Behind Mercedes’ last Le Mans

A fatal design flaw that led to three spectacular accidents scuppered the Silver Arrows' attempt to win Le Mans almost 20 years ago, leaving the team so badly bruised it has never returned. It is an episode the German marque would rather forget, but previously unseen photographs have now emerged giving unprecedented insight into what happened on that fateful weekend at the Circuit de la Sarthe

Obviously, I had no idea that the race would go down in motor sport lore and that the events of that week would mean that Mercedes would never compete at Le Mans again. As for the pictures I shot – they were never published, until now.

THE WEEK STARTED well and I remember the entire team was super friendly during scrutineering; there was a real sense of excitement. I was with them from dawn until dusk and my brief was to stick in and around the garage. But during qualifying I decided to head out and see some of the action.

At Le Mans I always go to a section between Mulsanne and Indianapolis; there are never any photographers there because it is quite hard to get to unless you have a bike, and I always take a bike with me to the race.

I remember I was after a shot of the cars through the pine trees. Because I was shooting with film rather than digital as you do these days, I had to choose each shot carefully. You never know which car is coming and then I saw one and took a shot; it was an Audi being followed by one of the Mercedes. I remember just as I had taken the shot, everything seemed to go quiet. I looked up and the Mercedes – which was Mark Webber’s car – was up in the air. It flipped over, once, twice and then ‘bang’, it landed.

I was in absolute shock. I had never seen anything like it. I had seen a fatal crash in an Indy race and thought ‘Oh no, not again’. I ran over to see the car and remember thinking it didn’t look in too bad a shape. I saw Mark being pulled out and he looked OK, so I got back on my bike and got back to the garage as quickly as I could. I walked in and said to Wolfgang Schattling, the team’s head of PR: “The car’s just flipped.”  He just looked at me and said: “No, you are mistaken.”

On race day it happened again during warm up. I was standing next to Norbert Haug, the head of Mercedes motor sport and Schattling and we were all watching the monitor as footage of Webber’s car taking off again came through. I turned around to say  ‘I told you’ but they had both disappeared.

Looking at the pictures you can see all the mechanics’ faces have dropped. The atmosphere changed dramatically. One minute you are all dreaming of a potential win, the next you have this horrible feeling that something isn’t quite right. It became really hushed in the pits, but I just kept shooting.

I have to say I was surprised that they decided to carry on for the race. It was obvious that there was something wrong with the car. I was watching the TV monitor again when Peter Dumbreck got airborne on lap 76 and disappeared into the forest. At the time none of us knew that the trees where the car eventually landed had been cut down. The looks on people’s faces were just dreadful. Shortly after that the shutters came down, Mercedes announced it was pulling out of the race and people started packing up.

It was strange. Like night and day: at the beginning of the week there was all this optimism, everything looked so perfect – the team was immaculate, the trucks were polished, and everybody was looking for victory, and then suddenly it was all gone.

No one said anything to me, but Schattling said to the magazine editor: “We will never talk of this again.” And of course, the pictures were never used, Mercedes pulled out of sports car racing, and that’s the last time the company has gone to Le Mans.

I put the negatives away in a box and didn’t think about them until last year, when I started experimenting with mono images and remembered all these negatives. So, I pulled them out and it struck me that they offered a great insight into what happened 19 years ago. 

In motor racing there are loads of pictures of the victors and of people and teams winning but not so many of the losers. These pictures show what was a monumentally great failure. It shows a team that started out with so much hope but which was defeated by a combination of physics and nature.

Mercedes never officially explained the cause of these accidents, but many – team insiders among them – believe the instability was caused by the large front overhang and air beneath creating lift when the car began porpoising.

Mark Webber

The Grand Prix star recounts the crashes in his book Aussie Grit: My Formula One Journey

Few drivers have been unfortunate enough to be in a position to think ‘not again’  as their car starts heading skyward, but Mark Webber is one.

In his autobiography he writes vividly about the race and the terrifying accident. But he also makes the point that things had gone wrong before, when the front-right suspension collapsed the month before the race. Even then, he says, the Mercedes team were protective of any information leaking out from the incident: “one of the mechanics grabbed a camera from a nearby photographer and destroyed it on the spot.”

During practice, he remembers things being fine right up until the accident itself: “I was behind Frank Biela in the Audi when the front of my car started to feel light,” he writes. “I wasn’t unduly concerned at first. But I quickly realised, ‘I can’t bring this back… this thing’s going up.’

“It was like an aeroplane taking off. I was a passenger. The circuit snakes through a forest. I knew how thin the windscreens were, they’re not designed to be taking on trees.” Thankfully the car landed on the track.

The second flip came during Saturday morning warm-up and Webber claims he had warned the team about attempting to go out again. He writes: “I tried my best to convince them all we were playing with fire, and I could see there were a few boys in the team who were really worried. On the one hand, it was phenomenally brave for them to go through with racing – on the other it was quite insulting. My career was supposed to take off with Mercedes, but I had come down to earth with two of the almightiest bumps you ever saw.”

Peter Dumbreck

The young Brit keen to impress would never have refused to race that year

“I was very much the third driver in my car, with Christophe Bouchut and Nick Heidfeld, and my job was to match them as I was fresh from F3.

“As a young driver, in a team like that and keen to impress, if the bosses say ‘trust us we’re running’ you don’t question it. You’re in the wrong job if you can’t trust the teams and manufacturers you’re driving for.

“They consulted Adrian Newey and came up with the fixes. There was a big briefing and everyone was told what we could do to try and help. We were told not to get too close to another car, but there was no way to measure that. The car was porpoising everywhere. Darren Turner and I went trackside at Indianapolis and we sat there thinking ‘we look sh*t here, it’s bouncing everywhere’ and that was what made it unstable.

“My first few laps in the race were good, I could see I was matching Christophe and Nick’s times, and I was catching the Toyotas. I pulled out of the slipstream when I realised I’d got close and then it went.

“I remember the sky, it was lovely and clear. But I don’t remember what I did, or even if I took my hands off the wheel. I just thought ‘OK, I’m going to have a proper shunt here’. But there was none of the life flashing before your eyes, but one thought was ‘well, Webber’s already done it, and he was alright, so how bad can it be..?’

“I was put in a rigid stretcher and was worried if I could move my arms and legs. They kept shouting at me to be still but I was shouting back ‘No, No I’ve got to move my arms and legs to make sure I’m OK!’ I calmed down when the Mercedes doctor and Darren came to the medical centre.”