“Another win for the red cars? Well, actually, yes. The potent and alarming appearance of Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union in grand prix racing displaced and demoted Alfa-Romeo and Bugatti to the wrong end of the GP grids.
No less than seven Bugattis — including a complete works team from Molsheim — joined the huge entry for the 1935 Le Mans. Of the record 58 cars waiting for 4:00 o’clock 37 were British including two well named 4.5 liter Lagonda Rapides. Winner of the 1925 Le Mans La Lorraine made its final appearance on the tenth anniversary of their victory. Delahaye made its Le Mans debut with a lone 3.2 liter six, and the name Gordini appeared for the first time on the Le Mans entry list with Amedee Gordini and Carlo Nazarro sharing a one-liter Fiat Balilla 508 Coupe.
Italy was still the reigning power: The five Alfa-Romeos – four 8C2300s and a 1750 — were the unanimous pick of the pressroom and tribunes. Save Prince Nicholas’ giant and ancient 7-liter Duesenberg and Veyron and Labric’s 4.9 liter Type 50G Bugatti, the biggest engines in the ’35 field came from Britain. Defying tradition the 4.4 Lagonda Rapides and 1.5 liter Aston-Martin works entries were painted red. The private Astons were, naturally, green.
Taking cues from W.O. Bentley’s effective Le Mans promotions MG entered an “all-woman” three-car team of P-type Midgets, each wearing the Union Jack on its cowl and managed by Capt. George Eyston.
Just ten minutes before 4:00 p.m. the rain that had fallen for nearly a solid hour stopped. And then that amazing silence, the last for one day, and the fall of the tricolour. Brian “Bug” Lewis was first away in Lord Howe’s immaculate Alfa, but Prince Nicholas put his number-one Duesenberg torque monster first under the Champion bridge by dint of brute force.
Five minutes later it was Lewis who was back first in Howe’s Alfa, then Sommer with a 15 second gap to Chinetti in the number-eleven Alfa. The old Duesenberg was third and the #12 Alfa fourth, then the largest of the Bugattis – the Veyron 4.9 barely ahead of Hindmarsh’s red Lagonda.
The “grand prix” continued through lap two with Sommer – who was again forced to race solo as his co-driver became ill on Thursday evening – had moved his Alfa in front of Lewis and Chinetti. The potent mixture of adrenaline and testosterone was still at high tide and Lewis led again at the end of the third lap when Sommer pitted, jumped out to fiddle with a balky plug lead and roared off after Lewis and Chinetti.
A light rain diluted this brew and muted jangled opening-lap nerves. Lewis pitted and changed the distributor at the high cost of two laps. Hindmarsh moved the red Lagonda into fourth with Sommer lapping even faster than Chinetti who still held the lead in his Alfa 8C.
It took Sommer nearly an hour to reclaim the lead. That’s when the rain returned with genuine force. A flurry of pit stops before the mandatory 24 lap fuel window found Chinetti in for new tires. It was discovered that oil was leaking onto the rear brakes from the axle. A few laps later the Paris-based Italian was back in with the same complaint.
The Veyron Bugatti was first to pit after the minimum 24 laps had been completed. Sommer was next and managed to retain his lead despite a slightly longer stop. Less than a half hour later Prince Nicholas took to the escape road at Mulsanne and even Luigi Chinetti had a light twirl on the wet road at Mulsanne. The remedy to this embarrassment required driving counter race briefly in the number-eleven Alfa. Among the first to witness this bizarre sight were the leading Sommer and “Lord Earl”.as the French called their beloved English Lord Howe (matched in the #10 Alfa with Brian “Bug” Lewis, Lord Essendon).
Lord Howe was finally at the wheel of his Alfa 8C2300 when he came upon the vast Duesenberg. Suddenly a stone from one of its rear wheels struck the Alfa’s windshield smashing part of the glass and frame. Howe simply shrugged it off and continued the slog toward dusk in the gloom.
The “transition” is one of the most difficult interludes of endurance racing and the 1935 dusk-to-dark episode was among the filthiest in Le Mans history. Curtains of tire-generated fog and spray call for close attention precisely when the body wants a reduction of mental and physical effort. Reports were unanimous: it was worst at Arnage.
Fotherhingham suffered most in the #28 Aston Martin during a protracted slide at White House. The Aston ricocheted off the bank, snap rolled and spit the Englishman onto the road in front of his Aston teammate in the #30 1.5 liter. The Aston duo was being lapped by Hindmarsh’s 4.5 Lagonda. What followed was a small miracle. Fotherigham followed his car down the road somehow avoiding the hideous alternative of being trapped in or under the rolling wreckage. Gardner and Hindmarsh were able to avoid both car and driver who had some nasty lacerations.
