Silver Catastrophe - 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SLR
In 1954, Mercedes-Benz had won the Formula 1 World Championship with its dominant 2.5L W196 model in the hands of racing legend Juan Manuel Fangio. Looking to expand its activities beyond single seaters, Mercedes opted to adapt the W196 chassis for use in sportscar racing.
The new car was based on the W196 “Monza” body, a streamlined version used only on super fast tracks. The chassis was modified from a single seat monopostointo a two-seater sportscar, and the body was fitted with headlights for endurance events. The W196 had used a 290 horsepower 2.5L straight 8 employing desmodromic valves. The engine was provided with fuel by a development of the mechanical direct injection taken from the infamous Messerschmitt BF109 WWII fighter plane.
For added reliability, the unit was bored and stroked to a capacity of 3L. An added bonus was a small power hike to 310 horsepower. The engine was canted by 30 degrees to lower its center of gravity, resulting in a distinctive hump on the right side of the bonnet.
Suspension was independent all round, employing swing axles at the back and torsion bar supported double wishbones in the front. Another addition were severely oversized drum brakes, too big for its 16 inch wheels. The issue was resolved by mounting the big brakes inboard.
The 300SLR’s first event would be the grueling Mille Miglia (1000 miles) event, held on public roads across Italy. Stirling Moss and Hans Hermann had opted to take on a navigator, but Fangio and Kling preferred to do without. Moss and his navigator, motor race journalist Denis Jenkinson, completed 6 reconnaissance laps of the enormous circuit.
Jenkinson made pacenotes, which he wrote down on an 18 foot (5.4 m) long piece of paper. He signaled Moss where to go next through a system of 15 different hand signals. The preparation paid off when the #722 car was the first to cross the line, 31 minutes and 45 seconds faster than second placed Juan Manuel Fangio in #658. The #704 Hans Hermann/Hermann Eger car unfortunately crashed out, as did #704 Karl Kling.
With their first win firmly in their hands, Mercedes went in search of the ultimate victory in sports car racing, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Three 300SLR’s were entered into the famous event. The #19 car was for Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, #21 would be driven by Karl Kling and André Simon (FRA), leaving #20 for Pierre Levegh and John Fitch.
The race promised a showdown between three giants of endurance racing, Jaguar’s advanced D-Type, Ferrari’s svelte 121 LM and Mercedes-Benz’s new challenger. The 300 SLR had now been fitted with a hand-operated air brake, invented by director of motorsports Alfred Neubauer. Neubauer had long sought for a way to reduce wear on the giant drum brakes and the tires, which faced tremendous stress under braking from 290 kph to as little as 50 kph on long street courses. The air brake provided substantial extra stopping power.
Fangio made a mistake during the start, catching his trouser leg on the gear lever. Profiting from his troubles, the #6 Mike Hawthorn (GB) Jaguar D-Type took the lead in front of the #4 Ferrari 121 LM of Eugenio Castelotti (ITA). Fangio quickly caught up, and the three of them broke lap record after lap record. After a while Castelotti slowed significantly and retired with mechanical issues, foreshadowing the fate of all the other Ferrari 121 LM’s.
Two hours into the race, disaster struck. Mike Hawthorn lapped Lance Macklin (GB) in his much slower Austin Healey 100S while in the lead. Immediately after passing Macklin, he saw his pit crew signalling him in for a stop. He turned his D-Type sharply into the path of Macklin’s Healey to make it to the pits. Lance Macklin swerved in a reflex to avoid the rogue Jag, and slightly lost the rear of his car in the process. He regained control crossing over the center line, by which time Pierre Levegh’s 300SLR hit him hard on his left rear fender.
The 300SLR rode up the Healey and was launched over an embankment, skipping in the direction of the huge crowd present at the race. The car bounced through spectator areas and hit a concrete stairwell structure, tearing the front off and sending the car into a dangerous cartwheel. The engine and other major mechanical parts were catapulted into the crowd. When the car finally came to rest it immediately caught fire. The fire’s intensity was amplified by the car’s magnesium framework, making it impossible to put out. Pierre Levegh was thrown into the air in a high arc when the car first flipped. The resulting impact crushed his skull.
When the smoke cleared, the vast expanse of the tragedy was uncovered. Along with Pierre Levegh, 84 spectators had lost their lives, with 150 wounded. The accident was and still remains the deadliest crash in motorsport history. Mercedes-Benz immediately withdrew all its cars from the race.
Two remaining events of the World Sportscar Championship, the 1000KM of the Nürburgring and the infamous Carrera Panamericana road race were cancelled. In a fit of moral outrage, several nations like France, Germany and Spain banned motorsport completely until track safety had been improved. The ban instated in Switzerland remains to this day.
Mercedes-Benz would clinch the title from Ferrari after scoring a 1-2-3 at the RAC Tourist Trophy in Dundrod, Ireland and a 1-2-4 at the Targa Florio on the Italian island of Sicily, both run after months of postponement.
The victory felt very empty however, and Mercedes would cease all motorsport activities after the 1955 season. Mercedes-Benz was utterly heartbroken and deeply ashamed of what transpired that fateful day. The tragic incident caused so much pain that the company would not dare to return as a factory effort until the late in the 1980’s.