Teams1951 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
True athletes can step onto the field, the court or the track and make a descent showing at whatever he or she is doing, whether it is their specific sport of expertise or not. Many don't understand or realize there are true athletes in motor racing as well. Pierre Levegh was a true athlete, but not just in motor racing. He was a world-class ice hockey player, as well as, tennis player. But it was behind the wheel of race cars that Pierre's true athleticism came to be known and respected.
As usual, Levegh's 1951 motor racing season was a busy endeavor. The usual season for Pierre consisted of him driving, both, for himself and for other teams, and, in both grand prix and sports car races. 1951 was no exception. Coming into the 1951 season, Pierre was already 45 years old, but showed little signs of slowing.
The first race in which Pierre's Talbot-Lago T26C (See Talbot-Lago T26C article) hit the track was in March at the Grand Prix of Pau. However, it wasn't piloted by Pierre, but Georges Grignard. Alberto Ascari navigated the 1.76 mile street course in 1:40.8 to set the pole time. Ferrari teammates Luigi Villoresi and Dorino Serafini completed the front row. While in reserve if needed, Levegh watched Grignard qualify his T26C dead last on the grid with a time of 1:53.6. Georges' time was over 12 seconds slower than Ascari's.
Out of the fifteen drivers that would start the race, only six would remain running at the end of the 110 lap race. Seven of those who failed to finish were out of the race well before reaching the halfway point of the race. Among those who failed to make it to the end were Ascari and Serafini. Unfortunately, Grignard couldn't capitalize on the failures of others to achieve a positive result. On the 43rd lap, Georges' race came to an end when his Talbot-Lago developed gearbox problems.
Luigi Villoresi went on to win the race by a margin of over one minute and forty-five seconds over Louis Rosier. Giuseppe Farina finished in 3rd, but was some three laps down. Before dropping out of the race, Alberto managed to set the fastest lap of the race with a time that was only .9 of a second slower than his qualifying time.
Pierre's racing season kicked off toward the end of May in 1951 at the Grand Prix of Paris. The race took place in Boulogne, France on a 1.55 mile street course. Despite the relatively short nature of the track, the race itself was not that short. The race that year was scheduled to cover 125 laps or 194 miles.
Pierre came to the Grand Prix of Paris and faced a number of his fellow Frenchmen, and a large contingent of Simca-Gordini T15s, one of which was driven by Juan Manuel Fangio. Fangio wasn't the only big name driver that was present for the race, especially when it came to the French fans. Not only did Levegh enter the race, but fellow French stars Philippe Etancelin, Maurice Trintignant and Louis Rosier.
Qualifying got underway to set the grid for the 125 lap race. The grid arrangement for the race was a 3-2-3 setup. Emanuel de Graffenried occupied the pole-sitter position on the inside of the front row. Next to Emanuel was the reigning world champion Giuseppe Farina. Next to him was 'Phi-Phi' Etancelin. Levegh would start the race from the inside of the 5th row. In total, 14 cars and drivers qualified to take part in the race.
As the race got started, in very short order, it seemed there was a curse on Simca-Gordini. While Yves Giraud-Cabantous, driving a Talbot-Lago T26C, was the first out of the race on lap 16, from that point on, it seemed the role of the race was to pick off Simca-Gordini T15s. In succession, each of the five Simca-Gordini cars ran into troubles and had to retire from the race. Pierre took advantage of the attrition happening all-around him. While Levegh may not have been all that young, he was experienced enough to hardly put a foot wrong and to not abuse his equipment. This combination usually pays off during races, and it would pay off in Boulogne. While not fighting for the win, Pierre was in good shape to score a strong finish. While Fangio set the fastest lap of the race with a time faster than that set in qualifying, but it would not be Fangio that would take the victory. Giuseppe Farina would end up winning the race. Pierre, though 6 laps down to race winner Farina, would finish the race in 6th place. French teams or drivers would finish 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th. Farina's winning margin over Gonzalez was 40 seconds.
June 17th was Pierre's next race. It was, not counting Indianapolis, the 2nd round of the sophomore Formula One season, but, it was Levegh's first foray into Formula One in 1951. He entered his own Talbot-Lago T26C for the race on the long 8.77 mile road course which included such famous sections of public roads as Stavelot, the Masta Kink and La Carriere.
