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Original Issue

A Frenchman Nearly Stopped the Germans

It was the war all over again in 1952 when the Germans came back to Le Mans after nearly 20 years, driving their big powerful cars and plotting another humiliating French defeat

If ever they write a grand opera about auto racing, it is sure to focus on Pierre Levegh's ride at Le Mans in 1952. That was the year that Mercedes-Benz returned to the French circuit after an absence of nearly 20 years, and a very intimidating return it was.

Months earlier in the Mille Miglia the Germans' metallic silver 300SL coupes had shown themselves to be Grand Prix cars in disguise. Their drivers and mechanics, all in black leather coats, clicked their heels and nodded stiffly from the waist whenever that beer barrel in a black fedora, their team manager, muttered an order.

It was not a state of affairs to gladden the heart of the French racing fan; about the only thing that bucked him at all in that sorry time was the sight of a 46-year-old Paris garage owner named Pierre Levegh efficiently tooling around the 8.36-mile circuit in practice runs in his big blue 4.5-liter Talbot-Lago roadster. A streamlined version of the Talbot in which he had placed fourth the previous year, Levegh's was the only car that the French were sure could beat the Germans. This car and no other. Not Briggs Cunningham's blue and white American monster. Not the Britons' somber green Jaguars or their Aston Martins. Not even the assortment of scarlet Ferraris from Italy. Only Levegh's.

The French fans didn't know that the Talbot-Lago's engine had only a standard production crankshaft because the one that Albert Lago had designed especially for this race hadn't been ready in time. But Pierre Levegh knew it. Could the production crankshaft stand up to 24 hours of speed? Certainly in the practices, when the roadway was closed to normal traffic, his Talbot behaved, but Pierre knew only one sure way to find out.

On the afternoon of Saturday, June 14, the drivers stepped into the small white circles painted on the roadway opposite their cars. Pierre Levegh nervously jogged in place as he groped in his jacket pocket to make sure that he had not forgotten to bring along his lucky silver amulet. Then he cupped his hands together, embarrassed to let the crowds see that, just as before every race, his fingers were crossed.

The flag dropped, and Pierre sprinted toward his Talbot. Nobody was surprised when he wasted a precious second, three times patting his car's hood. He always did this before the start of a race. He patted the car for luck. Then he was behind the wheel. The engine crackled into life. Pierre steered to the right, then straightened out. He sped under the Dunlop Bridge, an arch formed by a giant replica of a car tire.

Now he was maneuvering through the Esses. Now his tires squealed around the Tertre Rouge Corner. His face was still clean. Wisps of air blew in around his goggles to tickle his eyelashes. He felt terrific.

Pierre sluiced into the Mulsanne Straight, 4¾ miles of the Le Mans-Tours highway, and past the old Luftwaffe strip next to it. Now he shot past the horserace track where the Wright Brothers made their first European flight, past the Cafe Hippodrome's brightly colored parasols. As he drove past them along the straight, Pierre could see the customers put down their iced aperitifs to cheer him along.

Around the Mulsanne Corner, tires pleading, Pierre braked, shifted down, accelerated.

Another two straight miles and then into the Arnage Corner. Careful, Pierre.... Quick left. Quick right. Toe hard down again.

Another two miles and the White House Corner. A squiggle in the road, and he was passing the grandstands, hearing cheers above the snarl of his engine.

Numerals held out from his pit told Pierre in code that he'd done that first lap in just under 100 miles an hour. As planned.

He couldn't keep from grinning. What had he been worried about? Standard model crankshaft, maybe. But surely strong enough for a victory. For Talbot-Lago. For France. And for Pierre.

Especially for Pierre. A racing pro who'd first competed at Le Mans in 1938, Pierre's life goal was to match the triumphs of his uncle, Albert Velghe, a pioneer driver who'd died six years before Pierre himself was born. He wanted so much to drive in the old boy's tracks that he'd even adopted the older man's racing pseudonym, Levegh. Pierre's birth certificate stated that his own surname was actually Bouillon.

Pierre slipped the Talbot-Lago round and round the circuit, as easily and as precisely as a windup toy. He wasn't yet in first position, but no matter. His race had been planned to save his car, and he was driving to plan. Just fast enough to urge his competitors to go faster and burn out their engines. Not fast enough to hurt his.

The Jaguars and two of the Aston Martins limped out of the race within the first two hours, and several of the other faster cars began to break down. By 8 in the evening, four hours after the start, Pierre had completed 48 laps. One less than the leading car, a snarling little French Gordini. Neck and neck with the three Mercedes-Benz coupes.

Dark now. Everything fine. At the next pit stop, still hours ahead, Pierre would hand his Talbot-Lago over to Marchand, his relief driver.

Before the changeover, an hour before midnight, Pierre noticed a sudden pained sound in his engine. Not an explosion exactly. Not anything loud enough to alert the trackside spectators or his competition. Or even his own mechanics as he streaked past them in the darkness. But a noise that nevertheless gave Pierre a sick feeling. Seventeen hours still to go and, beyond any doubt, crankshaft-bearing trouble.

