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Sturbin: Remembering Mercedes’ Checkered Past at Le Mans

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 14 2009
The post-race ceremonies at Le Mans are not to be forgotten by those who have been there. People like Colin Braun.

The post-race ceremonies at Le Mans are not to be forgotten by those who have been there.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

The official awards ceremony saluting the winners of the 57th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans had finished maybe 20 minutes earlier, and Jochen Mass suddenly was a man alone with his thoughts.

Strange, because Mass and co-drivers Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens had just won the world’s most prestigious endurance race – run on June 10 and 11, 1989 – and basically put Mercedes-Benz back on the racing map.

From the other side of the old media center at Le Mans, this was too good of an interview opportunity to pass up.  Mass was lighting a  cigarette when I walked over and introduced myself…John Sturbin, from the United States, working the race for The Associated Press.

Do you have time for a couple of questions, sir?

One question rolled into several, and Mass – the definition of staid German – had turned anecdotal. He recalled the news conference earlier in the year during which the Sauber-Mercedes team that would challenge for the 1989 Sports Prototype World Championship was introduced.

At some point, Mass said one of the executives at Diamler-Benz – a person not directly involved with the Group C racing program , just your typical corporate stuffed white shirt – stood before a microphone to heap praise upon team-owner Peter Sauber and the ambitious project.

“And of course,” the executive said, “we are going to win Le Mans.”

Mass, who as a former works Porsche driver knew full-well how those bold words can backfire, winced. He recalled gazing in disbelief at fellow-Sauber teammate Kenny Acheson, and the only question was whose jaw was nearer the floor.

“Of course, we quickly came to attention,” Mass recalled. “And we said, ‘Yah, yah, sure!’ But I knew we needed experience.”

Mercedes, then in the first season of a five-year commitment to Group C, had launched its quest with a victory in the opener at Suzuka in Japan in April. And now, barely two months later, the No. 63 “Silver Arrows” was the toast of the sports car world. The Mass-led car paced a 1-2-5 finish at Le Mans for Mercedes, 34 years after the manufacturer last raced at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Mercedes had won Le Mans in 1952, but the course of its racing history forever was changed at 6:10 p.m. on June 11, 1955. Mike Hawthorn of Great Britain was in the lead, about 300 yards ahead of Mercedes driver Juan Manuel Fangio, the legendary five-time World Champion from Argentina. Joining the fray was an Austin Healy driven by Lance Macklin, a young British driver. His car was to the far right of the circuit near the pit entrance, and trailed the Mercedes of Frenchman Pierre Levegh.

Overtaking Hawthorn, who was preparing to go into his pit for the race’s first refueling stop, Macklin swerved to the left to complete his pass. Levegh’s car suddenly was upon Macklin’s, the force of their impact catapulting the Mercedes into the air off the Healey’s streamlined rear end. When Levegh struck an earthen wall, his car exploded. The engine cut an eight-foot swath through the crowd, and according to the “Encyclopedia of Auto Racing Greats,” 81 spectators were killed.

Levegh died instantly. And Mercedes-Benz management immediately withdrew from all motor sports competition.

Mercedes did not appear at Le Mans again until the opening of practice in 1988. But a tire mysteriously failed at high speed during the first qualifying session, leaving the team to ponder if it was something wrong with the rubber or its chassis. When the issue could not be resolved beyond a doubt, Mercedes swallowed hard and opted to withdraw. It simply could not afford another Le Mans disaster.

All that history hung over the team during its preparations for the 1989 season, Mass said. “We were made to feel the importance of the whole weight behind it,” said Mass, a one-time merchant seaman. “The pressure was there, but not unreasonable.”

Indeed, Mass said the victory by the No. 63 Sauber C9, powered by a 5-liter turbocharged Mercedes V-8, came off so smoothly that it almost seemed unfair. Mass, Reuter and Dickens covered 389 laps around the 8-mile circuit, finishing five laps ahead of the runnerup No. 61 Sauber-Mercedes  co-driven by Acheson, Mauro Baldi and Gianfranco Brancatelli.

