Aston’s evocative Le Mans triumph
La Chartre-sur-le-Loir is one of those typical French countryside villages. Straddling the local river, it doesn’t really offer a route to anywhere; it’s just another of those idyllic, sun-washed small French towns that dot the countryside.
Grapes grow on the hills in the area, waiting for the next vintage of Jasnières, the region’s pleasantly refreshing local white wine. And the Place de la Republique is the village’s central square, but it’s usually relaxed and quiet.
The square is flanked by – of course! – a bakery, a butcher’s, two cafés, and the Hotel de France – an elaborately fronted building that’s been around since the end of the 19th century, and which has been run by the Pasteau family for generations.
It is here that legendary British racing team supremo John Wyer located the Aston Martin sports car team during its assault on the famous Le Mans 24 Hours.
A home from home for Aston
Wyer wanted somewhere with a good restaurant and enough space for his mechanics to work on the cars. A permanent pit building at Le Mans was only built as recently as the 1980s, meaning that, up to that point, all cars were accommodated in nearby garages and hotels during race week.
The Hotel de France and the Place de la Republique were Aston’s base for the duration of their Le Mans adventure
With both his gourmet tastes and need for quiet working space having been taken care of, Wyer happily accepted the distance of over 40 kilometres that had to be covered every day from the hotel to the track and back. Needless to say, the late-night post-practice runs were usually conducted far more rapidly…
In 1959, Wyer was busy at Le Mans working for David Brown’s Aston Martin factory team; the drivers and team members again based at the hotel that – to this day – is famous among motorsport fans – and which still serves excellent food.
The British write a chapter of Le Mans history
It is often said that the Le Mans 24 Hours is Great Britain’s biggest motorsport event. But that it just happens to take place in France!
Indeed, the race has traditionally been very popular among British fans, drivers, teams and manufacturers. And while the achievements of Bentley and Jaguar are well-known, Aston Martin scored what may be considered its biggest sporting success at Le Sarthe, with Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori winning the race in ’59 with the David Brown-run Aston Martin DBR1.
The decade is principally remembered for the successes Jaguar had with its C- and D-Types. But earlier in the decade, Peter Walker had won the 1951 event with his XK 120C, sharing driving duties with Peter Whitehead. Jaguar scored its first win as a factory team with the C-Type driven by Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton in 1953. Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb drove their factory-run D-Type to victory in 1955 – a success that was overshadowed by the tragic drama that occurred at that year’s race – followed by a pair of wins for Ecurie Ecosse with the D-Type driven by Ron Flockhart/Ninian Sanderson in 1956 and Ron Flockhart/Ivor Bueb in 1957, the year in which Jaguars locked out the first four places.
As the D-Type’s days were numbered, another British manufacturer, Aston Martin, stepped forward, its eyes set on success for ’59. Having already participated in previous years at Le Mans – with notable drivers like Peter Collins, Reg Parnell and Salvadori – the brand from Newport Pagnell was determined to take on its rivals from Maranello, Ferrari teams being out in full force with seven 250 Testa Rossas in the prototype class and four 250 GTs.
The DBR1 was all-new for ’59, and had proven its worth with victory at the Nürburgring ahead of its Le Mans debut
The Italian team’s winning car from the previous year’s race, the Testa Rossa had been upgraded for 1959 with disc brakes, revised spring-damper units and less weight. The V12 engine delivered over 300hp while the Aston Martin DBR1 drivers only had around 250 hp on tap.
An unpromising start for Aston
During the test weekend in April – the first time in history that the circuit was closed for testing prior to the race – things didn’t look at all good for Aston Martin. “As so often happens when one tries to stand still we had gone backwards and the performance of our cars was worse than in 1958,” Wyer wrote in his autobiography. “Paul Frère told me long afterwards that, after the test weekend, he seriously doubted the wisdom of his decision to drive for us.”
