Although almost 67 years ago, the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans tragedy remains the deadliest accident in motorsport history. It all started at the end of May, when the Formula 1 drivers put on their gloves again to compete in the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix: Mercedes sent three W196s there: one for Juan Manuel Fangio, the reigning world champion, one for the Offspring and brilliant Stirling Moss, one for the no less fast Hans Herrmann.
Nevertheless, the one with the nickname Hans the Happy lacks success. On Thursday, May 19, he broke his leg in an accident at the Casino corner at the start of pre-training. The season is over for the German, who has renounced all future commitments with the brand with the star.
This also includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which takes place three weeks later. Alfred Neubauer, sporting director at Mercedes, is therefore forced to find a replacement for Herrmann and decides to bring in a driver who had impressed him three years earlier: Pierre Levegh.
The 49-year-old Frenchman, who has been driving since the late 1930s, made his name at the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans by keeping the Mercedes 300 SL in check… alone. In fact, at a time when hours at the wheel were not limited, Levegh was the only driver behind the wheel of the number 8 Talbot-Lago T26 GS. He was heading for an historic win, but in the last hour his engine finally gave out up the spirit.
Pierre Levegh, René Marchand, Talbot-Lago T26 GS Spider
Levegh competed at Le Mans in 1955 at the wheel of a powerful Mercedes 300 SLR, which was derived directly from the Formula 1 model. The event promised to be held in the 5 liter category as three Mercedes 300 SLR’s were represented. three Jaguar D-Types (plus two other chassis used by customer teams) and three Ferrari 121LM. Not to mention Aston Martin DB3S and Maserati 300S which, even if racing in the 3 liter category, are serious contenders for victory.
“Our cars drive too fast”
Since the end of World War II, single-seaters have continued to gain speed. But the circuits themselves have remained essentially the same. The course on the Sarthe, which was rebuilt in 1932 and has remained unchanged since then, poses a particularly high risk for the drivers, but also for the spectators: Only a fascinating embankment, about one meter high, protects them from possible danger on both sides of the track.
Several incidents occur during testing, each narrowly avoiding drama, although Jean Behra, Élie Bayol and Peter Taylor had to abandon the start after accidents. The difference in speed between the 5-litre monsters and the more modest cars is also a concern. Returning to the pits after battling a Gordini, Levegh said to a friend: “We need to set up a signaling system. Our cars are going too fast…”
On start day, Saturday 11 June, 250,000 people will flock to the outskirts of Le Mans to take part in the biggest global motor race of the year. 60 drivers line up at the start, facing the pits, ready to hop in their car when they see the flag being lowered. It was done by 4pm, with poleman Eugenio Castellotti (on Ferrari) using his advantageous position to take the lead at the end of lap one, closely followed by Mike Hawthorn (on Jaguar).
A foul by Castellotti in the second hour saw Hawthorn in command, who now saw Fangio’s Silver Arrow reflected in his mirrors. Then a crazy chase begins.
Mike Hawthorn, followed by Juan Manuel Fangio (with airbrake flap deployed)
An evasive maneuver, an accident, death
At 18:28, with the leaders on their 35th lap of the race, Hawthorn prepared to return to the pits with a slim lead over the Maestro. But on the way to the garages, which were not separated from the track at the time, Hawthorn had to overtake a latecomer: Lance Macklin and his much slower Austin-Healey 100 S.
The future 1958 F1 World Champion drives to the left, overtakes and then falls back to the right where the pits are. Macklin may be watching the arrival of another leading car in his mirrors and be surprised by Hawthorn’s brakes. The Brit reacted, turned sharply to the left and dodged.
Left behind by Hawthorn after losing a round, Levegh has nowhere to go. He crashed head-on into the Austin and sped off at more than 125 mph in a gear effect between his left front wheel and Macklin’s right rear wheel.
When Macklin is sent into the pits and mows down several people, the Mercedes’ fairing and flat bottom only make Levegh’s flight worse. As the straight line is not quite straight at this point (it slants left, then right), the Frenchman finds himself on the other side of the circuit, easily crossing the protective embankment.
And it’s against a low concrete wall a few meters away that the car crashes and immediately ignites, the chassis’ magnesium feeding enormous blinding white flames. Levegh is killed instantly.
“After passing Levegh’s Mercedes at Arnage, I passed the Austin-Healey between the Maison Blanche corner and the pits”Hawthorn explained in an official press release from Jaguar. “After giving the required hand signal, I braked and drove to my pits as instructed on the previous lap. ‘You are aware of my intentions and can take the necessary measures without endangering others.
Unfortunately, the drama has only just begun. The impact against the wall pulverized the Mercedes and many elements, especially the engine block, were thrown at full speed into the neighboring stand. Officially, more than 120 people are injured. 84 people who love racing and motor sports, men, women and children lose their lives on this day.
The accident of Pierre Levegh, Mercedes 300 SLR
A tragedy with serious consequences
Strange as it may seem, the tragedy that just happened at Le Mans, the deadliest accident in history, does not result in the race being abandoned. However, the organizers are acting in this way to facilitate the intervention of the emergency services and the transport of the injured, since the interruption of the event would have overloaded the neighboring streets due to the hasty departure of the spectators.
The Mercedes-Benz employees became aware of the accident very quickly and at around 1 a.m. it was decided to bring the other two cars into the pits. The brand with the star left the Sarthe on this sad June night, returning there only at the end of the 1980s.
Should Hawthorn end up winning the race, of course, his success will be overshadowed by the drama of the day before. Some accuse him of reckless driving, others point fingers at Macklin or even poor Levegh, who was too old and not smart enough to avoid the accident. An investigation is carried out, the conclusions in the end only point to the lack of security of the Sarthe round. The accident was the result of a series of unfortunate events for which no pilot is held responsible.
The accident at Le Mans went around the world because of its severity. Several riders present that day decided to hang up their helmets at the end of the season, including Lance Macklin. The same applies to the teams, although Mercedes’ withdrawal is not limited to Le Mans, but to all competitions.
The popularity of motorsport collapsed and the summer was marked by the absence of a major event: The next round of the Sports Car World Championship at the Nürburgring was canceled, as was the Grand Prix of France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland in Formula 1. Several countries, including France, decided to ban motorsport altogether.
More than ten years before the movement of launched Jackie Stewart and Jacky Ickxsafety in motorsport is at the center of the debates. France finally lifted its ban on September 14 of the same year and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest carried out extensive work to make the Sarthe circuit safer for the 1956 edition of the 24 Hours: the main lines, grandstands and pits will be made safer demolished and rebuilt further away from the circuit, the track will be widened and remain straight up to the Dunlop corner, the deceleration lane to the pits will be lengthened to allow drivers more time to brake and a gap will be dug between the tracks and the grandstands.
Safety work carried out at Le Mans in 1956
And we don’t just work at Le Mans. Across the Atlantic, the Indianapolis Speedway broke new ground in 1957 by separating the pits and track with grass and a wall. This is picked up by the European racetracks in the following years.
But despite the successive lifting of bans and safety measures in Le Mans and elsewhere, Switzerland will not repeal Article 52 of the federal law on road traffic (“The holding of circuit races with motor vehicles of a public nature is prohibited”), only hillclimbs and rallies will slip through the grid. Ultimately, it was only in May 2022, almost 67 years after the Le Mans tragedy, that the National Council and Council of States, the two Swiss parliamentary chambers, confirmed the deletion of the article.
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