Image credits: © Mercedes-Benz.
1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR
Rudolf Úhlenhaut, the individual responsible for the 300 SLR racer, or rather his new 'company car' which he appeared in for the first time at the Swedish Formula 1 circuit, provided a fascinating side-show to the race itself. Spurred on by Mercedes' success in 1955, the Stuttgart engineer had spend the time between races mulling over the idea of fitting the open-top 300 SLR racing sports car with an enclosed cockpit for endurance events in the future.
His musings had now reached fruition in the shape of an awe-inspiring coupé with the technology of a racing sports car, the gullwing doors of the 300 SL and performance which no other road-going sports car could match. The two-seater recorded a speed of 290 km/h during a test conducted for 'Automobil Revue' magazine at four o'clock in the morning on a closed section of motorway outside Munich.
'We are driving a car which barely takes a second to overtake the rest of the traffic and for which 200 km/h on a quiet motorway is little more than walking pace. With its unflappable handling through corners, it treats the laws of centrifugal force with apparent disdain,' scribbled the lucky test reporter after a total of 3500 kilometres. His only regret was that this was a sports car 'which we will never be able to buy and which the average driver would never buy anyway.' Only two examples of the SLR Coupé were ever built.
For the Coupé's bodywork, the Mercedes engineers used Elektron, an easily-to-work-with magnesium alloy which is even lighter than aluminium. The driver's area had much in common with an aircraft cockpit and the semicircular windscreen generated very little wind resistance. As in the 300 SLR racing sports car, the engine in the 'Úhlenhaut Coupé' was turned around its longitudinal axis. Again, the driver had to control the pedals with his legs apart behind the steering wheel. The massive brake drums on the driven axles were moved further in, in order to minimise the effects of the road on these unsprung masses. For anyone not already in the know, opening the boot lid was something of a mystery, with the in-conspicuous 'D' (for Germany) sign serving as the release lever.
Smouldering under the sweeping bonnet was the eight-cylinder engine taken from the racing sports car. This prestigious power unit developed peak torque of 234 lb-ft at 5950 rpm and its maximum output of 310 horsepower at 7400 rpm.
Source - DaimlerChrysler
Only 2 300SLR Coupes were ever built.
The 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR racing sports car combined the experience gained with the 1952 300 SL with Formula 1 technology. In addition to its filigree design as developed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut, it proved to be a sturdy and highly reliable race car. Its engine was based on the Formula 1 unit M 196 R and increased to 3-liters, producing up to 310 horsepower. It entered and won major races. Arguably its greatest moment was the victory of Sir Stirling Moss and co-pilot Denis Jenkinson at the 1955 Mille Miglia, where '722' set an all-time record with an average speed of 97.06 mph over the 1,000-mile race (in just 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds). In second place, 32 minutes later and driving along, was Juan Manuel Fangio, also in a 300 SLR. After Stirling Moss's triumphant success, the 300 SLR also won the Eifel race, the Swedish Grand Prix, the Irish Tourist Trophy and the Targa Florio in Sicily, so it did win the championship for Mercedes-Benz. To this day, the 1955 300 SLR is considered one of the most iconic race cars of all time. When asked about his memory of the 300 SLR, Moss referred to it as the 'greatest sports racing car ever built - really an unbelievable machine.'
Legendary Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Bids U.S. Farewell
Mercedes-Benz will present a memorable motorsports display at the 2005 Pebble Beach Concour D'Elegance on August 21. The 300 SLR sports-racing car driven to victory by legendary driver Stirling Moss in the 1955 Mille Miglia, Italy's classic road race, will make its final appearance in the Únited States before retiring to the new Mercedes- Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany. The transporter that carried the 300 SLR to Europe's famous racetracks during the 1954-1955 racing season will pay its first Ú.S. visit in almost fifty years.
Considered one of the most beautiful racecars of all time, the Mercedes- Benz 300 SLR was based on the company's dominant W 196 Formula One racer using fully enclosed bodywork with a navigator's seat and a trunk. The inline-eight cylinder Grand Prix engine, with displacement enlarged from 2.5 to 3.0 liters, produced 310 horsepower at 7,500 rpm.
The 300 SLR body was likewise advanced in that it was made from a tough yet malleable form of sheet magnesium, which was lighter than aluminum. Top speed depended on the transmission and final drive gear ratios used for a particular race and could be as high as 185 mph.
