1963 24 Hours of Le Mans: Cut but Still Fighting

Company press release.

1963 24 Hours of Le Mans: Cut but Still Fighting  Andre Simon's experiences at Le Mans were absolutely heart-wrenching. Consistently fast every time he took part in the famed race, he always seemed to come away bloodied, beaten and bitterly disappointed. Still, he would always come back for more, never letting the infamous race get the better of him. But after a while, one would have to ask whether or not it was worth it. Well, right from the start of the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans Simon would face that question and would provide a resounding answer.

Simon didn't fail to finish every single one of his attempts at the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans, but he couldn't have come much closer to achieving that feat. With the exception of the 1952 running of the 24 hour race, Simon would fail to finish every single Le Mans he would enter. In some cases it seemed as if the only race he couldn't finish was Le Mans, or, that he was purposely trying to retire early from the race. But the one thing Simon never failed at at Le Mans was being fast.

In his very first Le Mans experience, Simon would take a Delahaye 175 and would end up setting the fastest lap of the race with a time just four-tenths off of the track record at that time. This was certainly impressive for a man making his debut at the circuit.

The fact he was always fast, and that he had a motor racing resume that included driving for the Scuderia Ferrari Formula One team and Mercedes-Benz in both its sportscars and Formula One, Simon would always seem to draw the best rides with some of the best co-drivers in the world. Still, it would not be enough to help Simon finish just his second Le Mans.

Consider, for a moment, the 1954 Le Mans. In that race, Simon would co-drive a Talbot T26GS along with fellow Frenchman Jean Behra. Still, it would end in an early retirement. In 1955, Simon had, perhaps, his surest bet for another race finish. Unfortunately, he would be driving for Mercedes-Benz in the ill-fated '55 Le Mans. And, after the tragic accident that killed Pierre Levegh and scores of spectators, Mercedes would withdraw thereby also withdrawing Simon's best opportunity for a likely race finish and strong result. Then there would also be 1956. That year, Simon would partner with future World Champion Phill Hill driving a Ferrari 625LM. But even that wouldn't matter. After 107 laps, the rear axle of the car would fail on the Ferrari and Simon would again be out of a 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It certainly seemed obvious Simon was cursed at Le Mans. Still, he would fight on. No matter what the race happened to throw at him that would eventually knock him down. Simon would continue to struggle to his feet and would return the following year for yet another round.

Similar in fashion to an unknown challenging a champion heavyweight boxer, Simon's Le Mans experience were similar in character to the unknown boxer covering up just trying to survive the thunderous onslaught. Constantly taking a beating to the chest and to the side of the head, Simon would only be able to land a couple of punches each and every round, and they would usually come very early on in the round before the heavyweight fighter was able to wear him down and turn him into his own personal punching bag. But when everyone else would decide they had had enough and would throw in the towel, Simon would just keep getting back up, shake out his muscles and prepare for yet another round.

It was clear Le Mans had to land a knock-out blow to defeat Simon. And at the start of the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans, the circuit would manage to land an early blow that would clearlt cut Simon. Bleeding, Simon would face a very important decision.

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    One of the important decisions for Andre would come even before the 1963 would start. Simon had driven a number of different types of cars throughout his thirteen seasons of sportscar racing. Quite a few of those times would be with Ferrari. However, heading into the 1963 season, Simon would decide to switch and would drive for another Italian manufacturer—Maserati.

    Maserati had an exciting new car on the drawing board and began production of its Tipo 151. The new car was very promising. It had the power, and therefore, the speed to be competitive. It was also comfortable to drive, even though the car certainly needed some more time and money to make it absolutely great. Nonetheless, it was a promising car, and therefore, would be reason enough for Simon to drive for the Maserati France team.

    Having long since retired from Formula One, Simon would have a long wait before he would get behind the wheel of a race car in 1963. The first time in which he would 'officially' be behind the wheel of a car would be at the Le Mans test in the new Maserati Tipo 151.

    Simon would be partnered with American Lloyd Casner driving the new Tipo 151. And, in the Le Mans test, the two men would show very well in the new car. The Ferrari 250 of Surtees, Parkes, Scarfiotti, Bandini and Mairesse would take 1st in the test results setting the fastest lap around the 8.34 mile circuit. Their time of 3:45.700 would be nearly six seconds faster than the time set by Parkes, Mairesse and Bandini in a Ferrari 330. David Brown's Aston Martin DP214, driven by Bruce McLaren and Jo Schlesser would end up 3rd in the test. Their best time around the Circuit de la Sarthe would be 3:52.500. Simon and Casner would end up posting a time just four-tenths of a second slower than the time posted by McLaren and Schlesser, and therefore, would end up fourth-fastest in the Le Mans test. Therefore, Simon and Casner had reason to be confident heading into the 31st Grand Prix d'Endurance les 24 Heures du Mans.

    The Le Mans test would take place on the 17th of April. Teams, drivers and cars would then have a couple of months before the actual 24 hour race. But this would be a busy time for teams and drivers. Preparations and improvements to the chassis would be made while the drivers would get even more acquainted with their mounts for the greatest endurance test.

