It’s 20 years on from the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans. The endurance motorsport weekend took place between 12th and 13th June and it was the 67th running of the world famous motorsport event.
All these decades on, what stands out for three separate incidents involving the Mercedes-Benz CLR cars driven. On three different occasions, the cars quite literally took off into mid-air at going on for 200mph.
The manufacturer has since gone on to dominate Formula One spectacularly, but its disastrous weekend at Le Mans in 1999 brought about the end of its endurance racing plans.
Crash 1: Mark Webber
Le Mans can be a bit confusing if you’re new to this. There were three AMG-Mercedes team entries, totalling nine drivers.
A simple way to explain how it works is there are various categories within each race. It doesn’t work like how F1 does where everyone competes for the same win.
Additionally, each team has three drivers apiece to manage the entire 24-hour slog.
Mercedes did have big plans for Le Mans, clearly, the problems began on the Thursday night qualifying session.
Eventual F1 driver, Aussie Mark Webber, was blasting down one of the signature and terrifying Circuit de la Sarthe straights when the Mercedes CLR unexpectedly somersaulted at nearly 200mph.
TV cameras missed this first incident, but Webber was pretty startled by it.
Mercedes inspected the vehicle, rebuilt it, and felt confident that rear suspension changes would solve the issue. Case closed.
Crash 2: Mark Webber (again)
Cut to the Saturday morning warm-up before the race and Mark Webber, again, was catapulted into mid-air and landed upside down at Mulsanne corner.
This time Mercedes withdrew this part of its team, with Webber, Jean-Marc Gounon, and Marcel Tiemann having to sit out the race on the sidelines.
But despite the warning signs, the team was determined to race.
Crash 3: Peter Dumbreck
The CLR team of Christophe Bouchut, Nick Heidfeld (another future F1 driver), and Brit Peter Dumbreck were 75 laps (a couple of hours) into the 24-hour race when the final disaster struck.
There was no escaping that one for Mercedes-Benz. Live on television, viewers watched in stunned silence as the car blasted into the stratosphere, off the circuit, and into a heavily wooded area.
Amazingly, Dumbreck was absolutely fine. But the team immediately withdrew all of its CLRs. This signalled the end of its run in sportscars.
The 1999 race was memorable for a series of massive accidents, this during an era when motorsport safety was still highly questionable.
It was in the immediate aftermath of Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash at Imola in 1994, which affected all forms of motorsport (and the road car industry).
But everyone was unhurt on this occasion, a tribute to Sid Watkin’s work on safety standards.
The excellent Chain Bear F1 channel documents why the accidents happened.
With the footage of the third accident also came an enormous amount of worldwide footage. Pictures made most of the world’s papers – the sight of the CLR disappearing off into the trees is a weirdly iconic image from Le Mans.
It’s all history now, but at the time the three crashes dominated the weekend.
Le Mans, and motorsport in general remains highly dangerous. Although safety standards are now infiinitely better than decades ago, we still see colossal accidents.
Any motorsport fan would be lying if they said it didn’t add to the spectacle. The accidents are entertaining and inevitable.
But, as former FIA President Max Mosely once said, it’s on the condition drivers walk away from the car.
Thanks to the sterling efforts of the FIA, that’s now more common than ever before.