This type 23S roadster was built from a type 15 chassis (#19), fitted with a 6 cylinder 2,3-litre engine (#33), to be entered in the 1952 Le Mans 24-hour race, in the hands of Jean Behra and Robert Manzon, two French Gordini's regular drivers at the time. Immediately, the car proves to be a real marvel, remarkably well-balanced, light (720 kg), with a good weight/performance ratio ( it will later be considered as the best Gordini ever by number of specialists). On the Le Mans track, the tiny Gordini works wonders, fast and agile, and after only two hours, it takes the lead of the race. It will remain ahead of all the big-engine cars (Jaguar C, Mercedes 300SL, Ferrari 340, Lago Talbot T26, Cunningham) during almost 9 hours, until a problem with brakes forced the two Frenchies to retire around 3:00 am. Really unfortunate, the car went so well… For the short history, Pierre Levegh on his 4,5-litre Lago Talbot will then become the new leader until his retirement at the 23rd hour of the race offers victory to Mercedes.
The performance and qualities shown by the car at Le Mans lead Amédée Gordini to enter it in the upcoming Belgian GP. At that time, sports cars could be admitted in Grands Prix, but then the regulations limited the cubic capacity to 2000 cc, so mechanics had to replace the engine with a 2-litre type 20. Driven by Johny Claes, the car will finish at the 8th place., and will remain the only sports car having participated in a World Championship Grand Prix.
Back to Paris (the Gordini works was installed in a former service station on Boulevard Victor, near to the Porte de Versailles), engines were switched again and the car, again in its Le Mans 23S configuration, was ready for the Reims racing week-end, one week only after the Belgian GP (June 28-29) ! That year, the Reims meeting included two international events : the Reims sports GP, a 50 lap race reserved to sports cars, run on the sunday morning, followed in the afternoon by the 70 lap Grand Prix de la Marne, intended for the new F2 single-seater cars.
On the starting grid of the sports car race, the 23S (#60), in the hands of Robert Manzon, occupies the pole position, legitimately aiming at an overall victory. After a quick start, the Gordini regularly establishes a convincing lead over the Stirling Moss' Jaguar C. According to Manzon himself, the car was "perfect, powerful and remarkably balanced " (*). Suddenly and inexplicably, at the end of the 16th lap, while he was braking before La Garenne, a front stub axle broke, leaving the Marseillais with three wheels and no more brakes. Fortunately, Manzon could jump out of the Gordini before it severely crashed against an electrical pylon, and escaped with only mild injuries. As he recalls : "When the mechanics brought in the car to the pits, they saw that the steering column had perforated my backrest…" (*). Incidentally, the pylon was pushed down to the ground, causing a general electricity failure on the circuit.
This shock in addition to the intense heat on the Reims circuit will not prevent Manzon however to participate a few hours later in the Grand Prix de la Marne, at the wheel of a Gordini T16, but he will be forced to retire with a broken rear axle.
Fortunately, this Grand Prix de la Marne will end up with a splendid and memorable victory of his team mate Jean Behra from the works Ferraris 500, saving honour…. but honour only, this GP not counting for the Driver's World Championship. Anyway, bravo Jeannot !
Obviously, Gordini cars were quite close to their rivals of major high-budget teams during that 1952 year, and with just a bit more reliability and … luck, Gordini could have achieved beautiful and resounding victories in major international events, which would have attracted financial supports to the valorous Equipe Gordini. But let's not rewrite history.
(*) GORDINI, vécu par Robert Manzon, by Pierre Fouquet-Hatevilain