This saturday, 60 of the most carefully groomed sports cars in the world will begin an automotive battle royal to determine the world's toughest sports car. The site of the race is an 8.38-mile lopsided rectangle of asphalt (see map below) stretching over the rolling fields of France's Department of Sarthe near the town of Le Mans. For 24 hours, through sunlight and sunset, darkness and fog, sun again or rain, they will speed over the tricky course in an exacting 2,500-mile test of speed and endurance.
The winning car needs a cooling mechanism able to carry a hot engine through a June afternoon and an electrical system supplying enough light to navigate the tricky turns at night. It needs powerful brakes to decelerate for turns, quick pickup to accelerate to top speed for the time-saving dash down the straightaways. The gear box must accept 500 shifts an hour and meet the demand for rapid shifting from fourth gear at 150-plus mph to low gear at 40 mph in 400 yards to corner at the frightening Mulsanne turn or satisfy the only slightly less rigorous demands of the 60-mph maximum at Tertre Rouge. The pit crew must be fast and efficient. Finally, the car requires a driver who can keep the pedal down on the straightaways, maneuver the killing Mulsanne and Tertre Rouge turns and finesse the equally challenging stretch near the middle of the west straightaway (the White House), where a mild jog presents a dangerous hazard to drivers reluctant to slow down.
On paper the team that comes closest to filling these essentials is Mercedes-Benz. Their 300SLR cars, believed able to do 180 mph, scored a spectacular win in the Mille Miglia, with Stirling Moss first and World Champion Driver Juan Manuel Fangio second. At Le Mans, Moss and Fangio will co-drive one of three Mercedes. Backing up the drivers will be Team Manager Alfred Neubauer, who will bring his usual efficiency to the pits and his vast Teutonic thoroughness to the study of the course.
Mercedes opponents are not conceding the race. They point out that the Mille Miglia lasts less than half as long as Le Mans and the staying power of the Mercedes has not been tested. They are comforted by the failure of two Mercedes entries in Grand Prix racing at Monaco. Stiffest competition for Mercedes may be furnished by D-type Jaguars, which were not in the Mille Miglia. Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt, winners in 1953, second in 1954, will be a team. Mike Hawthorn will take another car. The Jaguar has boosted last year's 260 hp to 290.
This year's Ferrari is a lighter, equally fast, far more maneuverable model than the hulking car driven to first place last year by Jose Froilan Gonzales and Maurice Trintignant. But Gonzales is out this year because of injury, and with the death of Alberto Ascari, who was to be borrowed from Lancia (not entered this year), Ferrari depends on Trintignant and Pan-American Winner Umberto Maglioli. The Ferrari's brakes are considered weak. Rain would be a help, since deceleration would depend more on gears. The Ferrari also showed oil-system weakness in the Mille Miglia when three of four entries quit.
Briggs Cunningham, the driver beneath the American flag (left), represents the U.S.'s slim hope for victory. After several tremendous, expensive and unsuccessful efforts to win at Le Mans, Cunningham has only one Cunningham Special entered this year, and that has a Meyer-Drake-Offenhauser engine, designed for methanol and detuned for the required 80-octane used at Le Mans. Cunningham, who will co-drive with Sherwood Johnston, also is entering a factory D-Jaguar.
Maseratis, Aston-Martins, Gordinis, Porsches, Oscas and Panhards will be on hand. Except for handicap honors for the latter four these appear to be going just for the grind.
First prize at Le Mans is only $2,857, but the stakes are far higher. Victory sells thousands of dollars worth of sports cars. As one expert remarks: "It's not just a matter of honor, it's business." Mercedes, which passed up Le Mans in 1953-54, is definitely open for business in 1955.