    Finally, the calendar would turn and the month of June would stand glaring the teams and drivers right in the face. Then, early on in the month, the teams would begin arriving in the village of Le Mans to begin its preparations for the French Classic. Ferrari would come with a swarm of 250s and 330s. In fact, no fewer than eleven Ferraris would be on the entry list. Due to the fact Maserati was hurting financially, the factory would only bring one car to the race and that one would be the very car to be driven by Casner and Simon.

    Entered with the number '2' on the car, the Maserati Tipo 151 would be in the fight of its life, but in practice and qualifying it would show that it was more than capable of putting up a fight. The Ferrari 330 TRI driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Roger Penske would end up taking the pole with a lap time of 3:50.900. 2nd place would end up going to another Ferrari. This one, a 250P, would be driven by Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti. Another Ferraro 250P, driven by Mike Parkes and Umberto Maglioli, would qualify in the 3rd position.

    It was clear Ferrari was the manufacturer to beat in the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans. Still, the Maserati Tipo 151 would go well in qualifying. In the end, the Johnny Simone/Maserati France entry would find itself positioned in the 5th starting position after posting a lap time of 3:56.200 during qualifying. So while Simon and Casner would be wildly outnumbered, they had at least had a car capable of competing and fighting back. But Simon's main competition wasn't really the competition itself, but the race. This fact would become a reality as soon as the French Tricolor dropped to start the race.

    A crowd of 300,000 would flock to the circuit to witness the famed endurance race that would take place over 24 hours on the 15th and 16th of June. In all, 48 cars would line up in preparation for the start of the race. The weather couldn't have been any more perfect. It was sunny and warm with a forecast of the same weather conditions throughout.

    The weather beautiful, the drivers would lineup across from their cars preparing for the frantic start to the race. Out front of the all the cars, in the middle of the track, stood an official with the French Tricolor. When the flag dropped, the drivers sprinted across the track to their cars. The crowd would come alive with excitement as the drivers reached their cars and climbed inside. Andre Simon would have the initial driving duties and he would be one of the fastest across the track to his Maserati. However, as he reached to open the door, he would find it stuck shut! Adrenaline pumping at a feverish pitch, Simon would quickly, and forcibly, pull at the door. The first try wouldn't work, but another quick jerk would break the door free. Unfortunately, Simon's second jerk of the door would be with enough force that the door would come right back and would strike him in the nose. And with that, Le Mans had landed another punch to Simon, but this one struck him square in the face.

    The question was, 'How would Simon respond?' Simon had been one of the first to reach his car. By the time he managed to break the door free, the Ferrari of Rodriguez was already rolling. There would be others that would also be already on the roll. Simon would be stung by the blow, but he would immediately get his legs underneath himself and would climb into the car. With his nose already beginning to bleed, Simon would finally set off already having been swallowed up by a number of slower qualifiers.

    Simon could have responded a couple of ways. He could have taken the blow as a sign he should quit, or, he could step right back in there and keep battling. He would do the later. In fact, he would land a blow of his own by the end of the first lap.

    The blow landed by the door would actually cause Simon to focus all the more sharply. No doubt in some pain, Simon would set off after the leaders having fallen out of the top ten at the start. By the start of the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans, Simon was 43 years of age, but on that first lap, he would show glimpses of that fast racing driver that had earned a spot driving for Scuderia Ferrari's Formula One team after having only been racing for a total of four years. Quickly he would supplant other competitors. Using the power of the Maserati engine and driving well beyond the limit, Simon would nearly fly through Tetre Rouge flat out. By the time he was making his way down toward Indianapolis, he was within reach of the leader. By Maison Blanche, Simon was in the lead!

    Simon had landed his blow, and he would keep the barrage coming over the next four hours. Most of the attention, and rightfully so, had been placed on the gaggle of Ferraris up and down the entry list. However, from the first lap, and throughout the first four hours of the race, Simon would more than hold all of the Ferraris at bay. Le Mans had landed its blow but Simon came right back swinging. And though underfunded and underdeveloped, the Maserati Tipo 151 would show itself more than capable of competing with the best Ferrari had. Of course, much of it came down to the driver behind the wheel. Known to be incredibly fast when the conditions were right, Simon, it was believed, was certainly on the downward trend of his racing career. However, on that 15th of June in 1963, he would show 300,000 people and a number of individuals within the teams a glimpse of that talent that had made him well known and greatly sought after throughout the 1950s.

    Simon and Casner had Le Mans reeling. However, the race would fight back, finding the usual weak spot in Simon's army—the car. Simon's pace was such that Rodriguez and Surtees had to break the lap record again and again just to stay in touch. But while it seemed all of the pressure was on the Ferraris to keep pace, it would be the Maserati that would come up lame.

    All of a sudden, the fast Maserati would have trouble. Transmission woes would end up landing a punch to Simon's attack and it would drop him yet again. This blow would take the air right out of the Frenchman. Maurice Trintignant would drive the 151 and would declare, 'If it had been properly developed, the 151 could have had exceptional results.' Simon was experiencing all of that which the 151 was capable. It was clear the car had the capabilities. And that is why the retirement around the 4 hour mark would be so devastating.

