“The spectre of 1955 stretched into the summer of 1956. The Pope himself got in the headlines when he voiced what sounded to many like an appeal to end auto racing. The Swiss didn’t equivocate and banned racing outright and the French GP and the 1000 Kilometers of the Nurburgring were postponed.
The ACO behaved with neither hysteria nor bravado and began to make extraordinary changes. They were so sweeping that the 24 Hours did not qualify as a round for the 1956 World Sports Car Championship: prototypes were limited to an F1-like 2.5 litres and fuel capacity was trimmed to 130 litres. (The ’55 Mercedes-Benz W196S prototypes packed 50 gallon fuel tanks!) The distance between refueling stops rose to 34 laps imposing a de facto fuel consumption formula of 26 litres per 100 kilometers or about ten-mpg. An unpopular rule requiring wider windshields was included and Aston-Martin took an extraordinary step car and put actual glass in front of their drivers lest a grist of oil, water and deceased insects render the new cockpit-width plexiglas opaque.
Massive modifications to the pit/tribune straight removed 12 meters from each lap. Two more levels were added to the pits and distance between the road and tribune was increased, and a four-meter trench and a three-meter berm were added between the road and the spectator area
Signaling was no longer permitted in the pit area. A new signal station away from the confusion, clutter and congestion of the pits was built 75 yards from the exit of Mulsanne. This new outpost was connected to the working pits by subterranean telephone lines. The whole project cost over 300 million Francs and forced postponement of the 1956 24 hours until July 28th. It was only the second time since the inception of the 24 Hours in 1923 that the race was not held over the weekend of the Solstice. No one complained.
Jaguar was the clear favorite the moment the new prototype rules were issued. Their 3.4 litre six that had been a Le Mans star since its 1954 Le Mans debut. By July, 1956 over 50 individual D-Types had been built. That bland fact meant that the D-Type was a true production cars, at least as they were described by the ACO’s rule book. The car built solely to win Le Mans was unencumbered by the new 2.5 litre prototype displacement rules and a fleet of them went to the Sarthe in July.
With Mercedes-Benz gone only Ferrari, the Aston-Martin DBR1s and a pair of three-litre DB3S Astons (led by Targa strongmen Moss and Collins) were genuine rivals to the armada of D-Types. All save the Jaguars and the DB3S Astons at 2.5 litres.
Ferrari, who still coveted the Mille Miglia above all, went the Formula 1 route with in stock four-cylinder engines from their GP Squalos in place of the usual 2-litre units. Neither new-hire Juan Fangio – first man to the scene of the accident in 1955 — nor Eugenio Castellotti were available for Le Mans’ July date as both claimed illness and deferred the all-day grind to rest before the German GP at the Nurburgring a week hence.
Porsche faced startlingly real class competition from Lotus. Founder Colin Chapman had made a one car Le Mans reconnaissance in 1955 with a Lotus IX powered by an 1100 cc Climax four, but was disqualified before the half way hour. This year he had a 1500 cc type XI for himself and American David Mackay-Fraser plus a pair 1100 cc Lotus 11s and they were all lapping faster than Porsches coupes.
Just before the start the public address requested a moment of silence to honor those who died near the 13 kilometer marker during the tragic 1955 race.
At 4:00 p.m. Moss was first away in the number-eight Aston. but last year’s winner Hawthorn led the first lap “grand prix” the works Number one D-Type. In fact British cars rode first through fifth. Then two works Ferraris and the Gordinis.
On the next lap Paul Frere in the number-two Ecurie National Belge D-Type spun and tagged both embankments in the esses and that lured Fairman’s D-Type into an avoiding spin as well. The number-three Fairman/Wharton works D-Type had all but escaped only to be struck by Fon Portago’s 625LM Ferrari. All three cars retired.
Hawthorn was soon joined at the front by the private Jaguar D-Type of Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson (also from David Murray’s Ecurie Ecosse stable). Two more laps and the leading works Jaguar was stuttering with ignition troubles. Misfiring, the number-one Jaguar began to slow and stumble backwards through the order. Pit stops to change plugs, fiddle with the fuel injection and make a rotor change sent the pre-race favorite even farther down the field.
The Ecurie Ecosse D-Type led at the end of the first hour after the Moss Aston and Peter Walker’s sister ship DB3S all took turns in front. Hour two was somewhat less fraught, but only at the front of the field. News reached the pits during the early evening that Louis Heny had died en route to the hospital after his 750cc DB rolled over on him at White House.
The first stops under the new fuel rules came before 7:00 p.m. Colin Chapman’s 1.5 litre Lotus led his class with economical ease. His Porsche rivals never knew that the svelte little Lotus still had over three gallons of gas in the tank when it first stopped.
The rain that had threatened all afternoon arrived in time for dusk. At quarter distance three marques filled the top three: Aston (Moss/Collins) and the Ecurie Ecosse D-type (Flockhart/Sanderson) on the same lap with Gendebien/Trintignant Ferrari 625LM a lap back.
The top two swapped positions at midnight but less than an hour later the Jaguar went ahead again. The Scottish D-Type and the Moss/Collins Aston spent the early morning hours practically within sight of each other. By half distance at 4:00 a.m. the dark blue Jaguar and the three-litre Aston remained on the same lap just 19 seconds apart. Their pace had put the third place Gendebien/Trintignant Ferrari four laps behind. Well back (22 laps) but running strongly again the sole surviving works Hawthorn/Bueb D-Type had regained its footing.
The Aston held the lead through dawn and beyond but Moss had to surrender the lead to Sanderson during a pit stop. Through the morning and into the post dawn rain the Ecosse team banked a two-lap lead over the three-litre Aston as Moss and Collins were hampered by a balky gearbox. By morning they had lost two gears.
The sole surviving works D-Type of Hawthorn and Bueb had seized the attention of the crowd and was clearly the fastest car on the soggy course. But they had dropped too far too early, and despite clawing their way from last place to sixth the 1955 winners simply ran out of time.
The blue of Ecurie Ecosse D-Type prevailed for Jaguar and the Cross of St. Andrew. No records were set. Only 14 cars made it to 4:00 o’clock Sunday and the whole affair had the tone of a discount sale. The monsters from Ferrari were absent though the red cars with their second-hand F1 four cylinder engines and primitive chassis was third overall and the first home in the 2.5 litre-class. At the other end of technology the Lotus entries gave Porsche a cold fright; only the Bicknell/Jopp 1100 cc Eleven finished, exactly in the middle of the 14 weary survivors.
It was either a rebuilding year or a learning experience, depending upon ones’ native tongue. Again Jaguar won its coveted one race championship and no one considered hanging an asterisk by the result.