SPEED Top 10 Moments #4: Mercedes Le Mans FlipWritten by: Tom Jensen Charlotte, N.C. – 3/7/2006
Editor’s Note: SPEEDtv.com is counting down SPEED’s Top 10 Motor Sports Moments online, as part of the network’s 2006 celebration of its first 10 years on the air. No. 4 on our countdown is the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans, when three Mercedes-Benz CLRs got airborne in a series of spectacular crashes.
To say that the fortunes of Mercedes-Benz have been star-crossed at Le Mans is an understatement. While the German automaker has enjoyed success in almost all of its motorsports endeavors, its record at France’s Circuit de la Sarthe has seen more tragedy and heartache than triumph.
Since the first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923, Mercedes-Benz has won just twice, in 1952 and 1989. And some of its failures have been catastrophic.
In 1955, Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz 300SLR ran over the back of an Austin-Healey and went into a grandstand, killing more than 80 people in what remains the worst motorsports accident in history.
And what happened to Mercedes at Le Mans in 1999, while mercifully not tragic, was spectacularly terrifying.
Mercedes came to Le Mans in ’99 fresh off the FIA GT championship the prior year, when it thoroughly dominated the sports car series, winning every race. In 1999, the GT1 class was discontinued, and the closed-cockpit prototype cars were grouped into the LM GTP, or Le Mans Grand Touring Prototype class.
In April 1999, the German automaker debuted the new Mercedes CLR as successor to the FIA GT championship-winning Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR. The new car was four inches lower and had less frontal area than the car it replaced, and was powered by a normally aspirated six-liter V8.
The CLR underwent extensive testing at California Speedway and at the Magny-Cours Formula 1 track in France, earning top marks for its performance. “We experienced no major problems with the CLR. It ran like clockwork,” said Mercedes-Benz Motorsport manager Norbert Haug. “We have developed a solid base, which was demonstrated during our last 30-hour test at Magny-Cours. There we ran more than 3,105 miles with the same car. The team was very pleased with the 8,073 miles covered by the three cars at Magny-Cours.”
But from the start of practice at Le Mans, things did not go well. All of the Mercedes drivers complained of aerodynamic instability along the fast Mulsanne straightaway, where top speeds were in excess of 215 mph. The problems soon intensified.
During Thursday evening’s qualifying session, 22-year-old Australian Mark Webber was on track when his No. 4 Mercedes-Benz CLR became airborne at the Indianapolis corner, just after he moved out to pass Frank Biela’s Audi. After several somersaults, the car landed on its wheels, and Webber was able to get out with just a sore neck and bruises on his knees and elbows.
“There's a kink in the road and I was really worried that the car would just go straight on into the trees but, fortunately, it stayed above the track and I ended up against a guardrail,” said the young Aussie, who spent the next day in physical therapy as the team rebuilt his damaged race car.
Saturday morning, doctors cleared Webber to drive, and this time the results were even more shocking. As Webber went over a hump on the Mulsanne Straight, his car went airborne again, this time on his out lap and in full view of SPEED viewers who were watching on live television. The car landed on its roof and slid about 330 yards before coming to rest.
“I just couldn't believe it was happening to me again,” said Webber, who again escaped serious injury. “This time I had no one close to me. The three Mercedes had gone out together but I was some way behind. When the accident happened, the car ahead of me (a GT2) was about 50 feet away.”
Mercedes boss Haug reportedly made an emergency phone call to aerodynamicist Adrian Newey, one of the best in Formula 1, seeking advice on what to do. The Mercedes team made some modifications to give the two remaining cars about 25 percent more front downforce, which they hoped would fix the problem.
On Lap 75 of the race, Peter Dumbreck had the most spectacular and horrifying accident of all, as his Mercedes CLR launched into a series of airborne end-over-end flips at exactly the same place Webber had his first accident on Thursday.
Again, the accident was shown live on SPEED. Only this time, Dumbreck’s car went far higher in the air than Webber’s had and wound up coming down in the woods adjacent to the straightaway. Dumbreck’s CLR was estimated to go about 50 feet in the air during his 200 mph flip, roughly the height of a five-story building.
Miraculously, Dumbreck escaped serious injury, though not indignation. Since part of the Le Mans circuit is on public roads, and French law requires that drivers involved in crashes on public roads be given breath tests for alcohol, Dumbreck was tested for sobriety as he was strapped in an ambulance stretcher.
“I probably went into more shock seeing Peter's accident than being in my own, because I knew what he was going through,” said Webber, who now drives for Williams in Formula 1. “It had only happened to me before but now someone else was experiencing it. It was a horrifying moment and the whole weekend was just unbelievable. No one knew what to say to one another, but we all wanted to be together and we all knew just how incredibly lucky both Peter and I were.”
The fallout was immediate. The remaining CLR was withdrawn and, to this day, Mercedes has not returned to Le Mans. The hump in the Mulsanne straight was lowered by 26 feet during the winter of 2000-’01 to reduce the risk of this happening again.
Why did the cars go skyward? Some blamed the suspension of the cars, others the hump in the straight, which was said to cause the cars to lose front downforce, especially when trailing another car. When the noses of the CLR’s became light, the flat undersides of the cars acted like wings and sent the cars launching skyward. A similar situation occurred at Road Atlanta in 1998, when Yannick Dalmas’ Porsche went airborne on the backstretch.
Whatever the contributing factors, the result was an end to the Mercedes-Benz sports car program, and a No. 4 slot in SPEED’s Top 10 Motor Sports Moments.