Without the element of danger, would motor racing be as appealing? I don’t think so. Sir Stirling Moss has always believed that the danger and risk involved in racing is a fundamental part of the sport’s appeal and he may be right. However, on June 11th 1955 that danger lead to death and destruction in sickening abundance as motor sport witnessed its darkest day, and changed forever…
When Pierre Levegh awoke on the Saturday morning in Le Mans, Northern France, he would have been eagerly anticipating the daunting task of tackling the famous Le Mans 24 hour endurance race at the wheel of a mighty Mercedes 300 SLR – blissfully unaware that by sundown he, along with 83 spectators, would perish in a scene of pure horror, while 120 others would be seriously injured as the world of motor racing crashed to the earth like so many broken bodies and car parts.
The start of the race was like any other at Le Mans – a mad dash across the track followed by frantic dives into the cockpit and a blast of tyre smoke and engine noise. It wasn’t until Levegh’s 35th lap that events would occur that would rock the world to its core.
Levegh was trailing Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar D-type as they entered the front straight, with the pits on the right and a packed spectator enclosure and grandstand on the left. Hawthorn had just lapped Lance Macklin’s slower Austin Healey 100 when he belatedly noticed a pit signal telling him to stop for fuel. Using the Jag’s revolutionary disc-brakes, Hawthorn slowed dramatically and swerved right to enter his pit area, leaving Macklin, somewhat out of control, to turn sharp left in avoidance.
Levegh, himself only slightly ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio, had no time to react. Levegh made heavy contact with the left rear of Macklin’s car as he closed at about 150 mph. When Levegh hit the Austin-Healey from behind, his car became airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, where it landed atop the embankment separating spectators from the track. Fangio, remarkably, would escape through ensuing carnage unaware of what was unfolding.
Levegh’s Mercedes became the epicentre of the perfect storm – it had struck the earth mound at such a speed and angle that it launched into a severe and frightening somersault. The car shredded body parts as it soared through the air – with the front of the spaceframe chassis destroyed, the car’s heavy engine block broke free and hurtled at unabated speed into the crowd, while the bonnet cut through tightly packed onlookers with terrifying ease, decapitating many.
As blood and engine oil formed a cocktail of horror at the feet of the fleeing survivors, Pierre Levegh’s body lay on the ground, motionless. The 49 year-old Parisian had been thrown clear of the violent Mercedes wreck and the moment his skull met the earth, Levegh met his maker.
What was left of the Mercedes exploded catastrophically, showering yet more parts into the panicking crowd. The carcass of the SLR burned brightly, and curiously, brighter still when marshals poured water on the inferno; the Germans had constructed the car using a new material known as Elektron and its high magnesium content meant that water was no good. As marshals tried in vain to out the fire, white-hot flames licked at passing cars and searing embers jettisoned into the crowd once more. The car would be left to burn for hours.
In order to prevent departing spectators from hindering ambulances and emergency services, the race continued, while across the border in Germany an emergency meeting of directors was called at the Daimler-Benz headquarters. Eight hours after the horrific carnage in Le Mans, the call came from Germany that the leading cars of Fangio/Moss and Karl Kling/Andre Simon would withdraw from the competition. The Daimler-Benz directors were mindful of sensitivities involving German cars in France at a time only 10 years after the end of World War II and as a mark of respect for the victims in Le Mans felt that withdrawal was their only option. The decision denied Stirling Moss victory and the Briton felt that the call seemed an admission of guilt, but the bill payers had spoken.
Mercedes asked Jaguar to withdraw also, but the British team, led by manager Lofty England, declined. Hawthorn, who had been badly shaken by what had happened, went on to win the race with co-driver Ivor Bueb. It was Lofty England who had persuaded Hawthorn to get back in the car after witnessing the tragedy – Mike had claimed that he would never drive again but his u-turn on the decision and the victory that came as a result led to heavy criticism. Many blamed Hawthorn for the crash, saying his entry to the pits by cutting across the bow of Macklin had led to the incident. Others, perhaps sensitive to what effect such accusations could have on a young driver, claimed it to be an unfortunate racing incident, and that became the official decision on the matter.
The Le Mans disaster of ’55 had instant and remarkable affects around the world; France, Spain, Germany and other nations put a halt on all motor racing until safety had improved within the sport. To this day however, many forms of motor racing are still banned in Switzerland and at the end of 1955 Mercedes closed down their racing department and wouldn’t compete again for many years, while Jaguar too ceased to compete in the 24 hour race for over thirty years.
Any motor sport fan shares a passion with the victims of the Le Mans disaster and we should count ourselves fortunate that spectator safety has improved dramatically; we should be grateful – while cars race, the thrill of danger remains, but death, for the most part, does not.