1955 Le Mans disaster
The 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race, when a crash caused large fragments of racing car debris to fly into the crowd. Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh perished at the scene with 120 more injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.
Before the accident
Pierre Levegh, aged 49, had been hired by Mercedes-Benz as a factory driver that year. Part of his appeal to Mercedes was his determination shown in the 1952 race when he had driven for 23 straight hours, even though the team had a driver who could have replaced him. He failed to win only because of a missed gear change, due to exhaustion, with just 45 minutes remaining, resulting in a failed connecting rod in his Talbot-Lago.
Mercedes-Benz had debuted its new 300 SLR sportscar in the 1955 World Sportscar Championship season, with some notable success, including a win at the Mille Miglia. The 300 SLR featured a body made of an ultralightweight magnesium alloy called Elektron with a specific gravity of 1.8 (in comparison, aluminium has a S.G. of 2.7 and steel 7.8). This new material reduced the weight of the car and thus improved its performance. However, the car lacked the more efficient state-of-the-art disc brakes featured on the rival Jaguar D-Type, employing instead the traditional drum brake system. The high power of the car forced Mercedes' engineers to incorporate a large air brake behind the driver that could be raised to increase drag and slow the car with sufficient rapidity for most conditions.
Safety measures commonly in place today were relatively unknown in 1955. Aside from two layout changes to make the circuit shorter, the Le Mans circuit itself had remained largely unaltered since the inception of the race in 1923, when top speeds of cars were typically in the region of 100 km/h (60 mph). By 1955 top speeds were in excess of 300 kilometres per hour (190 mph). The cars had no seatbelts, the drivers reasoning that it was preferable to be thrown clear in a collision rather than be trapped in a burning or damaged car.
The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans began on 11 June 1955, with Pierre Levegh behind the wheel of the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR run by Daimler-Benz. American John Fitch was Levegh's assigned partner in the car, and he would take over driving duties later. Competition between Mercedes, Jaguar, Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Maserati was close, with all the marques fighting for the top positions early on. The race was extremely fast, with lap records being repeatedly broken.
At the end of Lap 35, Levegh was following Mike Hawthorn's leading Jaguar D-type, just as they were entering the pit straight. Hawthorn had just passed Lance Macklin's slower Austin-Healey 100 when he belatedly noticed a pit signal to stop for fuel. Hawthorn slowed suddenly in an effort to stop rather than make another lap. Hawthorn's Jaguar, with the new disc brakes, could decelerate much faster than other cars using drum brakes, such as Levegh's Mercedes. The sudden, unexpected braking by Hawthorn caused Macklin in the Healey to brake hard, throwing up a small cloud of dust in front of Levegh, who trailed close behind. Macklin then swerved across the centre of the track, attempting to re-pass the slowing Jaguar, but also apparently out of control. Macklin had not noticed Levegh nor Juan Manuel Fangio, in another 300 SLR, approaching rapidly from behind. Fangio was in second place at the time, but directly behind, and attempting to lap Levegh.
Levegh, ahead of Fangio on the track, did not have time to react. Levegh's car made contact with the left rear of Macklin's car as he closed rapidly (at about 240 km/h (150 mph)) upon the slowed car.
When Levegh's 300 SLR hit Macklin's Austin-Healey from behind, his car became airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, where it landed atop the earthen embankment separating spectators from the track itself. The car struck the mound at such speed and angle that it was launched into a somersault, which caused some parts of the car, already damaged and loosened by the collision, to be flung from the vehicle at very great speeds. This included the bonnet and the front axle, both of which separated from the frame and flew through the crowd.
The bonnet decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine. With the front of the spaceframe chassis—and thus crucial engine mounts—destroyed, the car's heavy engine block also broke free and hurtled into the crowd. Spectators who had climbed onto trestle tables to get a better view of the track found themselves in the direct path of the lethal debris. Levegh was thrown free of the tumbling car, and his skull was fatally crushed when he landed.