In qualifying, identification of the real contenders for the championship was very easily discerned. Both Alfa Romeo and Ferrari brought three cars to the race. The closest any driver and car combination, other than Alfa Romeo or Ferrari, came to qualifying in the top six spots was Louis Rosier driving a Talbot-Lago under his own team name. Rosier was able to qualify 7th. To find Levegh in qualifying, one had to look to the other end of the grid. While Juan Manuel Fangio was sitting on the pole for the race, Pierre was sitting in the caboose. A total of 13 cars qualified for race and Pierre had the other 12 in front of him on the grid.
The one thing the race offered as help to Levegh was its length. At almost 9 miles in length, he would have plenty of opportunities each lap to get past other drivers on the track. And, starting from the rear, he could only move forward; unless he suffered a failure. In addition to the length of the track, the race distance was 36 laps, or, a total of 316 miles. The day of the race was dry and sunny, very nice for Pierre to get into a groove and systematically make his way up toward the front. The other aspect the racetrack offered as a helping hand to Pierre was attrition. The length, the speed and the hair-raising, high-speed corners all offered hope to the Frenchman.
A record crowd was on hand for the race. In the beginning, everybody witnessed Fangio's domination. However, it all changed during the first pit stop. The special wheel design Fangio employed cost him not merely seconds, but minutes, in the pits. This handed the race lead over to Fangio's teammate, Farina. The same kind of domination ensued.
Fangio's problems in the pits dropped him behind Levegh in the running order. Pierre had been able to make his way up through the field with the help of failures of other drivers. Etancelin was the first out of the race when he suffered transmission problems. The problems prohibited him from completing even one lap. Gearbox troubles also hit the Ferrari of Piero Taruffi on lap 8. Alfa Romeo pilot Consalvo Sanesi fell out of the race due to radiator problems. And, Louis Chiron was also dropped from the race when his Talbot-Lago T26C developed engine problems.
The pace of Fangio and, especially, Farina was remarkable when one thinks about the fact the circuit was almost 9 miles in length, and yet, Levegh would end the race 4 laps down to Farina by the end. Although 4 laps down, Pierre showed his maturity as a race driver as he never put a foot wrong the entire race and was able to stay out of trouble in order to finish the race 8th. Though obviously hindered by his wheel problems, Levegh was even able to beat Fangio. Despite being out-performed on so many levels by the top-two teams, Pierre had only missed out on scoring points by three places, and this, despite having started dead-last. Being out-performed couldn't have been too surprising when given the fact Fangio set the fastest lap of the race with a time that was three seconds faster than his own time in which he took the pole.
Levegh was by no means the fastest man out on the track, but, he was an intelligent racer who knew how to make a car perform, and last. This talent would come in useful five days after Spa as Pierre would enter the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Levegh entered his own Talbot-Lago Monoplace Decalee (MD). He and Rene Marchand would share the driving duties for the 24 hour race. Sixty cars qualified for the race as it got underway at 4pm on Saturday June 22nd. As is usual, the race was contested in the rain, but on Sunday, the weather cleared up nicely. The sunshine was out for the last day of the race. Over the course of the enduro some 30 cars had dropped out of the running. But trouble did not visit Levegh and Marchand's Talbot-Lago.
By 4pm on Sunday, Pierre and Rene had powered their Talbot-Lago MD to a 4th place finish overall. In class, they were able to finish 3rd. In the course of the 24 hours, Levegh's team had been able to cover 2,150 miles, doing so with an average speed around 90mph. The British pairing of Walker and Whitehead dominated the event, winning by a margin of over 9 laps over 2nd place finishers Meyrat and Mairesse. Macklin and Thompson, driving an Aston Martin DB2 rounded off the podium finishing 3rd overall and 1st in their class.
After the rather successful 24 Hours of Le Mans, it wasn't until a month later, July 22nd, that Levegh was behind the wheel of a race car again. The 24 Hours of Le Mans was the only sports car race in which Levegh would compete in 1951. And so, Pierre was back driving his T26C grand prix car at the Grand Prix of the Netherlands, which was held at Zandvoort.
Twelve drivers qualified for the 90 lap event. Giuseppe Farina covered the 2.6 miles of road course in 1:52.9 to take pole. The best time Pierre could post on the 2.6 mile road course was 2:00 and it was only good enough to start the race from the 9th position on the grid. Levegh's 9th place on the grid was on the inside of the 4th row in the 3-2-3 arranged grid. Beside Farina on the front row there was Louis Chiron and Ecurie Belgique driver Andre Pilette.
