Morning Qualifying – Disaster at Le Mans edition

The start of the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans. Fangio's Mercedes was stalled in the pit lane, as The Maestro's pant leg was caught on the gear shift. Copyright Daimler Benz archive.

The 23rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans arrived with great fanfare. For the 1st time, the race would be televised on French television, with a feed to the rest of Continental Europe.   Mercedes-Benz, only a decade removed from the end of the war, had returned with an international team, managed by the legendary Alfred Neubauer and starring Juan Manuel Fangio, and their spectacular new car, the W196 300 SLR.   Against the German juggernaut stood the Jaguar factory team, managed by Lofty England with their rising English star, Mike Hawthorn, and their new car, the D-Type.  Scuderia Ferrari, led by Enzo Ferrari and his star driver, Eugenio Castellotti, countered with it’s most powerful car yet, the 121 LM Scaglietti.  Each of these cars were capable of achieving speeds in excess of 180 mph on the Mulsanne Straight.
Early in the race, Castellotti's Ferrari leads Hawthorn's Jaguar and Fangio's Mercedes-Benz

Based on the early season performance of the Mercedes-Benz factory team, the racing punditry and most of the competition declared the 300SLR driven by the reigning World Champion, Fangio, and his highly talented protege, Stirling Moss, to be the favorite.  In light of this, and the fact that only Hawthorn had the driving skill to match Fangio and Moss, Lofty England ordered his mercurial star to go flat out from the start of the race, in the hope that he could bait Fangio into pursuing Hawthorn, thereby stressing the Mercedes until it broke.

Hawthorn's D-Type leads Fangio's 300 SLR through the esses.

Castellotti’s Ferrari quickly shot into the lead with Hawthorn’s Jaguar in hot pursuit; Fangio was delayed in the pit area, as his pant leg was caught on the gear shift, leaving him unable to start the car.  By the end of the second lap, Fangio had sliced through the field to 3rd place behind Castellotti and Hawthorn.  At this point, a pitched battle was joined between Hawthorn and Fangio, exactly according to Jaguar team strategy.  Over the next 2 hours, the lap record fell again and again as Hawthorn and Fangio traded the lead a dozen times in a spell binding duel that left the 300,000 spectators watching in awe.
Fangio's Mercedes leads Hawthorn's Jaguar and Castellotti's Ferrari

On the 35th lap at 6:26 PM, in a space of 200 yards and just 4 seconds, it all came undone.  As the leaders approached the pit area, Hawthorn first overtook Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz and then, in rapid succession, passed the much slower Austin Healey 100S piloted by Lance Macklin.  As he passed the second car, Hawthorn noticed his team’s pit board calling him in for refueling, and he suddenly steered hard to the right toward the pit lane.  Macklin, braking hard to avoid colliding with Hawthorn, locked his brakes and lost control of his car; first bouncing left to the inside of the turn, then suddenly to right, directly into the path of Levegh’s car which was then traveling in excess of 150 mph.  Levegh’s car went up the back of Macklin’s Austin Healey like a ramp, launching his car into the air, where it skipped once off the top of the earthworks separating fans from the track, then smashing into a concrete base of a light post at the track’s edge, killing Levegh instantly.  At this point, Levegh’s car disintegrated and exploded (the 300SLR’s sheet metal was made of a highly flammable, ultra-lightweight magnesium alloy called Elektron), transforming it into an anti-personnel weapon as the flaming debris sprayed into the crowded grand stand.  The car’s air brake panel, engine and rear suspension separately tore into the spectators at chest level at over 90 miles per hour, decapitating dozens of spectators each.  While no official figures have ever been released (the official French police investigation records remain sealed), it is estimated that 80 to 100 spectators perished with as many as 140 more injured.
Faced with a disaster that escalated in scope with each passing moment, the race organizers, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, had to decide whether to cancel the race.  With the mounting dead and injured, stopping the race and releasing more than a quarter of a million spectators onto the local roads would have eliminated any chance of medical assistance from nearby hospitals.  In addition, cancellation would have forced the race organizers to refund ticket fees to fans, return all trackside advertising revenue, and invoke costly contract penalties with all of the teams participating in the race.  Such action would have surely bankrupted the A.C.O.  So, the race went on, with the drivers being told as little as possible about the scope of the calamity.
Alfred Neubauer, well aware of the breadth of the tragedy, contacted Mercedes-Benz’s board of directors in Stuttgart for further instructions as to whether the team should continue racing.  At 2 AM, with Stirling Moss leading the race, Neubauer received his reply from the board, and withdrew the remaining Mercedes factory entrants from the race.  Neubauer contacted Lofty England at that point to see if Jaguar would also withdraw, as a gesture of solidarity and respect for the fans who had perished.  England flatly refused.   With the Mercedes-Benz factory out of the picture, Hawthorn, with co-driver Ivor Bueb, consolidated their hold on the race lead, as the remaining challenge from Ferrari withered, one by one, as their cars broke down during the night.  Ultimately, Jaguar, with Hawthorn and Bueb at the helm, would claim victory, traveling just over 2,569 miles at an average speed of 107 mph.
Hawthorn prepares to depart the pits, late in the race on Sunday morning.

