The Worst Disaster in Racing History

June 11, 1955…Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France…

Context

Shown above is the modern track, not the 1955 track.

Le Mans is a famous endurance race that takes place over 24 straight hours. It began in 1923 and is the world’s oldest active endurance racing event. This years event will begin Saturday, June 11th and end Sunday, June 12th.

Most races are fixed distance and the car that arrives first wins. In endurance racing the time is set and the car that drives the longest distance in that time is the winner. The Triple Crown of Motorsports is comprised of the La Mans, the Indie 500, and the Monaco Grand Prix. Unlike the pure speed priority of most races, endurance racing calls on teams to consider both speed and a strategy that avoids mechanical breakdown.

The Background of the 55′ Disaster

Since the Le Mans began in 1923 the track had been shortened a bit and widened a bit, and they’d resurfaced it after WWII. The grandstands and pits had been rebuilt and they’d added a 4 foot wide earthen bank between the track and the stands. That was it. In 1923 the top speed of race cars was 60 MPH. In 1955 it was 170 MPH.

Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz had all won before and all brought new cars specially designed for this race. The teams also brought the best drivers of the time, including Pierre Levegh a Frenchman who’d tried to do the Le Mans solo in 52′ but failed in hour 23. Also in the field were Eugenio Castellotti for Ferrari, Mike Hawthorn for Jaguar, and Juan Manuel Fangio for for Mercedes-Benz.

The race began at 4 pm local time with the three favorites building a quick lead while the rest of the teams played more conservatively to preserve their cars. By 5pm Castellotti had dropped back a bit to let team Jag and Merc battle each other for lead–setting new lap records each time around. By lap 35 it was time for the lead cars to take their first pit stop.

The First 3 Things to Go Wrong

If the first problem is that the racers are highly competitive and willing to take risks. This is also what makes racing exciting and is inherent to the nature of the sport. What can be done is making the sport as safe as possible without making it lose its excitement. The only reason to mention it as the first thing to go wrong is that these drivers were particularly keyed up and actively battling for lead.

This matters because one might expect things like driver error late in a 24 hour race when fatigue impairs judgement, but this accident happened early when focus was high–aside from needed to win.

The second issue, as mentioned is that track wasn’t modernized to handle the current speed of racing. The third issue, which is somewhat inseparable from a race like this is advanced technology on cars. Usually tech advantages cause problems like part failure causing a team to lose the race. In this case advanced disc brakes on the Jaguar worked a bit too well.

As Hawthorn rounded the last big corner before the pit he lapped two competitors in rapid succession, Levegh in his Merc and Lance Macklin in his Austin Healey. Macklin moved over to let Hawthorn by putting him directly behind where Hawthorn needed to go to make the pit row.

Problem #4

As Hawthorn jammed in front of Macklin to exit he applied his disk breaks. There wasn’t a designated deceleration lane prior to the pit, in fact their was a bit of a right-hand kink. Hawthorn had to brake hard, Macklin dodged left while braking hard.

Meanwhile Fangio was in process of lapping Levegh. Macklins dodge left connected with Levegh’s front right panel causing both cars to break loose of their tires grip on the road. Levegh, being a veteran of the sport was able to throw his arm up in warning to Fangio, before his car ran up on the back of Macklins car, launching it into the air. Fangio closed his eyes and sailed through the carnage unscathed.

Problem #5

None of the drivers at the time wore seat belts, believing they’d rather be thrown clear of an accident than be burned alive inside should the unthinkable happen. Levegh was thrown clear of the car as it flipped end over end, 260 feet toward and over the crowd. Levegh’s skull was crushed on impact. The car crashed into the stairs for the grandstand and blew apart sending debris out like shrapnel into the stands.

The heavier parts like the engine, radiator, and front suspension continued forward another 330 feet crushing all in the path. The hood spun forward decapitating tightly packed spectators before they could flinch.

Problem #7

What remained of the Levegh’s car landed on the embankment upside down and the gas tank burst into flames. The heat from the fire ignited the composite alloy of the car’s body–which had a high magnesium content. The resulting explosion showered the audience and the track with flaming magnesium which can’t be put out by water. Unfortunately early responders didn’t know that, and the car burned as a fireball for many more hours before it could be put out.

Macklins car, rebounded off the left side wall of the track and veered back across the track and through the pit lane wall, almost scraping down the side of every car and crew that was already in the pit. It did hit a police man, a photographer and two race officials seriously injuring all.

The Fallout

Hawthorn overshot his pit so he stopped his Jag and got out, his crew demanded he get back in for another lap, trying to get him away from the chaos. When he pulled in on the next lap he was devastated and taking responsibility. Although track layout was ultimately blamed for the disaster.

John Michael Hawthorn

American driver John Fitch was suited up and ready to take Levegh’s place when they pitted in, he watched the accident with Levegh’s wife. After half an hour he realized he should call his family to tell them he wasn’t one of 84 dead or 120 injured.

They Kept Racing

Surprisingly they continued the race. Director Charles Faroux didn’t stop the race. He later justified his decision saying that the crowds leaving all at once would only clog up roads needed for emergency vehicles. He also didn’t want to get sued by every major car company involved for breach of contract. Sadly, there was reason to believe that might happen based on similar tragedies.

Team Mercedes-Benz fought to pull out of the race, but it took until midnight to get team owners in Germany to agree to it. At 1:45 AM they quietly pulled their cars into the pit, and packed up. The were running 1st and 3rd.

With the Merc’s out of the race and the Ferrari’s all destroyed of broken, team Jag won by five laps. There was no victory celebration, partly due to rain, but they got a picture of Hawthorn on his car sipping his victory Champaign. That didn’t play well in the French press. Although it should be noted that when several countries suspended Motorsports, including France, the lifted the ban prior to the next running of Le Mans.

Enough countries did’t ban motorsports, (America for one) or lifted the ban later in the year, that the world sportscar championship season could finish and crown Mercedes-Benz ultimate victor. Merc then withdrew from racing until the 80’s. A number of drivers retired as well, some at the end of the season. Macklin after another fatal crash later that year.

Modern Pits in daylight

Hawthorn took a lot of blame from the press, claiming he’d cut in front of Macklin and slammed on his brakes. Team Jag tried to question Levegh and Macklin’s reflexes. It took until 1975 for Road & Track Magazine and Paul Fre’re (second place finisher at the 55 Le Mans) to clear up what had happened. By converting still pics of the carnage into video it was clear that the last minute jog in the track before the straight away lined the drivers up with the stands and gave little room to exit to the pit lane at 120 plus miles per hour. Hawthorn would have had to wait to lap any of the cars well before the pits were visible in order to go slow enough to exit without hard breaking. He knew what his car could do, but not what the other cars could do in response.

As it turns out the government inquiry cleared all the drivers, and the teams, but found that the track design caused the spectator death.

A Sad Footnote

In publishing his autobiography, Challenge Me the Race, Hawthorn took no responsibility for the accident on himself or his equipment, leaving Macklin feeling blamed as the only other principle involved. He sued for libel. The action went unresolved when Macklin died in a non-racing car accident on the Guildford bypass (1959) while overtaking a Merc in his Jag.

The Track, who’s problems had been pointed out by drivers since 1953, was fixed.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.