Attrition, Speed and the Finish

Led by Dan Gurney, Shelby’s Cobras were outperforming other cars in the GT class. But would his cars hold up until the end? The Texan could only hope so. Shortly after the race entered its fourth hour, a concern sprung up for Wyer’s team. A GT40 had caught fire on the Mulsanne Straight. But there were, thankfully, no casualties as driver Richard Attwood had climbed out safely before getting hurt. It was over for one of the three prototypes Ford entered into the race. The fuel hoses were later identified as the culprit. They were made of plain nylon instead of an ultra durable synthetic material. “It was a miracle the other cars were not affected,” Wyer later commented.

Meanwhile, the race for first was heating up between Surtees and Gregory. Gregory soon overtook Surtees as he blitzed past the grandstands again, fuelling morale in the Ford pit. Leaning to Wyer, “It is enough” Frey said. “If we do nothing more in this race, I am satisfied.” But things another twist – Gregory pulled into the pit minutes later, there was problem with the transmission. Efforts to get the car back on track proved fruitless, and so Wyer was forced to withdraw the second Ford. Hill was in the last Ford, but he was trailing the leaders by a long stretch with 19 hours racing hours left. Disappointing!

With increasing loss of visibility, there was more danger in the mix as racing entered night time. Hill came down for McLaren at midnight, the former later describing the four-hour shift as “the best 500 racing mile I’ve ever covered.” The gathered mass turned to sausages, oysters, and French fries served in the busy sideshows to ward off boredom at night. Others curled up in their cars, and some slept in the fields turned camping ground.

ABC’s Jim McKay was still woke though, screaming “It’s the middle of the night here, and the leader is the favored car, the factory Ferrari driven by John Surtees and his partner Lorenzo Bandini, who was one of the two winning drivers last year. That first-place car is followed by two more Ferrari’s. However, of very much interest is the fourth-place car, the #5 Cobra driven by Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant of the United States. That car is not only in fourth place but is leading the GT division. And in fifth place, a remarkable story is the one remaining Ford in this race, driven by Phil Hill and his partner Bruce McLaren from New Zealand. That car has moved up from forty-fourth place. It’s going faster than any other car by far, lapping faster and faster every time …”

It had been a largely safe race until midnight, but an accident soon occurred. The clash involved a Cobra V8 and a Ferrari V12. Both drivers were struggling for position when things went out of control. The drivers miraculously survived, not so the three young men that were entangled under the wrecked cobra.

The race continued. At 5:20 am and despite the morning fog, Hill set a race lap record of 3:49.2. Not long after, he faced gearbox problems and pulled into the Ford pit. The Italian-made transmission was the culprit, again. The race was only reaching halfway, and Ford had to pull out its last car. It was over for the Americans. 

Not long after Hill’s exit, Surtees pulled into the pit, his 330 P was leading the race until then. By the time technicians would get his car fit again, he was trailing in third. Moving in fourth place was a Shelby American Cobra. Dan Gurney was signaled to pull in the #5 Cobra into the pit for repairs and driver change. Gurney was ahead of the pack in the GT class, slamming a new lap record in the process. In his place following some mechanical work was Bon Bondurant.

As the 24hr race slowly ticked away, the order of finish was all but assured. Drivers cruised slowly to seal their finish. The car in first-place was five laps ahead of the one in second, and the second was seven laps ahead of the third. There was nothing to fight for as the fiercest automobile race in the world came down to its final minutes. The weary spectators only awaited the waive of the checkered flag and the crowning of the new champions.

First to roll over the finish line was Ferrari’s Sicilian Nino Vaccarella and Frenchman Jean Guichet. Surtees was third. Five Ferrari cars finished in the top six, with a Shelby Cobra coming in fourth – and winning the GT class. Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren could only watch as spectators. National pride restored, it was five in a row at Le Mans for Enzo Ferrari.

Shelby and his men surrounded the winning Cobra, and ABC’s Stirling Moss was on hand to interview drivers Gurney and Bondurant.

“Congratulations, Bob,” Moss said. “History I reckon has been made here today. How are you feeling, how much sleep did you get?”

“About five hours,” replied Bondurant. Turning to Gurney “How about you?” Moss said, “About three, I think.”

It soon became obvious it wasn’t only the Americans that wanted to beat Enzo Ferrari. Huschke von Hanstein, competition manager of the Porsche team couldn’t but express his delight: “Thank you for beating them,” he said hugging Bondurant.

Shelby Daytona