    The departure of the Maserati handed the Ferraris a commanding position. Over the next few hours the threat from Jaguar would begin to fall apart. The Aston Martin driven by Bruce McLaren would then lose oil spilling it all over the circuit. Roy Salvadori, driving another Aston Martin, would hit the oil first and would lose control of the car. Salvadori would fight with the car and would slightly regain control before spinning again in the grass. This would lead to him striking a bank backwards. The force from the impact would cause Salvadori to be ejected from the car just before another Aston Martin, this one a DB4 driven by Jacques Dewes) hit the oil. He would spin but would regain control. However, the Rene Bonnet Aerodjet would not be so fortunate as Jean-Pierre Manzon would crash trying to avoid hitting Dewes. Manzon would be thrown from his car and would actually be lying in the middle of the track when Christian Heins approached in his Alpine-Renault. Heins would spin out striking the Aerodjet and a lamp post. The car would burst into flames with Heins still trapped inside. Firefighters would finally get him out and would transport him to a hospital but he would be declared dead on arrival.

    The fallout would only help Surtees and Mairesse extend their lead. Bandini and Scarfiotti ran in 2nd place ahead of the Rodriguez/Penske Ferrari 330. However, a little past midnight, the NART Ferrari 330 would retire from the race with an oil leak.

    By nine in the morning, the carnage would be evident all over the circuit. And the fact that just 17 cars remained in the race would be further testimony to the role attrition was playing in the race.

    Just under two hours later, the race would take another dramatic turn. Mairesse would bring his Ferrari in for a routine fuel stop. However, by the time Mairesse reached the esses, the car was on fire. In an effort to quickly extract himself from the car, Mairesse would try to bring the car to a fast halt but would spin the car at the same time. When it came to a stop nose first into the barrier, Mairesse would jump from the car. Thankfully, unlike the course of events that transpired during the nighttime hours, the Ferrari was far enough out of the way that it would not cause any accidents or impeded the progress of any of the other competitors.

    While the unfortunate fire would take out one Ferrari from the field, there were still more than enough to pick up the pieces and carry on. And in the case of the Ferrari driven by Bandini and Scarfiotti would be far enough ahead that they would not be harassed for the remainder of the race.

    Just twelve cars would still be running in the classification by the end of the 24 hour gauntlet. Well out front of the rest of the field would be the SpA Ferrari 250P driven by Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti. Covering 2,828 miles, the Ferrari would cross the line with 16 laps in hand over the Equipe Nationale Belge Ferrari 250 GTO driven by Jean Blaton and Gerhard Langlois van Ophem. Mike Parkes and Umberto Maglioli would be 3rd in another Ferrari 250P. They too would be 16 laps behind.

    But while Ferrari would manage to sweep the top three positions at the end of the race, the loudest cheers would rise up for a team that wasn't even officially part of the race, nor classified at the end. Rover would come to Le Mans with what many believed to be the future of motor racing. With drivers Graham Hill and Richie Ginther, Rover/BRM would enter their P57 turbine-powered car. And while many believed the car would not be fast enough and would be nothing more than a roadblock, Hill and Ginther would guide the car to a 7th place, not classified, finish just 29 laps behind the winning Ferrari.

    And that would be the most unfortunate part of the whole 1963 Le Mans: here would come along some new and untried and untested technology and it would prove more reliable than the Maserati in which Simon had been driving. It would just offer even more proof that without Providence one has no hope.

    Providence would again not smile upon Simon. He would get smacked right in the face. But, Simon would not give up and throw in the towel. Instead, he chose to go down fighting in one of the most impressive Le Mans performances. And though he may have been 43 years of age, his performance throughout those first four hours of the race would rival even the best performances of some of the greats. Unfortunately, he would, again, be let down by his equipment. Given his pace and performance over those early hours, had the Maserati managed to keep it together for the whole race, it is not unlikely that Simon and Casner would have enjoyed a comfortable margin over the rest of the field. But unfortunately, all of that is conjecture.

    The sad reality is that all most remember of Andre Simon and Lloyd Casner in the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans is the fact their race lasted just four hours; the truly remarkable performance goes overlooked. However, there is no denying that Simon's performance in one of his last Le Mans was, perhaps, one of his best. And instead of the circuit knocking him out in the later rounds, Simon would at least make it to the judges' decision. Unfortunately though, the judges' decision would still bear out the sad reality—Le Mans beat Simon twelve rounds to one.

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    '24 Hours of Le Mans, June 15/16 1963', (http://classic-cars-talks.blogspot.com/2011/09/24h-hours-of-le-mans-june-1516-1963.html). Classic Cars Talks. http://classic-cars-talks.blogspot.com/2011/09/24h-hours-of-le-mans-june-1516-1963.html. Retrieved 25 July 2012.

    1963 24 Hrs of Le Mans video June 15/16 1963. Youtube.com. Uploaded June 11, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5Cc2ALEWQ0. 25 July 2012.

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