Solo, so near yet so far

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Pierre Levegh drove this Talbot-Lago for 23 hours at Le Mans in ’52 and almost won. Richard Hese!tine relates a heroic drive

His wasted efforts highlighted the glamour gulf between winners and losers. Pierre Levegh’s dream of victory in the Le Mans round-the-clock classic had come so close to being realised. Just one more hour and he would have done it. Solo. His drive to near-glory in the 1952 running was a feat of outstanding resilience; some might say obduracy. Right now, the word that leaps most readily to mind is suppleness.

Sitting in the very same Talbot-Lago T26GS 54 years on, you can only imagine that this middle-aged Frenchman must have been a yoga proponent. Or double-jointed. Or perhaps both. Just getting into the car requires an act of physical adroitness. The door — there’s only one — is on the left-hand side. Having scrambled over an acre of exposed aluminium, you then have to place your right foot on the driver’s side sill and then gently ease yourself into the seat. Which is easier said than done thanks to the size of the steering wheel, width of the transmission, multitude of chassis tubes and positioning of the fly-off handbrake. Oh, and the spare wheel recessed into the area next to where your right knee should be. Comfortable? Like you need to ask

So why did he put himself though all this? What motivated Levegh to think he could do it? He did have a nominated co-driver, after all. To fully understand the Parisian’s drive, you have to comprehend just what Le Mans meant to him.

Born Pierre Bouillon in 1905, he became entranced by motorsport thanks to the exploits of his uncle Alfred Velghe who, having rearranged his surname to the more French-sounding `Levegh’, was a racing driver of some renown in those early pioneering days. On entering the motor trade shortly after the First World War, young Pierre watched the inaugural Le Mans 24 Hours in 1923, making the pilgrimage every June thereafter. On buying a Talbot agency, he made his first fledgling steps into competition, participating at the Circuit de la Sarthe in ’38. Having run as high as second, a blown head gasket hobbled his semi-works Talbot short of success: this grand prix semi-regular would have to wait until ’51 before he was able to have another crack. Teamed up with René Marchand in the works Talbot-Lago T26GS, the duo made the flag come Sunday afternoon in fourth place. For ’52, Levegh would enter his own car.

Anthony Lago built six T26GS chassis, the first winning the 24 Hours when driven by Rosier, père et fils. Derived from the T26 monoplace, it retained the same basic architecture but with the 4.5-litre straight-six canted over to the left by 50mm. This car, chassis 110056, had been left incomplete following a metalworker’s strike. It was bought in 1951 by bicycle (and motorcycle) ace Henry Louveau, who never got to race the completed car after injuring himself in the Swiss GP. It was subsequently returned to Lago, who installed the González/ Marimón pairing for Le Mans that year (DNF) and later Georges Grignard for the Coupes du Salon (second overall) before selling it on to Levegh.

For 1952, Le Mans regulations called for integrated bodies, Levegh roping in Charles Deutsch to design new all-enveloping coachwork, with Dugarreau interpreting his brief in aluminium. Having lightened the conrods, installed three twin-choke Weber 40DCO carbs (instead of the works Solexes) and raised the redline to 5200rpm, Levegh descended on Le Mans with a couple of mechanics and co-driver Marchand. This was a no-frills effort pitted against Jaguar C-types and the Mercedes-Benz factory team.

Come four o’ clock on the Saturday afternoon, Levegh belied his age and sprinted to the Talbot. It wasn’t the fastest car out there but he was patient enough to ease himself into the race. All of the Jaguars were out within the first four hours, while the assorted Ferraris began to suffer from clutch problems. The Gordini of Manzon and Behra was now in front, with the Mercedes 300SL of Kling and Klenk holding station in second, only to retire after the dynamo packed up. Behind it had been Levegh, who inherited the position with the two remaining silver coupes shadowing him. At 2am on Sunday, the Gordini lost its front brakes and was withdrawn: a Talbot-Lago was now leading. The partisan crowd waited for the 300SLs to take their inevitable place at the top of the leaderboard but, by dawn, car number 8 was still ahead — by four laps.

Despite pleas — and even physical assault — from the rest of his crew, Pierre refused to yield. At the 11am fuel window, Mrs Levegh joined in the haranguing. But her husband wouldn’t relinquish his seat. He’d been sick, his legs baked by the dry sump tank, but he could taste victory: the two remaining Mercs were still a long way behind. Past the 20th hour and one more pitstop. Marchand tried to drag his entrant out of the car but he was forcibly repelled. Anthony Lago implored Levegh to at least lessen his pace but his words went unheeded. Out once more. Then, late in the 22nd hour, Hermann Lang’s 300SL streamed past the grandstands: no sign of the Talbot. Its crank had broken. The dream was over. In a matter of picoseconds, Levegh had gone from hero to zero and was off to receive medical care.

