Mankind has always felt the need for speed, and it has never been enough simply to go fast; there has always been an urge to go faster. When running wasn’t fast enough, we trained horses to carry us. When horses weren’t fast enough, we invented trains and automobiles.
And then we took those machines of speed, and pitted them against each other, racing to prove who amongst us can be the quickest.
But life in the fast lane can lead to death.
The sport of motor racing dates back to the nineteenth century; pretty much as soon as we had motors we could race with. Unlike modern racing, those early races were almost exclusively road races, since there weren’t any purpose-built motor racing circuits until 1907, but a few were conducted on circuits originally designed for horse racing.
The sport quickly began to evolve past “turn up with a car, and get from point A to point B faster than the other cars.” As it grew in popularity, manufacturers started building cars specifically for racing, streamlining their design and performance to go ever faster.
In 1923, however, a new kind of race began in Le Mans, France. This was not a test of speed but of endurance; it was a race that took a full 24 hours, on a circuit of around 17km of public roads. That circuit included the Mulsanne Straight – the longest straight in any racing circuit, allowing drivers to go at full throttle for nearly half the lap.
The vehicle that covered the greatest distance in those 24 hours would be declared the winner.
This meant that speed was still a factor, but it wasn’t the only factor. You also had to take into account the reliability of the car – it would have to still be running at the end of the race, after 24 hours flat out, to qualify. Efficiency also mattered; cars that didn’t have to make as many pit stops would have an advantage.
Like any other race, it tested the driver as well as the machine. Although today there are strict rules on how many drivers a team can have, and how long each can drive for, in the early days those didn’t exist. If you wanted to, you could drive the whole thing by yourself.
And, although most teams had at least two drivers per car, some drivers did attempt the race solo, reasoning that they would save time by not having to swap.
To add to the drama, cars of different classes raced at the same time. This meant that there would frequently be some extremely fast cars lapping other, slower vehicles. Having to overtake this often meant that the drivers had to be extremely skilful, and couldn’t let their concentration lapse for a second.
American driver John Fitch said of Le Mans: “It’s a challenge and it’s tough and it’s difficult and it’s trying and it’s stressful and demanding. It’s everything. It’s life, you know, condensed… It takes a tremendous amount of preparation and thought to win Le Mans, and also it needs a lot of luck.”
By the mid-fifties, it was a huge event; the biggest on the calendar. Major manufacturers like Ferrari, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Mercedes Benz had taken to sending several cars to the race, to increase their chances of getting a winner, and there were literally hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Jacqueline Chotard was one of them. She said;
“I liked going to the 24 Hours. I appreciated the atmosphere. There were lots of young people, lots of foreigners, it was nice for us. People were happy. They were excited by the race.”
And it wasn’t all about the race; when you put that many people together, it becomes an event of itself. Jacques Roulet, another attendee, said;
“Everybody walked with a bottle of wine in his hand or a bottle of champagne, people were drinking, happy, watching the race, some were not even looking at the race, were just talking. It’s mostly the atmosphere of a fair. The women were very very well dressed, most of the men came dressed with ties – a show.”
In 1955, the focus was on two teams; the British Jaguar and the German Mercedes Benz. Jaguar had a strong reputation at Le Mans. British teams had won nearly half the races to date, and they had most recently won in 51 and 53. Mercedes Benz were an emerging force; although their factories had suffered in the war, they were experiencing a resurgence, were reigning Formula One champions and were strongly tipped to be able to beat both the reigning Ferrari and the British teams. Some called it “World War Two on the Track.”
The Mercedes team had a formidable duo driving their lead car. Juan Miguel Fangio was an Argentine driver so successful he was known as El Maestro, or The Master. According to teammate Fitch, “He was an absolute presence. He was phenomenal, and he was a thoroughly good person. And he won race after race after race.”
Stirling Moss was a British driver who had that year won the Mille Miglia, a 992 mile race held in Italy, with a blistering performance that has to this day never been equalled.
In another car, they had two drivers from their Formula One team, German Karl Kling and Frenchman Andre Simon.
Finally, they had John Fitch and Pierre Levegh. Levegh was something of a local hero, and not just because he was a Frenchman racing on French soil. In the 1952 race, he had come exceptionally close to winning as a solo driver. So close, in fact, that when he broke a connecting rod in his engine just over an hour before the end of the race, it took twenty minutes for the next car to take the lead. His teammate Fitch, who was driving his first Le Mans that year, said later that Levegh “was called the Bishop- privately, among other drivers, not to his face – because he was rather solemn. And he was an old guy, he was fifty years old. He was a good driver, I know that.”
Jaguar’s problem was that they only really had one driver on their all-British team who could rival the likes of Fangio and Moss. That star driver was Mike Hawthorn. He had proven his ability to rival the great Fangio two years earlier, with a win at the 1953 French Grand Prix. That race had been dubbed ‘the race of the century’ and ended with the top four drivers within just five seconds of each other.