On Saturday, race day, the team was finally complete: Wyer had arrived from the UK and David Brown and his wife Majorie had flown up from the south of France in Brown’s private plane. As Carroll Shelby’s biography reports: “Shortly afterwards, the three DBR1s and single DB4GT drove out from the rear of the hotel and headed for the track, some 30 miles away.
“Most of the village turned out to watch, and those that couldn’t see, could hear, as the unsilenced racing cars made their way across the square and out of town, each with a mechanic – all too conscious of his responsibility – at the wheel. Light rain was falling.”
Aston’s mechanics were given the honour – and responsibility – of driving the race cars across 30 miles of public roads to reach the circuit!
Driving the number four car, Moss had been given the role of the hare to push the Ferraris to the limit – and, if possible, beyond it. His engine had a higher compression ratio, which resulted in a gain of around 10hp. Boosted by his victory at the Nürburgring, Moss also proved able to keep up with the Ferraris at Le Mans.
Wyer wrote: “Although it obviously reduced his own chances of finishing, Stirling willingly accepted this position. Our other two cars, driven by Salvadori/Shelby and Frère/Trintignant, would play a supporting role and hope to move into contention as the race unwound.”
The hare leads the first hour
And so they did. A few minutes before 4pm, the starting drivers took their places in numbered circles at the opposite side of the track, then dashed across to their race cars as the Minister of Sports dropped the ‘Tricolore’ at the top of the hour: the classic ‘Le Mans start’.
Moss led the race for the first hour, then lost first position to Ferrari’s Jean Behra, but he followed closely. The Briton’s car, later driven by Jack Fairman, stayed among the frontrunners until its engine blew after four hours.
The Moss/Fairman begins to stretch its legs at the depart – its aim was to push the chasing Ferraris to breaking point
However, Moss and Fairman’s work had been done: the fastest Ferrari retired soon after midnight. That allowed Salvadori/Shelby in the number five car to take the lead, with Frère/Trintignant in the number six an undisputed third.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Salvadori lost the tread of one of his tyres. He was told to go on for another seven laps as race manager Reg Parnell believed the reported vibrations were caused by the transmission, something to be sorted out during the next stop. Plenty of time was lost and Phil Hill’s Ferrari took the lead from the two Astons. Shelby, suffering from stomach problems, as he had at Le Mans the year before, wasn’t particularly helpful either.
Despite suffering from badly blistered feet, Briton Salvadori took on the majority of the driving in the lead Aston
The top three stayed in that order for nine hours. Around 10am on Sunday, the Ferrari came in for an unscheduled stop and eventually retired due to overheating. That relieved the pressure and allowed the Astons to cruise to the finish.
The final act
But Aston still had to settle the internal battle. Frère and Trintignant, the latter having to deal with heavily burnt and blistered feet due to the exhaust passing too close to the pedals, pushed hard, but were finally given the pit sign ‘NE PASSER SAL’: ‘don’t overtake Salvadori’.
An elated Stirling Moss provides runner-up Paul Frere with some much-needed post-race lubrication at the end of the race!
Carroll Shelby, having stepped in for his final stint just after 2.15pm, drove the car to the finish, crossing the line at 4.01, only to find that nobody was ready to wave the chequered flag. It turned out the honour had been reserved for one of the smaller – but French! – DB Panhards that had won the Index of Performance… With or without a chequered flag, the one-two for Aston Martin would enter the history books, Salvadori and Shelby finally bringing the factory its long-awaited maiden win at its 10th attempt, Frère and Trintignant completing the success with second place, one lap adrift.
That evening, the winning team returned to the hotel in La Chartre-sur-le-Loir, the village it had left some 36 hours earlier. “The mayor was there, the local brass band, and there was a huge celebration dinner,” Noel Pasteau, the former owner of the hotel, who passed away a few years ago, vividly remembered. Monday around lunchtime, almost everyone had left the hotel and the Place de la République went quiet again for another year…
A moment recaptured: the DBR1 returns to the Hotel de France 60 years after victory. (These photographs were used with the kind permission of the Hotel de France)