Afterwards, Levegh was understandably chastened by the press reaction. He had over-revved the engine; he’d wrong-slotted second instead of fourth. Everyone had a theory although the man himself remained reticent. It was only after the ghastly accident that claimed his — and so many other — lives at Le Mans in 1955 that what passes for truth emerged in The Autocar. Early on in the race, Levegh had become aware of a vibration emanating from the bottom end. His only option if he wanted to last the distance was to baby it to the finish. And, doubting Marchand’s mechanical sympathy, that meant staying in the car for the duration. Which makes his efforts all the more astonishing. To have overcome sleep deprivation and not slackened his momentum; to have hidden the car’s mechanical problems from his rivals; these were not the actions of some fame-chasing self-publicist refusing to share the glory. More a man with an acute understanding of his car and near-superhuman resolve.

A return visit a year on with the same car and Charles Pozzi as co-driver yielded only eighth place. Aboard a works Talbot for 1954, Levegh’s race ended after a crash. But his efforts in the epic ’52 event had obviously impressed Alfred Neubauer, who placed him in a factory Mercedes 300SLR alongside John Fitch for the ’55 running. Chasing a dream that had kept him ensnared for so long, his name was to be forever inscribed in motorsport history as the fall guy for the ensuing inferno: a tragic and desperately unfair legacy.

Shortly before that fatal drive, Levegh had experienced one final and ultimately fruitless outing in his hard-worked Talbot in the Coupe de Paris. After his death it passed to dealer Francis Mortarini, who in turn sold it to Los Angeles-based Austrian Otto Zipper. This respected Porsche entrant kept the car until ’62, the T26GS subsequently finding a new home with Bernard Benson. Improbably, this expat Englishman retained it for road use around Malibu, later installing Ford Mustang transmission in place of the Wilson pre-selector. On moving to France at the end of the ’60s, Benson took the car with him before selling it to Talbot authority Anthony Blight in 1972. Finding the car’s expansive bodywork a bit of a hindrance around the narrow roads of his native Cornwall, Blight fitted 1951-style coachwork, complete with cycle wings, but fortunately he retained the Dugarreau panelwork, which was reinstated for the next owner in ’83 by André Lecoq.

Up close you can only marvel at the scale and compass of this car. It’s not exactly small. Or pretty. Typically for a Charles Deutsch design, it’s more than a little bit odd. As a co-founder of DB, father of the fab low-drag CD-Peugeots and the SERA-Porsche 917s, aerodynamic efficiency obviously played a part in the design process. Everywhere you look some little detail catches your eye, not least the NACA duct within the spare wheel cover that’s in place to cool the rear drum brakes.

Having wedged yourself into the cabin, the grand prix ancestry is immediately obvious. For such a sizeable car, you’re still pushed towards the centreline. And seated bolt upright with the wheel cutting grooves into your calves. How Levegh put up with this for 23 minutes, let alone 23 hours is a mystery. He was a tall chap.

But you can forgive the lack of humane ergonomics. While it’s now likely in better shape than at any point in its existence, knowing what was (almost) achieved with this car, and the misfortune that surrounded its one-time owner, there lingers a real sense of history. It’s a privilege to be sitting here.

Under advisement, you hold the Talbot on the handbrake. Even in neutral it wants to move. It inches forward, vibrating under you. And predictably it’s very, very noisy. Select first on the shift quadrant, a little gas and, despite some slippage, it wheelspins off the line. Almost immediately into second, and the rear end squirms as rubber connects with dusty bitumen. The Talbot doesn’t want to drive straight.

Shift into third and it all settles down. A bit. This is a seriously quick car, the big pushrod six never sounding stressed or sonorous, only angry. There’s no room for tactility here. It’s commotion made metal, the gruff backbeat only matched for volume by tyre rumble. But the Talbot doesn’t crash and bang and, once warm and up to speed, it feels almost civilised. It’s just that the close proximity of, well, everything does tend to crowd you in, and the tight boundaries within the pedal box ensure that panic braking isn’t an option. The drums — front and rear — are large but seem reluctant to rein in the car.

Thing is, the Talbot feels special but in no way is it anything other than an out-and-out racing car: you can only ponder just how much time it spent pounding the asphalt when it lived in LA. More than likely, not very much. On wide sweepers the steering loads up with alacrity yet feels strangely dead on the straight-ahead, the tail shimmying under load. What this car needs is space: preferably about three miles of straight.

Driving the Talbot, if only for an hour, lends a sense of perspective to Levegh’s accomplishment. Yes, he didn’t make the flag, but that shouldn’t entirely detract from one of racing’s more tantalising ‘what might have beens’. If he had come out on top, would the Frenchman still have been demonised for the ’55 Le Mans tragedy? Somehow you expect so. But if Levegh had won three years earlier, his drive would have gone down in motorsport history as one of the greatest ever. To have run the distance in an outclassed — and unwell — car would have at least ensured that his memory wasn’t entirely smeared with catastrophe. He didn’t, though, but with drivers nowadays allowed only to complete 14 hours at Le Mans — in stints — his feat of endurance is never likely to be bettered. Cold comfort, but better than no comfort at all.

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