Monday, July 14, 2014

LeMans 1953 (And Disc Brakes)

The Peter Whitehead/Ian Stewart Jaguar C-Type finished 4th at LeMans in 1953.

This is a 13-minute BBC color print of LeMans in 1953.  While it features British marques, particularly Jaguar (which won), it also has some fine footage of the American Cunninghams, Ferraris, and others--even a fleeting view of the rare Alfa Romeo Disco Volante.

It was clear even in 1953 that Jaguar's winning edge was fade-resistant disc brakes--the first application in a racing car.  But the next generation of Formula 1 cars, then on the drawing boards, used drum brakes.  With benefit of hindsight, it's surprising that disc brakes were not more quickly adopted for racing.  1959 was the first year they were on all the cars in the fields of major sports car and Formula 1 races.

One possible explanation is that LeMans was seen as "different" because it was an endurance race.  The advantage of discs in a sprint race was not seen as clear-cut.  But the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, and 1000 km sports car races were long too.

Another explanation is that Dunlop held patents for reliable caliper-type disc brakes--the ones used on the Jaguar C-Type.  Girling (another British firm) held patents on a different type of caliper.  So it is not surprising that disc brakes found their way onto British racing and production cars first.  The first non-British production car to use (front) disc brakes was the 1961 Mercedes-Benz 220 SE.  They were--unusually for Mercedes--made by Girling, not in-house.  Around the same time, Porsche tried to develop its own disc brake, used for about a year, before concluding that it was simpler, cheaper, and easier to just pay the licensing fees.

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