1955 Tourist Trophy: One Last Victory By: Jeremy McMullen
The tragedy at Le Mans on the 11th of June, 1955 would dramatically affect motor racing. For one of the manufacturers involved, Mercedes-Benz, it would be a confirmation of what it had already come to believe. Toward the end of the 1955 season it was known Mercedes-Benz would withdraw from all motor racing having achieved just about everything possible in Formula One and sportscars. However, on the 18th of September, there would be one last race in which the mighty Silver Arrows would be gunning for. And one of those that would be instrumental in the attack would be American John Fitch.
Prior to Le Mans, Mercedes-Benz executives were contemplating their future in motor racing. Having achieved just about every level of success possible, every championship they desired, the company reflected upon whether or not it was worth it to carry on as they had been over the last few years.
Having already won Le Mans back in 1952, Mercedes-Benz would return to the Circuit de la Sarthe for potentially one last attempt at the famous French classic. Part of the draw for the company would be the titanic battle the race promised to be with Jaguar having produced its latest D-Type.
The excitement within the teams, the press and the hundreds of thousands of spectators would be at a fever pitch as the drivers sprinted to their cars to begin the race on the 11th of June. Very quickly, the race would turn into the classic duel everyone longed for and expected from the two powerful teams.
At the wheel of the Jaguar, Mike Hawthorn would be on a mission to break the German Mercedes with Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss. Throughout the first two and a half hours neither Hawthorn nor Fangio would back down and the track record would continually fall lap after lap. Everyone was getting what they wanted. But unfortunately, what we often want is really not good for us. And just prior to 6:30pm, the once enthralling race would turn lethal as the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh would leave the track and would go barreling into a wall sending pieces of the car tearing through the tightly packed crowd along the start/finish straight.
The results would be terrible, catastrophic with more than 80 lives being lost, besides that of driver Levegh. Amidst the chaos and confusion, serious conversations would begin amongst those in the Mercedes team as to what to do. The terrible scene on the other side of the road from the pits would be a stark confirmation of what the company already knew to do in all motor racing and in the case of Le Mans at that time—withdraw.
The effects of the Le Mans tragedy would be wide-felt. Numerous races, for both sportscar and Formula One, would be cancelled. And, by August, there would be just two major sportscar races remaining on the calendar, one of them being the Tourist Trophy race held at Dundrod in Northern Ireland.
Mercedes intended to finish the season before it withdrew completely. However, this meant long gaps of time in between races due to a number of others being cancelled. Still, the Mercedes-Benz team would have the Tourist Trophy race and the Targa Florio still on the calendar in which it could compete before it would disappear from competition.
During the Le Mans disaster, one of those to play a prominent role in the team's eventual decision to withdraw from the race would be the American driver John Fitch. After overhearing a journalist speaking of the number confirmed dead, even in the very early moments after the terrible crash, Fitch would find himself to be a changed man to a degree and he would then approach Mercedes' chief designer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, about the possibility of withdrawing from the race citing that it was the right thing to do for everyone.
Such a decision wasn't deemed 'right' in everyone's eyes. In an interview Fitch would give later on in his life he would admit that Stirling Moss would not be happy about the prospect. And who could blame him? The trip around the Circuit de la Sarthe in the Mercedes represented his best chance at victory up to that point in his career and such a decision would obviously take the highly-coveted prize right out of his hand.
Fangio would be another that would suffer had the team made the decision to withdraw as it would have meant four times in which he had failed to complete the race despite having driven in some of the best cars.
Still, the decision would be made. Mercedes would withdraw. Now, it could have been theorized that Fitch making such a suggestion, over-stepping his bounds as a driver so to say, would have led to him being let go. However, that would not happen. Furthermore, it would have been highly unlikely, given the testimony of Fitch about Moss' natural reaction that the two men would have ever been paired together in a race. But, once again, such assumptions would be wrong. Sure enough, when the Mercedes-Benz team arrived at the Dundrod circuit in preparation for the Tourist Trophy race, Stirling Moss and John Fitch would be partnered together in the number 10 Mercedes-Benz 300SLR.
The presence of the Mercedes-Benz team at Dundrod marked the 1955 Tourist Trophy race a special occasion. But it was already a special occasion as it was the Tourist Trophy's golden jubilee year. On top of that, the race counted toward the World Sports Car Championship. So it was slated to be a big event even before the cars began to arrive.
