1954 French Grand Prix
: 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans: A French Bull Runs to Victory at Le Mans By Jeremy McMullen
Everything needs to be right amongst drivers competing for victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Not only do they need to share the car over the course of a whole day but their driving styles must compliment each other. In the case of the 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans there would be no better pairing than a calm, steady Frenchman and a wild Pampas bull from Argentina.
Prior to the 22nd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Maurice Trintignant had already achieved a career driving a vast number of different types of automobiles in all kinds of races. Steady and calculated behind the wheel, Trintignant was much better suited to the endurance events that required great skill and precision over longer periods of time. Never really one to set the fastest time in a race, Trintignant would annoy and wear down his opponents by a relentless, methodical approach that would see him make very few mistakes and that would rely on the mistakes of others to propel him forward. This approach had no doubt developed into an even greater art form when he joined the Equipe Gordini team in the newly-founded Formula One World Championship.
Amadee Gordini was known as 'The Sorcerer' when it came to working with engines. He could get small engines do amazing things. This was great over shorter distances but not all that great in the grand prix that were a part of the Formula One World Championship. Despite taking part in six Formula One races throughout 1950 and 1951, Trintignant would fail to finish even a single one of them. It would take until the halfway mark of the 1952 season before he would even finish his first race. However, when he did finish the French Grand Prix it would earn him 2 championship points.
Taking part in a number of endurance sportscar races throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Trintignant would likely come away with strong results including a victory in the Rheinland Nurburgring in August of 1950. Unfortunately, Trintignant had the talent for long distance endurance races. His cars, on the other hand, did not. Still over the course of the 1952 and 1953 Trintignant would have a spell where he would win three races and finish 2nd in another, all in a row. Earning a class win in the 1953 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Trintignant had experience in the long distance races and knew had to take care of a car all the way to the finish.
Trintignant's co-driver for the '54 edition of the famed French classic had absolutely no trouble going fast. He also had no problem going fast for long periods of time. The problem Jose Froilan Gonzalez had was that his cars were usually uncomfortable doing the same.
Gonzalez would make his Formula One debut in 1950 and would show tremendous talent by starting the Monaco Grand Prix from the front row of the grid. Unfortunately, an accident very early in the race would leave him out of the race. Then, at the French Grand Prix in July of that year the Argentinean would start the race from the third row but would experience engine problems and would be out after just 4 laps.
Similar struggles were to be had by Gonzalez at Le Mans. Taking part in his first Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1950 with Gordini, Gonzalez could not get the Gordini T15S to make it all the way to the finish, this despite the fact that Juan Manuel Fangio was his co-driver.
One year later, and partnered with friend Onofre Marimon in Henri Louveau's Talbot T26GS, Gonzalez would suffer yet another retirement. This time, radiator problems would sideline the car.
After not taking part in the 1952 edition of the race, Gonzalez would suffer his third retirement at Le Mans in 1953. Co-driving with Clemente Biondetti, engine problems with the Lancia D20 would cause Gonzalez to still be without a finish at Le Mans
So coming into the 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans neither one of the drivers, neither Trintignant nor Gonzalez, had very much success in Le Mans. In fact, between the two drivers there had only been one race finish and that had been achieved by Trintignant. Yes, it had been a class victory but it had to offer only a little bit of confidence heading into the race.
The 1954 edition would be different however. This time the two men would be partnered together driving a Ferrari. On top of that, both men would be coming off of victories. Gonzalez would take victory in a Ferrari 375 Plus at the Silverstone International in the middle of May. Trintignant, on the other hand, would be successful just one week before the race at Le Mans. Contesting the Hyeres 12 Hours, Trintignant would partner with Luigi Piotti in a Ferrari 250 Monza and would earn victory. So both men would be coming into Le Mans with a great deal of confidence in spite of past experience.
Heading to the start of the race on the 12th of June the weather would be nice but there would be the threat of rain at some point in time during the 24 hour race. Sprinting across the track and jumping into their cars, Gonzalez would be quite quick in spite of his size and would up at the front heading through the first turn. Gonzalez would be chased by Manzon and Marzotto and then Moss and these four men would start the race as if it were some kind of sprint race held as part of the Goodwood Easter Monday Races.
