If ever they write a grand opera about auto racing, it is sure to focus on Pierre Levegh's ride at Le Mans in 1952. That was the year that Mercedes-Benz returned to the French circuit after an absence of nearly 20 years, and a very intimidating return it was.
Months earlier in the Mille Miglia the Germans' metallic silver 300SL coupes had shown themselves to be Grand Prix cars in disguise. Their drivers and mechanics, all in black leather coats, clicked their heels and nodded stiffly from the waist whenever that beer barrel in a black fedora, their team manager, muttered an order.
It was not a state of affairs to gladden the heart of the French racing fan; about the only thing that bucked him at all in that sorry time was the sight of a 46-year-old Paris garage owner named Pierre Levegh efficiently tooling around the 8.36-mile circuit in practice runs in his big blue 4.5-liter Talbot-Lago roadster. A streamlined version of the Talbot in which he had placed fourth the previous year, Levegh's was the only car that the French were sure could beat the Germans. This car and no other. Not Briggs Cunningham's blue and white American monster. Not the Britons' somber green Jaguars or their Aston Martins. Not even the assortment of scarlet Ferraris from Italy. Only Levegh's.
The French fans didn't know that the Talbot-Lago's engine had only a standard production crankshaft because the one that Albert Lago had designed especially for this race hadn't been ready in time. But Pierre Levegh knew it. Could the production crankshaft stand up to 24 hours of speed? Certainly in the practices, when the roadway was closed to normal traffic, his Talbot behaved, but Pierre knew only one sure way to find out.
On the afternoon of Saturday, June 14, the drivers stepped into the small white circles painted on the roadway opposite their cars. Pierre Levegh nervously jogged in place as he groped in his jacket pocket to make sure that he had not forgotten to bring along his lucky silver amulet. Then he cupped his hands together, embarrassed to let the crowds see that, just as before every race, his fingers were crossed.
The flag dropped, and Pierre sprinted toward his Talbot. Nobody was surprised when he wasted a precious second, three times patting his car's hood. He always did this before the start of a race. He patted the car for luck. Then he was behind the wheel. The engine crackled into life. Pierre steered to the right, then straightened out. He sped under the Dunlop Bridge, an arch formed by a giant replica of a car tire.
Now he was maneuvering through the Esses. Now his tires squealed around the Tertre Rouge Corner. His face was still clean. Wisps of air blew in around his goggles to tickle his eyelashes. He felt terrific.
Pierre sluiced into the Mulsanne Straight, 4� miles of the Le Mans-Tours highway, and past the old Luftwaffe strip next to it. Now he shot past the horserace track where the Wright Brothers made their first European flight, past the Cafe Hippodrome's brightly colored parasols. As he drove past them along the straight, Pierre could see the customers put down their iced aperitifs to cheer him along.
Around the Mulsanne Corner, tires pleading, Pierre braked, shifted down, accelerated.
Another two straight miles and then into the Arnage Corner. Careful, Pierre.... Quick left. Quick right. Toe hard down again.