21 February 2018

Fascinating F1 Fact: 86

Pierre Levegh will forever be remembered as the man who crashed at Le Mans in 1955, his Mercedes disintegrating into the crowd, killing at least 80 people. In truth, there was little he could have done to avoid the accident, triggered by Mike Hawthorn swerving towards his pit and braking heavily, leaving Lance Macklin with no choice but to brake in his Austin Healey. Levegh ran into the back of Macklin and flew over the top.

It is a harsh fate that Levegh is never remembered as an F1 driver. Today he is interred in the celebrated Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, although you won’t find him, unless you go looking for the name Velghe. Here is another case of two Grand Prix level racing drivers being buried in the same grave, as Levegh is to be found with his uncle Alfred Velghe, who was one of the top drivers in the early years of the sport. He used the name Levegh, an anagram of his name, and his nephew later adopted the same pseudonym, in his honour. Velghe died from tuberculosis the year before Pierre was born.

Pierre’s real name was Bouillin. His mother was Velghe’s sister. The youngster was a talented sportsman, a great tennis player and an ice skater of repute. He did not begin racing until the 1930s and his ambitions were, to a large extent, thwarted by the war. He lived in the village of Trie-Chateau, close to Gisors, in the Oise, to the north-west of Paris, where he ran a large brush-making factory called Maurey-Descamps. He did not become a top line driver until the early 1950s and being in his forties, rather bald and with an odd pseudonym, he soon acquired the nickname “L’Eveque”, or The Bishop in literal translation. He raced F1 cars for Gordini on six occasions, finishing sixth on his debut in Belgium in 1950. He finished three races, all in the top 10. But it was at Le Mans where he was first in the spotlight when he attempted to win the 24 Hours singlehandedly in 1952, racing a Talbot Lago. In the last hour, tired out, he missed a gear and the engine broke. He was good enough to win a place with the Mercedes factory team… and three years later found fame of sorts in a crash he could not avoid. Juan Manuel Fangio, his team-mate, always believed that Levegh’s last action was to signal to him to avoid Fangio also being involved in the crash…

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