The Le Mans 24 Hours arguably remains the most famous motorsport event in the world. The ultimate test of man and machine, Europe's punishing endurance race pushes competitors to their ultimate limit. In this rare vintage footage from 1956, Formula 1 champion Mike Hawthorn commentates while completing a lap of Circuit de la Sarthe in France.
The historical footage can be viewed courtesy of Motorsport.com's ‘Sights & Sounds’ video series. Watch below with a cup of Earl Grey, a cucumber sandwich and a stiff upper lip:
The thing to remember is that the French race track was formed from public roads. Civilians therefore casually meander through as Hawthorn thunders by. Filmed only hours before the 1956 event, on a number of occasions the he has to dodge bikes and cars, remarking at one point: ‘typical French’.
Hawthorn is behind the wheel of the very Jaguar D-type he later used in the official race, which he finished in sixth place. The endurance racer roars out of the pit lane where Mike begins his tour of the track, complete with comically rigged vintage microphone.
Fans of the World Endurance Championship will find the lap familiar, but considerably more rural than today’s variant. You’ll also notice that the iconic 3.7-mile Mulsanne Straight does not feature the chicanes of today; introduced to slow modern racing cars down.
While weaving past a cyclist or two, Hawthorn points out how easy it is to lose your concentration during the 24-hour race: "When you are approaching a smaller car, you have to judge the distance as to who’s going to get there first. It becomes quite difficult."
He also talks of the numerous changes to the track for improved safety following the disastrous 1955 Le Mans crash that killed 83 spectators. Hawthorn was initially accused of contributing to the accident, but was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
The Jaguar D-type is one of Le Mans most iconic cars. Its pioneering aerodynamic bodywork gave it an increased top speed, and was designed by Malcolm Sayer, who was pinched from the Bristol Aeroplane Company by Jaguar. The chassis was also revolutionary, being a magnesium alloy monocoque instead of the traditional space frame made of tubular steel.
The car’s 1954 Le Mans debut was a case of ‘close, but no cigar’ as fuel starvation issues led to a second place finish. It would return to win the controversial '55 event and follow that up with another victory in 1956. It asserted its dominance a year later, locking out the top four places.
Mike Hawthorn didn’t win in 1956, that honour went to another D-type driven by Ninian Sanderson and Ron Flockhart, but he did well to fight the French traffic on this tour, at least.
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