That Time A Couple Of Drunk British Guys Won The 24 Hours Of Le Mans

Image: Jaguar
Image: Jaguar

The 1953 running of the Le Mans 24 is historically significant for many reasons. For one, the winning Jaguars employed Dunlop-engineered disc brake systems for the first time, and that braking advantage allowed the almighty C-Type to run hard from the drop of the flag and set an average lap time over 100 miles per hour for the first time in the history of the race. But as with all races, there are stories much greater than the stats and the engineering and the numbers. The race winners, British drivers Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt were allegedly drunk when they got in the car.

The story starts with practice. Jaguar darling racer Stirling Moss found his C to be underwhelming in the speed department on the Mulsanne straight, and discussed running a different final drive ratio with the mechanics. Jag sent out a test car with Moss’ specified ratios to see how it would lap. Unfortunately the test car carried the number 18, which had already been ascribed to Hamilton and Rolt. The rules didn’t allow for teams to run multiple cars for the same drivers, even in practice, and the pair were disqualified from the race, effective immediately.

Hamilton and Rolt were inconsolable and set out to drown their sorrows in as many French establishments as would allow them. The pair had retired from the race in 1952, and just seen their 1953 chances go up in smoke, so they drank and drank all night until the sun rose again. Then they kept drinking.


What they didn’t know, however, was that the Jaguar team had achieved a successful appeal of the ruling, and the ACO allowed the number 18 car back on the starting grid. Unfortunately both of its drivers were three sheets to the wind and hadn’t slept in over a day. The team finally found the pair at 10 o’clock the morning of the race. Here’s an excerpt from Hamilton’s autobiography about the event:

“We were sitting there feeling ill, miserable and dejected when a MkVII Jaguar drew up outside and William Lyons got out. He had paid a FF25,000 fine and we were back in the race. In six hours time the flag would fall. Neither of us had had any sleep and 24-hours of racing lay ahead. We ordered more black coffee and enquired if there was a Turkish bath in the town. There was not.”

With the race set to start at 4 p.m., the pair had little time to get prepared for the race. At 2 p.m.they were still feeling like death warmed over, and decided the best course of action would be to order a double round of brandy and ride it out with hair of the dog. Starting the race from well down the order, Rolt quickly made up time, and after just one lap had worked his way up to seventh, outbraking everyone with disc brake engineering on his side. As the sun went down on the first day, the number 18 moved into the lead of the race.

Hamilton refused offers of coffee from the team during pit stops, instead continuing to slug back drams of brandy when he came in for fuel. For much of the race I’m sure he was using that brandy as a pain reliever, considering he’d hit a bird at 130 miles per hour, shattering his windshield, his goggles, and his nose in the process.

Through the night the little Jag battled with a much faster (but still drum braked) Ferrari, trading the lead many times over the hours. By the time breakfast was served the following morning, the Ferrari had broken and fallen out of contention. Then it was just a matter of getting the C-Type to last until the afternoon. Race won, job done, day over.

Practically on the verge of collapse from the treatment of the previous 48 hours, Hamilton and Rolt then went out and celebrated their race victory in much the same way they’d drowned their sorrows the previous evening. It was a race win for the ages.

It should be mentioned that Jaguar team boss Lofty England and Tony Rolt both claim that neither driver was drunk during the race. Hamilton tells a different story, however.

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