Hawthorn exuded a kind of public school boy charm. He was 26 years old, and according to fellow Jaguar driver Norman Dewis, led a fast lane sort of life. “Mike would just go out, have a party night, and then get up in the morning, get in the car and race, you know.”
Time Magazine said in 1958:
“Mike Hawthorn drives in devil-may-care style, his husky frame hunched over in the cramped cockpit, a grim scowl on his face. Moody Mike enjoys his cigarettes and whisky, cuts loose occasionally on the trumpet (which he plays with some skill), flies his own plane. He drives solely to win, cares little about how he accomplishes it (‘I haven’t bloody well got a driving style’).”
For the 1955 Le Mans race, Hawthorn would be teamed with Ivor Bueb. He didn’t have the same kind of confidence – or recklessness – that Hawthorn displayed. According to Dewis, “Ivor Bueb was very very concerned about the speeds he was having to go… going down that Mulsanne he said, it’s a bit scary.”
This meant that every time the drivers swapped – when Fangio and Hawthorn left their cars – Moss was likely to outclass Bueb and take the Mercedes into the lead.
There was only one way that Hawthorn might be able to overcome that advantage – and that was to force some kind of mistake that would take the German car out of the race.
When the tricolour flag dropped and the drivers ran to their cars to start the race, that’s exactly what Hawthorn set out to do.
Dewis said later that “Fangio and Hawthorn seemed to forget it was a 24 hour race. For the first, well, nearly two hours it was just an out and out Grand Prix. Every lap either Fangio was leading or Hawthorn was leading, and they were breaking lap records consistently, lap after lap.”
The audience loved it. They crowded around the track, angling for the best view. Some stood on trestle tables or ladders so they could see more clearly. As the lead cars roared towards the end of the 35th lap, where they would start to pull into the pits to swap drivers, everyone wanted to see what was happening.
Bernard Chotard, attending with his wife Jacqueline, said, “The Mercedes and the Jaguar were battling it out. We were leaning forward to see which car was winning. And then I saw a white underbelly flying upwards.”
They froze for a moment, then Bernard pulled his wife down to the ground as a car broke into pieces and the shards flew over their heads.
“I said, this can’t be happening, it can’t fall on the crowd,” Jacqueline later recalled. “And then we saw it zigzag over people, it was terrible, horrible. It’s something we’ll never forget. Never. Never.”
As they came around towards the pits, the lead cars were about to lap one of the slower vehicles – an Austin Healey, driven by Lance Macklin. He pulled to the right, the inside lane, to allow Hawthorn to pass.
Behind Hawthorn, there were two Mercedes cars. Fangio was waiting for an opportunity to overtake and lap his teammate, Pierre Levegh.
Now ahead of Macklin, Hawthorn raised a hand to signal that he was pulling into the pits, and braked hard. The Jaguar was fitted with disc brakes which were highly advanced for the time, and it seems that the speed with which he decelerated took Macklin by surprise. The slower car pulled out to the left to avoid rear-ending Hawthorn.
Levegh’s Mercedes struck the back of Macklin’s Austin, and the sloped rear of the car acted like a ramp, hurling Levegh high into the air. One witness described his car flying as high as the top of the electric pole. It flipped end over end. Levegh was hurled free of the car – drivers at that time didn’t use seat belts – and was killed, his skull crushed on impact. The lightweight Mercedes smashed into many pieces, heavier parts propelled by momentum nearly a hundred metres from the impact, and burst into flames.
Macklin veered across the track, out of control, bouncing from one side to the other, narrowly missing other cars in the pits and running over a policeman, a photographer and two officials before coming to a stop. Macklin was able to jump out, without serious injury.
The spectators, packed into the grandstand and the terraces across from the pit, were not so fortunate.
Gisele Pasquier was in that crowd. She had been particularly excited to attend the race, as it was her first outing since the birth of her child just a month before, and because a friend was one of the race stewards, she and her husband Henri had secured prime positions overlooking the pits.
“To the right and to the left, people were screaming and crying. It was a horrific noise, and then there was the car exploding, with these breathtaking flames and sparks. Parts of the car that were on fire had fallen into the crowd.”
Henri said, “the car caught fire and exploded about three metres away from us. We were right up against the fence. The people behind us had climbed up onto trestle tables and they got their heads cut off by the engine, by stuff that came off the car when it rolled over and over.”
Even today, it’s unclear how many people were killed in the crowd that day. Most accounts set the figure at eighty to eighty four, although some reckon the figure to be over a hundred. Many more were injured.