In the hands of racing legend Stirling Moss, who will be reunited with his victorious racing car at the Pebble Beach event, the 300 SLR set a course record in the 1955 Mille Miglia that would never be broken. Moss and his navigator Dennis Jenkinson won this challenging and dangerous race in just 10 hours, 7 minutes, and 48 seconds for an average speed of 97.96 mph -- nearly 10 mph faster than the previous course record.
Built as the world's fastest racecar transporter, this one-of-a-kind Mercedes-Benz was powered by the same engine as the legendary 300SL 'Gullwing' sports car. Únfortunately, the original was scrapped in 1967 after serving as a workhorse vehicle in the company's test department.
The 'new' transporter is a near-exact replica -- 'near exact' since it was recreated without the benefit of blueprints of the original -- because they did not exist. The reconstruction project supervised by the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center encompassed seven years working from old photos, internal memos and reports and other descriptions to build the 'new' transporter.
Weighing nearly 7,000 pounds with a racecar on its bed, the Mercedes-Benz transporter was capable of achieving high speeds. 'Max. Speed 105 mph' was painted on its rear fenders to answer the frequently asked question -- 'How fast will it go?'
Following its appearance at the Pebble Beach Concours, the 'new' 1954 transporter will return to Germany with its priceless cargo -- the 300 SLR. The pair will be permanently displayed together in the new Mercedes-Benz Museum scheduled to open in March 2006.Source - Pebble Beach Concours
It is truly remarkable that Mercedes-Benz was able to compete for the World Sports Car Championship less than a decade after World War II ended, considering the destruction of their factories. Their entry into the sport was the 300SLR (Sport, Leicht, Rennen, or Sport, Light, Racing).
Originally, there were nine SLR roadsters created for the program. In 1955, a Mercedes-Benz SLR won Italy's Mille Miglia (a 1,000-mile road race through the mountains), and averaged nearly 100 mph for ten hours and 1,000 miles - an unbroken record. Mercedes-Benz went on to win four more races and captured the World Sports Car Championship.
Engineer and expert racer Rudolph Uhlenhaut, was in charge of the postwar racing department. In 1955, Uhlenhaut had two of the SLR roadsters transformed into ultra-light, aerodynamic coupes. The roadster chassis was widened slightly and because of the high door-sill beams, the signature gullwing doors were required. These race cars were used for practice but never competed in a race. They weighed just 2,176 pounds and soon became a personal project for Uhlenhaut. In modern times, Mercedes-Benz owns both examples and remain a tribute to the genius of Rudolph Uhlenhaut.
By Daniel Vaughan | Jul 2011
The Mercedes-Benz 300SLR was considered one of the most advanced racing cars of its era. They were powered by a high-revving, twin-cam, fuel-injected straight-8 engine with a desmodromic (mechanically opening and closing) valve-train. The body was constructed from lightweight magnesium and was fitted with a unique air brake system for competition at Le Mans in 1955. There is a five-speed manual transaxle and top speed is in the neighborhood of 186 mph.
1955 24 Hours of Le Mans: A Tragic Vision
In the fog of war, the potential for friendly fire increases dramatically. And in such horrible moments a truly tragic scene develops that is every bit as terrible as the act of friendly troops being cut down by their own. Often a time of blame and finger-pointing, instead of honesty and commitment to stand together, is the immediate result. Unfortunately, such a scene would be about to unfold on the 11th of June, 1955. However, amidst the chaos and the tragedy, one man would see his way forward and would do his best to lead into an era of greater awareness and action instead of blame and apathy.
At six in the evening, a titanic battle would be clearly underway with two potent forces pounding away at each other. With such ferocity, it would be consuming all in its path. It truly was World War II all over again. But instead of some incredible tank battle it would be a motor race with two great teams, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar enthralling the crowd and the drivers. Neither side would be giving in. Therefore, in the fog of this titanic battle, neither side would realize the truly horrific scene that was about to play out and, as a result, expose decades of apathy and abandonment of sound judgment.
The early 20th century would be a period of great adventure and discovery. Danger and the threat of death would be never far away as man stretched the limits. In fact, the danger would be considered part and parcel to the quest of pushing back boundaries. Forethought, it would turn out, would actually be hindsight.
