24h of Le Mans: the tragedy of 1955

Published on Thursday, May 9, 2019.
Updated on Monday, October 21, 2019.
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The Le Mans Classic opens its gates once every two year to new spectators and its track to racing cars from another time. Each of these cars, from 1923 to 2014, tells a different story of a year and of a race. There is one in particular, one story of one race, that will haunt the Le Mans circuit forever.

This was the place to be, on that particularly beautiful day in June more than half a century ago: in the stands of the 24h of Le Mans, to admire the cars and their star drivers – Castelloti for Ferrari, Hawthorn for Jaguar. Not to forget Juan Manuel Fangio driving the Mercedes # 19, first time back on the Sarthe track since their victory in 1952.

We are in 1955.

The Courrier Normand, the bus that carried fans from Caen to the circuit of Le Mans, arrived at early dawn jammed full of visitors. Others arrived from Paris, Lille, Brittany, by train, by car, on foot … They would soon be over 250,000 in total to hurry to find their places around the fastest track in the world.

If they crowded behind the pit lane, it was for a good reason: the refuelling, tire changing and driver switch would take at least three full minutes, plenty of time to lure, contemplate and imagine vicariously the exaltation of the drivers and pit crews.

The race started at 16h00, as usual. Three hours later would start the first pit stops. At this moment, barely 200 meters separated Hawthorn and Fangio, the two leaders. These two madmen were bombing around in front of the pack, having already lapped almost all of the competition. The Second World War was still a recent memory, having been over for only 10 short years. This fight between the English and the German teams hadn’t so much to do with sport than as a duel for honour. Both drivers fought tit-for-tat; during the first two hours, they beat 10 lap records.

18h28: the hour of chaos

Two competitors were about to be lapped, Lance Macklin for the forth time already, driving his # 26 Austin-Healey, and for the first time the French driver of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR # 20, Pierre Levegh, who was caught suddenly by surprise by the whirring little Austin-Healey in his path.

Hawthorn launched at 280 km / h, was over due for his pit stop having received the order-in two laps previously. This time past, he had only one idea in mind: to reach the pit lane. Passing Macklin on the left then cutting quickly across to the right, he cut off Macklin’s trajectory who, surprised, slamed his brakes and gave his steering wheel a quick cut to the left. As a result, he in turn slammed the door shut on Pierre Levegh, who gaining speed couldn’t avoid Macklin’s Austin-Healey. At such a speed, Levegh and his Mercedes 300 SLR literally took flight careening into the hay bails and exploding into a fireball of petrol and disintegrating metal, steel, wheels and flesh; the front suspension and engine were propelled into the heart of the crowd, burning a path of death and distraction.

The Tragedy

Levegh died instantly. As many as perhaps 70 spectators as well died instantly, mowed down by the Mercedes motor, front axel and suspensions as well as the air brake that had also separated from the exploded Mercedes, in what were then called bleachers – a series of wooden benches on platforms protected here and there by a few straw bails – vestiges of the time gone by where the cars coughed around the circuit at a measly 100 km / h. It was total carnage.

The explosion itself had a blast effect. The debris from the car was projected forward more than 80 metres. Everywhere mutilated and lifeless bodies were strewn on the ground. Children, parents, spectators of all ages, swimming in horror.

The tragedy took 82 lives plus more than a hundred and twenty wounded, according to the official record. Ironically, the very last body to be identified was that of Pierre Levegh.

Epilogue

What was not yet said or written about the drama of 1955? Throbbing questions still roam like ghosts. Was there one explosion or two, as some witnesses said? Why did the Mercedes team return to Stuttgart during the night as if sneaking away? Did Mercedes use a banned, highly volatile fuel additive to increase their speed? What was the true exact number of victims? Why did the French government – then in the mid-1950s stitching together new Franco-German ties – seem to hide the details from the public?

The Le Mans accident opened a new era in car racing. Many countries chose to ban it for long periods; some, like Switzerland, for even decades. Safety standards all over the world made a radical qualitative leap forward. The track at Le Mans along the pit lane was lowered by 6 metres. Mercedes-Benz retired from racing not to return to the Sarthe for 43 years.

The doubts about the incident that continue to hover all have the same scent: that of legends, among which will be forever put this infamous day in the spring of 1955. One question in particular will never find a satisfactory answer, not then, not now and not even in a hundred years: how could they let the race continue on all through the night and into the next day?

FYI, the Hawthorn-Bueb duo, in the Jaguar D-Type, were the winners, 20 hours later, of this the 23rd edition of Le Mans.

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