23émes Grand Prix d`Endurance les 24 Heures du Mans 1955
Circuit Permanenthe de la Sarthe
Date: June 16th and 17th, 1955
Conditions: Warm, Rain on Sunday
Track Length: 13,492 metres
Distance: 4135.380 km
Fastest Lap: Mike Hawthorn, Jaguar, 4:06.6 = 196.963 km/h on lap 28
Average Speed: 172.308 km/h
The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans was the 23rd Grand Prix of Endurance, and took place on June 11 and 12, 1955. It was also the fourth round of the World Sportscar Championship. This race saw the tragic death of 84 spectators and the injuring of over 100 more when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR was involved in an accident and flew into the crowd, killing the driver as well. Shortly after the incident, the other two Mercedes vehicles in the race were withdrawn (in leading position).
This accident, the most catastrophic in motorsport's history, led to great changes in the measures taken to ensure the safety of drivers and spectators. Its fallout also led to many car manufacturers pulling out of motorsport (including Mercedes), and even the temporary outlawing of circuit racing in several countries. Switzerland banned simultaneous competition between cars (i.e. except for hillclimbs), a ban which remains in place to this day.
Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb, who were piloting the Jag, went on to a rather hollow victory - while it would take until 1988 for Mercedes to return to competitive racing, when they would join forces with the Swiss Sauber team in the Sports Prototype Championship, then lining up on the grid with its partner AMG in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM).
The 1955 accident led to widespread safety measures being brought into place not only at the circuit, but elsewhere in the motorsports world. However, even though the safety standards improved, so did the speeds of the cars. The move from open-cockpit roadsters to closed-cockpit coupes would help produce speeds over 320 km/h on the Mulsanne.
The Le Mans Accident
At the time of the 1955 Le Mans crash, observers noted that the track seemed to be congested with cars. Eyewitness accounts say Hawthorn was well over to the right and already slowing some 250 yards before the beginning of the pit area. It was obvious that he was making a scheduled pit stop and equally obvious that he was in a hurry. A green car later identified as Macklin's was there too, but many noted the presence of a silver car coming up at enormous speed. Most assumed it to be Fangio, but in fact it was Levegh. The Mercedes did not seem to be using all the space available on the left of the road, possibly because Levegh did not know that he had a slight bend to deal with in 200 yards.
When the Austin-Healey pulled out to pass the Jaguar the three cars were not so much abreast as in echelon - Jaguar, Austin-Healey and Mercedes-Benz. Despite the footage showing the accident in some detail, it does not show the very first part of the accident. Historians believe that it was the Levegh Mercedes that touched the Austin-Healey, the right front-wheel of the Merc coming into contact with the Austin- Healey's left rear. During the ensuing 1/5 second (at an approximate velocity of 200 feet per second) the Mercedes, instead of steering to follow the changing line of the road, glanced slightly to the left and headed for the safety bank.
The Levegh Mercedes should have embedded itself in the safety wall, but instead the left front wheel rode up it and the car leapt tragically into the crowd, while still on the track, the Austin-Healey was spinning wildly. Now amoung the crowd, the Mercedes engine and parts of the chassis were catapulted through the unsuspecting spectators. There followed a moment of almost complete silence and shock. Observers who had escaped the carnage had difficulty measuring the extent of tradgedy they had just witnessed. From the wreck a few red flames sprouted. The instant of stillness was broken as the first gendarmes leapt across the road to the rescue. The Mercedes exploded with a thump into white flame.
Those who had been standing on chairs were now prone. The small enclosure was a jumble of broken chairs and unmoving bodies. Here there were no wounded. All were dead, many decapitated. Those who were still living had recoiled from the dead in a movement of instinctive and superstitious dread. There followed scenes which were an inevitable part of human experience. The Le Mans race, which had been a source of much pleasure and glamour, and suddenly become the cause of tragedy beyond imagination.
How Did It Happen, and Who Was To Blame?
Mercedes-Benz issued a long statement very soon after the event. Jaguar followed it with another briefer one. Both firms intended to show that their drivers were not to blame. Macklin, as a private; owner, had no one to speak for him. When given the opportunity to speak, Macklin, much to his credit, declined as he felt whatever he said might pass the blame onto someone else. He pointed out that the inquiring body would duly issue its findings as it thought fit.
There was plenty of conjecture as to the why, how and who. The drivers themselves all had ability in spades. All the cars were of approximately the same engine size. A study of the road where the accident occurred showed that, at the precise spot where the Mercedes hit the bank, the road kinked to the right. For the fastest cars this was a definite bend, and every car driver knew that it was not possible to hug the outside edge of a fast corner. If a car was travelling slowly in order to stop at its pit it had the same effect, as it passed the kink in the road, as a car parked on the bend. So that although the measurable width of the road was constant the effective width would be drastically reduced.