With a quarter of the race run the #28 Aston’s retirement was only the fifth of the evening. Rain had slowed and sobered the pace as midnight approached. Then solo Sommer’s leading Alfa failed to appear.
The two-time winner was stranded on the road to Tours. No fuel was getting to the engine and only through agonizing effort was the exhausted Sommer able to return to the pits, just before 11:30. By midnight he was back on course seven laps behind the leading Lagonda of John Hindmarsh and his teammate (winner of the 250 International Trophy at Brooklands) Luis Fontes. Three different marques sat atop the midnight order with Lagonda leading the #12 Alfa-Romeo of Helde and Stoffel second and the Veyron-Labric Bugatti Type 50S third, both a lap down.
An hour and a quarter later Raymond Sommer was back in the pits off sequence with the attention of France turned his way. He was exhausted and ready to quit, but the crowd, (there was still a crowd despite the weather) urged him on. So Sommer returned to the course. Common sense overtook him somewhere in the next two laps: over 14 hours remained, he was out of physical and mental resources and 20 laps behind the leading Lagonda. With 69 laps complete Sommer parked his healthy #12 Alfa, again betrayed by an ill co-driver and a small inventory of mechanical trouble.
Lewis, in the Howe Alfa, went into the lead moments later, and when he pitted for fuel and a driver change Veyron’s number-two Bugatti was promoted into the lead. This began a running fight with the Lord’s Howe and Lewis Alfa.
At 4:00 a.m. The Lords’ number-ten Alfa had a thin two-minute lead over the Bugatti. An hour later the Bugatti’s straight-eight engine blew, then, on the same lap, Luigi Chinetti parked his Alfa. It left Howe’s Alfa in the lead backed up by the #12 Alfa of Stoffel and Helde. Both Lagondas had also been promoted: Fontes a threatening third and Dr. Benjafield to fifth. At 5:30 a.m., with dawn promised, a piston in Lord Howe’s leading Alfa broke. It was practically a replay of his 1934 24 Hours and his French fans, and there were many of them, sighed or shrugged. Many did both.
Now the Stoffel/Helde Alfa 8C went ahead with Luis Fonte’s Lagonda riding second on the same lap. The 1500cc class leading Aston Martin of Martin and Blackenberry was an astonishing third overall with the first Le Mans entry from Delahaye fourth on the same lap as Dr. Benjafield’s Lagonda. Col. Eyston’s MG ladies’ team was circulating regularly and reliably to orders.
Fontes and Hindmarsh spent the morning stalking the leading Alfa gently through occasional rain showers. By 10:00 a.m. they had steadily erased the Italian car’s two minute lead and went ahead with six hours to go. Two hours later Benjy Benjafield put his Lagonda into third only to have his transmission go sour. He spent the afternoon bravely chugging around in top gear, watching the #14 move slowly down the huge scoreboard every time he passed the pits.
With an hour to go Luis Fontes pitted the leading Lagonda with alarming news about his oil pressure. Three minutes later he was back on course, still in the lead, but with a weather eye on the diseased oil pressure gauge. By then the Lagonda had a two-lap lead from the second place Stoffel/Helde Alfa. Stoffel pitted the #12 Alfa as Fontes disappeared under the Champion bridge. The stop generated some mild confusion in both the public address studio and the Alfa pits.
At 3:40 p.m. Helde passed the oil-starved Fontes Lagonda and the word went out that the Alfa was now, indeed, in the lead and drawing away at speed. When he next passed the pits orders went out to slow the #12 Alfa and run just fast enough to preserve his spare lead.
Just before 4:00 p.m. the truth was told. It was too late.
There had been a scoring error, or perhaps a miscommunication: the Alfa was not ahead but merely on the same lap with the still-leading Lagonda. The Alfa pits had erred, and the clock permitted no opportunity to correct the error. Luis Fontes was five miles ahead at 4:00 o’clock and Alfa Romeo had thrown away a sure fifth consecutive Le Mans victory.
Lagonda had delivered Britain her first win on the Sarthe since 1930. It was the first for the marque as well. But the pace was still slower than Nuvolari and Chinetti’s record of 1934. No matter. It was a great day for England: the Martin/Blackberry Aston Martin won the 1.5 liter class with a superb and well judged third overall.
The #42 MG finished ninth overall on its way to victory in the 1100 cc class. A record 28 cars finished: it was another despite-all-odds story of a British underdog — albeit painted red — complete with the requisite twists and turns and pathos to keep the growing legions of Le Mans fans amused until June, 1936.