As had been the case at previous grand prix races that year, Pierre waited patiently for troubles to strike his colleagues. Once the troubles hit and cars would drop out, he would move up. Undoubtedly, this would have been the same tactic Pierre would have used at Zandvoort. The tactic he would have used. Unfortunately for Pierre, the other drivers would be able to use him to their advantage. Thirty-seven laps into the race, Pierre's race came to an end. The valves of his 4.5 liter inline 6-cylinder began to have troubles. This forced Pierre to have to retire for the first time of the 1951 season.
Farina's race also came to a premature end on lap 46 when his Maserati 4CLT/48 developed problems with an oil pipe. This allowed Louis Rosier to take advantage and go on to win by a full lap advantage over fellow Frenchman Philippe Etancelin. Stirling Moss finished 3rd.
As with the previous month, Levegh was racing one week after a race. One week after Zandvoort, Levegh travelled a little further east to Nurburg to take part in the 5th round of the Formula One world championship.
Perhaps understanding that his career was drawing toward an end and that he would probably not have another chance before he was finished with racing, Levegh travelled to Germany to compete on the now famous 14 mile long Nordschleife.
Twenty-two drivers qualified for the 20 lap race on the Nordschleife. Alberto Ascari covered the 14 mile circuit with a lap of 9:55.8 to take the pole. Ascari's Ferrari teammate, Jose Froilan Gonzalez would start alongside in 2nd. Juan Manuel Fangio would start 3rd; the first of the Alfa Romeo drivers. Pierre's qualifying was less than stellar. His time was only good enough to start the Frenchman 19th on the grid. Levegh would definitely have a tall order on his hands if he had the slimest hope of finishing in the points.
Given his performance disadvantage with his 4.5 liter 6-cylinder engine, the best tactic Pierre could have employed was to be patient and let the race bring the result to him. The track would oblige. Of course, Levegh had to push, but, he had to focus primarily on staying out of trouble. The attrition would help move him forward. Pierre just had to be careful not to beat the car, and then, leave the rest of the race in the hands of providence.
Only 11 of the 21 starters would finish the race. The major problem areas throughout the race were problems with car engines. Troubles struck many of those who qualified in front of Levegh, even at the front of the field itself. Fourth place qualifier Farina was out with overheating problems. Seventh place starter Paul Pietsch was also out of the race with an accident in his Alfa Romeo 159. The third of four Alfa Romeos, driven by Felice Bonetto, was also dropped from the race when he suffered magneto problems. In the short, while Alfa Romeo was self-destructing, Pierre kept the wheels of his Talbot on the road. He took it nice and easy and was able to escape the Nordschleife with a 9th place finish. Levegh had come all the way to 9th after starting the race in 19th. Though he had missed out on the points by four spots, the result had to be just like finishing in the points after how the day had started. Even though it was a good result for Pierre, he, like the majority of the field, was dominated by Ferrari driver Alberto Ascari. By the end of the 283 miles, Ascari had been able to lap Levegh twice. He was going just that much faster each lap of the 14 mile circuit.
After Nurburgring, Pierre's season was over half-over. He had some good results, but no points in the championship, or, victories. On August 5th, Pierre prepared to take part in his next race of 1951.
In August, Albi, France hosted the non-championship grand prix race, the Grand Prix of Albi at the Circuit of Planques. Pierre arrived with his T26C, seven days after having survived the Nordschleife, to take part in the 34 lap event of the 5.56 mile road course. Interestingly, the circuit of Planques is not a short layout, but it is only one-third the length of the Nordschleife. And where it took Ascari almost 10 minutes to complete a lap in order to take pole in Germany, it took Maurice Trintignant exactly 3:08 to take pole for the Grand Prix of Albi. Levegh enjoyed 9th so well that that is where he qualified for the 34 lap race with a time 18 seconds slower than Trintignant. Pierre's time started him from the inside of the 4th row in the 3-2-3 grid arrangement. In all, 14 drivers would qualify for the race. Duncan Hamilton would not start the race due to problems with his fuel. So this left 13 drivers to fight it out.