This early pace played into the hands of Gonzalez and he would actually lead the first lap of the race with two other Ferrari drivers in 2nd and 3rd. This order would remain virtually intact until, by the end of the first hour, it would still be Gonzalez in the lead but Moss had managed to make his way up to 3rd.
Things would remain relatively unchanged throughout the first few hours of the race. Then, during the middle of the night, rain storms would come and blanket the area. This would cause many competitors all sorts of problems.
A number of cars had fallen out of the race after just an hour or so. Then, seven hours into the race, the number of retirements would rapidly increase as the conditions began to change. The Aston Martin of Carrol Shelby and Paul Frere would be out, the Gordini of Jean Behra and Andre Simon would be gone. Halfway through the race, many of the favorites for victory would be sitting out of the race. Umberto Maglioli and Paolo Marzotto would be out followed by Stirling Moss and Peter Walker. Alfonso de Portago, John Fitch, Prince Bira and Peter Collins would all be out of the running.
The two the seemed the least likely to finish the race were, however, still in the race and in the lead. Trintignant and Gonzalez were proving to be a very complimentary pairing. Gonzalez had the early speed to put many of the competitors in an uncomfortable position. Then Trintignant would take over and would drive his steady, controlled race that carried them through the changing conditions and the rapidly changing environment. Both drivers would be performing brilliantly. But the race was still far from over.
The pair of Trintignant and Gonzalez were in the lead of the race with the end almost in sight. They were out in front of the Jaguar of Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton and would have just an hour and a half left to go in the race. Gonzalez would be at the wheel when he pulled into the pits for a regularly-scheduled pitstop. The car would be refueled and he would be about ready to wield his car back into the race when, suddenly, the engine wouldn't fire. The end, and the victory, was within sight and there was absolutely no life in the engine. It seemed Gonzalez would be left with yet another retirement at Le Mans when victory had been right in the palm of his hand.
The crew knew the car's engine was still well as it had come into pits under power and sounding strong enough to complete the remaining hour and a half. Therefore, the problem had to be something else leading to the engine. The number 4 Ferrari would sit idle in the pits for 7 agonizing minutes. The Jaguar of Hamilton and Rolt would also come into the pits, undergo normal service, and would return to the track having unlapped itself.
It was starting to get dicey. Trintignant and Gonzalez had been the class of the entire field but not the problem they were experiencing had allowed Rolt and Hamilton to unlap themselves. They would be in a position to take the lead if the problem couldn't be rectified very soon. Quickly it would be discovered the rain had soaked one of the ignition wires. A Ferrari mechanic would work and work and would finally get the engine to fire once again. Gonzalez would tear out of the pits and would set off in an attempt to hold onto the lead.
Bearing down on the final moments of the race, Gonzalez was still in the lead and doing his absolute best to respond to the pressure applied by Rolt. Rolt would then come into the pits and would hand the car over to a rather fresh Hamilton. Gonzalez remained behind the wheel of his Ferrari.
Hamilton would push even harder. Just a few moments left in the race, Gonzalez's pace would actually suddenly drop. The manager in the pits would be frantically signaling Gonzalez to keep up his pace but it had become too difficult for Gonzalez to do this considering that he hadn't slept nor ate at any time during the 24 hour race. While the Ferrari had plenty of gas in the tank, Gonzalez was running on empty and was doing everything possible just to make it to the end.
Thanks to the quick work of the mechanics and the pace of Trintignant and Gonzalez over the course of the race, Jose would have enough of a gap in hand and would end up coming across the line to take the victory.
It had been a close victory. Still, Gonzalez and Trintignant had won completing one more lap in the 24 hour span than that Jaguar of Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton. The Cunningham C4-R of Bill Spear and Sherwood Johnston would finish in 3rd place some 19 laps behind the winning Ferrari.
It had been a truly momentous victory for Ferrari and Gonzalez. Not only would the victory prove to be the one and only time Gonzalez ever finished the 24 hour race, but it would also mark another first in Ferrari's history. Having won the British Grand Prix in 1951, Gonzalez's victory at Le Mans in 1954 meant that the Argentinean was the very first driver in Ferrari's history to have ever won a Formula One grand prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Complimented perfectly by the calm Frenchman, the Pampas bull had finally broken through at Le Mans, and it would prove to be quite the result. The last time he would ever contest the famed French classic, Gonzalez would leave having further bolstered his reputation as a racing great.