At the time of this titanic battle raging between Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, Europe had only emerged from the Second World War about a decade earlier. There were still portions of the continent in ruin or slowly being rebuilt. The war would remain on the minds of many, as would the rather comfortable acceptance of death and danger. After all, had it not been for men and women willing to face such incredible danger and incredible threats of death it would have been likely Mercedes would have considered Le Mans home territory by 1955. So there were many things, many obvious signs of danger that would go unnoticed until 6:26pm on the evening of the 11th of June.
The incredible crowd would be a part of the problem. Le Mans had always been a major draw, and in 1955, an estimated crowd of 300,000 descended upon the circuit for the 24 hour race. Tightly packed in along the start/finish straight, it truly was, as it would be realized later, an image of innocent lambs being led to slaughter.
But the crowd would play its part as well. Only a decade removed from the horrors of World War II, the French crowd would appear happy and enthusiastic cheering on the British car battling it out with the mighty German automobile. And, for someone like Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn, that would only be further fuel for his competitive fire.
Similar to citizens during the American Civil War that would dress in their best and would wander out near a battlefield to watch the horrific action, Jaguar and Mercedes were lobbing heavy shells back and forth, in terms of their race pace. It was attracting a crowd and would quickly become mesmerizing. Unfortunately, no one was realizing how the firepower was actually ringing everybody together leading to an absolutely cataclysmic and terrible event.
But then, one errand shot would finally leave the barrel of the gun. Mike Hawthorn would pull over in front of Lance Macklin in a slower Austin-Healey in order to enter the pits. The disc brakes on the Jaguar would work well slowing Hawthorn's Jaguar down from more than 150mph. Unfortunately, Macklin would be caught out and would be forced to swerve in order to avoid hitting Hawthorn due to the fact he did not have disc brakes like Hawthorn's Jaguar.
Swerving to avoid hitting Hawthorn, Macklin would move a little too far to his left while trying to maintain control. This would be easy to do on the very narrow public roads used to comprise the Le Mans circuit and that passed along the start/finish straight. Horribly unfortunate, Pierre Levegh would be looking both ahead, and behind, him with his teammate Juan Manuel Fangio fast approaching from behind. The quick movement made by Macklin and the little to no reaction time Levegh would have at the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz would lead to the world of motor racing receiving the worse shock of its life as Levegh would leave the circuit, crash into a barrier and send pieces of the car flying through the heavy-packed crowd eventually killing more than 80 spectators. And, across the road in the pits, less than ten minutes from taking over the wheel of the very Mercedes that had just left the circuit and that had caused such catastrophe would be John Fitch. As a result of what he would witness, and of the immediate aftermath, this young American's life would forever change. And right at that very terrible moment, Fitch would emerge a leader, doing the very best he could to lead motor racing and the automotive world on a whole forward.
In the fog of war, when there is an instance of friendly fire, there is a chaos that usually descends upon the situation just before, and especially afterward. On the 11th of June, the chaos prior to the accident would be found on the circuit with Hawthorn and Fangio lowering the lap record with just about every passing lap. Believing to have achieved everything possible in motor racing, the Mercedes' team instructions to Fangio and Moss would be to race, which to them meant driving flat out, as though it were a grand prix. Never one to back down when he felt he had the car and the mood was right, Hawthorn would answer the challenge of Fangio and, in fact, would have to drive flat out in attempts to break the Mercedes anyway to even have a chance at overall victory with a pairing of Fangio and Moss driving the Mercedes.
This incredible fight on the circuit would soon swallow all of the other drivers up. It was as if the other drivers were dodging ricochet shots fired by each team. And in such a quickly fluid situation, errors in judgment become easy to make. And the horrific scene of death and chaos afterward would only prove this point.
While people on the other side of the circuit would be all but unaware of the accident and would carry on with the usually festive occasion that Le Mans usually was, the start/finish section of the circuit would be descending into further chaos, confusion and uproar.
Sitting sipping some coffee with Pierre Levegh's wife, Fitch would hear a terrible explosion. And, as both would take off running toward the pits, Fitch would clearly hear Mrs. Levegh scream. What he would witness from then on would make him a unique observer. It would also come to greatly impact and change him, starting with his follow-up encounter with Pierre Levegh's wife.
Amidst the screaming and shouting coming from the area of the grandstands as people began to take in the full weight of the horror, Fitch would again encounter Mrs. Levegh. It would be stated by someone in the Mercedes pits that the car involved had been number 20, the car driven by Levegh and Fitch. Without any confirmation, Mrs. Levegh would know her husband was dead and would say so a number of times even before having ever really heard that it was her husband that had been involved.