While the speeds would not be anywhere near as similar to one another, the 1955 Tourist Trophy race would be shaping up to be a Le Mans redo with Mercedes-Benz, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jaguar and Mike Hawthorn all present together once again. Additionally, the circuit upon which the race would take place would be similar in character to Le Mans. Rolling countryside and public roads, Dundrod had even a similar feel to that of Le Mans.
Located in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, the Dundrod Circuit was comprised of all public roads traversing the countryside literally just a few miles west of Belfast. Measuring 7.4 miles in length, just about a mile shorter than Le Mans, the circuit featured a seemingly endless array of fast sweeping turns and blind brows that easily cause cars to momentarily leave the road surface. A narrow road, wide-open, numerous elevation changes and quick, Dundrod was anything but a serene circuit void of danger. Still, with some spectacular views on the top of the rise on Leathemstown Road, the circuit would be a naturally beautiful circuit and a thrilling adventure for every driver.
With around 50 cars entered in the 84 lap race, the sea of cars would be overwhelming and the competition incredibly tight. Looking to take one last victory, Mercedes-Benz would enter three cars to tackle the 7.41 mile circuit. The number 9 car would be driven by Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling. The number 10 car, Moss and Fitch. And the number 11 car would be driven by newcomer Wolfgang von Trips and Andre Simon. It would be an incredible field with fifteen manufacturers in the field.
Set to take place on the 17th of September, most everyone was looking forward to another great battle, but hopefully, without the tragedy. In Mercedes' case, they were looking to do what they had been on course to do at Le Mans.
In practice, the number 10 Mercedes would turn the fastest lap and would start from the pole. Right alongside would be another of the major players at Le Mans, the Jaguar driven by Mike Hawthorn and Desmond Titterington. A Ferrari 750 Monza driven by Olivier Gendenbien and Masten Gregory would start in 3rd.
Following the Gendenbien/Gregory Ferrari in 3rd would be the Mercedes driven by Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling. The third Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, driven by Wolfgang von Trips and Andre Simon, would start the race from 7th.
The similarities to Le Mans would only continue as the drivers lined up across the road from their cars in preparation of the start of the race. And, as the flag dropped to start the race, it would be Stirling Moss that would be across the circuit, into his car and away first. Starting from the pole, Moss would lead the incredible throng of cars away on the beginning of what would be a 7 hour journey around the Irish countryside.
At the start of the race the weather would be warm, but it would remain dry. There was, however, an obvious threat of rain. This would motivate drivers to push a little harder at the beginning in order to be in a stronger position later on. But with so many cars, on such a tight and dangerous circuit and at the speeds the cars were averaging, as with Le Mans, the Tourist Trophy was balancing on a knife's edge between safety and catastrophic danger. There was no margin for error.
This reality would play out during the race's first few laps. The Ferrari 750 Monza of Gendenbien and Gregory would be out of the running before having completed one lap due to an unfortunate accident. But then, as with Le Mans, the narrow circuit packed with cars competiting against each other flat out would be a recipe for disaster.
Everyone was looking forward to a redo of the Mercedes/Jaguar duel. But, as with Le Mans, the Tourist Trophy race would be marred by tragedy. While those at Le Mans would get to enjoy a couple of hours of intoxicating racing, the tragedy at Dundrod would take place within the first couple of laps of the race. Most intriguingly, Lance Macklin, the driver of the car Pierre Levegh would hit that would launch him into the crowd at Le Mans killing so many, would barely make it through this terrible and lethal accident at Dundrod. It would be little wonder why the once jovial Macklin would change over the next few years.
Those that would not make it through
As the race wore on, it seemed more and more evident the weather would turn and the clouds would offer up some rain. Amidst these conditions, and on an already dangerous circuit, tragedy would again strike a sportscar race featuring an epic duel between Mercedes and Jaguar.
Near Deer's Leap, the Cooper-Climax T39 of Jim Mayers and Jack Brabham would hit a concrete pillar and would immediately burst into a ball of flame. Jim Mayers, who had been driving the car at the time, would be killed almost instantly. The immediate explosion would catch out William Smith at the wheel of a Connaught AL/SR. Smith would plow into Mayers and would eventually perish just a little while later.
After the horrible events at Le Mans, two more deaths would only add to the numbness many would feel over the course of the terrible season. Most unfortunate would be the fact that the horror wasn't yet over.
Moss would be strong right from the very beginning of the race. But, so too would Mike Hawthorn. Never one to let a German car in front of him, Hawthorn would push his Jaguar D-Type as hard as he had at Le Mans a few months prior. This would lead to him posting what would end up being the fastest lap of the race with a time of 4:42.0 at an average speed of nearly 95 mph.
