In 1939, a Bugatti Type 57 C technically close to the production car surprises in Le Mans.
It´s one of the most famous and toughest endurance races in the world: the 24-Hours of Le Mans in France. It is the birthplace of legends. Exactly 80 years ago, on the 18th of June 1939 two Frenchman are victorious with their French race car: Jean-Pierre Wimille and Pierre Veyron in a Bugatti Type 57 C Tank. This victory would eventually last for the next ten years.
50 drivers entered the race in eight different categories, but only 42 would actually start the race. 80 years ago, the 24-Hours of Le Mans were already a real constructor’s battle, although the race did not belong to any racing series back then. The competition was tremendous. Alone 25 came from France, with famous brands like Delahaye, Delage and Talbot. On the starting grid, coming from Germany was, Adlerwerk and BMW, from Great Britain Aston Martin, Morgan, Riley, MG and Singer and from Italy Alfa Romeo.
Bugatti goes to the race with great enthusiasm. The previous year, the French car maker had to renounce their start in the prestigious race due to technical problems. This year however, with the 16th edition of the Type 57, everything is working. Under the streamline body of the Type 57 race version is a nearly series production chassis of the Type 57 C, developed by Jean Bugatti, the brilliant engineer and son of the founder of the company Ettore Bugatti. By charging a compressor, the 8-cylinder engine with 3.3 litre capacity and two overhead camshafts produces around 200 bhp. This allows for speeds of over 255 km/h on the straight. Through additional upgrades, Bugatti managed to reduce the weight of the round, pontoon shaped bonnet. The rear axle, crank shaft and other parts are also optimized.
Bugatti in the Category of Kings
Winners aren’t necessarily the fastest drivers, but rather the most tactical ones with the most reliable racing car. Jean-Pierre Wimille knows the circuit well: two years earlier, the Frenchman wins with a Type 57 G tank with an average speed of 136 km/h. This year, starting in the Category of Kings, where engines range from 2 to 5 litres, it looks good for potential victory.
But from the start on, things are quite different . The favourite is two-time Le Mans winner Raymond Sommer with a new Alfa Romeo. He leads the race from the start and widens the gap with the other drivers, including Jean-Pierre Wimille. But the Bugatti pro drives exceptionally, taking clean lines in the curves while preserving his tires and brakes. Until late at night, the cars are driving with more and more speed. Sommer and Wimille fiercely fight for first place and are soon joined by Louis Gérad and Georges Monnert, drivers for Delage. But their race car could not withstand the strain: on Sunday morning, an engine problem forces them to stop in the pit lane. Meanwhile, Pierre Veyron continues on, pushing his Type 57 C Tank lap after lap. The company’s patriarch later claims that during the race, the mechanics never had to open the bonnet, since the 8-cylinder engine was so reliable.
Bugatti finishes three laps ahead
With a track distance of almost 13,5 kilometres per lap, Wimille and Veyron covered 3.354 kilometres – 248 laps – in 24 hours. The sports car achieved an average speed of 139 km/h. The runner-up car of the race was three laps behind and the third car nine laps. Of the 42 cars that started, only 20 crossed the finish line.
This victory at the 24-Hours of Le Mans 80 years ago in 1939, marked the last great success of Bugatti in motor sports – only two months later, the second world war started. Bugatti had to cease production shortly afterwards, evacuate the factory and could only restart the production with great difficulties after the war had ended. The 24-Hours of Le Mans resumed only in 1949. Although without Bugatti, who still kept the record of covered distance of 3.354 kilometres until 1950. Yet another record for Bugatti.