As the somersaulting remains of the 300 SLR decelerated, the rear-mounted fuel tank ruptured. The ensuing fuel fire raised the temperature of the remaining Elektron bodywork past its ignition temperature, which was lower than other metal alloys due to its high magnesium content. The alloy burst into white-hot flames, sending searing embers onto the track and into the crowd. Rescue workers, totally unfamiliar with magnesium fires, poured water on the inferno, greatly intensifying the fire. As a result, the car burned for several hours. Official accounts put the death total at 84 (83 spectators plus Levegh), either by flying debris or from the fire, with a further 120 injured. Other observers estimated the toll to be much higher.
Fangio, driving behind Levegh, narrowly escaped the heavily damaged Austin-Healey, which was now skidding to the right of the track, across his path. Macklin then hit the pit wall and bounced back to the left, crossing the track again. He struck the barrier near the location of the now burning 300 SLR, causing the death of a spectator, although Macklin survived the incident without serious injury.
Conclusion of the race
The race was continued, officially in order to prevent departing spectators from crowding the roads and slowing down ambulances. An emergency meeting of the Daimler-Benz board of directors was convened by midnight at the request of John Fitch. Mindful of sensitivities involving German cars in a French race just 10 years after the end of World War II, the board decided to pull out from the race as a sign of respect to the victims. Eight hours after the accident, while leading the race (and two laps ahead of the Jaguar team), the Mercedes team withdrew the cars of Juan Manuel Fangio/Stirling Moss and Karl Kling/André Simon. Mercedes invited Jaguar to also retire, but they declined.
After the race
Funeral services were held the next day at the cathedral in the town of Le Mans.
The French press carried photographs of Hawthorn and Bueb celebrating their win with the customary champagne and treated them with scorn.
The official inquiry into the accident ruled that Jaguar was not responsible for the crash, and that it was merely a racing incident. The death of the spectators was blamed on inadequate safety standards for track design, leading to a ban on motorsports in France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and other nations, until the tracks could be brought to a higher safety standard. In the United States, the American Automobile Association (AAA) dissolved their Contest Board that had been the primary sanctioning body for autosport in the US (including the Indianapolis 500) since 1904. Switzerland's ban did not allow for the running of timed motorsports such as hillclimbs. This forced Swiss racing promoters to organize circuit events in foreign countries including France, Italy and Germany. In 2003 the Swiss parliament started a lengthy discussion about whether this ban should be lifted. The discussion focused on traffic policy and environmental questions rather than on safety. On 10 June 2009, the Ständerat (one chamber of the parliament) defeated the proposal to lift the ban for the second time and thus definitively, which meant that the ban would stay.
The rest of the 1955 World Sportscar Championship season was completed, with two more races at the British RAC Tourist Trophy and the Italian Targa Florio, although they were not run until September and October, several months after the accident. Mercedes-Benz won both of these events, and were able to secure the constructors championship for the season.
Opinions differed widely, amongst the other drivers, as to who was directly to blame for the accident, and such differences remain even today. Levegh's co-driver, John Fitch, became a major safety advocate and began active development of safer road cars and racing circuits. At the Le Mans circuit itself, the Grandstand and pit areas were demolished and rebuilt soon after.
After also winning the Targa Florio, the last major race of the 1955 season, Mercedes-Benz announced that they would no longer participate in factory sponsored motor-sport in order to concentrate on development of production cars. The self-imposed ban on circuit racing lasted until the 1980s. The Jaguar works racing team also closed down a few months later and did not return to Le Mans for over thirty years. Two drivers, Fangio and Jaguar's Norman Dewis, never raced at Le Mans again.
Macklin had regarded Hawthorn as a friend but, on reading Hawthorn's autobiography Challenge Me The Race in 1958, he was embittered to find that Hawthorn disclaimed all responsibility for the accident without identifying who had actually caused it. With Levegh dead, Macklin presumed that Hawthorn's implication was that he (Macklin) had been responsible, and he began a libel action. The action was unresolved when Hawthorn was killed in a crash on the Guildford bypass in 1959.
Macklin's Austin-Healey 100 was sold to several private buyers before appearing on the auction block. In 1969, it was purchased for £155. In December 2011, the car was sold at auction for £843,000. The car retained the original engine SPL 261-BN and was valued at £800,000 prior to the auction. Its condition was reported to be 'barn-find'.
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