Jaguar versus Ferrari
The Le Mans 24 Hours has always been about epic battles and human resilience. And the year in which Pirelli won with Ferrari, 1954, was the backdrop for one of the most compelling stories in the rich history of this legendary race. It ended with as close a finish as anyone could remember at the time, following a flat out duel with Jaguar around the clock. The two rival cars took quite different approaches, with the 3.5-litre Jaguar D Type being specifically designed for Le Mans, whereas the Ferrari 375 Plus was much more of a multipurpose racing car (in fact, the same cars that did Le Mans also competed in the Mille Miglia). But with a 4.9-litre V12 under the bonnet, the 375 Plus was a true beast: brute force went head to head with science.
On Saturday 12 June the cars lined up to take the start of the 24 Hours just before the traditional tricolour dropped at 3pm (GMT). Jaguar and Ferrari had matched each other in practice, each setting a time of 4m18s round La Sarthe (the current record stands at 3m16s, courtesy of Neel Jani in a Porsche 919 Hybrid last year).
As was always the case at Le Mans, the drivers sprinted across the track to get into their cars parked opposite the pits (the ‘Le Mans start’ was only discontinued from 1970, after Jacky Ickx walked across the circuit to his car the year before in a protest over safety – and then went on to win the race).
The Bull charges
Ferrari immediately took the lead, with Froilan Gonzalez – nicknamed ‘The Pampas Bull’ – building up a small advantage at the start, pursued by his team mates and then the lead Jaguar of Stirling Moss.
Jaguar’s tactic was to play a waiting game: shadow the more powerful Ferraris closely and then wait for an opportunity to get in front. The weather was one such chance; but even when a rain shower moved in, Gonzalez still maintained the lead, with Moss only briefly taking over just before the first fuel stop for Ferrari after two hours (at the time, the regulations stipulated that the cars had to cover at least 30 laps of the 13.492-kilometre circuit in between fuel stops).
As evening fell, all three Jaguars began to encounter problems with their fuel systems. The only solution was for the cars to come in, have their filters changed, and spark plugs replaced. By the time that lengthy process was complete, the Ferraris were two laps in the lead, with Gonzalez – at the end of a monster opening stint – setting a new lap record in the evening: 4m16s.
As the rain fell hard, Maurice Trintignant took over the lead Ferrari but a key element in the team strategy fell apart just after midnight when the second-placed 375 Plus (driven by Umberto Maglioli) retired with a gearbox issue: the same fate that befell the leading Jaguar.
When dawn broke on Sunday, with Gonzalez back in the driving seat, the situation had remained remarkably consistent, with the number four Ferrari still leading by around two laps from the remaining Jaguar, which had made its way ominously back up the field in the appalling conditions overnight.
With both teams down to one car, Jaguar decided to do everything it possibly could to catch the leading Ferrari. The previous year’s winner, Duncan Hamilton, was installed in the Jaguar and began to hunt Trintignant down, with the pair of them lapping in less than 4m30s – just at the time when most teams were wanting only to bring their cars home. With just 25 cars still remaining in the race, Hamilton had pulled the advantage down to less than one lap.
But there were problems for Ferrari, with the surviving car taking much longer than expected to fire up again after its fuel stops: a possible sign of engine fatigue.
Halfway through Sunday morning, Tony Rolt in the chasing Jaguar hit the bank at Arnage and damaged the car while overtaking a slower competitor: the leading Ferrari was back up to a two-lap advantage.
A tense finish
The result was far from safe though. With just over one and a half hours to go, and the persistent Jaguar now back to just one lap behind, the leading Ferrari wouldn’t fire up at all following its final fuel stop. Gonzalez, who was due to take over, could only watch as the Jaguar came into view on the straight, ready to join the lead lap. Le Mans was surely lost for Ferrari and Pirelli.
Then, unbelievably, the Jaguar came into the pits – and it wasn’t even due a fuel stop. Tony Rolt wanted new goggles, oblivious to the fact that his key rival was stopped in front of him. The Jaguar management waved him on furiously – forget about the goggles; there was a race to be won.
It took around seven agonising minutes for the Ferrari to fire up – but when it did, it emerged with an overall advantage of just under a minute and a half. Straight away the pace was slow: it took Gonzalez five and a half minutes to complete his first lap, and the Jaguar team could smell victory, if only they could keep going and pile on the pressure. In actual fact, the slow time was down to sheer fatigue from Gonzalez: he hadn’t slept or eaten throughout the 24 hours.
It was only through a massive effort, and some frantic encouragement from the pit lane, that he picked up the pace: helped by a drying circuit that allowed the Ferrari to finally make its extra power count.
After 24 hours, the equivalent of a mere 4.09 kilometres separated the Ferrari and the second-placed Jaguar, with both cars only just failing to beat the distance record, despite conditions that were almost undriveable for much of the race.
So far, this remains Pirelli’s only Le Mans victory, but it was a landmark in the history of the Italian firm – which is inextricably linked with the ‘Pampas Bull’. Not only did Gonzalez take Scuderia Ferrari’s first win at Le Mans but three years earlier he had also claimed the team’s first Formula 1® victory at Silverstone. On both occasions with Pirelli.