I have been watching the 2011 Le Mans race and there have been some scary accidents this year. While none of these are its equal, it did make me think of the terrible crash at Le Mans that occurred in 1955. That crash has been extremely well documented in Christopher Hilton’s book “Le Mans ’55”, subtitled “The crash that changed the face of motor racing.”
The Definitive Book on the Crash at 1955 Le Mans Race
The 1955 Le Mans crash killed over 80 people and is, as far as I know, the most deadly crash in racing history. It was and remains a controversial crash as it involved a very popular racing driver at that time, Mike Hawthorn.
The details of the crash are all based on eye-witness reports, as there was no film of the event. The end result was that the Mercedes-Benz race car driven by Pierre Levegh left the race track and crashed into the grandstands at a high rate of speed and over 80 people died, including Pierre Levegh.
Pierre Levegh was teamed with American racer John Fitch to drive one of the three Mercedes-Benz 300SLRs entered by Mercedes-Benz in the 1955 Le Mans race.
John Fitch, Pierre Levegh, and Legendary Mercedes-Benz Team Manager Alfred Neubauer at Le Mans in 1955
Levegh/Fitch drove the #20 Mercedes-Benz car, while Juan-Manuel Fangio/Stirling Moss drove the #19 car, and Karl Kling/Andre Simon drove car #21.
Pierre Levegh Driving the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR at Le Mans 1955
A couple of the basic problems that led to the accident are illustrated in the following photograph of the “Le Mans” start at the start of the 1955 Le Mans race. First of all, look at the overall width of the track. The cars are parked against the pits, so the track width was very narrow. Also look at the closeness of the spectators to the track and they are only protected by two rows of hay bales and a little wooden fence.
The accident involved Lance Macklin in a Austin-Healey 100S, Mike Hawthorn in a Jaguar D-Type, and Pierre Levegh in the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR. Hawthorn was involved in a very close race with Fangio for the overall lead and was pushing hard. Hawthorn came up upon Macklin as they approached the pit area. Hawthorn in the much faster Jaguar passed Macklin to Macklin’s left just before the pit area, then pulled in front of Macklin and braked to go to his pit. In those days, Jaguar had far better brakes than anyone else. Hawthorn used those disk brakes hard, Macklin could not stop as quickly, so he turned to the left to avoid the quickly slowing Hawthorn. All of this happened in front of Levegh in the fast Mercedes-Benz. When Macklin turned left to avoid Hawthorn, he wound up turning in front of Levegh. Levegh was closing very fast and due to the narrow track he had no place to go, Levegh crashed into the back left corner of the Macklin’s Austin-Healey which headed him into the grandstand at a very high rate of speed where it burst into flames. Pieces of Levegh’s car, including the front axle, drive shaft, the engine, hood, and manifold flew off into the crowd. Over 80 people were killed.
Note the Narrow Track and the Meager Protection Along the Grandstands
The pictures below are hard to look at as they show dead and injured spectators just after the accident.
Dead and Injured in the Grandstands After the Accident
What a Terrible Scene! (Also note the narrow track)
The picture of the track below shows a MGA making its way through the scene after the accident. Macklin’s Austin-Healey is car #26. Smoke can still be seen from the accident.
Scene of the 1955 Le Mans Accident
The race continued but Mercedes-Benz withdrew the other two cars from the race. In the end, Mike Hawthorn won the race in his Jaguar D-Type.
Mike Hawthorn Celebrates With Champagne After Winning the Le Mans Race in 1955
Some books say that the crash was the reason why Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing at the end of 1955, but other sources, who I believe, say that Mercedes-Benz had won everything and proved their point that Mercedes-Benz could produce fast, winning cars and therefore had nothing left to prove. As a result, they had planned on getting out of racing independently from the Le Mans accident.
This period 1954-1957 was very bad for racing as in addition to the Le Mans accident, the Carrera Panamericana and Mille Miglia were cancelled due to multiple deaths.