He lifted his toe lightly from the accelerator and listened. Then he shook his head and swore. He didn't know—and knowing wouldn't have helped—that one of the bolts on the center crankshaft journal had just snapped and had dropped into the oil pan. He toed harder on the accelerator and felt the engine vibrate. Bad, and likely to get a lot worse. Under Le Mans rules repairs can only be effected with parts carried in the cars, and the Talbot-Lago carried no kit of engine parts. Anyway, there was no time for a major overhaul.

By midnight Pierre had completed 95 laps, one less than the leading Gordini. But—and this was good—one more than the two fastest Mercedes-Benzes. Time for the fuel stop, so he pulled into his pit.

While gas ran into the tank and the two mechanics fussed around the car, Pierre remained in the cockpit, saying very little. Marchand waited. Helmeted, goggles in place, pulling on his gloves. But when the gas tank was capped, Pierre waved him aside and said, "I'm going on!" Marchand opened his mouth to argue, but Pierre had already thundered away into the night.

The engine in the Talbot-Lago sounded terrible, yet Pierre was reasonably confident that he could nurse it along. He'd have to. Letting Marchand change places with him would first mean wasting precious time explaining. Then, inevitably, the Mercedes team would hear that he was in trouble. If the Germans even suspected anything was wrong, they'd up their speed. And make him tear his engine apart. The only thing for Pierre to do was to keep on. Alone.

Hours passed. The smaller cars were dropping away now. The Gordini's brakes gave out and it retired, putting Pierre in the lead. This was the position he went on holding. Cautiously.

In the early hours of the morning he stopped again for gas. And again waved Marchand aside. French fans half-asleep in the grandstand jerked awake. So did the reporters high in the press box. What kind of crazy game was Pierre Levegh playing? Perhaps that crazy, rich American, Cunningham, was driving his car all the way alone. The people to emulate were the Germans. All along the course, the fans tried to will Pierre not to blow the race.

At 4 in the morning, halfway, Pierre had done 142 laps, four more than the fastest Mercedes-Benz. Mist always hangs over the Le Mans circuit before dawn, but that morning it was pea-soup fog, and Pierre thanked God. The fog forced all the drivers to cut their speed.

Dawn, and the fog lifted. People around the track rolled up their sleeping bags and watched bleary-eyed for the big blue roadster with No. 8 on it. Pierre Levegh's big car being driven solo toward victory. Incredible. Wonderful. For all its efficiency, Germany's greatest factory team couldn't keep up with an individual Frenchman at the wheel of his own car.

Eight in the morning. Time for a pit stop. During the pause, Pierre's mechanics noticed the dead tachometer and began to ask about it, but he gestured to them to shut up. Again Marchand waited to take over, but Pierre stubbornly clenched the steering wheel and ordered Marchand back onto the apron. The co-driver shrugged and obeyed. After all, the car was Pierre's. The fans, of course, couldn't understand. As the Talbot roared back onto the track they wondered why Pierre Levegh, driving now for France, refused poor Marchand even a sliver of glory. No one at Le Mans had ever before driven 24 hours singlehanded.

Pierre was really tired now. Anyone could see that. At the corners his wheels spun in the sand at the edge of the macadam. But he kept on the road. And in the lead. By noon he'd done 235 laps. One German car was four laps behind him, the other, 10.

Passing the pits, Pierre saw a new signal. The Germans, the numerals told him, were putting on speed. He'd have to spurt ahead, too. The engine's vibration rose, and the knowledge of what he was doing made him ache with anguish. On the next lap his pit signaled that the Germans had reduced throttle, and so he lifted his foot. The vibration eased.

The fastest German car was now in trouble and fell back, yielding to the one that had been in third place. It was going to be Levegh first, followed by the two Mercedes-Benzes far behind. In the press box they were already phoning the story of the first singlehanded victory in Le Mans history. Only 75 minutes to go.

Pierre was now three laps ahead of the closest Mercedes, but having rounded the White House Corner he switched off the ignition and pulled into the pits. He jerked back the hand brake and slowly raised himself out of the car. Then he tore off his helmet and goggles and slumped wearily into his wife's arms. His shoulders were heaving, and spectators on the walk above the pit could see tears on his face. The crankshaft had at last split.

Silence hung over the grandstands. And at 4 o'clock, when old Charles Faroux flagged the two Mercedes-Benzes past the finish line, hardly a soul cheered. The Germans deserved their victory, but the brass band refused to play "Deutschland, Deutschland √ºber alles," and somebody found an excuse for calling off the usual victory parade around the Place de la République in Le Mans. But Pierre was scorned. Because he refused to speak out against his car, the French fans blamed him for his failure. If only he'd let Marchand take over....

The official accounts do not explain that the car couldn't have lasted as long as it did if Pierre hadn't insisted on going it alone. Of all those present at Le Mans that day, only the Germans seem to have sensed that Levegh had not been at fault. When the Mercedes-Benzes returned to Le Mans three years later, one of the drivers was Pierre Levegh.

Pierre's was the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR approaching the grandstands when an Austin-Healey got in the way. Pierre braked and raised an arm to warn teammate Juan Fangio, coming up behind, but his own car hit the retaining wall. Its front end disintegrated and hurtled into the crowd, killing 82 people. But the race wasn't stopped. Not when Pierre's charred corpse was carried from the track. Not even when, hours later, a telegram from Stuttgart withdrew the Mercedes team, at the time comfortably leading the race.