The ramifications of the Le Mans disaster would be far reaching.  At season’s end, the Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar works teams were disbanded, and both manufacturers would stay out of the sport in an official capacity for much of the next four decades.  Parliaments in France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland would immediately enact bans on auto racing; The Swiss racing ban still remains in effect today.  Mexico’s president, Adolfo Cortines, cancelled the Carrera Panamericana, which had it’s own deadly reputation, stating that the race’s purpose of publicizing the Pan American highway was ‘complete’.  An official inquiry was held investigating the accident, with both Hawthorn and Macklin cleared of any wrong doing;  Ultimately, blame was assigned to the Le Mans circuit itself, which had remained in the same configuration for more than 3 decades while the cars that raced there grew ever more powerful.  After the race, a multi-million franc renovation of the La Sarthe circuit was undertaken which moved the grandstands away from track side, widened the track in the area leading up to and through the home straight; a wall was added between the pits and the track itself, and the track’s medical facilities were greatly upgraded.   For the first time in the history of motorsport, safety became a consideration.  The education process that followed would be long, painful and, for some time, frequently tragic.  Auto racing survives today as a viable commercial enterprise, in part, because of the disaster that struck on June 11, 1955.
With the 1955 race being, in period, the most hyped race of the day, and the Le Mans disaster casting a shadow long into the future, there is much in the way of documentaries and interviews about the race available on the net.
First, we have this period documentary, produced by Standard-Triumph and narrated by Raymond Baxter, on the 1955 race.
Next, there is British Pathe’s newsreel coverage of the race, once again narrated by Raymond Baxter (part1part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5).  In addition, British Pathe shot the race using color film in Cinemascope; this silent footage is also available on the British Pathe Archive site.
Also, we found this short interview with Stanley Karnow, who covered the 1955 race for Time magazine.
Lastly, we have two modern documentaries on the disaster.  The first is an excellent half-hour film, with English narration, from History Channel Europe, “1955:  La Tragedia Di Le Mans“.  And, finally, this brand new, one hour documentary produced by BBC4, entitled “The Deadliest Crash: the 1955 Le Mans Disaster“, which features spectator eyewitness accounts and never before seen film footage and photographs of the tragedy and it’s immediate aftermath.

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  1. muthalovin Avatar

    Wow. I was going to joke, saying "that is why I don't wear pants when I race," but goddamn, that race really was a disaster. That is so amazing that so many spectators died.

  2. Lotte Avatar

    "We were burning magnesium in history class today."
    This race was held a decade after the war…would I be right saying many of those drivers were WWII pilots with hardened wits? It's pretty gruesome; must've drilled "racing is dangerous" into the skulls of everyone involved.

  3. parkwood60 Avatar

    Brock Yates fictionalized history of the 1954-56 racing era give a pretty good account of how dangerous it was back then with half the starting drivers at Indy in 54 dead by the end of the decade, or something like that. He also covers the Le Mans crash and others.

  4. Raze1138 Avatar
    Just goes to show how deadly motorsports can be.

  5. JayP Avatar

    In the context of MB's racing history, it is a wonder another Mercedes turned a wheel on-track after the '99 incident.

  6. Van Sarockin Avatar
    Van Sarockin

    Hemingway said that the only sports are bull fighting, mountain climbing and auto racing – because the participants have a high expectation of dying through their participation. Racing has always been dangerous. It still is, though vastly safer now. It requires a supreme disregard for personal safety, and few people are able or willing to take that risk. The valor shown is always greater than the ribbon or tin cup offered.

    1. spiritof67 Avatar

      Racing is dangerous. People get killed. Anybody thinking otherwise is a sap. Fewer get killed today, but this is still the only sport where major players may not live to retire – and more than a few have “unretired” and gotten killed.

  7. BabyBlueBenz Avatar

    Thank you Mr. Scroggs for these informative glimpses into our collective automotive history. I just watched the BBC documentary and was very impressed by it and the events told. Sixty years later, and the French are still withholding the results of their investigation?…there must be some pretty damning facts in that report.

  8. Deartháir Avatar

    Scroggs, have I told you lately that I love you?

  9. tenbeers Avatar

    Great read, Scroggzilla.

  10. lilwillie Avatar

    I haze learned history today.
    Very well written. I didn't know much about that particular race except the massive death toll. Thanks for the story leading up to it. You explained it so well I could visualize it in my head.

  11. Jennings R. Scroggs, Jr. Avatar
    Jennings R. Scroggs, Jr.

    A slightly different slant on the race, from Sports Car Digest.

  12. spiritof67 Avatar

    The secondary problem that seldom gets discussed is that the construction of the 300SLR being Elektron and magnesium was far beyond the capability of the French firefighters (or any others) in 1955. No race track in the world was equipped to fight a fire started by these substances. In an era when high octane gasoline fires were rampant and mortally extant, most race track crews couldn’t really handle them. So the LeMans 1955 fire was a complete perfect storm.