“It was very quick,” Gisele said. “I saw that car explode and that’s when I protected my face. My arms and my hands were burnt because I was protecting my face. People were screaming, shouting. I have a memory of people picking bits of flesh off each other from those who had fallen on top of them.”
From the pits, one of the other Jaguar drivers, Duncan Hamilton, looked on.
“The scene on the other side of the road was indescribable. The dead and dying were everywhere; the cries of pain, anguish, and despair screamed catastrophe. I stood as if in a dream, too horrified to even think.”
Would-be rescuers raced across the track to tackle the fire, but the water they used only made it worse. It wasn’t only the fuel that was burning, it was the car itself. Its body was made out of a magnesium alloy to keep the weight low, but magnesium ignites at a lower temperature than other alloys – and magnesium fires can be fuelled and intensified by water.
Fangio narrowly avoided the chaos and drove through. Hawthorn, having overshot his pit stop, was forced to make another lap before handing over to Bueb. According to onlookers, he was distraught.
Fitch, who had been waiting for his turn to take over from Levegh, said that Hawthorn “told Rob Walker and Donald Healy and Lance Macklin that he was the cause of this tragedy and that his life as a driver was over and he was shattered and in tears.”
Standing beside Fitch in the pits was Levegh’s wife. He said later that she knew without confirmation by anyone else that he was dead.
Astonishingly, amidst the chaos, the race continued. Even while the meagre medical staff rushed to the aid of the injured – those like Gisele Pasquier, who had to have the burnt skin on her fingers cut away to limit the pain, and feared she would never be able to hold her baby again – the cars roared on and on, and those spectators who hadn’t seen the catastrophe continued to cheer.
Officials would later justify this decision, saying that if the race had been halted the sudden chaos of three hundred thousand spectators trying to leave would have blocked the roads needed by the ambulances coming to the aid of the injured.
When Hawthorn staggered out of his car, Bueb was reluctant to take over. According to Dewis, “he just turns to me and says, bloody hell, he said, this is suicide, he said. I’m not gonna drive, he said, I can’t drive in this.” Dewis pushed him off the pit wall and told him to get in the car and drive.
The Mercedes team also had misgivings about continuing. Although they continued to race, behind the scenes their team contacted their company directors, and obtained permission to withdraw. At 1.45 am, more than six hours after the crash, the two remaining Mercedes cars were pulled into the pits and retired. They had been in first and third place at that point.
Mercedes had suggested to the Jaguar team manager, Lofty England, that they too should withdraw, but he declined, saying later:
“It seems remarkable to me that the Mercedes Benz people running the cars were not able to make their own decision regarding withdrawal, but had to ask their directors. I was in charge for Jaguar and made my own decisions… When Uhlenhaut (whom I had known from pre-war) and Kaser (Mercedes’ PR director) came to our pit they told me they had been instructed by their directors in Stuttgart to retire as public feeling in Germany was so high, and did I also intend to pull out? I did not discuss who might have been to blame but said that I believed the organisers had been right to continue the race and that Mercedes Benz, having continued to race for more than six hours after the accident, I could not see the point in them now withdrawing, and I did not intend to pull out our cars.”
Hawthorn and Bueb went on to win the race.
The dangers of motor racing in the fifties were well known. Crashes were so common at races like Le Mans that stills photographer Dennis Chisholm said “I think most people that go expect to see one. It’s expected of it.” Fitch said, “We lost friends every season, which is almost unheard of now.”
While the drivers recognised the risks they were taking, the same couldn’t be said for the spectators. Everyone wanted to know how so many people in the crowd came to lose their lives – and who was at fault.
Many pointed the finger at Hawthorn, saying that he had cut in front of Macklin and forced him out into Levegh’s path. Others blamed Macklin, because he had swerved out in front of Levegh. Still others blamed Levegh – which seems somewhat unfair, since he was the only driver involved who was no longer there to defend himself.
Questions were also raised about the intensity of the post-crash fire; some wondered whether Mercedes had tampered with the official fuel supply, using some kind of explosive additive which would enhance their performance. At the insistence of Mercedes executives, fuel remaining in the car’s fuel-injection systems was tested, and found to be pure. Although Mercedes were indeed responsible for the intensity of the fire – it had, after all, been an engineering decision to use magnesium alloy in the car’s construction – they had not done anything which was against the rules at that time.
Jaguar issued the following statement:
“In view of the fact that all the circumstances surrounding the Le Mans disaster are in course of official investigation by the French authorities, we would not have thought it incumbent upon any firm or individual to make any comments which seek to fix responsibility or apportion blame for the tragic occurrence. Nevertheless, certain statements have been quoted in the Press implicating one of our drivers and, in fairness to him, we have no option but to make it known that, as a result of close questioning of the Jaguar pit personnel and others who witnessed the occurrence, there is no evidence to establish that Hawthorn acted in any way contrary to accepted racing practice.
