Without a doubt, it was my first “Whoa, what the hell just happened?” moment I had while observing any kind of motorsports ever. I had the day off from work and it was summer vacation, and I hadn’t been feeling all too well, so I had stayed home and decided to culture myself a little by watching the 24 Hours of LeMans that day in June, 1999. The announcers couldn’t stop talking about Mark Webber and an “incident” that had occurred during qualifying on Thursday night involving his Mercedes CLR LMGTP racer. After rebuilding the car with a new chassis over the course of that Friday, and even with the inclusion of dive planes attached to the front of the car, the #4 car flipped again onto it’s roof and Webber’s car was withdrawn from the race.
This had left two CLRs in the race: #5 and #6. And it’s #5, with driver Peter Dumbreck behind the wheel, that quite literally catapulted into infamy during the actual LeMans race: on lap 75, Dumbreck had been chasing down Thierry Boutsen’s Toyota on the Mulsanne Straight at well over 200 miles per hour when, at a kink in the road on the way to Indianapolis, the #5 CLR violently went airborne, backflipping three times while flying up to fifty feet into the air, before coming to rest in the trees off of the side of the track, in an area that had just been cleared out. The CLR continued to bounce around after it dug into the earth out of sight of the television cameras before coming to rest right-side-up, with a tree limb jammed through the monocoque between the seats and the fuel tank. Dumbreck was in shock but otherwise uninjured, and on the next lap driver Franck Lagorce was ordered to bring car #6 to the garage. AMG-Mercedes shut the garage doors and immediately retired from the remainder of the race. Meanwhile, I just sat on the couch, in shock at what I had just seen. I had witnessed a Mercedes LeMans racer turn into a wing without a plane, and a damn good one at that.
It’s simple to say that too much air had gotten underneath the swoopy Mercedes, but that isn’t quite accurate. There is plenty more to the story, which brings in such elements as the wheelbase of the car, the overhangs, the suspension settings, the speed, and the physical attributes of that particular section of the La Sarthe layout that didn’t help matters any. Here’s a solid rundown on why the CLRs flipped out at LeMans in 1999, plus one of the clearest videos of the actual Dumbreck incident I can find: