Toyota won at Le Mans this year, and thankfully, nobody went airborne. But that hasn’t always been the case at Le Mans, especially in the late 1990s. Especially if you’re in a Mercedes CLR. But exactly how that sort of thing happens can be befuddling. After all, don’t race cars look like that precisely so they stay on the ground?
Moreover, why didn’t other race cars – except for maybe the Porsche 911 GT1 – also go flying on the regular?
I mean, just look at the way Peter Dumbreck’s Mercedes went tumbling end-over-end:
Those questions are answered in this neat little video from Chain Bear on Autosport (you may remember this neat explainer), which looks at a few critical decisions Mercedes made in the design process. The German engineers initially made the right call not to design the thing as a carbon copy of a Boeing 747, but made other mistakes along the way, such as shortening the wheelbase, and minimising the pitch angle:
Sure, shortening the wheelbase and minimising the pitch angle have certain advantages when you’re designing a car just to go as fast as possible with as little drag as possible (something emphasised by, ironically, the politics of Mercedes winning just about every race but Le Mans in 1998), but they have a big disadvantage, too.
(It’s flight. The disadvantage is the thing flies through the air like a god damn demented bird.)
Luckily, both the drivers in each Mercedes that flipped, Mark Webber and Peter Drumbeck, were miraculously uninjured. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t impacted at all. In fact, here’s Drumbeck on his Twitter account just last week noting the 20th anniversary of his infamous flight:
— Peter Dumbreck (@AhLovejoy) June 15, 2019
You might think that all of these small little aerodynamic problems would’ve been solved now, which is the future, where we have computers. But no. Just last year, another car went airborne at the Six Hours of Spa.
Making cars is hard.