“In the course of our own enquiry, Hawthorn made the following statement:
“‘After passing Levegh’s Mercedes at Arnage, I passed the Austin-Healey between White House Corner and the Pits and, having given the necessary hand signal, I braked and pulled into my pit in accordance with pit instructions given during the course of the preceding lap. In my judgment, I allowed sufficient time for the driver of any following car to be aware of my intentions and for him to take such action as might be required without danger to others.’
“In view of the foregoing statement and the evidence of Jaguar pit personnel who witnessed the occurrence, the Company is of the opinion that any adverse criticism of Hawthorn’s driving is without justification.”
On the 15th June, Mercedes Benz executives made their opinions clear at a press conference. Dr Fritz Nallinger stated his opinion, “that Hawthorn’s pit-stop caused a chain reaction which forced the Austin-Healey to turn to the left, brake sharply and finally skid. This caused Levegh’s Mercedes to collide with it, and run up the embankment. Fangio agreed with this, and said that his car just brushed past the stationary Jaguar.”
Amongst the drivers, there was – and still is – similar disagreement. Fitch was unequivocal:
“Mike Hawthorn, by my evidence, by things that I saw and heard and knew from this event, caused the accident.”
Dewis, however, said:
“I would never blame Hawthorn. No. Never blame Hawthorn. I would put most of the blame on Macklin myself, because if he’d have looked in the mirror he’d have known he couldn’t possibly pull out… My personal feeling is Levegh should not have been in the Mercedes team, the car was too quick for him, for his age.”
In his autobiography, Challenge Me The Race, published in 1958, Hawthorn denied any responsibility for the crash. Although he didn’t specifically state who he thought was responsible, Macklin thought that, by implication, Hawthorn was blaming him. He brought a libel suit against Hawthorn.
The official investigation held none of the drivers at fault. The crash had been an accident.
It did, however, shine a light on the almost complete lack of trackside safety at motor racing events.
The grandstands and terraces where so many spectators had been killed or injured were separated from the track by nothing more than an earthen barrier, a little over four feet tall. There had been next to nothing to stop Levegh’s car from hurtling into the crowd. The design of the track at that point – where a slight right-hand bend preceded the pit straight – meant that the oncoming cars were pointed directly at the crowd. It also failed to offer a separate track for cars to decelerate into the pits; the entire track at that point was only wide enough for three cars, and the fact that cars of such varying power would be driving at the same time, with some racing full throttle and others decelerating to stop, meant that pit maneuvers were inherently dangerous.
The problem was that the circuit at Le Mans had been designed more than thirty years earlier, when the top speeds achievable were a practically sedate 50 or 60 mph. Vehicle design had evolved so quickly that by 1955 they were regularly racing at more than 100mph faster than that; that year the fastest speeds along the Mulsanne straight reached 180mph. Despite this, the track had changed little since the race’s inception, only shortening a little to avoid the expanding suburbs of Le Mans.
The crash marked the beginning of a slow revolution in safety for the fastest sport. Several countries immediately enforced a temporary ban on motorsports until safety standards could be improved. Switzerland’s ban was less temporary than others; it remained until 2015, when it was only relaxed to allow racing of electric vehicles.
At Le Mans, the grandstands were demolished and the pit straight redesigned. The bend there was eliminated, and the track widened to make pit maneuvers safer. The redesign of the pits meant that the race would now only accomodate 52 cars, instead of the previous 60, and the spectator stands were now separated from the track by a wide ditch that would contain any crash.
The 1955 World Sportscar championship season was completed, and Mercedes-Benz won the constructors championship. They then retired from racing for the next thirty years.
The crash affected some of the drivers deeply. Fangio raced until his retirement in 1958, but never raced at Le Mans again. Macklin, after being involved in another serious crash at a race later in 1955, retired from motorsports. Fitch completed the season with Mercedes Benz, then turned his attention to road safety, inventing safety devices called Fitch Barrels which are still in use on motorways and highways around the world today. It’s estimated that they have saved more than 17,000 lives since they were first implemented in the 1960s.
Hawthorn also continued racing, becoming the UK’s first Formula One World Champion in 1958, at which point he too retired. He was haunted not only by the spectre of the 1955 Le Mans disaster, but also the death of his friend Peter Collins at the 1958 German Grand Prix.
Six months after retiring, at the age of 29, he was killed in a car crash on the A3 Guildford Bypass. He was driving a Jaguar at the time, and crashed after overtaking a Mercedes-Benz.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is still one of the most popular motor races in the world, but the organisers make little mention of the 1955 disaster. The only memorial is a small plaque on the pit straight, inscribed simply “In Memoriam, 11 Juin 1955”
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Selected Sources and Further Reading/Viewing:
The Deadliest Crash – BBC Documentary (Note: This is currently available on UKTV Play)