Pierre Levegh's 23 hours of Le Mans

Pierre Levegh had a dream: to win Le Mans in a French Car. In 1952 he took the lead in his Talbot at 2am: 12 hours later, he was still at the wheel having driven solo since the start. By Gordon Cruickshank

Start of the 1952 Le Mans 24 Hours race

Start of the 1952 race

FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Its been many years since Grand Prix was an endurance event, but it’s not long since rallying’s old guard complained that compulsory night-stops mollycoddled the crews. In the great days of the Liege-Sophia-Liege Rally, they drove for perhaps four days with no pauses at all. Nowadays, safety rules forbid lorry drivers and airline pilots to exceed certain limits, and those rules extend to that best-known of endurance events, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Today, no contestant may drive for more than four hours in six, and 14 hours total out of the event.

In the 1950s there was no such rule. Stints at the wheel were based on fuel capacity, and the overall number of hours driven depended on the driver’s endurance. Theoretically, one man, if he were of superhuman stamina, could drive the entire 24hr race himself; it was even conceivable that he might achieve a solo victory. It has never happened, and now it never will; but 45 years ago, for one tense morning and one electrifying afternoon, it looked as though it would.

Pierre Levegh’s drive to near-glory began with a dream, and collapsed in ignominy after 23 exhausted hours. One man, driving alone for more than 2000 miles, at racing speeds, negotiating the also-rans and the limpers-home, unable to relax for fear a rested and refreshed rival should jump him why would a man put himself through that? Force majeure, or unreasoning obsession?

This tall, middle-aged Frenchman had a perfectly serviceable co-driver standing by: Rene Marchand was not a great name, but then neither was Levegh. The pair had finished fourth at Le Mans in 1951 in a Talbot, so were a sound team in a car coming to the end of its competitive life. But the plain facts scarcely reflect how important this race was to Levegh. Though he had driven in it only twice before, he had attended every running of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures since its inception in 1923; he desperately wanted a French car to win, and he dearly wanted to drive that car.

Born in Paris in 1905 with the name Pierre Bouillin, the young lad was no doubt inspired by his uncle, Alfred Velghe, a racing driver of note in the pioneer years. Alfred rearranged his surname into the more French-sounding ‘Levegh’, which Pierre later adopted for his racing career. Going straight into the motor trade in the aftermath of the First World War, he soon started his own successful garage operation. Every year he went to the Sarthe, watching what had begun as a touring reliability event become faster and harder and increasingly prestigious. But that prestige often went abroad, to Britain and Italy, not to France. In between this June pilgrimage, he began to race in sportscar events, and then drove a Talbot in the 1938 Antwerp GP, having bought an agency for the marque.

By 1938, there was a resurgence among France’s sportscar manufacturers. A Bugatti 157 tank had won Le Mans the year before, and the complicated and overlapping gene-pool of Delage, Delahaye and Talbot-Lago meant that the rapid and streamlined 2900B Alfa Romeo entered for Sommer in the 24hrs had several real rivals from the home country. And sharing one of the semi-works Talbots was Pierre Levegh, his youthful dream about to materialise.

Pierre Levegh at the 1953 Le Mans 24 Hours race

Levegh at the 1953 Le Mans 24 Hours

Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images

Mechanical disasters steadily knocked out the V12 Delahayes, then the works Talbot T150C. By halfway Trevoux and Levegh were third, then a surprising second behind the flying Alfa. Cruelly, because the Alfa too later failed, their cylinder-head gasket blew. It was a French win in the end, but for a Delahaye 135.

Talbot did not offer Levegh a drive in 1939, and it was another 10 years before the endurance classic ran again. Levegh raced single-seaters post-war, but, still burning with the need to contest the 24hrs, had to watch from les tribunes as a single works 4½litre Talbot retired from the 1949 race, then finished second the following year behind a Talbot-Lago 126GS. Surely this well-proven design could still be a contender with works backing for 1951? And despite his increasing age, Levegh was selected to share a factory entry with Rene Marchand. This time he finally achieved the first part of his goal: when 4pm on Sunday came, the car was still running, with the pair classified fourth.

But it wasn’t good enough. Levegh knew intimately the Talbot’s big six-cylinder pushrod engine with its twin high camshafts, and was sure he could improve the performance. And though the factory had forbidden him to try his tweaks on their car, there was another answer: order his own Talbot. The new chassis arrived towards the end of 1951, a two-seater with central drive, unlike the successful GP cars with their offset driveshaft. He lightened the con-rods, raising the red line to 5200rpm, and fitted three twin Weber 45DCO carbs instead of the works Solexes, plus complete duplicate wiring. The all-enveloping aluminium body concealed a spare tyre in the wing, with air ducts to the rear drums, and a larger fuel tank. After an exploratory race at Monaco, he booked Marchand as co-driver, plus two mechanics, and set out for Le Mans.

His rivals looked formidable: Jaguar’s C-type had won the 1951 race, and rumour said the new Mercedes 300SL would be fast and tough. With its slanted injection engine, space-frame chassis and gull wing doors, it might have come from outer space, and the opposition was depressed. Everyone remembered how completely the Germans had dominated Grands Prix before the war, and Alfred Neubauer’s Le Mans team was clearly very well prepared. “God is in the details,” said a famous architect once, and the Mercedes details seemed perfect. Each race car had a coloured band around the grille to identify it, plus marker lights fore-and-aft in the same colour for the night, and each car was upholstered red, blue or green to match. DSJ’s comment was typically acerbic: “The German team over-shadowed the whole meeting, not by any reason of superiority of machines or drivers, but by the subtle spreading of a vast inferiority complex among the other teams.”

