Sixty years ago Mercedes-Benz captured a 1-2 finish at the “24 Hours of Le Mans” and placed the 300 SL racing car (W 194 series) firmly in the automotive world's limelight. The then novel vehicle was specifically developed for the 1952 racing season and impressively signaled Mercedes-Benz’s return to international motor racing.
The 300 SL caused a considerable stir when it debuted on March 12, 1952 with a total of ten of these racing cars being built for the 1952 racing season. When the cars arrived at Le Mans officials expressed concern over the 300 Sl's small doors. The sports marshal of the Automobilclub de l’Ouest, Monsieur Acat, presented a little sketch suggesting that the entry hatch be extended downwards – and so, the gullwing was born as a goodwill gesture towards the organizer and in order to take the wind out of the sails of any potential protests right from the outset.
The cars of the different teams bore different colored bands around the radiator to help distinguish them in the race. The car with chassis number 0009 and starting number 20 (Theo Helfrich/HelmutNiedermayr) sported a red strip, car number 0007 with starting number 21 (Hermann Lang/Fritz Rieß) a blue one, while number 0008 with starting number 22 (Karl Kling/Hans Klenk team) was distinguished by a green band.
At the start of the 24 hour race Ferrari and Jaguar took the lead, André Simon and Alberto Ascari setting lap records in turn. Two hours into the race, the clutch of Ascari’s Ferrari 250 S gave up. Simon with the Ferrari 340 “America”, now led in front of the Robert Manzon/Jean Behra team with their 2.3-litre Gordini.
Towards evening the two Frenchmen moved up into the lead position. Meanwhile, an alternator malfunction made itself felt on board the Kling/Klenk team’s 300 SL, forcing Kling to make a 10-minute pit stop. An hour later another 17-minute delay in the pits was called for. Finally, at half-past midnight Hans Klenk took off his helmet, his expression showing resignation and utter disappointment.
At this point in the race the little lightweight 2.3-litre Gordini was still leading. After a pit stop Pierre Levegh, with his 4.5-litre Talbot took over the first place, followed at a distance of 65 kilometers by the 300 SLs of the Helfrich/Niedermayr and Lang/Riess teams.
By noon of the following day the number of cars still running had shrunk to 19 vehicles. Levegh was still at the forefront, but stubbornly refused to allow his co-pilot Marchand to relieve him. Behind him the two 300 SLs thundered on reliably, lap after lap. Then, just 70 minutes before the end of the race, a damaged connecting rod forced Levegh to stop between Arnage and Maison Blanche.
The two 300 SLs were now unreachably far ahead. In the early hours of the morning the new front runner Theo Helfrich lost his leading position to Hermann Lang due to a driving error. Mercedes-Benz won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess, to whom this success was largely due, it was the most important triumph of their careers. They were followed by the Helfrich/Niedermayr team who came in second in one of the other 300 SLs.
The double victory at Le Mans was preceded by a triple win in Bern. Further successes followed during that racing season, a victory at the Great Jubilee Prize at Nürburgring in August and another double win in the 3rd Carrera Panamericana in Mexico, the last great event of the extremely successful 1952 racing season.
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