The cars would continue on, partly because the fog of war, the confusion, has finally, and firmly, descended upon the pit area. Though just Macklin's Austin-Healey and the Mercedes of Levegh had been involved, the confusion would cause of great amount of confusion and disarray to cloud judgments and set-off blame and finger-pointing that would carry one well into the early morning hours of the next day, indeed, even decades afterward.
Well and truly a bystander to all that is raging, on both sides of the track, Fitch would get a picture of the events that had transpired by witnessing the immediate aftermath and chaos of the moment, and this would prompt him into action, ultimately, for the rest of his life.
According to Fitch, Hawthorn would emerge from his car 'broken', and 'in tears and in agony'. But despite the number one driver's emotions, Ivor Bueb would clamor in behind the wheel, albeit quite unwillingly, and would carry on with the race. And the fact the race would carry on would add to the controversy and the finger-pointing.
Race officials would allow the race to continue out of fear that had the race been cancelled an estimated crowd of 300,000 people would have blocked the roads and made it practically impossible for all of the dead and injured to make it to the hospitals. Still, the decision would only add to the confusion and the perception of life going on as normal.
But Fitch was no longer living a normal life. What he had witnessed had already changed him. Though he would not give up on racing and would always be attracted by the danger and the thrill of speed, he would take his first steps of action by the late evening hours and would never turn back from then on.
The race continued with Hawthorn and Fangio out in their respective cars, still going at it. Mercedes, by the late evening, had built up a sizable margin with Fangio and Moss behind the wheel. Fitch would be on the phone trying to get through to some connections when he would overhear a journalist talking to his newspaper. Fitch would overhear, from this reporter, that the gendarmes had already calculated more than 60 people killed. This was one of the first reports of a death count of any kind to have been received over in the pits since the accident happened, and it so happened that it would be Fitch that would be the first one to hear the report and have any actual knowledge of the horrific scene still playing out over by the grandstands. This would really motivate Fitch.
Alfred Neubauer would be concerned with events out on the track given that Fangio and Moss were still in the lead. Therefore, Fitch would approach Rudolf Uhlenhaut, Mercedes-Benz's chief designer and the mastermind behind the 300SLR that Levegh and the rest of the Mercedes team were driving. John would speak to Uhlenhaut about what he had overheard. And, despite perhaps being out of place, would suggest to Rudolf the possibility of withdrawing from the race given the fact the end of World War II had only come about a decade earlier and that it had been a German car that had left the track and had come to kill so many French. Fitch's concern was that 'Mercedes, a German company, should not win the race, not when so many French had perished.' He discerned that to do so, to carry on to victory, 'would have been bad for relations; it would have been bad for everybody.'
Often times, the correct thing to do, the best thing to do, will be met with criticism and upon Fitch making such a recommendation to Uhlenhaut, Fitch would find himself in the crosshairs of members of his own team. This was understandable given that Mercedes had been leading at the time, but it would also expose the same errors in judgment and 'win at all cost' mentality that had led to the tragic event happening in the first place. The change within Fitch had occurred. Instead of reacting, he was now trying to be proactive and preventative.
Despite the protests and a passage of a great amount of time, mostly due to members of the Mercedes company being scattered all over Europe at the time, John's recommendation to Uhlenhaut would be determined as the best, and right, course of action to take. And, by the early morning hours of the 12th of June, Mercedes-Benz would withdraw from the race they had been leading for some hours.
Those on the other side of the circuit would wake the next morning bewildered and confused as to what had happened to the Mercedes-Benz team. The confusion on the other side of the circuit would be justified given the Mercedes of Fangio and Moss had been in the lead at the time many would have drifted off to sleep.
The dawn would come and would shed light on the darkness that had come to overwhelm Le Mans, both literally and figuratively. Rain was falling on the circuit, yet the race carried on. The pits were lively, and yet, scenes of death and destruction existed right there on the other side of the road.
Eventually it would be the Jaguar of Hawthorn and Bueb that would take the victory by a handful of laps over the 2nd place car, but as far as Fitch, the French people and organizers were concerned, that insignificant fact would matter little to what had transpired. Unfortunately, in the search for some answers, the blame-game would well and truly begin.
For one thing, Jaguar would come under fire for not withdrawing like Mercedes. They had played a part in the accident but declined to follow Mercedes' lead and quietly withdraw. Once again, the battle had consumed to the point of blindness and the French newspapers would make them aware of it the following day, and the reputation would suffer well into the future.