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A German victory seemed to be settled even during practice. Not that the silver cars had even posted the fastest lap. That honour went to Ascari’s new Ferrari saloon, but it was one of a spread of Ferraris of five different capacities, which did not seem to indicate great confidence in the staying power of any single one. Jaguar was in a collective panic, the hurriedly redesigned low-line C-types already looking doomed to fatal overheating, which transferred British hopes to the pretty Aston Martin DB3s, fast, but at 2½ litres, surely not fast enough. Briggs Cunningham’s trio might elbow their way to the front by sheer V8 muscle, and Arnedee Gordini was exulting at the pace of his new 2.3-litre entry. But few would lay their wages on the highly tuned and enlarged Formula 2 engine lasting the distance.

Levegh naturally chose to start the race, ignoring his age to sprint across the bitumen when four o’clock fell and fire up the Talbot. He had no illusions about setting stunning lap times; he knew that the front-runners were likely to overstretch themselves, and before long it began to happen. All the Jaguars were out within four hours, and the fast Ferraris began to suffer a series of clutch problems, letting the Gordini of Manzon and Behra through to the lead. Neubauer was happy to let Kling and Klenk settle in second, waiting for the Gordini’s expected expiry, but it was the Mercedes which developed trouble first. During the evening the dynamo stopped charging, and soon the silver coupe headed for the dead car park. But behind it., Levegh had been pushing on, exchanging sixth for fourth, then third, and with the Mercedes retirement he was lying second, the two remaining 300SLs keeping station just behind

As darkness obscured the crowds and kept each competitor staring into the yellow pools of his lights, most drivers had swapped with their co-driver; but not Levegh. If and when the Gordini broke, he would finally, after so many years’ dreaming, find himself leading the world’s most famous race. It was 2am before the Gordini slowed and headed for the pits not with engine problems, but minus its front brakes. Behra and Manzon wanted to continue on rear brakes only, but Amedee Gordini refused to take the risk. Suddenly Pierre Levegh’s determination seemed worthwhile, as he saw No8 lifted to the top of the leader board. Those spectators packed into the stands, the fields and the car parks who were not asleep watched the quartet of lights spearing into the fog which cloaked the track and muffled the relentless throb of the big six, and wondered when the two Mercedes would pounce.

But as the light grew the Talbot still led, its four-lap cushion enough to refuel and change tyres without losing its place. While the campers restored themselves with breakfast, Levegh’s sporting fitness buoyed him up; yet again he ignored the pleas of his team and his worried wife during a fuel-stop, leaving Marchand standing in the pits, frustrated and nervous. He was not alone, though; Briggs Cunningham had also gone this far without relief; lying seventh, and it was only after midday that Spear climbed into the dirt-covered Cunningham for his first stint.

At about I 1 am a haggard Levegh again pulled up in front of the Talbot pit to refuel. Again Marchand and Mme Levegh argued with the glazed driver. He would still be a winner if Marchand took over; the glory would still fall to France, and to Talbot; if he continued he was going to lose concentration, perhaps fall asleep, bringing certain disaster… Onlookers wondered whether it was admirable grit or the exhausted loss of reason which now drove Levegh, but when the blue car roared back on to the track, Marchand was again left behind in his still-pristine overalls.

Suddenly the atmosphere quickened: the Helfrich/Niedennayer Mercedes was slowing and heading for the pit lane. Perhaps the silver steamroller was not invincible after all. But it was only a buckled wheel; soon the Mercedes was again in formation with its sibling, shadowing the Talbot which carried the hopes of the French crowd. Were they unable to catch him, or just waiting to press him as his exhaustion deepened?

One more stop; a last tank of fuel, and a last chance to persuade an obsessed man of his folly or to cheer on a superhuman effort which would make history. By now Levegh was barely aware; the heat from the dry-sump tank baked his legs; he had been sick, and seemed hypnotised by the hundreds of times he had taken each corner. Talbot boss Tony Lago pleaded for him to reduce his pace. Marchand tried to pull him from the cockpit, but was pushed away. Victory was so close only the duration of a modem Grand Prix still to endure… but the germ of disaster had already been sown. Late in the twenty-second hour, Lang’s Mercedes purred past the pits and the packed tribunes, with Niederrneyer behind and no Talbot. An audible groan went up, as much for the man as the lost French victory. Even with four laps in hand, he was finished; the Talbot’s crank had broken.

Some reports said it was Levegh’s mistake, that he had over-revved the engine momentarily, briefly grabbing second instead of fourth as he accelerated on to the Mulsanne straight. But the Talbot had a pre-selector gearbox, with ‘2’ and ‘4’ lying in opposite directions from ‘3’ on the shift quadrant, not side-by-side as on a gate shift; much harder to confuse.

Afterwards, Levegh remained tight-lipped over the story, and it was only after his violent death at the circuit he loved, in a Mercedes 300SLR three years on, that an explanation came in The Autocar. Early in the race, Levegh’s acute senses detected a vibration from the bottom end. Knowing that he had the delicacy to keep it running, but doubting Marchand had, his only choice to keep the engine alive, and keep the news from Neubauer, was to go on solo. So the epic run was as much a miracle of mechanical sympathy as human endurance.

But no one knew that as the blue machine rolled to a halt on Mulsanne. In a moment a hero had turned to a villain for the crowd; he should have stopped, they could have won and beaten the Germans. Instead, Neubauer’s team ran home in formation, as if they’d known the script beforehand, and a shattered Levegh was carried in for medical care. His feat was as nothing. Had he won a 20-hour race alone, he would have been a legend; having lost a 24-hour one, he was a failure. Perhaps returning to the Sarthe in works Talbots in 1953 (14th) and 1954 (crashed) was equally brave; but his passion for the race was undimmed, something Alfred Neubauer recognised when he chose Levegh to partner John Fitch in the tragic 1955 Le Mans, which finally incised the name of Pierre Levegh into racing history.