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By Ben Selby
As far as endurance races go, it really is hard to beat the Le Mans 24 Hours. Sure, the Daytona 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring are racing epics worthy of the cult following they have today, but Le Mans is special as its the grand-daddy of them all.
Since 1923, there have been countless incredible and a few tragic moments from the iconic La Sarthe circuit. The Bentley Boys domination during the twenties, the speeds achieved during the Group C era, and Ford’s controversial 1-2-3 finish in 1966.
However, there is one Le Mans story which few people know about, but in my opinion, is one of the most fascinating of all. It centres around Jaguar and a driver by the name of Duncan Hamilton and no, he’s not related to Lewis.
Duncan Hamilton was the archetypical larger than life Racing Driver of the Post War era. In other words, he lived fast, enjoyed life and was always up for an adventure. He was also dead handy behind the wheel, competing in various sports car races and even Formula One.
For Le Mans 1953, Duncan Hamilton was a member of Jaguar’s Race Team. Headed by the autocratic Lofty England, Jaguar had returned to Le Mans hoping to redeem themselves after losing to Mercedes in 1952.
Their Jaguar C Type would be used again in an updated form. The C Type was one of the most advanced racing cars built at the time and gave Jaguar their first Le Mans win in 1951.
The team would consist of three cars with a young Stirling Moss and Peter Walker in the lead C Type No 17. Hamilton would share C Type No 18 with Tony Rolt. This was the same Major Tony Rolt who managed to escape from Colditz during the war.
The third car, No 19, would be driven by Peter Whitehead and Ian Stewart. Jaguar’s biggest competition that year would come from the works Ferrari 340MMs. Defending F1 World Champion Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoressi would lead the charge for the prancing horse.
Here is where the story really kicks off. Hamilton and Rolt set a good qualifying time during practice and earned a solid place on the starting grid. However, Stirling Moss was having mechanical issues and wanted to try and new rear differential set up.
Jaguar had a spare car which Moss used in practice with this new type of diff. Unfortunately, the spare car shared the same number as the Hamilton and Rolt car, 18. The Automobile Club De L’Ouest (ACO) cried foul play, accused Jaguar of cheating, and were quick to disqualify Hamilton and Rolt.
This technical breach of the rules was not intentional, but a mere oversight by Jaguar. Hamilton and Rolt were not pleased. So, they packed up their gear and left the circuit. Hamilton, determined not to let this annoyance ruin his time in France, found a local bar, and then, with Rolt in tow, had a drink. And then another, and another, and another, and another, and I think you can see where this is going.
Yes. Hamilton was drunk beyond belief and as the morning dawned, he was still as inebriated as ever, doing his utmost to nurse a gargantuan hangover. Rolt also felt his head spinning but managed to consume less than Hamilton did. Then, out of nowhere, word got through that Jaguar CEO Sir William Lyons had appealed the disqualification, paid a fine, and the Hamilton/Rolt car would be allowed to compete again.
There now posed a major problem. With the start of the race only hours away, Jaguar had two very drunk drivers who were in no fit state to drive a road car, let alone a racing car for 24 hours. However, Lofty England was adamant the car should still compete, and ordered Hamilton and Rolt to get sober and race.
At 4pm, a less drunk Rolt stood opposite the Jaguar ready to take the traditional Le Mans start. He ran as best he could to the Jag, fired her up and tore off after the field. A few hours in, incredibly Rolt had managed to climb through the field, bringing the C Type to fourth in the standings.
Meanwhile, Hamilton was being given copious amounts of black coffee in an attempt to sober him up quicker, but when he took over from Rolt in the early hours of the evening, he found the coffee was making him jittery and on edge. So, when he came to refuel, the mechanics gave him a swig of Brandy instead.
As the race carried on through the night, both Hamilton and Ascari battled for the lead. While the Ferraris had the edge down the famous Mulsanne Straight, the disc brakes and lighweight of the C Types meant Jaguar had the advantage in the corners.
Then, while travelling at 130mph down Mulsanne, Hamilton was hit by a bird. It broke the C Type’s windscreen, and broke Hamilton’s nose. Amazingly, he carried on as if nothing had happened. Its as if he was still so bladdered he never felt a thing.
The 17 Car of Stirling Moss lead for much of the 24 hours. However, astonishingly, Hamilton and Rolt took the lead and held it.
At 4pm after the retirement of many of the Ferraris including Ascari, the Hamilton/Rolt C Type romped home the winners. The pair were ecstatic, and proceeded to celebrate in the same way they did the night before. One wonders if either of them slept that night.
Duncan Hamilton would keep racing until retiring in 1959. Being deeply affected by the death of his friend, 1958 World Champion Mike Hawthorn that year, Hamilton decided he had enough. He focused his attention on car repairs and sales through his garage Duncan Hamilton ROFGO. This still exists today as one of the world’s most prestigious sales agents of collectable classic cars and race cars.
Duncan Hamilton passed away in 1994. His name may not be mentioned as much as other greats of the era, but on his day, he could keep pace with the best of them. Also, many will always remember that lovable Irish racing driver as the maverick who defied the odds, and won Le Mans while completely off his face.
NOTE: Drunk Driving is NOT ok.