Maurice led from the start of the race and dominated from that point on. He would go on to set the fastest lap of the race with a lap of 3:11, which was still faster than Levegh's qualifying time. Pierre had the time to sit back and watch Maurice dominate as his race was over by the 5th lap of the race. Perhaps Levegh's car had barely escaped from Nurburg and the Nordschleife as his T26C suffered from piston problems on the 5th lap, and thus, ended Pierre's day. Louis Rosier finished the race in 2nd, 1:40 seconds behind Trintignant. Louis Chiron was further back and one lap down to Maurice. Chiron had a lap advantage over 4th place Andre Simon and his Simca-Gordini, and so, was able to cruise to a podium finish in the 3rd.
On August 15th, Levegh headed back east toward Pescara, Italy to take part in a race on a course that was actually longer than the Nordschleife.
Pierre was one of fifteen drivers to qualify for the 20th Circuito di Pescara. At over 15 miles in length, the street and road course for the Pescara Grand Prix was the longest track on which the grand prix cars competed. The start and finish straight ran through the streets of Pescara. Then, after a couple of miles, the route bent in-land and out through the countryside. Each lap had the feel of being more like a journey across the countryside of Italy than merely being a grand prix race.
As with Germany, Ascari led the way on the long circuit during qualifying. He would cover the almost 16 miles in 10:43.6 to take the pole for the race. Luigi Villoresi was almost 6 seconds slower and would start 2nd. Another almost 40 seconds separated Ascari's time from the 3rd fastest time set by Louis Chiron. Levegh's time was almost one minute and 40 seconds slower. The time was good enough, however, for Pierre to start the race 7th, or in the middle of the 3rd row in the popular 3-2-3 grid arrangement.
Things were looking good for many of the competitors before the race when pole-sitter Ascari wasn't able to even finish one lap due to oil pressure problems with his Ferrari 375. As the race got on, events transpired to offer further hope to competitors, including Levegh. After Ascari's problems right before the race started, Alberto took over Luigi Villoresi's Ferrari. Villoresi had qualified 2nd. But then, on the 4th lap of the race, the top-two threats were out as Luigi's Ferrari, in which Ascari was driving at the time, developed gearbox problems and was forced to retire from the race. This meant the top two qualifiers were out of the race. This would have put Levegh on a path close to a 5th place finish or higher. But problems hit the Frenchman as well. Seventy-eight miles into the race, or 6 laps, Levegh's race came to an end due to problems. This was the third race of the season in which Levegh was forced out due to some kind of problem. Pierre's rate was now sitting at 50 percent. He had been able to finish 50 percent of the races in which he had started. What is interesting is that Pierre had been able to finish the Formula One races in which he had entered up to that point. All of the failures had come at non-championship events. Another non-championship race was next on Pierre's calendar for 1951. Hopefully things would turn around for him. The results wouldn't really turn around; they would just swap.
For all intents and purposes, the Grand Prix of Bari, which took place on the 2nd of September, was a full dress rehearsal for the last two Formula One races. Bari, Italy, in September, would bear similarity to Monza toward the middle of September and Pedralbes, Spain toward the end of October. Though not in full-force, both Alfa Romeo and Ferrari were present for the non-championship race. In all, 19 drivers would start the race. There would have been 20 drivers prepared to start the race but Stirling Moss had suffered a crash in a Ferrari 125 and was unable to qualify for the event.
Fangio had set the fastest time during qualifying, covering the 3.45 mile road course in 2:20.2. Ascari was exactly 1 second slower and would start 2nd. Gonzalez was only .4 slower than Ascari but would start 3rd. Pierre's best time was some 15+ seconds slower and put him 13th on the grid, or on the outside of the 5th row. Pierre's position placed him at the back of the middle of the pack.
The attrition rate for the 65 lap event was high, similar to Monza and Pedralbes. In all, ten cars would fail to make it to the finish. Before 20 laps had been completed, three of the top drivers fell out of contention. Giuseppe Farina, Luigi Villoresi and Alberto Ascari had all suffered problems which dropped them out of the running. As long as Pierre could keep his T26C running, these failures would only help him.
Fangio cracked off a lap only .4 of a second slower than his qualifying time and had long set sail into the distance. Levegh wasn't without a fight on his hands however. He had the Belgian Johnny Claes breathing down his neck throughout the race. Peter Whitehead had a two lap advantage over Pierre, so while needing to keep his eyes on the road in front of him to stay out of trouble, his eyes could firmly concentrate on the track behind him to watch out for Claes. In the end, Pierre was able to hold off the Belgian to finish the race 7th. This was well and truly one of the only battles on the track. Fangio had set sail so far he ended up having an advantage of a minute and thirteen seconds over the 2nd place finisher Gonzalez. Only Gonzalez remained on the lead lap with Fangio. Juan had destroyed the field to such a degree that the 3rd place car, Piero Taruffi, finished the race three laps down. Pierre had finished the race seven laps down.
