Wednesday 16 January 2019

Bombs, Bentleys and brandies - The remarkable life of the only Irish man to win the world's most famous car race

Ahead of what would have been his 98th birthday on Monday, we look back at the remarkable life of Duncan Hamilton, the only Irish-born driver to win the prestigious Le Mans 24-hour endurance race

Racing drivers Tony Rolt (left) and Duncan Hamilton with their wives following their victory in the 24 hour Grand Prix d'Endurance, in their British Jaguar car, at Le Mans, June 15th 1953. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Racing drivers Tony Rolt (left) and Duncan Hamilton with their wives following their victory in the 24 hour Grand Prix d'Endurance, in their British Jaguar car, at Le Mans, June 15th 1953. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sean Nolan

Duncan Hamilton, the only Irish-born winner of the world's most famous car race survived German bombs, brutal crashes and a pre-race bender during a truly remarkable life.

Hamilton, who would have turned 98 on Monday, is not nearly as well known as other Irish-born motor racing drivers such as Eddie Irvine or Derek Daly, but he achieved something no other Irish-born driver ever did; victory in the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race.

Hamilton was born in Cork in 1920 and spent the first six years of his life there before the family moved to London.

In his 1960 autobiography 'Touch Wood' Hamilton details how he grew up in Cork in a time he refers to as 'The Troubles'.

As an example of life in Cork in the early 1920s he says a friend of his father was shot at the family front door and as a child Hamilton was tied to his mattress under a window at night so he would not look out and become a potential victim of snipers who were operating in the area.

His love of cars was also nurtured during his very early years in Cork, as he recalls in his book.

"From my earliest days I was allowed to sit in them, turn the steering wheel, fiddle with the gear and brake levers, get down from the seat and push the foot pedals, blow the horn," Hamilton said of playing in his father's car as a child.

After moving to the UK, Hamilton's interest in cars, and airplanes, continued to grow before World War II intervened.

Hamilton was an active participant in the war, serving as an airman in the Navy. He survived numerous brushes with German bombs and bullets, both on the ground and in the air, though it a high-speed crash in his new Bentley after a night out in Ipswich that may have been his luckiest escape in this war years.

Admitting in his book to being 'the worse for wear' on the night in question he and his friends tore after what they thought was a German bomber coming down in flames nearby.

En route, while travelling at 70mph, the car flew off the road, through a brick wall, hit a tree, bounced back through the same wall before coming to a halt after smashing into a wall on the other side of the road.

Only after they all climbed from the wreckage did Hamilton notice that what had fallen to earth was a barrage balloon (a huge balloon designed to block bombers) and one of its heavy cables had fallen across the road, sending the Bentley flying into the wall.

However, if the cable had been two feet lower, Hamilton believes he and his friends would have been decapitated in the crash.

After the war, Hamilton's wife Angela forbade him from flying so he turned his attention solely to cars and began to compete in hill climbs and sprint races.

By the late 1940s Hamilton was competing in Grand Prix races across Europe but it was his tilts at the Le Mans 24-hour race that would ensure his legacy.

Hamilton raced in the event nine times, the first in 1950 with his friend Tony Rolt.

The pair finished fourth in the race in their first attempt in 1950 and sixth in 1951.

But it was in 1953 when they would have the ultimate success.

According to Hamilton's book, a mix up over race numbers during qualifying meant that Holt and Hamilton were disqualified. Bitterly disappointed, the two men went to the bar to drown their sorrows, expecting a planned appeal to fail.

What followed was "a night of heavy imbibing" as Hamilton puts it before their team boss pulled up outside a restaurant where they were having coffee at 10am to tell them they were back in the race, but they only had six hours before the start and they had not been to bed at all.

In his book, Hamilton describes what happened next: "Neither of us had any sleep and twenty-four hours of racing lay ahead. We ordered more black coffee and enquired if there was a Turkish bath in the town. There was not. We went back to the chateau and had hot baths. We drank more black coffee, we listened to our wives and by 2pm we felt dreadful.

"I knew I could not race feeling as I did; there was only one thing and that was a little of the hair of the dog. I ordered a double brandy; immediately I felt better. Tony tried the same medicine with equally happy results."

Driving a Jaguar the pair started well and eventually climbed into the lead ahead of such names as Stirling Moss and Alberto Ascari. Despite a bird striking the windscreen of the car while Hamilton was behind the wheel doing 150mph, breaking the screen in half, they went on to win, fulfilling what Hamilton called "his dearest sporting ambition".

A week later Hamilton was nearly killed in the Portuguese Grand Prix when he ploughed his Jaguar into an electricity pylon at 125mph.

He woke up in a hospital in Porto to see a surgeon working on a massive wound to his chest, all the while puffing a cigar. There was no light in the room as the pylon Hamilton hit had knocked out the power and with all the anaesthetists off to watch the race, a nun giving him port was the only pain reliever.

Hamilton would continue to compete in races but after a serious accident in the 1958 race, coupled with the death of a number of close friends in races, most notably Mike Hawthorn in 1959, Hamilton retired from racing in April 1959.

He set up Duncan Hamilton Motors, a company still in existence today and now run by his son Adrian.

His grandson Archie is also a motor racing driver, and on the 60th anniversary of his grandfather's success he too competed in the Le Mans 24-hour race.

Referred to as 'larger than life' figure in his obituary in the UK Independent, Duncan Hamilton passed away in 1994, ending a journey that is simply not conceivable in the modern world.

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