Why Mercedes' Most Ambitious Race Car Kept Backflipping and Crashing

Twenty years on, the horrific Mercedes CLR crashes at Le Mans are fresh in our minds. Here's why they happened.

image
Frank PetersGetty Images

We've waxed poetic about the BMW V12 LMR's victory at Le Mans, but it wasn't the race winner that captured headlines in 1999. A set of spectacular crashes stole the show that year, when Mercedes' prototype CLRs kept launching into the air, backflipping wildly, and landing in a mangled mess. Three such crashes occurred throughout the Le Mans race weekend, forcing Mercedes to bow out of the race just three hours into the 24-hour slog. Twenty years on, the horror of those flipping Mercedes remains fresh in our minds.

We've covered those ill-fated Mercedes before, in the context of the other Prototype cars—like Porsche's 911 GT1 and, later, BMW's V12 LMR—that suffered a similar fate. But a new video from Autosport breaks down the Mercedes crash even further, dissecting the CLR's geometry and explaining the factors that made the prototype susceptible to flipping.

The video cites the CLR's long front and rear overhangs as major factors in the crash. The overhangs were meant to reduce drag to a wisp, but they contributed to the car's wing-like qualities whenever airflow inverted from downforce to lift, as it did during each incident. Wheelbase was a factor, too. To increase the area of those overhangs, the CLR had a shorter wheelbase than its contemporaries. Stability at high speeds suffered as a result, with the CLR's chassis prone to rocking under hard braking or acceleration. That rocking, in turn, upset the airflow over the car, and turned the CLR into the of Le Mans, 1999. For an even more detailed analysis, check out the full video below.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Motorsports