Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Valiant Failure - Attempting Le Mans Singlehanded

"I coulda been a contender....."

In sport, winning is everything if you want to be remembered. It is not enough to come close, and be beaten at the final furlong. Honourable failure might win you a certain level of respect among those in the know, but popular history will not recall your name. Try naming a few of the horses which have finished second in the Grand National over the years, if you think otherwise......

In motorsport, there are, I suppose, some exceptions. Stirling Moss is rightly remembered as the best driver never to win the world championship and Chris Amon is chiefly known as being, if not the best, then certainly the most consistently competitive, front-running driver never to win a Grand Prix . But many a heroic tale has been largely forgotten, for want of a happy ending.

While in Paris the other week, my travelling companion, who has something of a fascination with cemeteries, graveyards and all things relating to the final resting places of the dead, was keen to see Pere Lachaise cemetery. Tombstones can only hold my interest for so long, to be honest, but they do often come across well on camera, so I decided I might as well come along for the walk. Pere Lachaise, for those who don't know, is chiefly famous outside of France for being the final resting place of fulltime drughound and egomaniac, Jim Morrison, though he is hardly the only famous name to be buried there - Georges Bizet, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde were all laid to rest within its walls, as were more French Generals and politicians than you could shake a stick at. Of more interest to me though, much to the bafflement of my cemetery loving friend, was the fact that our guidebook informed us that Monsieur Pierre Levegh was among those buried there.

If you've heard the name Levegh at all, then there's a good chance that it is in connection with the infamous Le Mans disaster of 1955 in which he died. A collision between Levegh and the Austin Healey of Lance Macklin killed Levegh and 82 spectators. And yet Levegh came so close to being much better known for what would have been a unique and altogether remarkable achievement.

Pierre Levegh, born Pierre Bouillin, was, like many a racing driver, something of an all-round sportsman, excelling in skating, tennis and ice hockey in his youth. He turned to motorsports in the late 1930s, adopting the assumed name of his uncle, Alfred Velghe, who was among the pioneers of motor racing at the very end of the 19th Century. Unfortunately, the war intervened, and by the time normal racing service was resumed at the end of the 1940s, Levegh was already rather old - older, in fact than Juan Manuel Fangio was when he retired from the sport at what now seems the astonishingly late age of 46. He raced in 6 Grands Prix in 1950 and 1951 in was essentially an uprated pre-war Talbot Lago, but the antediluvian car was never competitive and he never scored any points. If his F1 record were all that counted, he would not be worthy of recall.

A run in the 1951 Le Mans 24 Hour race for Talbot proved rather more fruitful though, and netted him a 4th place finish (behind, as it happened, Lance Macklin, who was racing in an Aston Martin DB2 that year). The following year, at the age of 48, he came back with a singular mission. No driver had ever succeeded in completing the Le Mans 24 hours single handedly before, but Levegh was determined to be the first man to do it. He would come tantalisingly close to succeeding.

Levegh was in contention from the start, and as the race moved into its final hour, things appeared to be going well. He was visibly utterly exhausted but he held the lead and would not have to hang in there for much longer. Such a state of exhaustion, though, is far from conducive to driving a racing car. His team, and according to some reports, his wife, begged him to get out of the car and let his co-driver complete the race on his behalf. A win for Levegh was all but assured already - he held a four lap race and had only to make it to the finish. Levegh, though, was not to be deterred - perhaps rightly realising that he stood on the verge of a unique achievement, he pressed on alone.

Half an hour from the finish, his Talbot suffered an engine failure, handing victory to the Mercedes 300SL of Lang and Riess. It was widely reported that the engine failure has been the result of a missed gear change, owing to driver fatigue.

And so it remains that nobody has ever finished, let alone won, the Le Mans 24 hour race single handed. And now, nobody ever will. A modern sportscar generates so much sheer downforce that it would be an impossible task for any driver to do 24 hours in the cockpit without rest. The Mulsanne straight has been broken up with 2 chicanes, robbing the driver of what little rest he might ever have had. The final nail in the coffin - in today's safety conscious motorsport world, teams and drivers are forbidden from trying in the first place. No driver may complete more than 12 hours in the car in the course of the race. In practice, it is rare for any driver to do more than 8 or 9 hours, and it is surely only a matter of time before we begin to see cars being routinely shared between 4 drivers.

Sections of the French press lambasted Levegh for throwing away a victory for France in pursuit of what they saw as an egoistic quest for individual glory. The truth, though, is that it was never conclusively established that the engine failure was anything more than sheer bad luck. I, for one prefer to think of Levegh's determination to win the event single-handed as being less about egomania and more in the eccentric spirit of Don Quixote - a simple desire to achieve what nobody else had thought to even try. To my mind, motor racing history is subtly the poorer for the fact that he didn't quite succeed.


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