Triumph at Le Mans – part 1


First published August 2015.

TRIUMPH AT LE MANS – Part 1 – by Nigel Raeburn.

I have been fortunate to play a small role at a number of long distance races over the years as a pit signaller and also in a minor way as an assistant team manager.  Maybe rally co-driving skills have some cross-over into the racing arena in this aspect.

In the period when Cars and Car Conversions magazine sponsored Will Sparrow and myself (around 1969), I found myself as assistant to team manager John Foden for the CCC team at the six hour relay race at Silverstone.  As a relay race it involved some careful and complex strategy decisions as to when to use which driver or car, when to pit etc..  I can remember being left in charge of such matters for quite some time when John Foden was called away for an interview with the Clerk of the Course over some technicality!  Running in such a long distance race was certainly different from a short 10 lap conventional race.

I did another spell of pit signalling more recently when Geoff Breakell (my long-term historic rally driver who was a top-line racing driver in the 1960s) entered a Subaru Impreza in the Snetterton 24 hour race – was it called the Willhire – this must have been about 1995.  I remember being struck by meeting a breed of race personnel I was previously unaware of – the specialist long-distance race team manager – each car entered seemed to have one.  Unfortunately Geoff’s car retired after about 6 hours with a technical problem so my experience was limited but holding out pit boards in the adrenalin-charged pit area right close to the race cars passing at full speed was a memorable experience.

However, for this article I want to recall my time at the 1965 Le Mans 24 hour race.  I had just finished my 3 years at University – Le Mans was timed nicely each year to follow the end of uni year soon after exam time and a tradition had built up in the early 60s when the Cambridge Uni motor club (CUAC) provided pit signalling personnel for some of the British private entrants at Le Mans.  I went in 1964 but just for the race build-up and practice and we were supporting some private entries – I cannot even recall which.  I, a bit oddly in retrospect, went off before the race to the Nurburgring where some other of my CUAC colleagues were actually racing in the 6 hour European touring car race and I did pit signalling duties there.  We had several Minis entered up against DKWs, BMW 700s and Saabs in the 1 litre class.  Up front the works Mercedes saloons were up against Jaguar Mk2s.  I think Eugen Bohringer won in a works Mercedes.

Back to 1965.  CUAC were contracted to do pit signalling for the works Triumph Spitfire team.  Triumph had entered 4 cars called Spitfires but they had coupe bodies very similar to the Triumph GT6.  They were all in British Racing Green but with distinctive different coloured nose flashes – red, white, green and yellow.  Registration numbers were ADU1B, ADU2B, ADU3B and ADU4B.     Drivers were David Hobbs/Rob Slotemaker, Bill Bradley/Peter Bolton, Claude Dubois/Jean-Francois Piot and Jean-Jaques Thuner/Simo Lampinen.

In those days the pit signals were given (on old-fashioned pit signalling boards with slide-in letters and numbers) at the special signalling pits which were on the right immediately after the Mulsanne hairpin right at the end of the Mulsanne straight.  This was the slowest point on the lap giving the drivers time to read the signals and was just over half way round the circuit.  Each team had an allocated counter/section with a primitive telephone link to their team in the main pits near the start/finish.  It was a primitive direct line and you had to wind a handle to ring the bell – in practice I think the line was kept open most of the time.  We had about 12 CUAC members to run our operation – enough to work a shift system to allow time to rest and enjoy other aspects of the race.  When all 4 cars were running we were kept pretty busy.  The team management in the main pits would tell us over the phone what signal to put out for each car (lap times, gaps, when to pit, etc) and it was our job to prepare the boards and put them out so the drivers could read them as they passed on each lap.

The signalling pits were actually in the grounds of a golf club on the inside of the circuit and we were able to use the facilities of the clubhouse including watching the start on television followed by a mad dash to our pit ready for the first lap.  Triumph had provided us with a caravan as a base which was pitched in the golf club grounds just behind the pits and we had a number of tents for sleeping also pitched nearby.  Triumph also furnished the caravan with a good supply of food for us.

Of course we were not only there for the race – we had to be there much earlier in the week for briefings and for the practice/qualifying sessions.  It was great to be really involved in such an exciting and major event.  With 4 cars the Triumph team was a major focus for the British but there was other interest as well – the Rover-BRM turbine car for Jackie Stewart/Graham Hill and an MGB for Andrew Hedges/Paddy Hopkirk.

One of my CUAC colleagues had come in his 1930s Lagonda (the sort that looks like a Bentley) and somehow wangled permission to do a lap of the full circuit for a ‘display’ just an hour or two before the race itself – I was a passenger and that was a good experience with lots of waving!

The photo which accompanies this article was taken at the 2013 Classic Car Show at the NEC and shows (L to R) Dave Kirkham, Willie Cave, myself and Mark Field, alongside ADU1B – one of the Spitfire team from 1964 and 1965.  This car is owned by Triumph specialists Jigsaw of Corby which is run by Mark Field and it is a replica but using many original parts – so much so that it is officially recognised as an ‘original’ car by the Le Mans Classic organisers.  Dave and Willie just happened to be accompanying me on a tour of the show and do not have any connection with the car – Willie has never rallied in a Spitfire.  Jigsaw do also own one of the works rallying Spitfires, ADU7B.

In part 2 of this article (next month) I’ll relate how the Spitfires fared in the race and other snippets I can recall about the whole experience.


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