Moving beyond the teams, it would then be the ones out on the track, the drivers, that would next come under scrutiny and fire. Once again, Fitch would have to take the lead. A bystander and witness to the aftermath, he would be called upon to share his impressions of that fateful moment and the fallout immediately following. While many would not face up to the reality of drivers being responsible for the lives of others in and around them, passing it off to the 'intoxication' of the moment, Fitch's testimony would place a bit more weight and teeth to the subject. Giving testimony of things said and actions taken, Fitch moved the narrative past the apathetic response of simply blaming the deceased and older Pierre Levegh and would cause many, albeit while angering some no doubt, to face reality and to take measure of one's own actions. This stark reality, and the resistance to it, would change many lives forever, most notably John Fitch.
Following the terrible events at Le Mans, Fitch would continue to take part in motor races and would even take class victories in the 24 hour race. However, another main thrust of Fitch's life would be toward greater safety measures. That 'sad' day would drive Fitch work on such innovations as his Fitch Inertial Barrier system, the Fitch Compression Barrier and the Fitch Displaceable Guardrail system that would be employed on both motor circuits and highways saving thousands upon thousands of lives, behind the wheel and in the grandstands. Never ceasing in his search for greater safety, Fitch would be driven by the horror of the sight he witnessed that day, the 11th of June. But while many would try to merely 'carry on', Fitch would spend his life carrying motoring and racing in a new direction, one where apathy and acceptance would be replaced by awareness and foresight. The testaments of lives saved on the circuit and on the highways would only testify to Fitch's ability to lead and to cause people to look with tragic vision at how things are and how they may be improved. This is carrying on in the right direction; when the fog of war is lifted and people can truly enjoy the titanic struggle being played out before them.Sources
The Deadliest Crash—The Le Mans 1955 Disaster (UK BBC 16 May 2010) Video. (2010). Retrieved 7 November 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asGtbXjYdK0
John Fitch and the 1955 Le Mans Catastrophe Video. (2009). Retrieved 7 November 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOAQu4C3yAc
Martin, Douglas. 'John Fitch, Glamorous Racer with a Flair for Danger, Dies at 95', (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/sports/autoracing/john-cooper-fitch-glamorous-racer-with-a-flair-for-danger-dies-at-95.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&). The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/sports/autoracing/john-cooper-fitch-glamorous-racer-with-a-flair-for-danger-dies-at-95.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
'Obituaries: John Fitch', (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/sport-obituaries/9654484/John-Fitch.html). The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/sport-obituaries/9654484/John-Fitch.html. Retrieved 7 November 2012.By Jeremy McMullen
1955 Tourist Trophy: One Last Victory
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.Sources:
'History of the Tourist Trophy—Race Profile', (http://www.sportscardigest.com/history-of-the-tourist-trophy-race-profile/2/). Sports Car Digest: The Sports, Racing and Vintage Car Journal. http://www.sportscardigest.com/history-of-the-tourist-trophy-race-profile/2/. Retrieved 8 November 2012.
The Deadliest Crash—The Le Mans 1955 Disaster (UK BBC 16 May 2010) Video. (2010). Retrieved 8 November 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asGtbXjYdK0
Tragedy Mars Ulster T.T. 1955 Video. (1955). Retrieved 8 November 2012 from http://www.britishpathe.com/video/tragedy-mars-ulster-t-t
'1955 Tourist Trophy', (http://www.teamdan.com/archive/wsc/1955/55tt.html). 1955 Tourist Trophy. http://www.teamdan.com/archive/wsc/1955/55tt.html. Retrieved 8 November 2012.
'Complete Archive of John Fitch', (http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/archive/John-Fitch-USA.html?page=2). Racing Sports Cars. http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/archive/John-Fitch-USA.html?page=2. Retrieved 8 November 2012.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Dundrod Circuit', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 October 2012, 14:31 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dundrod_Circuit&oldid=515630611 accessed 8 November 2012By Jeremy McMullen
The Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Coupe was given the nickname, the Uhlenhaut Coupe, named after the former head of vehicle development and creator of the 300 SLR, engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut. Two coupes were built using the 3.0-liter, straight eight-cylinder engine and had a weight of just under 2,500 pounds. The 300 SLR Coupe was the fastest closed roof vehicle of its day, having a maximum speed of nearly 180 mph.By Daniel Vaughan | Mar 2017
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