Travelling for various reasons at various speeds three cars reached this point simultaneously. Hawthorn, slowing for his pit, occupied the inside station on the corner. Macklin steered out to pass him. Levegh, moving very fast, was already committed to a certain line as he aimed his car for the corner. In attempting to squeeze past Macklin, he touched wheels with him. While the Austin-Healey spun wildly, the Mercedes was deflected towards the bank and within a split second was airborne.
How it rode up the bank and travelled through the air in one piece is a mystery. Not much earth was displaced and observers claimed that only the left front wheel collided substantially with the bank. The car rose, spinning, and only disintegrated when it landed again for the first time twenty to thirty yards farther on. Hundreds of witnesses gave their accounts of these three seconds. But the one vital testimony was that of Pierre Levegh.
Priests Move Among The Dying
While priests moved among the dying and the medical services the crowd swung into action. Meanwhile, a column of smoke rose from the direction of White House. Jacob's M.G. had turned over and caught fire. The driver was seriously injured. Other drivers, unaware of the disaster, slowed down to pass through the smoke that billowed across the road at two points and then drove on. Fangio had been following several hundred yards behind Levegh. He had seen the Frenchman's signal that he was about to pass another car and slackened speed. When the crash occurred he was able to slip past the spinning Austin-Healey, only dimly aware of the somersaulting car to his left.
Hawthorn, slowing at his pit, had seen it all. With one car ploughing through the spectators and another skidding madly all over the road, it was inevitable that he would over-shoot the pit lane. Mercedes, incorrectly, seized on this as a signal that Hawthorn was in fact travelling too fast to stop and said so afterwards in a statement to the press. There was great talk in the popular French and Italian press about Hawthorn's unpremeditated braking. Hawthorn, shocked by what he had seen, completed another lap and handed over to his co-driver, Ivor Bueb.
The Race Goes On
Fangio completed his lap and came to his pit. Smoke was pouring across the road and the scenes beyond the palings were heartbreaking. It was in these conditions that Stirling Moss was presented with the number one Mercedes. He jumped in and continued the drive. The race was going on.
Charles Faroux was faced with a decision that was not easy. It took more courage to let the race go on than to stop it. By his steadiness and inflexibility he averted the general stampede which would have made impossible the work of rescue, the summoning of friends and relatives, the effective employment of doctors and communications.
There were well over a quarter of a million people round that race track. Secondly, the continuation of the race was an affirmation that what had happened was an accident due to a combination of circumstances which would probably never repeat themselves. But it placed a terrible responsibility upon the drivers. More than ever before the race had become a test of endurance for drivers, organisers and spectators. For the thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh laps its times were 6 minutes 31 seconds and 6 minutes 37.6 seconds. The leading Mercedes continued at slightly slower speed until lap 41, when the time of 6 minutes 21.7 seconds indicates where Fangio handed over to Moss.
Perhaps the most remarkable lap in the whole race was Moss's fifty-third, accomplished in 4 minutes 8 seconds. Gallantly though Bueb tried, he could only record 4 minutes 51.5 seconds on the same lap. By eight o'clock the British car was almost two laps behind the German. Castellotti had vanished from the scene; his Ferrari was in the dead car park with a split cylinder block. After four hours of racing the first ten cars were well spaced out:
Fangio / Moss (Mercedes), 55 laps.
Hawthorn / Bueb (Jaguar), 54 laps.
Maglioli / Hill (Ferrari), 54 laps.
Rolt / Hamilton (Jaguar), 54-- laps.
Beauman / Dewis (Jaguar), 53 laps.
Musso / Valenzano (Maserati), 53 laps.
Castellotti / Marzotto (Ferrari), 52 laps.
Parnell / Poore (Lagonda), 52 laps.
Claes / Swaters (Jaguar), 52 laps.
Kling / Simon (Mercedes), 52 laps.
Car number 37, the 1.5- litre Porsche, which was destined to finish in fourth position among cars with twice its engine size, was at this point eighteenth with 48 laps to its credit. By 9.30 all the competing cars had switched their lights on. With the fall of darkness a terrible gloom settled on the scene. An announcement gave the death roll as fifty odd. When the voice was switched off there was silence, instead of the music so typical of Le Mans. The blaring exhaust notes of the cars as they went by echoed from the pits and the half-empty stands. The inquisitve had come to gaze at the enclosure where so many people had died. Gradually the fatal spot filled up again with spectators. By ten o'clock a whole age of racing seemed to have passed.