Sharing the podium was the No. 9 Porsche 962C entered by Joest Racing, a wild pink-and-white machine driven by aces Hans Stuck and Bob Wollek. Enthusiastically described by Stuck as “80 percent a works car,” the 962 and its venerable3-liter turbocharged flat six nevertheless finished seven laps down.

“It was just superb ground work by Sauber-Mercedes,” Mass said. “They calculated everything – the engine, the suspension for the straights and through this turn and that turn. They had the whole race laid out on paper…and that’s the way it happened. It was outstanding.”

Interview over, I took my notes back to the working press box, where AP lead writer Salvatore Zanca – a nice New Jersey boy – was sending and updating the story like a true wire service professional. Unlike myself and my credentialed newspaper colleagues from Dallas-Fort Worth – Ken Sins and Steve Meyerhoff – Sal had spent the entire race in the press box, and looked like a well-worn Mazda. Assigned to the AP’s Paris bureau, Sal had befriended me while I was covering a boxing match for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram between hometown hero Donald Curry and Frenchman Rene Jacquot in February 1989 in Grenoble.

The former undisputed welterweight (147-pound) champion, Curry was making the first defense of his World Boxing Council super welterweight (154-pound) title when he was ambushed by Jacquot _ which I originally thought was French for “tomato can” – via a stunning, unanimous 12-round decision. Over breakfast the next morning, Sal asked what other sports I liked to cover, and I mentioned motorsports. I added that the 24 Hours of Le Mans was high on my to-do list, and Sal said he could make it happen.  In return for helping him cover the race – mainly run the paddock for quotes and/or a feature – he would set up credentials and a place to stay in Le Mans. It’s a deal. The Three Stooges from Texas would be ready to tour Europe.

The Le Mans portion of the adventure capped a trip during which I drove our little Renault rental from France and into Germany and Austria and back. In between, we rode the subway for several rounds of the French Open at Roland Garros. We tried to visit The Louvre Museum for some culture, only to find that it was closed…on account of painting. Honest.  We never did get around to locating the grave of Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, but did check out Napoleon’s tomb.

We spent a lively evening in a beer hall in Germany, and recovered sufficiently enough to tour the Porsche factory – birthplace of my 1987 Turbo – and the Porsche Museum in Zuffenhausen.  We watched the ingenious Rathaus-Glockenspiel attraction in the heart of Munich, and were silenced by a solemn walk through the Dachau concentration camp memorial near Linz, Austria.

In Le Mans, Sal set us up with a young French family who sent their three young children out to spend the weekend with relatives so they could rent the upper half of their home – located within walking distance of the circuit – to the three Americans. The couple spoke minimal English, and only Ken’s retention of his high school French allowed us to verbally communicate.

But the language barrier easily was overcome by gestures and some drawing and some very potent homemade peach wine served with dinner every night. I have that couple’s names in a safety deposit box, along with some leftover Francs…and, 20 years later, owe them a Christmas card.

Sal – who as best as I could tell lived either out of his backpack or on the trains running to-and-from Paris – proved an excellent tour organizer. When we all said goodbye after he filed the final update, Sal made us promise that the next time we helped him cover the race, we would stay at the track for the entire 24 hours. It’s a deal.

With that, the three of us walked down across the track and into the old garages – the ones made famous by Steve McQueen’s iconic movie “Le Mans” – to rummage for souvenirs.  Glad we did that, because those garages and the media center we worked out of since have been replaced by state-of-the-art facilities. Like the old wooden Gasoline Alley garages at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we got to experience the real thing.

Those memories come rolling back every June, as they did overnight while watching Speed’s outstanding coverage of the race’s 77th edition…with Peugeot Sport Total steadily distancing itself from Audi Sport North America. And can’t get enough of those in-car sound bites from the Corvette C.6Rs.

Twenty years after my first trip to Le Mans, I still can see the victorious Jochen Mass suddenly alone with his thoughts, sneaking a smoke, quietly satisfied that he had accelerated the re-emergence of one of motorsports’ most storied marques. As advertised, Mass had helped Mercedes-Benz win the 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Yah, yah, sure!

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 14 2009
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