Levegh had been able to finish a non-championship race. He just needed to keep his streak alive of finishing championship races. This was easier said than done, especially when the championship race took place at Monza, Italy.
On September 16th, Pierre prepared for his last race of the season, the Grand Prix of Italy. Held at Monza, the configuration that year was 3.9 miles in length. While not that long of a course, Monza was still incredibly hard on man and machines. Monza, even at that time of year, was still usually rather hot. This meant track temperatures were high. The long straights and rather quick corners put amazing amounts of strain on the engines, transmissions and gearboxes. Of course, the strain placed on the drivers and the cars was enhanced by the race distance. At 80 laps, those who finished the race would cover over 313 miles, and would earn every mile. In fact, attrition was usually the more threatening competitor during the early days of Formula One.
Over eight hours up the road from Bari is Monza. This would be Pierre's last trip in which he would take in 1951 to go compete in a race. After Monza, Levegh would end up heading home, and for understandable reasons.
As usual, the field size qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix was rather good size. Twenty-two qualified for the race in all. Some interesting off-track incidents caused the number who started the race to be a couple less.
Juan Manuel Fangio set the pace during qualifying. Fangio set the pole time by completing the 3.9 miles in 1:53.2. Farina started beside him in 2nd having set a time only .7 seconds off of Fangio's. Third place on the grid went to the first of the Scuderia Ferrari drivers Alberto Ascari. Levegh struggled with his Talbot-Lago and was only able to post a time of 2:16.5, which was the 20th fastest qualifying time. Pierre's time was some 23+ seconds off the pace set by Fangio.
Being fast in qualifying would only go so far. Qualifying didn't guarantee victory, or, finishing races, especially when the race took place at Monza. Of course qualifying didn't guarantee even being able to start a race, as Ken Richardson and Reg Parnell found out.
Parnell had troubles before the start of the race and withdrew his BRM and never started the race. A much more cruel hand of prevention swept toward Ken Richardson. After having qualified for the race 10th, it was found out that he held the wrong license. As a result, he was prevented from taking part in the race. What's more, it put such a sour taste in Richardson's mouth that he never sought the correct license and never competed in Formula One again. Everyone who qualified behind Parnell or Richardson benefited from their misfortunes, including Levegh. Everyone who qualified 8th or further back would move up with the two BRM drivers not taking part in the 80 lap race.
Just like that, two cars were out of the race without having even turned a wheel. As the green flag flew to start the race, three more cars would be out of the race before starting even the 2nd lap. Transmission problems struck Chico Landi, while engine related issues struck both Emanuel de Graffenried and Peter Whitehead. One more would be out of the race before 5 laps were completed. Another three cars would drop out of the race before 10 laps were in the books. Unfortunately, Levegh was one of those who couldn't make it even an eighth of the way through the race. As with many of the others who suffered at failure Monza, Pierre's race came to an end due to engine related problems. Pierre's race lasted all of 35 miles. He was only about 278 miles short. Out of 13 that failed to finish the race, 10 of those suffered from engine related problems or failures.
Alberto Ascari roared to victory for Ferrari, closing up the championship fight. And while the championship would go one more round before it would be decided, the sophomore Formula One season was decided for Pierre. His season was over. He had competed in three rounds of the world championship having scored no points, or, led any of the laps of either of the races in which he entered. He had some solid finishes including the highlight for 1951, his 4th place finish at Le Mans.
While not as famous as Fangio, Ascari or Moss, Levegh's talent behind the wheel of either grand prix or sports cars was world-class. Of course, he is more remembered infamously for the terrible accident at Le Mans in 1955. But overshadowed by the terrible accident was what the Frenchman was able to do while racing. Within the motor racing world, Pierre Levegh was an athlete in every sense of the word. He showed tremendous versatility and was able to sit down in either a grand prix or sports car and go fast straight away. His talent, ability and sportsmanship was recognized and respected by all. For some, Levegh's ability and sportsmanship was even credited as having saved their lives. To be remembered for championships is one thing; it is another to be credited with having saved someone's life.