taken by F1 personalities

New book features pictures taken by F1 personalities

Apologies for being slightly late getting on to this one, but the publishers had run short of review copies and it finally thudded onto the doormat shortly before Christmas.

The concept of Zoom: Through the Eyes of Formula 1 will make the eyes of anyone involved in the media side of the sport water. The authors, Christian Sylt and Caroline Reid (yes, they really do exist and I’ve seen them both in the same room at the same time), persuaded drivers and team principals from every F1 team to take a photo of their chosen subject and the results are published here. Having had to push through many give-a-driver-a-camera feature through over the years I can testify that it’s easier to herd cats. Well done the authors for making it happen.

As you might expect the drivers’ pictures vary in subject and effort, but the less imaginative ones (grid shot? Slap on the wrist for Mr Di Resta) are far outnumbered by the interesting and often bizarre images submitted by other F1 personalities including Bernie Ecclestone himself. In fact, ‘the Bolt’ supplies two shots, one of which is of a pair of statues from his house in Switzerland (“I can’t remember where they came from but I like them a lot”). Red Bull design guru Adrian Newey’s is of an Indian tractor.

The original images were auctioned by Coy’s in September and the proceeds went to the Great Ormond Street Hospital Childrens Charity. Michael Schumacher’s photograph alone raised £2500. The book retails at £20.

Free racing car photo exhibition in London

Legends of Le Mans

See more ‘Legends of Le Mans’ at Plough Studios this weekend

Do you like racing, rally and super cars? Of course you do. If you’re in London this weekend (November 24-25) there’s a free-to-enter photo exhibition laid on by my collaborator James Mann that’s right up your street.

As well as images from our bestselling Art of the Formula 1 Race Car and the well-reviewed (“I bought this for my cousin. He gave me five hugs and kept saying thank you! And he’s a 30yr old man!”) Art of the Supercar, James will be displaying photos from our forthcoming book Legends of Le Mans.

As befits the title of the new book, the cars in it have featured in some of the most epic Le Mans battles of all time. The Rolt/Hamilton Jaguar C-type from 1953. The 1970 Attwood/Herrmann Porsche 917. The 1988 Jaguar XJR-9LM. I could go on.

And as if fabulous pictures of famous racing cars and lottery-win supercars isn’t enough, one of the stars of the supercar book will be there in the metal. A Lancia Stratos!

Lancia Stratos

Lancia Stratos will be there ‘in the metal’, as it were

The exhibition is open all weekend and Plough Studios is just a short walk from Clapham Common tube station.

1953 Le Mans winner

Rolt/Hamilton’s 1953 Le Mans-winning Jaguar


Win a pair of tickets to the 2012 Santander British Grand Prix

2011 British Grand Prix. Photo by Darren Heath

Never has F1 punditry been more of a mug’s game. Car, weather, fuel, tyre management, sheer determination – and maybe a bit of luck. In the five grands prix from the start of the season until the point I bash finger against keyboard, we’ve had five different winners – including two first-timers.

Well see here: you and a friend (or significant other) could be watching history unfold trackside at this year’s British Grand Prix. Courtesy of Shell V-Power I have a pair of grandstand tickets worth £500 to give away.

All you have to do is answer this question:

What, in your opinion, is the greatest ever Formula 1 performance and why?

That’s quite an epic library to draw from. Cast your minds back beyond the immediate past. How about Thierry Boutsen’s redoubtable defence against Ayrton Senna in the 1990 Hungarian Grand Prix? Jackie Stewart’s absurd victory margin at the Nurburgring in 1968? Sir Stirling Moss’s bossing of the works Ferraris in his privateer Lotus at Monaco in 1961?

Eloquently craft your entry and submit it via the comment box below. You can write more than 200 words if you want, but remember what attention spans are like on the internet these days. Your submissions will be judged independently on quality, passion and inspiration. And unfortunately this competition is for UK residents only (sorry!).

It could be you... A grandstand view of the British GP. Photo by Darren Heath

Who will be the king of the Silverstone castle? Who will be the dirty rascal? Don’t ask me – punditry is a mug’s game, remember? Enter this competition and you could be there to see it unfold for yourself. The competition closes at midnight on 18th June 2012 and I’ll announce the winner on 25th June 2012.

If you miss out this time, it’s not over. Simply fill up (minimum of 15 litres) with Shell V-Power Unleaded or Shell V-Power Diesel or purchase any Shell Helix product at a participating UK site, swipe your registered Shell Drivers’ Club card (which must be registered at the time of purchase or before the draw takes place) and you’ll be entered into a draw for more pairs of tickets to the British Grand Prix.

For full terms and conditions click here.







Phil Collins was wrong: you may need a coat. Photo by Darren Heath