Le Mans 1955 – The longest 24 hours

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The Le Mans 1955 race took a twist of fate and is going to be remembered as a dark moment in motorsports. The annual racing event in the north-west of France turned into a disaster in an unthinkable dimension. As a result of that catastrophe the Swiss banned racing circuits and circuits in Germany, France and Italy got modified and rebuilt according to more strict safety regulations.

Le Mans 1955 – What previously happened

For the 23rd edition of the 24 hour race, between 250.000 to 300.000 spectators arrived in Le Mans to watch the famous event. Since its beginning in 1923 the circuit was virtually unchanged and was not adapted to the growing speeds by that time. In the 1920s top speeds were typically in the region of 100 km/h (60 mph) while in the 1950s cars already reached about 300 km/h (186 mph). To protect spectators, driver and team member, improvised wooden fences and bales of straw were the usual safety measures. Drivers even refused to wear seat belts as they preferred to be thrown out clear instead of being trapped in a burning car.

From originally 84 registered drivers, only 60 finally took part. Amongst them exceptional drivers such as John Fitch, Karl Kling, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss und André Simon. Hans Hermann had his knee fractured in Monaco and couldn’t race Le Mans. The participating teams were Jaguar Cars Ltd., Aston Martin Ltd., Porsche KG, MG Cars Ltd., Standard Triumph Motor Company Ltd., Cooper Car Company, Lotus Engineering, Scuderia Ferrari, Officine Alfieri Maserati and Daimler-Benz A.G. Drivers were competing against each other in eight different categories – best time around the track was 4:06,600 by Mike Hawthorne on a D-Type Jaguar. Weather conditions were excellent at the start of Le Mans 1955.

After a two year break, Mercedes-Benz returned to Le Mans after winning the 20th season of the race in 1952. Back then, Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess took the overall victory in their 300 SL (W198), creating a sort of depressed atmosphere and strange silence during the award ceremony. Having to watch a German team to win in France only seven years after WWII was not a very favorable thing to do. For that reason and to avoid bad media, Mercedes team boss Alfred Neubauer recruited French driver Pierre Levegh for the 1955 race. Levegh, an experienced driver and already fifty years of age, also participated in 1952 and drove for almost 23 hours nonstop without being replaced. The biggest rivalry was to be expected between the 300 SLR Mercedes and the D-Type Jaguars. Porsche raced the popular 550 Spyder, Scuderia Ferrari counted on the 121 LM and Aston-Martin set their hopes on the DB3S.

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Le Mans 1955 – The Crash

At around 6:26 pm, two hours in the race, Mike Hawthorn was about finishing his 35th lap – leading the field in his D-Type Jaguar. At that point Juan Manuel Fangio came second in his 300 SL, in between them the already lapped Pierre Levegh. Hawthorn prepared to overtake British racer Lance Macklin in his Austin-Healey 100, which he did. He then immediately went into pit lane. At that time, there was no structural separation between pit lane and the racetrack and no designated deceleration lane. That meant cars needed to come to a hold at the right edge of the track. The overtaking went well, then Hawthorn cut into Macklins path, braking hard for the pit stop. Hawthorns D-Type, fitted with modern disc-brakes, decelerated much harder than it was ever possible for the Austin-Healey, equipped with drum brakes. To avoid a collision, Macklin swerved to the left: Now the disaster took only seconds. Macklin was unaware of Levegh coming up from behind. Levegh had team member Fangio on his back. In what can now be seen as his last action, Levegh raised his hand to warn Fangio. Probably saving Fangios life.

For aerodynamic reasons, the rear of Macklin’s Austin-Healey had a dipping shape, now acting as a ramp for Levegh’s Mercedes, closing in at about 120 mph (200 km/h). With no braking at all, Levegh took off, launching his car into a berm, forcing it to tumble and roll end over end for another 80 meters (260 ft). Levegh veered out of the car, hitting head first fatally into the ground. As a result of the car tumbling and rolling over, large fragments of debris flew into the spectators in the packed terraces and the grandstand. Heavy parts such as the bonnet, front axle and the engine block got thrown into the crowd, killing 83 spectators. The tank caught fire and the burning fuel ignited the magnesium alloy of the bodywork. First attempts to extinguish the fire with water had the exact opposite reaction, intensifying the fire. The fire went on for several hours. Tumbling against a wall, Macklins Austin-Healy caught three people and got thrown back onto the track with Macklin still at the wheel. Miraculously, Macklin got out completely uninjured.

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Le Mans 1955 – The Aftermath

Despite the fatal disaster, the race continued as planned. In the announcement released in the aftermath of the race, officials declared that in order to keep access roads clear for ambulance and rescue teams, the race went on. Even the man causing the accident, Hawthorn, got back to racing after his pit stop. For the rest of his life, he never gave an answer to the question why he overtook Macklin immediately before coming into the pits. As night fell, the death toll and number of injured was announced. By that time, Mercedes decided to refrain from racing, despite running first and third at that point. Mercedes stopped both remaining teams and went back to Germany before dawn. As a consequence of Mercedes´ withdrawal, Jaguar retook the lead and finally won the 23rd series of Le Mans by a five lap lead. In order to respect the many victims in that race, there was no award winning ceremony the next day. Instead there was a church service in Le Mans´ Cathedral. The unfortunate result of Le Mans 1955, 83 dead spectators, killed by fire and debris flying into the crowd, with a further 120 to 178 injured. Even Levegh was dead before an ambulance reached him. The official committee investigating the disaster, came to the conclusion that the events were an accident and the Jaguar team couldn´t be blamed in any way. Although commonly believed, Mercedes´ decision to withdraw from racing entirely in 1955 was no consequence of the events in Le Mans. The decision had already been made back in spring 1955.

To this day and age, there is a plaque to remember the fateful events in 1955 on June 11th. It is attached to the newly erected safety fence.

Photos Daimler AG, Jaguar Heritage

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