Teams Pierre Levegh
Races: 6By Jeremy McMullen
The world takes goodness for granted. It is far more likely a person will be remembered, from an outsider's perspective, for bad, truly tragic, events that happen in their life instead of all of the good things. It takes a conscious effort many times to forget the bad and remember the good. Unfortunately for Pierre Levegh, he is most infamously remembered for that dark day at Le Mans in 1955. What is lost to memory, however, is the truly remarkable talent and sportsman Pierre really was.
Pierre Bouillin was born in Paris, France in 1905, one year after the death of pioneer racing driver Alfred Velghe. Alfred didn't go by the spelling of his last name, but instead, changed it to 'Levegh'. Alfred Levegh was Pierre's uncle. And when Pierre started racing in the 1930s he took 'Levegh' for himself in honor of his uncle.
Pierre had all-around talent. Just about anything he set his mind to doing he not only did well at, he excelled. Pierre was considered a world-class ice hockey player. Pierre was also considered to be an elite tennis player.
Pierre started grand prix racing toward the later part of the 1930s. One of his first races was the Frontieres Grand Prix at Chimay, France in May of 1937. Levegh, driving a Bugatti T57, started the race 4th from the second row on the grid. The race was 10 laps of the almost seven mile road course around Chimay, France. Pierre managed, in his first race mind you, to take over second in a good fight with Legat. However, Pierre had to make a pitstop and this handed second back to Legat. Ruesch won the race in his Alfa Romeo 8C-35. Legat finished 2nd in his Bugatti T35B and Levegh finished the race 3rd in his Bugatti. This was the only grand prix race Levegh would take part in 1937. He would take part in a couple of sports car races however.
Pierre would not take part in any grand prix races in 1938. However, Levegh did compete in the 24 hours of Le Mans and the 24 hours of SpA, but with no success.
Pierre would only compete in one grand prix during the 1939 season. The one race Pierre competed in 1939 was the Coupe de Paris at Montlhery in May of that year. At this race, Levegh arrived with a Talbot drive. In the end, Pierre finished the race 6th, some 2 laps behind race winner Wimille. Pierre, once again, competed in a number of sports car events including the 24 hours of Le Mans again. Pierre managed to score a 4th place finish at the Grand Prix d'Anvers. He followed that with a 3rd at the sports car Grand Prix of Luxembourg. Pierre's other best result in 1939 was a 5th place which he scored at the sports car Grand Prix du Comminges.
Unfortunately for Levegh, the German military began its march into eastern Europe, and then, started its western march. This brought an end to grand prix racing and to probably Levegh's prime in auto racing.
Time was obviously against Pierre when the war ended, and so, he resumed racing in earnest. In September of 1945, Levegh took part in one of the first grand prix races held after the war. Pierre took part in the Bois de Boulogne in Boulogne, France. Some of the other drivers who were present were Gerard, Etancelin, Sommer and Wimille. Levegh competed with a Talbot-Lago T150C. The race was nothing of special note for Pierre except it was his first race back after the end of the war. Levegh suffered a DNF in the 43 lap event.
In 1946, Levegh took part in six grand prix events throughout that year. His first race of the year, Les Rues de Nice was nothing spectacular as he finished that race in 11th. However, in the remaining five events in which he took part, he did not finish worse than 8th. Pierre's best result of the season was second, of which he achieved three times.
At the Bois de Boulogne, in May of 1946, Pierre raced home to a 5th place finish in his own Talbot-Lago T150C. The event was won by Wimille in an Alfa Romeo 308.
Levegh then travelled to Brussels, Belgium to take part in the sports car race, the Bois de la Cambre. This race was 33 laps of a 2.3 mile road course. Levegh competed using his Talbot-Lago T150C once again. Levegh was able to finish the race 2nd behind Eugene Chaboud.
After an 8th place finish as the Circuit de Dijon-Prenois, Levegh headed to Nantes, France in order to contest the 24 Hours du Mans grand prix race. This was not the actuall 24 hours of Le Mans but was a race consisting of 45 laps on the 2.6 mile street course. Pierre completed the 45 laps finishing the race 2nd.
Pierre followed the 2nd at the 24 Hours du Mans with another 2nd at the grand prix race at the Circuit des Trois Villes. This was the last race for Levegh in 1946. The race took place over a length of 48 laps, on the 3.2 mile street course near Marc-en-Baroeul, France. Pierre ended up a lap down in his Talbot-Lago, beaten by Raymond Sommer in his Maserati 8CL.
Going into 1947, Pierre switched from running his own cars, and instead, competed as part of the Ecurie Gersac team. The team utilized the 6-cylinder D6.70 Delage.
