First published September 2015.
TRIUMPH AT LE MANS – Part 2 – by Nigel Raeburn
Last month in Part 1 I recalled my time at Le Mans in 1965 as a member of the pit signalling team for the works Triumph Spitfire team. There were four cars in the team – and two finished the race. The first retirement was the Bill Bradley / Peter Bolton car which retired in the first hour with an engine problem. The second retirement was the David Hobbs / Rob Slotemaker car after about 7 hours following an accident. The finishers were Claude Dubois / Jean-Francois Piot (14th overall) and our best result for Jean-Jacques Thuner / Simo Lampinen at 13th overall and winners of their Class (1101-1150 cc). They covered 3673 km at an average of 153 kph.
As pit signallers, the retirements made our workload much easier with only 2 cars to look after for the majority of the race – which allowed time to make good use of our shift system and to enjoy other aspects of the event. In those days – I think for race personnel not the general public – there was a free ‘taxi’ service around the infield of the circuit with a fleet of 2CVs and Renault 4s travelling the intricate network of mostly sandy or gravel tracks which criss-cross the infield. With their large suspension travel they were ideal vehicles for the job! Using this service when off duty we were able to go from our base at Mulsanne to other corners to spectate or to the main pits to keep in touch with our team.
From our signalling pit counter at Mulsanne we got a good view of the whole field as they accelerated away from the hairpin on every lap and we were able to cheer on the British Rover-BRM turbine car (Hill/Stewart) and MGB (Hedges/Hopkirk) as well as signal to our Spitfires. I cannot remember the car, but one poor driver somehow got onto the sandy edge of the track opposite where we were and got bogged down in the sand. The rules did not allow outside assistance but he somehow got hold of a spade and spent over an hour in hot sunshine digging his car out and eventually getting going again.
The team management of the Triumph team included a couple of rally people who I did not know at that time but got to know in later years as my rallying evolved. Graham Robson (prolific author in subsequent years and a top navigator in his day) was I think the Competition Manager at Triumph at the time and Roy Fidler who drove works Spitfires in rallies was there as part of the team. Some 6 years later I navigated for Roy on the Dukeries Rally in a Withers Escort – although sadly we retired even before the first special stage.
I quite unexpectedly met one of the drivers, Bill Bradley, only a few years ago. Margaret and I were having lunch at Will Sparrow’s house and Bill and his wife were the other lunch guests – Will had been preparing a Triumph 2000 for Bill to do some touring events in.
What else can I remember from my trips to Le Mans in 1964 and 1965? I drove there in my Mini (I think it was an 850 in 1964 but by 1965 I was on to my 997 Mini-Cooper) and I can remember finding we were getting cheered by bystanders as we drove through French villages en route. After a while we realised this was because the car Tour de France had recently taken place (a mix of racing and rallying) and Paddy Hopkirk had been the hero of the events in his Mini by being competitive with Ferraris and the like – and any Mini with rally lights was treated as being due appropriate applause!
I associate with these trips the emergence of BMW as makers of ‘serious’ cars – their prior success having been with 700s and Isettas. It seemed that the top racing drivers of the day had been given ‘deals’ to have BMW 1800 saloons as their road cars and we saw Bruce McLaren driving through the town of Le Mans in his. I enjoyed more mixing with the top names when we went for lunch one day at the Hotel de France in La Chartres-sur-Loire, a village about 15 miles from the circuit where traditionally the British teams had based themselves. We had lunch at a table next to Innes Ireland. Margaret and I stayed overnight there 2 years ago when on holiday and the hotel is full of Le Mans nostalgia – pictures and autographs of many famous drivers and cars. I read recently that it has had a makeover under new ownership but has not forgotten its Le Mans history.
For me, after this memorable and exciting week in 1965, it was straight back to work as part of my Student Apprenticeship – after the race finished at 4pm on the Sunday I had to set off for Cherbourg and the overnight boat in order to report for work in Bristol on the Monday morning! I stopped off in Bath en route to buy a newspaper to find out what my degree results were. Happy days!