The 22nd 24 Hours of Le Mans took place across the weekend of the 12th and 13th June 1954. As was the tradition, the race was started at 4.00pm by Prince Bernhard, consort of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, and an avid motor-racing fan, with the drivers sprinting across the track to their waiting cars.

The Ferrari 375 Pluses of Jose Froilán González, Paolo Marzotto and Robert Manzon stormed away from the start in a 1-2-3 formation, having qualified on the front row of the grid, with the Jaguar D-types of Sir Stirling, Tony Rolt and Ken Wharton in close pursuit.

After only five laps of the race, the first heavy downpour arrived over the circuit, negating the Ferrari power advantage. By the end of the first hour, González, in the #4 Ferrari 375, and Marzotto, in the #3 Ferrari 375 and Stirling, in the #12 Jaguar D-type, had a gap over Rolt, in the #14 Jaguar D-type, and Manzon, in the #5 Ferrari 375.

By lap 22, with heavy rain still falling, Stirling managed to take the lead, starting the to-and–fro battle between the two marques over the course of the race.  By the late afternoon, the Jaguars became to suffer from mechanical issues, Wharton had been held up in the first hour with a blocked fuel filter, while the other two Jaguars suffered from engine misfires, Peter Walker, Stirling’s co-driver, coming to a stop out on the track for 50 minutes, giving the Ferraris a lap’s lead over the rest of the field.

By 8.00pm, González and Marzotto were lapping together, still not having swapped with their respective co-drivers, and a lap ahead of Louis Rosier, Manzon’s co-driver, and Peter Whitehead, Wharton’s co-driver.

As the night wore on, the rain showers returned, causing a number of accidents and retirements. When the rain finally eased, the Jaguar driven by the Wharton & Whitehead pairing had made a strong comeback, getting back up to third place, which became second when the Maglioli & Manzon Ferrari broke its gearbox just after 11.00pm.

The D-types were now steadily hauling themselves back into contention. At midnight González and his co-driver Maurice Trintignant, were two laps ahead of the lead Jaguar of Whitehead & Wharton. Manzon & Rosier were third, ahead of Rolt and his co-driver Duncan Hamilton.

The rain returned and the lead Jaguar had to pit again with fuel-line issues. After several more pit-stops it finally retired with a broken gearbox.  Stirling’s race ended after 9 hours, after experiencing total brake failure at the end of the Mulsanne straight doing 160 mph and taking over two miles to come to a stop on the escape road, using the hand-brake and gearbox! As Stirling put it “the car proved reluctant to slow down sufficiently!”

The Rolt & Hamilton Jaguar pairing however, managed to move into 2nd place by the halfway point, albeit still two laps adrift of the leading Ferrari, with the Rosier & Manzon Ferrari in third.

As dawn arrived the Rosier & Manzon Ferrari retired with a broken gearbox, with it jammed in second gear. The battle for the lead was reduced to just one car for each team at the front of the field. As the clouds formed once more, rain became an ever-present threat, with the prospects for the aerodynamic D-types starting to improve.

By breakfast time, the rain started to come down heavily and the stage was set for a memorable chase. González &Trintignant could afford to take things cautiously, but any unnecessary delays would allow the pursuing Jaguar to chip away at the Ferrari’s lead. As the rain intensified, the sole remaining D-type piled on the pressure.

Trintignant responded with both cars lapping the Le Mans circuit in sub 4'30" lap-times. By 9.30am, after González’s fuel stop saw his Ferrari loose time because of a restarting problem, the Jaguar had whittled the lead down to 3 minutes. However, luck swung the other way when Rolt glanced off the bank coming out of Arnage, lapping a slower car at 10.00am, and 2 minutes were lost in the pits for a bout of impromptu panel beating.

The rain then eased during the morning, allowing the Ferrari to use its power to better effect, however Jaguar would not give up. The race order remained fairly constant and at midday, with four hours to run, the order was still Ferrari, Jaguar, Cunningham, Jaguar, Cunningham, Aston Martin, Gordini and the OSCA as the leading small-engined car.  Just after 1.00pm a ferocious squall slowed all the cars to a snail’s pace, allowing the Jaguar to close the gap again on Trintignant as the track dried.

With just two hours left to run, González & Trintignant were still almost two laps ahead of the English car. At ninety minutes to run and Trintignant brought the Ferrari in for a routine stop. González took over, however the V12 engine, again, refused to restart. The Ferrari lost 7 minutes as the mechanics desperately worked on the engine. The rain started again and the Jaguar, with Rolt at the wheel, was now in sight of the lead. He came into the pits for new goggles, but his pit crew waved him on, as the Jaguar was now on the same lap as the leader.

The Ferrari mechanics found the problem with the V12, the rain had saturated the ignition wiring. When González finally got underway, he was now only 3’14” ahead of Rolt, with both cars on the same lap. Thunder and lightning now lashed the circuit, and unable to see, Rolt pitted and handed over to Hamilton for the final assault with an hour to go. Hamilton then put in extraordinary times in the rain, cutting the lead down to a mere 90 seconds.

González was exhausted, having not eaten or slept over the weekend, and his lap times dropped.  His pit-crew urged him on and as the rain stopped with a half-hour to go, and the track dried out, he was once more able to bring the power of the Ferrari to bear again and extend the gap on the Jaguar once more. Finally able to ease off on the final lap, González crossed the line to win the 1954 Le Mans by just under three minutes.

The Argentinian winner earned a special place in Ferrari history, three years earlier he had scored Ferrari’s first Formula 1 victory. Now, in his last appearance at La Sarthe, he also gave Scuderia Ferrari their first victory at Le Mans.

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