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SARTHE DRAMA—1952 LE MANS

THIS ITEM goes live at 6:05 a.m., Saturday, June 18, 2016, Pacific Time Zone. And, at that time, the 84th running of the 24 Heures du Mans has been under way 5 minutes. The Porsche Team 919 Hybrids and Audi Sport Team Joest R18s are favored to do well in the top LMP1 prototype class. The LMGTE-Pro class is hotly contested by Chevrolet Corvette C7.Rs, Ferrari 488 GTEs and Ford GTs.

It is Ford/Chip Ganassi Team’s fondest dream to dominate the proceedings, just as the original Ford GT did in its 1-2-3 victory at Le Mans in 1966.

The French Sarthe circuit has been the scene of drama over the years. At SimanaitisSays I’ve cited the Bentley era, Stutz at Le Mans, Le Mans tops and suitcases, the 1954 duel in the rain and don’t forget Wilbur wowing them with his 1908 exhibition of the Wright Flyer.

Today, let’s look at the 1952 Le Mans, which had tales a’plenty, including a foreboding one.

Mercedes-Benz returned to competition for the first time since World War II with its W194. Precursor to the 300SL Gullwing to be introduced two years later, the W194’s innovative doors were necessary because of structural complexities of its aluminum tube spaceframe. This lightweight chassis countered a shortcoming that Mercedes-Benz hadn’t any engines as powerful as its competitors.

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The W194’s lightweight spaceframe called for innovative gullwing doors. Image from tech-racingcars.wikidot.com.

The W194’s 3.0-liter inline-six was borrowed from the company’s 300 “Adenauer” luxury sedan. Triple two-barrel Solex carburetors were fitted that raised output to 175 hp, compared with the standard 300’s 113 hp and the 300S model’s 150 hp. By contrast, Ferrari’s 4.1-liter V-12 of the era produced around 200 hp; the 5.5-liter Chrysler V-8 powering the Cunningham C4-R was rated at 300 hp; and the Talbot-Lago T26, essentially a converted Grand Prix car, had a 4.5-liter six-cylinder producing upwards of this.

Though the Mercedes W194 gave away power, it countered with light weight, refined aerodynamics, reliability—and a bit of luck, of which more anon.

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Frontal area was minimized by angling the W194’s engine. Image from core77.com.

The engine lay at a 50-degree angle, thus allowing a low hood line. Originally, a roof-mounted retractable air brake was fitted to help retardation into Le Mans’ 30-mph Mulsanne Corner after the 3.7-mile Ligne Droite des Hunaudière . Though tested in practice, the wing was removed for the event. The idea was to appear three years later in the 300SLR.

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Note the W194 roof-mounted air brake, Le Mans 1952. Photo by Lebubu93.

Mercedes’s entry in competition arrived less than seven years after World War II, with not everywhere welcome, especially in France where memories of les boches were still strong.

The Talbot-Lago was clearly a crowd favorite. This French marque had been victorious at Le Mans in 1950, at least in part through the superhuman effort of Louis Rosier who drove for all but 45 minutes when his son Jean-Louis piloted the car.

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Louis Rosier’s Talbot, Le Mans winner, 1950. This and the following image from Cars in Profile: Collection 1, edited by Anthony Harding, Profile Publications, 1973.

For 1952, the factory had devised streamlined bodywork for two of the cars, not simply the cycle fenders of its other Grand Prix conversions. Pierre Levegh and René Marchand were to drive one; Eugène Chaboud and Charles Pozzi, the other.

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Pierre Levegh and his rebodied Talbot-Lago leading Le Mans, 1952.

By mid-race, the factory Ferraris and Jaguars had retired; one of the Mercedes W194s did likewise. This left Levegh and his Talbot-Lago running first, with a four-lap lead on the remaining Mercedes pair. Perhaps reluctant to trust his inexperienced co-driver with the car, Levegh refused to relinquish the wheel. It’s also thought that maybe he simply wanted to break Rosier’s 23 hour 15 minute record win.

Only 1 hour and 15 minutes away from victory, an exhausted Levegh mis-selected a gear in the Talbot-Lago’s preselector gearbox and buzzed the engine, which promptly broke a connecting rod.

The pair of trailing W194s moved into 1st and 2nd, where they finished only a little more than an hour later.

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Mercedes-Benz W194s finished 1-2 at Le Mans 1952. Image from sportscardigest.com.

As automotive authority Cyril Posthumus noted in Cars in Profile Collection 1, “Out of this tragedy came an infinitely more terrible one.” At Le Mans 1955, Pierre Levegh was among drivers selected for the Mercedes 300SLR team. It was his car that interacted with Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey and Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar D-Type. The Levegh SLR hit a bank and disintegrated. He and 81 spectators perished in a disaster that changed motor racing forever. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

2 comments on “SARTHE DRAMA—1952 LE MANS

  1. Gene Herbert
    June 18, 2016

    Re: photo of the rebodied Talbot-Lago leading 1952 LeMans – what a beautifully proportioned body. Nice article, Dennis.

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This entry was posted on June 18, 2016 by in Classic Bits and tagged , , , , .
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