Another two miles and the White House Corner. A squiggle in the road, and he was passing the grandstands, hearing cheers above the snarl of his engine.
Numerals held out from his pit told Pierre in code that he'd done that first lap in just under 100 miles an hour. As planned.
He couldn't keep from grinning. What had he been worried about? Standard model crankshaft, maybe. But surely strong enough for a victory. For Talbot-Lago. For France. And for Pierre.
Especially for Pierre. A racing pro who'd first competed at Le Mans in 1938, Pierre's life goal was to match the triumphs of his uncle, Albert Velghe, a pioneer driver who'd died six years before Pierre himself was born. He wanted so much to drive in the old boy's tracks that he'd even adopted the older man's racing pseudonym, Levegh. Pierre's birth certificate stated that his own surname was actually Bouillon.
Pierre slipped the Talbot-Lago round and round the circuit, as easily and as precisely as a windup toy. He wasn't yet in first position, but no matter. His race had been planned to save his car, and he was driving to plan. Just fast enough to urge his competitors to go faster and burn out their engines. Not fast enough to hurt his.
The Jaguars and two of the Aston Martins limped out of the race within the first two hours, and several of the other faster cars began to break down. By 8 in the evening, four hours after the start, Pierre had completed 48 laps. One less than the leading car, a snarling little French Gordini. Neck and neck with the three Mercedes-Benz coupes.
Dark now. Everything fine. At the next pit stop, still hours ahead, Pierre would hand his Talbot-Lago over to Marchand, his relief driver.
Before the changeover, an hour before midnight, Pierre noticed a sudden pained sound in his engine. Not an explosion exactly. Not anything loud enough to alert the trackside spectators or his competition. Or even his own mechanics as he streaked past them in the darkness. But a noise that nevertheless gave Pierre a sick feeling. Seventeen hours still to go and, beyond any doubt, crankshaft-bearing trouble.
He lifted his toe lightly from the accelerator and listened. Then he shook his head and swore. He didn't know—and knowing wouldn't have helped—that one of the bolts on the center crankshaft journal had just snapped and had dropped into the oil pan. He toed harder on the accelerator and felt the engine vibrate. Bad, and likely to get a lot worse. Under Le Mans rules repairs can only be effected with parts carried in the cars, and the Talbot-Lago carried no kit of engine parts. Anyway, there was no time for a major overhaul.
By midnight Pierre had completed 95 laps, one less than the leading Gordini. But—and this was good—one more than the two fastest Mercedes-Benzes. Time for the fuel stop, so he pulled into his pit.