Next month sees the 87th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, probably the most famous race on the planet and one that can trace its origins back to the glory days of post-war, devil-may-care motor racing. Today’s Retropower Hero is an Irishman called Duncan Hamilton, a man who achieved all his success in this era and would doubtless have found the modern, image focused breed of motor racing we have today a tiresome bore.
Like a great many of his generation, Hamilton’s views and approach to life were coloured by his experiences in the second world war, not least his spell flying Westland Lysanders over occupied Europe. These experiences fostered a certain ‘devil may care’ attitude in Hamilton, something he shared with many of the post-war greats and which made him a natural fit for the still incredibly dangerous sport of motor racing.
Talented and brave as he doubtless was, Hamilton’s is a talent which would likely have been all but lost to history had he, in partnership with Brit Tony Rolt, not won the 1953 24 Hours. The pair’s remarkable drive has since become something of a La Sarthe legend, bound up by plenty of hearsay, liberal quantities of rumour, and the odd embellishment added as and when the person recounting the story felt it required. Indeed, there are many that state that the incident in question never actually took place, certainly not in the manner in which is has since passed into history. Still, it’s one of motorsport’s most interesting tales and one which demonstrates just how different the sport of motor racing was six decades ago.
Hamilton and Rolt’s weekend got off to a bad start when they were disqualified from the race post practice. The reason given was that their C-Type had been pounding around the circuit at the same time as another car wearing matching race numbers, that of their team mate and Jaguar test driver, Norman Dewis. It was a minor infraction but one which went against the letter of the law, and the French authorities, never one to miss a chance to exclude a potential British winner, wasted no time in ejecting Hamilton and Rolt from the race.
The pair were understandably devasted, what with their car having showed itself to be consistently among the fastest entries in the session they had been able to partake in. Hamilton and Rolt opted to solve the problem in the only way they knew how, by going on the mother of all drinking sessions in Le Mans town itself. Freed from the need to wake up with anything approaching a clear head the next morning, the two former soldiers went at it in a manner only disgruntled former servicemen can. Le Mans was well and truly painted red and the festivities didn’t conclude until shortly after sunrise the following morning.
Dawn broke, and Hamilton and Rolt emerged, doubtless squinting in the morning sun and feeling decidedly second hand. The story goes that the superbly named Lofty England, Jaguar Team Manager and the man tasked with tracking the errant racers down, found the pair sprawled in a bar called ‘Gruber’s,’ desperately glugging coffee in an effort to ward off their raging hangovers.
England had just discovered that Jaguar’s appeal had been granted and that the exclusion ruling had been overturned, which in turn meant that both Hamilton and Rolt would be permitted to take the 3pm start as intended. England would later recount that:
“Of course I would never have let them race under the influence. I had enough trouble when they were sober!”
Hamilton remembered things rather differently and said as much in his autobiography some years later:
“We were sitting there feeling ill, miserable and dejected when a MkVII Jaguar drew up outside and William Lyons got out. He had paid a FF25,000 fine and we were back in the race. In six hours time the flag would fall. Neither of us had had any sleep and 24-hours of racing lay ahead. We ordered more black coffee and enquired if there was a Turkish bath in the town. There was not.”
Rolt took the start and made good progress, at least initially. The Jaguar C-Type he was in was cutting edge for the time and could call upon a handy 220bhp from its reworked inline six, plus new-fangled brake discs all round, a quantum leap over the drums gracing the hubs of every other non-Coventry entry.
Even so it was recognised that neither Rolt nor Hamilton was anything approaching sober and nor would they be for some hours yet. The team therefore tried its best to sober the pair up as quickly as possible, which in practice meant feeding whoever happened to be driving vast quantities of black coffee at each and every pitstop. It didn’t work – Hamilton reported that the caffeine hit was making his arms twitch uncontrollably, which was far from ideal when piloting an early ‘50s Jaguar down the Mulsanne straight at upwards of 150mph.
The solution, or at least the one hit upon by Hamilton and the team, was to switch the coffee for brandy, something he and Rolt continued to quaff for the remainder of the race. Such a situation would be as impossible as it would be recklessly irresponsible in 2019, but then 1953 was a different world, one where people generally had a more cavalier attitude to personal safety thanks to the recent, collective experience of the war.
Whatever its impact on Hamilton’s responses or judgement, the booze would doubtless have come in handy when he hit a bird midway down the straight, killing the animal outright and leaving the Irishman with a broken nose! He pressed on regardless and at near unabated speed.
The Number 18 Jaguar of Rolt and Hamilton duly engaged in a race long battle with the Ferrari 376MM of Ascari and Villoresi, the Italian car having a huge power advantage thanks to its V12 engine. Yet the disc-shod Jag was unmatched under braking, both in terms of outright performance and life, and it began to show as the race ticked by. The Ferrari began to fall behind, and by dawn on Sunday morning it was all but over; the lead Ferrari had succumbed to mechanical frailty and was out of the running.
This remarkable tale concluded with a fairytale ending, the Jaguar of Hamilton and Rolt crossing the line in first overall, after which the pair proceeded to crack open yet more booze to mark the occasion in a fittingly sozzled fashion. Needless to say, it wouldn’t happen nowadays…