The 1947 season started early for Pierre. In April, Levegh took part in the Pau Grand Prix. Levegh picked up right where he left off the previous year. He came in 2nd behind race winner Nello Pagani and his Maserati 4CL. Levegh ended up the 110 lap race down two laps to Pagani. Levegh's 2nd place finish ended up paying him a little over $1,000.00.
Twenty days later, Levegh was in Perpignan, France, and the Circuit de Perpignan, for the Grand Prix du Roussillon. Battling some of France's best talent in his Delage D6.70, Pierre drove a solid race and finished the event 4th, one lap down to Eugene Chaboud.
Pierre travelled to the British island of Jersey to compete in the Jersey Road Race. Twenty-five drivers started the race. At the end of the event, Levegh finished 7th in his Delage, some 4 laps down to Reg Parnell and his Maserati 4CL.
In May, Pierre took part in the Grand Prix of Marseilles. The race was 69 laps of a 2.7 mile street course. Starting from the 11th starting spot on the grid, Levegh drove a strong race. He came up through the field in his Delage D6. Pierre finished 4th behind his Ecurie Gersac teammate Henri Louveau. Levegh ended the race 3 laps down to the race winner Eugene Chaboud. This would be the last race Levegh would compete on behalf of Ecurie Gersac. Finishing in 6th in the race was Jean Achard, a fellow Ecurie Gersac teammate.
Jean Achard appeared for the Grand Prix de Nimes, held at the Aerodrome de Nîmes-Courbessac, with team Ecurie Gersac. Jean Achard offered Levegh to drive his own Delahaye 155 for the race. Unfortunately, the offer didn't prove successful as Pierre failed to finish the 70 lap event.
The next four events Pierre took part were grand prix races and for the team Ecurie Naphtra Course. In these events Pierre would be behind the wheel of a Maserati 4CL chassis. The partnership didn't prove to be all that successful for either Ecurie Naphtra Course or Levegh as his best result over the span of the four races was two 10th place finishes. Those two 10th place finishes came in the first two events. Pierre's first 10th place finish was at the Grand Prix de l‘Albigeois held at the street course Circuit des Planques in Albi, France. The other event Pierre scored a 10th place finish was the Grand Prix de Nice, at the Les Rues de Nice street course. Villoresi, who won the Grand Prix of Nice in a Maserati 4CL for Scuderia Ambrosiana took home just over $2,000.
Pierre failed to finish his next and last two events for Ecurie Naphtra Course, the Grand Prix of Strasbourg and the Grand Prix of St. Gaudens. In fact, Levegh would suffer from four-straight DNFs, bringing 1947 to an unsuccessful close.
Going into 1948 it was painfully obvious Levegh was battling younger talent. By this time Pierre was already 42 years old. While he was still very competitive, when it came to grand prix racing, there were younger and faster drivers appearing each and every year. This reality, along with the exorbitant costs a private entrant faced, likely were the reasons Levegh only took part in four grand prix races in 1948.
The first grand prix of 1948 Levegh took part was the Grand Prix de l'Albigeois in Albi, France at the end of August. Driving a Maserati 4CL, Levegh was able to finish the race at least and did so coming in 8th. Luigi Villoresi took the win in the new Maserati 4CLT/48. Etancelin and Rosier came home 2nd and 3rd respectively in Talbot-Lago T26Cs.
The next event Pierre competed was a sports car race held on the street course in Montlhery, France. The event was 112 laps in length on the 7.7 mile course. Pierre co-drove with car owner Marc Versini in a 6-cylinder Delage D6-3L. The two started the race from 6th position. Luigi Chinetti and Lord Selsdon won the race in a Ferrari 166 SC, but Versini and Levegh ended up coming across the finish line 4th.
Levegh returned to Montlhery a month later for the Grand Prix du Salon. This race was held on the shorter street course that was only about 3.9 miles in length. The race was only scheduled to go 48 laps, or, a little over 186 miles in total. By the time of this race, Pierre had come to drive a Talbot-Lago T26C (see Talbot-Lago T26C article) and he put the new car, for him, to good use. Pierre finished the race 2nd behind another Talbot-Lago T26C of Louis Rosier. The average speed for the race was just over 90mph.
The last race for Pierre in 1948 was the Grand Prix of Garda held on a 10 mile street course in Garda, Italy. The pace of Guiseppe Farina in his Ferrari 125 was such that Pierre ended up finishing the 18 lap race one lap down. Pierre finished 7th overall in his Talbot-Lago.
1949 would see the now 43 year-old Levegh be a regular and consistent presence in grand prix racing. In 1949, Levegh would compete in eleven grand prix while not competing in a single sports car race. The Talbot-Lago chassis was a comparatively affordable means to go grand prix racing and Levegh took advantage of it. Unfortunately, out of the eleven events Pierre took part he would suffer DNFs in six of them. And despite a 5th at the Grand Prix de Paris at Montlhery and a 7th at the Grand Prix du Roussillon at Perpignan, France, the only other positive result Pierre scored in '49 was at the last event he competed in for the year, the Velka cena Ceskoslovenska held in Brno, Czech Republic.
