The 23rd March 1957 saw Stirling at the wheel of a Maserati sports cars once again as he took part in the sixth running of the 12 Hours of Sebring, held on the Sebring International Raceway in Florida.
A total of 86 racing cars were registered for the event, of which 76 arrived for practice, with 66 going on to start the race. Because they were no qualifying sessions to set the herringbone style Le Mans grid, the starting positions were decided according to engine size, with the 4.6 litre #1 Corvette Super Sport (SS) car of John Fitch and Piero Taruffi in pole position at the head of the line, followed by the other three Corvette’s.
The magnesium-alloy bodied Corvette SS car, with its 4,638 cc engine, complete with lightweight aluminum cylinder heads, producing 30 more horsepower than the production Corvette, at 315bhp, and weighing 1000lb less, caused quite a stir. In addition to the elegant metallic-blue race SS car, Chevrolet had built a practice SS car, equipped with a standard Corvette engine and a plastic body. Despite looking shabby, it was fast, and in the days prior to the event, other race drivers constantly asked the Chevrolet competition director, Zora Arkus-Duntov for a chance to drive one.
He selected Stirling and Juan Manuel Fangio to drive the practice SS. After finishing the practice session in their respective Maseratis, both Stirling and Fangio took a courtesy run in the practice SS car, with both drivers breaking the lap record within a few laps.
The race itself began with a Le Mans style start, the drivers running across the concrete and jumping into their cars. Peter Collins, in the #11 Ferrari 315 S, was the first away with Stirling, driving the #20 Maserati 300S not far behind. A brief miss fire by Stirling’s engine gave Collins a commanding lead, and by the end of lap one, Collins was already ten seconds clear of him, with the #19 Maserati 450S of Behra not far behind.
Within the first 60 minutes, the #1 Corvette SS began to experience brake troubles and pitted to have these checked. The #6 Briggs Cunningham Jaguar D-Type, driven by Bill Lloyd, was the first car to retire with engine problems. Behra had moved into second place, a few seconds down on Collins, with Stirling now running in third, with Alfonso de Portago fourth in the #12 Ferrari 315 S. Masten Gregory and Phil Hill rounded out the top six, in the #15 and #14 Ferraris.
As the cars moved into the second hour, the heat started to take its toll on both cars and drivers alike. The #46 Maserati 150S of Lloyd Ruby blew its engine and retired. Behra moved into the lead by over a minute ahead of Collins, with Portago, Stirling and Gregory completing the top five.
During the third hour tragedy struck, when Bob Goldich, driving the #39 Arnolt Bolide, crashed at the esses, flipping his car several times. He died instantly of a fractured skull and broken neck. When news of his death reached Stanley Arnolt, he withdrew the rest of his team. Sadly, this marked the first death of a driver in the history of the Sebring race.
At 1.15 pm Behra pitted and handed to 450S over to Fangio. During his spell, Behra had broken the lap record several times, and at this point, had a fairly large lead over Stirling. The Ferrari’s of Collins and Portago were third and fourth with Carroll Shelby now in fifth in the #21 Maserati 250S.
By 3.00 pm, the #1 Corvette SS was listed amongst the retirements. Fangio was still leading and Stirling, after five hours behind the wheel, handed his car over to his co-driver, Harry Schell. Portago brought his Ferrari into the pits with serious brake trouble. The mechanics could not seem to remedy the problem and let the car back onto the track with Luigi Musso behind the wheel.
At the half-way point of the race, the Maserati Factory team had Fangio leading the race, but a major mistake by the team, led to a disqualification. It seemed that Fangio and Shelby were running low on fuel. Shelby pitted his 250S and had begun refuelling when he was told to get back on the track because Fangio was due in. After Fangio was serviced and cleared the pits, Shelby returned to the pits for the remainder of his fuel, but was immediately disqualified. There was a FIA rule, that stated you had to drive at least 20 laps before you can come in for more fuel, and the Maserati team fell fowl of this rule.
After 10 hours of racing, Fangio was still leading with Mike Hawthorn, in the #5 Jaguar D-Type, Portago and Schell following. The Portago then pitted because of a problem with his fuel pump, which cost him 30 minutes, with Stirling continuing to gain on the leaders. By 9.00 pm, Fangio was still at the wheel of the #19 Maserati and was now four laps ahead.
Because of pit stops and driver changes, Stirling was now in second place with Hawthorn dropping to third, Gregory fourth and Walt Hansgen, in the #7 Cunningham D-Type in fifth. Collins Ferrari and fallen off the pace because of failing brakes. The small but reliable Porsche 550s were now in 8th, 9th and 10th positions respectively.
With just 30 minutes of the race left, there was a commotion in the Maserati pits. It seemed that during the scheduled final pit stop a mechanic had spilled a large quantity of fuel on Fangio’s seat. In typical Italian fashion there was a lot of yelling and hand gestures, meanwhile, the team manager went off to find a replacement seat. They found one and Fangio returned to the race with his lead reduced.
At 10.00 pm, the fireworks appeared over the track, signalling the end of the race and a tremendous victory for Maserati. Taking the chequered flag were Fangio and Behra at the wheel of their #19 Maserati 450S with the Stirling and Schell second in the #20 Maserati 300S, having reduced the lead down to just two laps, with the bonus of a Sports 3000 class win. The podium was completed by the D-Type of Hawthorn, co-driven by Ivor Bueb, the English pairing salvaging some honour for the Coventry marque.
Gregory and Lou Brero were fourth and the first Ferrari to finish. Hansgen and Russ Boss were fifth in a Jaguar D-Type, Collins and Maurice Trintignant were sixth in the first of the factory Ferrari 315 S’s, Portago and Luigi Musso were seventh in the second factory Ferrari 315 S.
Art Bunker and Charles Wallace were eighth in the #44 Porsche 550 RS, Jean Pierre Kunstle and Ken Miles were ninth in the #45 Porsche 550 RS with Howard Hively and Richie Ginther rounding out the top ten in the #28 Ferrari 500 TRC.
It was later revealed that Fangio had to get medical attention for painful burn blisters, from his waist down to his knees on his right side. It seems that the insulation that surrounded the exhaust pipes, which ran along the driver’s side of the car, had worn away, leaving Fangio’s lower body exposed to very, hot temperatures.
Image © Tom Burnside, Maserati & Gene Bussian
Watch highlights of the 1957 Sebring 12 Hours race below: