Why Mercedes-Benz Retired From Racing
Mercedes-Benz has a long history in Motorsports. For Mercedes-Benz Motorsports, the 1955 season was both the best of times and the worst of times. Mercedes-Benz hired Pierre Levegh as a factory driver for that season. 1955 was also the year Mercedes-Benz introduced the 300 SLR.
Many people confuse the 300 SLR with the 300 SL gull-wing. The 300 SL gull-wing was introduced in 1954, had gull-wing doors, and was the fastest production car available. Aside from the doors, it was loaded with technological advancements. For example, it was the first gasoline powered car with direct injection. By "direct injection", I mean the same thing that some people tout as "new technology" today. The 300 SLR was a different beast. The two cars shared the first two letters of their names; SL, which stood for Sport Leicht (Sport Light). However, the "R" in SLR stood for Rennen, or "Race" in English. The 300 SLR was not a production car. It was built to compete in the 1955 World Sportscar Championship, which it eventually won that year.
Like the 300 SL gull-wing, the SLR had a number of technological advancements. The 300 SLR had a magnesium alloy body. The lightweight body material helped lowered the car's weight to less than 2000 pounds. The car had a front, mid-engine design. In that design, the engine is placed in front of the driver, but behind the front axles. The engine was a straight-eight that was based on the Mercedes-Benz Formula One engine. In Formula One, the engine produced 290 HP. In the 300 SLR, it produced 310 HP. One downside to the vehicle was it's braking system. It had inboard drum brakes. To supplement the drum brakes, it was also equipped with "air brakes". The air brakes used on the 300 SLR worked similarly to that of a parachute. The 300 SLR had a large hood that opened behind the driver. It was used to slow the car down at the end of the fast straights
In the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, Pierre Levegh began as the driver for the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR factory car. American John Fitch was assigned as Levegh's co-driver. Shortly after the two-hour mark, at 6:26 pm local time, Levegh was following a Jaguar D-type. The D-type was the race leader at the time, and had passed a slower Austin-Healey 100 along the straight that led to the pits. The driver of the Jaguar D-type jumped on the brakes to slow the car so he could enter the pits. The Jaguar D-type was equipped with disc brakes and slowed down much quicker than the Austin-Healey 100 could, so the Austin-Healey driver swerved to the center of the track, as he attempted to get by the Jaguar.
The Austin-Healey driver hadn't noticed the two much faster moving 300 SLRs that were rapidly approaching. The driver of the first of the two SLRs didn't have time to react and he ran into the rear of the Austin-Healey. The Austin-Healey had an aerodynamic tail section that featured a long, ramp-like rear bodywork. When the 300 SLR hit the Austin-Healey from behind, the SLR became airborne. It flew towards the left side of the track, where it hit a mound of dirt that was there to protect spectators. The 300 SLR struck the mound, ricocheted, and began to somersault. While cart wheeling it shot damaged parts such as the hood, front axle, and engine block into the crowd. The driver, Pierre Levegh was thrown free of the wreckage, but suffered a fatal head injury when he landed.
What was left of the main chassis continued to somersault. The fuel tank ruptured, and the magnesium bodywork burst into flames. The white hot burning magnesium shot cinders onto both the track and into the crowd. Rescue workers attempted to put out the burning wreckage with water. Water should never be used on a magnesium fire, and this increased the intensity of the blaze. The car literally burned for hours. Surprisingly, the race was not halted.
Later in the night, the death toll was confirmed, and the story was relayed back to Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Stuttgart. All told, the driver and 84 spectators were killed. On top of that, 100 people were injured. Mercedes-Benz gave an official order for the two remaining 300 SLRs to immediately withdraw from the race. At the time that they withdrew, Mercedes-Benz was leading the race by a lap over Jaguar.
Jaguar pressed on and eventually won the race. There was no celebration on the podium, and funeral services were held the next day.
An official inquiry was held, and it was ruled that neither the racing teams nor their drivers were responsible for the crash. The most horrific disaster in the history of motorsports was found to be a "racing accident". The spectator deaths were blamed on inadequate safety standards in the track design. This led to a ban on motorsports in France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and several other nations until the tracks could be upgraded to higher safety standards.
Although delayed, the rest of the 1955 World Sportscar Championship season was completed. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SLRs won both of the remaining events, and Mercedes-Benz won the constructors championship for the 1955 season
After winning the last major race of the 1955 season, Mercedes-Benz announced that they would no longer participate in factory sponsored motorsports. In 1955, their final year of factory participation, Mercedes-Benz won the