1926 – A long term plan

“With the purchase of the real estate at the traditional Raineries start/finish line Le Mans’ site and soul was secure. The pits and tribunes returned from their one year exile at the Hunaudieres hippodrome.

The ACO constructed new grandstands and a new 3,000 car parking area plus a huge new scoreboard that would allow spectators to follow the race with some measure of accuracy, regardless of wine consumption. New pit stalls and even a new press box atop the grandstands across from the new pits were included in the ACO’s ambitious construction project.

Improvements were also made to the 10.73 mile circuit. The ACO took their role as promoter of the 24 Hours and the French auto industry with republican gravity and a missionary’s zeal. The result was a refined road circuit largely free of the rocks and stones and other missiles that cost Bentley a win in the inaugural ronde infernale.

With just 41 starters and a vastly improved road, pre race excitement about higher speeds focused on the much anticipated battle between the first entries from Peugeot, the winning 1925-Lorrianes and a trio of Bentleys. Only O.M. represented Italy and a 3.9 liter Willys-Knight plus a pair of Willys Overlands from Toledo, Ohio were the American entries.

The countdown to four o’clock saw the #30 Jousset sedan first away as its starting driver, Leon Molon, could ignore the complex ritual of erecting the top after sprinting to the car as required by ACO rules.

No matter. By the end of the first lap the little 1.5 saloon had been engulfed by the serious players. Andre Boillot was first past the tribune in the #2 Peugeot leading the Bentleys of 1924 winner Frank Clement and Sammy Davis by nearly a quarter-mile.

The next clot of fast traffic was led by the number nine Thisiethwayte 3-liter Bentley who had Bloch’s Peugeot nose deep in what would today pass for a slipstream had either car had the aerodynamics of a Voisin.

The Peugeots led for the first three hours. French pride was buoyed and the general impression in the packed tribunes was that the Peugeots could increase their pace at will.

The 3.9 liter American Willys-Knight retired after just eight laps. The driver spent nearly an hour by the side of the road trying to remedy a persistent and crippling fuel feed problem that ultimately could neither be diagnosed nor repaired.

The Peugeots were not only fleet and reliable but were getting sensational range. ACO rules required 20 laps before the seals on gasoline, coolant and oil tanks could be broken, but Boillet’s leading car ran 22 laps on its first load of fuel while the Wagner Peugeot completed 21 laps before refueling.

The Peugeot’s level of performance and preparation was a mild shock to W.O. Bentley who had been concentrating on record runs at Monthlery, not 24 hours at Le Mans. But the Bentley’s hung on to the fast and economical Peugeots throughout the night without actually threatening.

One of the Bentleys was nearly disqualified after a dive into one of Le Mans’ infamous earth banks. Duller buried his 3-liter at Arnage and managed to borrow a pick and shovel from a nearby farm house.

His filthy but triumphant return to the course nearly met with disqualification. The focused Briton rescued his car and his race and drove on, bare headed his helmet missing. All assumed he had lost or traded his helmet during the prolonged agriculture exposition at Arnage.

Signals from the Bentley pit grew more frantic as they feared their #8 would be disqualified for violating the helmet rule. It took four laps to find a new helmet and stop Duller who had placed his helmet next to him on the front seat. After 72 laps the #8 Bentley stopped for good with a broken valve.

The grandstands had been full all days and remained crowed all night. Hartford shocks again laid on a lavish paddock hospitality center complete with electric table lamps, table cloths, white-jacketed waiters and fare that would impress any contemporary Le Mans suite denizen or don.

The Peugeots didn’t make it through the night. The windshield frame on Boillot’s #2 car broke allowing the glass to escape and, as the parts required to repair the bizarre fault were not carried aboard, the French car was ordered to retire just after midnight.

Teammates Wagner and Dauvergne were disqualified when their #3 Peugeot failed to start due to a dry battery. Dauverge attempted to bump start the #3 car but was instantly disqualified. The #3 car had survived a close call while overtaking the lone 1.5 liter EHP of Bouriat and Dollfus which lurched into the middle of the road at the worst moment sending the Peugeot into a ditch.

It was typical of the nocturnal adventures of all the fast runners who, by half distance, were averaging just over the magic 100 kph mark.

With eight hours remaining the Lorraine-Dietrich trio was clear of both Bentleys. A half hour later a broken rocker arm halted the #9 Bentley and Benjy Benjafield set out after the French cars alone. It was a brave chase. Dr John took huge 15 and 20 second chunks of time from the Lorrianes, but the #5 responded with a stunning lap record of 71.1 mph.

Surrounded by the entire Lorriane-Dietrich team Davis took over the third place Bentley. Storming after the second place car he misjudged Mulsanne and buried the nearly brake-less Bentley in the sand while trying to lap Mongin’s fourth place Lorraine during the final hour. The gallant Frenchman stopped to offer assistance but Davis was compelled by the rules to refuse and lost a certain third place.

The Lorriane-Dietrichs won a stunning 1-2-3 victory, the first in Le Mans history, over the fast two-liter Italian OM’s. The Davis/Benjafield Bentley, though not classified, had covered enough distance to be invited back to the Sarthe for the 1927 Grand Prix d’Endurance. It would be the return of a true British racing hero.”

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