Recalling the Le Mans Crash 0f 1955

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.

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10 Responses to Recalling the Le Mans Crash 0f 1955

  1. Pingback: A lap around 1956! - The Vette Barn Forum - A Community for Corvette Lovers

  2. Gordon A. says:

    Some factual errors here. Amateur film does exist showing the entire incident up to the point where the cameraman was hit by flying debris and felled. Paul Frere, eminent journalist and Grand Prix racing driver, who was driving at Le Mans in 1955, has examined this film footage in detail and provided a convincing interpretation of the incident. One fact worth mentioning, in respect of te above article. Macklin’s Austin Healey was disc braked, just as was Hawthorn’s car. Combined with the fact that Macklin’s car was much slower (having already been lapped four times) Macklin would have had enough time and space to brake. Instead caught by surprise, perhaps because he was watching his rearview mirror, Macklin swerved violently across the track, leaving poor Levegh with howhere to go. The rest is tragic history.

    • Hi Gordon,
      Thanks for providing some additional information on this still controversial topic. Your comment started out saying that there were some factual errors in the post. Could you be specific as to what the factual errors are?
      Thanks for your interest!
      Steve McKelvie

      • 1gandydancer says:

        Reread Gordon A.’s post. He addresses these two “factual errors”, the first of which is clearly exactly that:

        1)”The details of the crash are all based on eye-witness reports, as there was no film of the event.”
        2)”Jaguar had far better brakes than anyone else. Hawthorn used those disk brakes hard, Macklin could not stop as quickly…”

      • I have seen some video of pieces of the car flying into the crowd, but I have never seen (and I recall an exhaustive TV program from about 2 or 3 years ago on this matter) a video of what happened in those moments leading to the impact.
        Jaguar’s disc brakes were better than the other cars with drum brakes. That is not debatable. If Hawthorn did not use the brakes hard then he would not be a racer. Given that the Jaguar’s disc brakes were better than the Austin-Healey’s drum brakes it is factual to say that Macklin could not have stopped as fast as Hawthorn.
        Steve McKelvie

  3. Rijk van Voorst says:

    Here is the video I think Gordon A. refers to:

  4. Thirdeye says:

    Here’s a link to BBC’s The Deadliest Crash on Youtube. The accident sequence starts around 50:00 and is better rendered than the video copied from it.

    There’s a lot of confusion about the AH-100’s brakes. The street version had drum brakes. The AH-100S, the customer racing version driven by Macklin, had Dunlop disc brakes just like the Jags. The 100S may actually have been able to outbrake the Jags because it was a lighter car.

    The Automobile Club L’Ouest reviewed the same film stills as Frere and reached a similar conclusion that the rumors of Hawthorn suddenly cutting off Macklin were false.

    Two things are significant in the video. One is that Hawthorn was still moving at about the same speed as Macklin when Macklin and Levegh collided. The wide swerve was not necessary for Macklin to avoid ramming Hawthorn. The other is the dust being kicked up from the right side of Macklin’s car just before he swerved. It looks like a classic case of wheels drifting off the pavement and overcorrection, perhaps exacerbated by braking.

    Juan Fangio, who had the best view of the accident of anybody not actually involved in it, related his account to author Denise McCluggage years later.

    It would have been nice if Fangio had said something while Macklin, John Fitch, and a big segment of the French media were talking shit in the weeks after the accident.

    • Peter says:

      Thirdeye, Thank you! I’m very pleased to see an accurate description of the events. The internet, magazines and newspapers and supposedly serious books have far too many erroneous descriptions trying to lay the blame on Hawthorn.
      In the case of the Austin-Healey’s brakes, there are photos of the car prior to and during the race and you can see them. It shows how serious most people are with their analysis.

  5. Philippe Henry Defechereux says:

    Having joined Pinterest only two months ago, and having a focused interest on car racing history (and two books published), I soon delighted in creating boards. I now have 10 and growing. One is fully dedicated to THE 1955 LE MANS TRAGEDY, as I was a very young racing fan growing up in Belgium (near Spa) when it happened. With your board’s help and quite a few others, I believe I have now created the most extensive and comprehensive photo (and video) record of that fateful race. It features almost all the cars that participated (60) at the start, along with many of the fateful actors and phases of the complex and horrible accident that happened on that June 11, 1955. I have also worked hard on the captions, to modify all the mistakes and identify each car and driver team properly. I thought to might want to check it; it’s under my name as spelled below. I also have separate boards on F1 Racing and Endurance Racing – including CanAm – also fairly abundant already, and with a special space for Spa-Francorchamps. I’ve resided and lived in America (mostly Manhattan, now Northern NJ nearby) since 1970. I knew John Fitch – among others – personally and interviewed him twice about Le Mans, 1955. He racing debuts are amply featured in my book titled “Watkins Glen – 1948-1952; The Street Years” (Publ. by Dalton Watson Fine Books). If you think it a good idea, I would be pleased to contribute to your website and keep in touch by email. Bravo for all your passion and activities. Sincerely, Philippe

    • Hi Philippe,
      It is good to hear from a dedicated and hard working race enthusiast. I would love to have your contributions to this website, as it seems that many of our interests align. Please contact me by private email at the following address: shanna12 at comcast dot net
      Steve McKelvie

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