The Velka cena Ceskoslovenska was held on a street course in Brno, Czech Republic. The event was 20 laps of the 11 mile street circuit. Pierre was one of a handful of regular grand prix drivers who made the trip to compete in the event. Reg Parnell and Guiseppe Farina were involved in an accident on the first lap. Ten others suffered DNFs. Peter Whitehead cruised home to victory in his Ferrari 125 and Pierre Levegh finished the race 4th, one lap down to Whitehead. At the end of eleven events, the 4th was Pierre's best result of the season!
At the dawn of Formula One in 1950, Pierre Levegh was driving a Talbot-Lago T26C exclusively. At the time of Formula One's inaugural season Levegh was 44 years-old, but he still had a passion to compete. This was not so surprising given the sportsman that he was. In 1950, Pierre took part in nine grand prix races, but the majority of those were races either in or rather close to France.
Pierre's first event for 1950 was the Grand Prix de Pau in April of that year. This was a 110 lap race on the 1.7 miles street course around Pau, France. Fangio, in his Maserati 4CLT/48, Luigi Villoresi, in his Scuderia Ferrari 125 and Louis Rosier, in his own Talbot-Lago T26C were the class of the field as they were the only ones to complete all 110 laps. Every other runner on course had been lapped at least once. Pierre was one of them. Despite finishing 6 laps behind Fangio, Pierre finished the race 6th. This was a rather good result given the fact Pierre started the race from 10th on the grid.
Pierre followed his 6th place at the Grand Prix de Pau with a DNF at the Grand Prix de Paris. The 50 lap race saw only three cars take the checkered. The other eight entrants suffered problems, including Levegh. Levegh's engine let go on him after completing 28 laps.
Levegh missed the next four races, of which three were official championship races. This does not include the Indy 500 which counted toward the championship but was not ever really considered.
Levegh's first Formula One race came at the next race he competed in after the Grand Prix of Paris. Pierre travelled to Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix. Pierre covered the 8.8 mile road course in 5 minutes and 1 second to qualify 10th for the race. Pierre's time was 24+ seconds behind the pole time set by Nino Farina in his Alfa Romeo 158. Levegh drove a splendid, consistent race. Starting 10th on the grid, Pierre came up through the field to finish the race 7th, two laps down to race winner Juan Manuel Fangio. Pierre missed out on the points by just two spots.
Despite missing out on the first three Formula One races on the calendar (four if Indianapolis is counted), Pierre turned around and was present for the very next championship race after Spa, the Grand Prix of France held on the 4.89 mile road course near Reims, France. Pierre qualified 9th for the race; some 18+ seconds behind Fangio's pole time. Starting 9th on the grid meant Pierre would be on the inside of the 4th row in the 3-2-3 arrangement. Levegh got away from the start fine and was settling into a pace. Unfortunately, Levegh's engine let go after completing 36 of the 64 scheduled laps. Once again, Pierre scored no points toward the championship.
Away from the championship, Levegh followed the DNF with a couple of good results at the Grand Prix of Bari in Bari, Italy and the Grand Prix of Albi in July of 1950.
At the Gand Prix of Bari, Levegh wouldn't do battle with no-name talent. Both Farina and Fangio came to the race driving for Alfa Romeo SpA in their Alfa 158s. This was interesting given the fact that at other non-championship events that year they drove different cars. The two mostly drove for Alfa Romeo SpA at championship events. Pierre was ready to do battle. The race ended with a podium for the ages as Farina beat Fangio for the win and Stirling Moss followed Fangio home in 3rd. Levegh, though two laps down, finished the race a fine 4th.
At Albi, the field was filled with talented racing drivers as well. Fangio and Farina were there driving Maserati 4CLT/48 and Ascari and Villoresi were there driving Ferrari 125s for Scuderia Ferrari. Pierre arrived with his own Talbot-Lago T26C as usual. Despite his age, Levegh showed off his talent during the course of the race. Starting 11th, Pierre faced a tough field to battle with in order to achieve a good result. Pierre was helped in the race by attrition, which was incredibly high. Only six starters were running at the end of the race. But not to take anything away from Pierre, for the same result could have befallen him, he drove splendidly, looking after the car while still being fast. Though a lap down to race winner Louis Rosier, Pierre finished the race 4th.
Levegh's remaining good result for the 1950 season came at his next race, the non-championship Coppa Acerbo held at Pescara, Italy in August of that year. The event was 16 laps of the 16 mile road course that wound through Pescara and the surrounding towns and countryside. Fangio and Fagioli started 1-2 for the Alfa Romeo SpA team. Pierre started the race from the 7th starting spot. After over three hours of racing, Pierre finished the race in 5th, one lap down to Fangio who won the race in his Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta.