It seemed as though Moss' and Fitch's attempt to take the overall victory would come apart, literally, early on in the race when the right-rear tire on the 300SLR began to throw its tread and absolutely tore through the rear-end bodywork of the car. Moss, incredibly, would manage to bring the car into the pits, even with the damaged bodywork and shredded tire. The Mercedes mechanics would set to work changing the tire and pulling away some of the more dangerous, dangling bodywork. Still, the car would be sent back on its way.
Having lost a lot of time due to the repairs and the problems with the car, both Moss and Fitch would drive absolutely flat-out in an effort to catch back up and regain even a shot at the win. Feeling right at home behind the wheel of a sportscar, Fitch would perfectly suit Moss and the two would work strongly to regain what was lost.
As the rain began to really fall all around the circuit, the accidents would keep coming. A total of 9 entries would fall out of the running through just the first two laps of the race due to accidents. Of course, two of those would be fatal. But then, on what was his 35th lap, Richard Mainwaring would lose control of the Elva-Climax he was piloting and would crash off the circuit. As a result of the crash a third driver would be lost. The day was seeming getting worse and worse. In fact, the early pileup that would claim the lives of Smith and Mayers would be the biggest accident the event would ever see in its entire history.
It was clear the cars of that day were out-pacing the roads upon which they were competing. Incredibly dangerous, the combination of fast cars and narrow roads were still making for some incredibly entertaining action. And, despite the lethal events, the crowd would remain, watching Hawthorn and Titterington do their best to hold off the Mercedes of Moss and Fitch.
Moss had proven to be the fastest around the Dundrod circuit in practice. Therefore, once the repairs on the car had been made, both he and Fitch would manage to bring the car up to 2nd place overall behind Hawthorn and Titterington.
Still, Hawthorn and Titterington would manage to hold off Moss and Fitch turning some truly fast laps around the 7.41 mile circuit. At Le Mans, Mercedes would make the decision to withdraw from the race thinking it the right thing to do. Mercedes offered Jaguar do the same out of respect and as a sporting gesture. Jaguar's team management would refuse the proposal and would carry on to an easy win. Perhaps, it was this decision that affected the results at Dundrod that day?
One lap remaining in the race, the Jaguar of Hawthorn and Titterington remained in the lead ahead of the Mercedes of Moss and Fitch. Despite everything that Moss and Fitch could do, the Jaguar was just too far out of reach for the German team. It seemed one of the last races on the calendar would slip through the team's fingers. But, all of a sudden, everything would change.
All of a sudden, the Jaguar would come to a screeching halt just a few miles away from the finish line. The engine on the Jaguar would seize leaving Hawthorn without any hope of winning the race, or even finishing.
No doubt slowed by the damage and the weather conditions, Moss and Fitch had been unable to close down the gap enough to be able to challenge for the lead of the race outright. But as Moss powered by the stricken cat resting by the side of the road, it was clear Mercedes' departure from motor racing would be 'gifted' with one last present. And, due to the talents of Stirling Moss and John Fitch, Mercedes would be on track to take just one more victory.
The retirement of Hawthorn would lead to Mercedes being able to join up for yet another sweep of the top three positions in the finishing order. Streaking across the line with arm raised, Moss would take the victory and would be joined by co-driver Fitch in the victor's celebration. Following along behind the lead Mercedes would be the Mercedes of Fangio and Kling one lap down. The 3rd spot would go to the other Mercedes of von Trips and Simon yet another lap further behind.
It would take Moss and Fitch 7 hours and 3 minutes to complete the 84 lap race distance. And for two men that would never achieve an overall victory at Le Mans, the victory at Dundrod would be a special achievement in their sportscar careers. In the case of John Fitch, who would drive brilliantly and mistake-free throughout, the victory at Dundrod would cap off a season that began with a class victory in the ever-dangerous and tough Mille Miglia at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. The result at Dundrod would also prove to be one of the finest overall victories of his entire career. Both he and Moss would overcome the terrible setback of the shredded tire to drive a superb race good enough to earn victory upon Hawthorn's retirement.
The Tourist Trophy race would be a special race for those at Mercedes-Benz as, for more than 30 years, it would prove to be the final victory the manufacturer would achieve in either Formula One or sportscar racing. And, as a result of his and Moss' exploits on that day in September, Fitch would hold a special place in Mercedes-Benz racing history.
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