Pierre competed at the BRDC International Trophy race at Silverstone at the end of the August. Unfortunately for Pierre, he could not finish the race any higher than 11th.
In September, Levegh travelled to Monza to take part in the final Formula One race of its first season, the Italian Grand Prix. Twenty-seven drivers, including Levegh qualified for the race. Levegh would start the race from 20th on the grid after posting a qualifying time 18.6 seconds slower than Juan Manuel Fangio and his 1.5 liter Alfa Romeo 159. The race was not kind to many drivers and cars, including title contenders like Fangio. Unfortunately, Levegh was not spared from the attrition as after completing 29 laps his race came to an end.
Pierre competed in three Formula One races, finishing as high as 7th, but without scoring a single point.
Although he turned 45 in December of 1950, Levegh didn't slow down in life any. In 1951, Pierre competed in 8 grand prix. He also took part in the 24 hours of Le Mans. Being familiar with Talbot-Lago, Levegh co-drove a 4.5 liter Talbot-Lago Decalee to a 4th place finish overall. 1951 marked Pierre's last year competing in Formula One. He competed in a total of 6 Formula One races throughout his career but did not score a point in any of those races.
From 1951 on Pierre began to focus more on sports car racing than grand prix racing. Levegh would take part in no fewer than nine sports car events in 1952. Out of those nine events eight resulted in DNFs. Probably one of Levegh's most famous drives and failures came at Le Mans.
Levegh decided to go it alone at Le Mans. He decided to drive the 24 hour event all by himself. What was even more spectacular was the fact that he held onto the lead of the race into the 23rd hour. It appeared as if Levegh would pull off the most amazing of feats. Yet, in the closing hour of the race he missed a gear-shift and the result was that his Talbot-Lago T26GS suffered an engine failure. It is believed that it was because of driver fatigue the gear-shift was mishandled. Despite the failure, it was one of the most impressive drives ever seen at Le Mans.
Heading into the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, Levegh was now 49 years of age but still looking for victory at the race he had come so close to winning before. Pierre Levegh was paired with American driver John Fitch and drove the third of Daimler-Benz's 300SLR. The new Mercedes model was capable of speeds well over 175mph. As a result, almost like a prophectic voice, Levegh was overheard voicing concerns about the speeds and the fact that Le Mans had not been truly updated from the days when the cars were only doing a little over 100mph. Sure enough, on the 34th lap, Levegh hit the back of Macklin's Austin-Healey. The car was sent off track and, after hitting an earth bank, flew into the crowd. Levegh was killed in the crash as his skull was crushed, but at least 80 spectators also lost their lives due to the flying debris and burning wreckage. This was the worst accident ever in motor racing history and is forever linked with Pierre Levegh. As a result of the accident Mercedes-Benz withdrew from sports car racing for a period of 30 years. Also, as a result of the crash, safety measures at races were heightened.
Though always remembered for this dark event in racing history, Pierre was remembered in a different light by Juan Manuel Fangio. Fangio believed that it was the action of Levegh that saved his life. Just prior to him clipping Macklin's car, Pierre raised his hand as if to warn of the impending accident. Fangio was following Pierre at the time, saw the signal and swerved in enough time to escape what probably would have been certain death for the Argentinean. Were it not perhaps for that signal, Fangio would not have been a 5-time world champion.
Though he will forever be lost in the accident that claimed the lives of over 80 people, the sportsmanship of Pierre Levegh will always leave a signal to the kind of competitor he was, and talent that he had. If one is paying attention and looking it can be seen that the respect this competitor showed toward his fellow drivers enables history to avoid Levegh being remembered as things happened, and instead being memorialized in a different light.Sources:
'Pierre Levegh' (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12541184). Findagrave.com
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12541184. Retrieved 18 June 2010.
'Drivers: Pierre Levegh' (http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-levpie.html). Grandprix.com GP Encyclopedia.
http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-levpie.html. Retrieved 18 June 2010.
'Drivers: Pierre Levegh' (http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/Pierre-Levegh-F.html). Racingsportscars.com.
http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/Pierre-Levegh-F.html. Retrieved 18 June 2010.
'Drivers (L): Pierre Levegh' (http://www.kolumbus.fi/leif.snellman/dl.htm). The Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing.
http://www.kolumbus.fi/leif.snellman/dl.htm. Retrieved 18 June 2010.
'Drivers (L): Pierre Levegh' (http://www.ultimateracinghistory.com/racelist2.php?uniqid=1899). UltimateRacingHistory.com. http://www.ultimateracinghistory.com/racelist2.php?uniqid=1899. Retrieved 18 June 2010.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Pierre Levegh', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 May 2010, 10:17 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pierre_Levegh&oldid=362590211 accessed 18 June 2010