There was great anticipation for the race for an epic showdown between Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, all of whom had won the race recently and who all arrived with new improved cars. The Ferraris, current champions, were very fast but fragile. Jaguar concentrated their racing almost exclusively on Le Mans and had a very experienced driver line-up including enticing erstwhile F1 Ferrari driver Mike Hawthorn across.
After conquering Formula 1, Mercedes-Benz had debuted its new 300 SLR in this year’s World Championship, including a stunning win at the Mille Miglia for Stirling Moss. The 300 SLR featured a body made of an ultralightweight magnesium alloy called Elektron. The car lacked the more effective state-of-the-art disc brakes featured on the rival Jaguar D-Type, instead incorporating a large air brake behind the driver that could be raised to increase drag and slow the car.
Team manager Alfred Neubauer, in a remarkably diplomatic move (recalling that the war had only ended a bare 10 years earlier), assembled a multi-national team for the race: pairing his two best drivers Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss in the lead car, 1952 race-winner Karl Kling with Frenchman André Simon (both also in the current F1 team) and American John Fitch with one of the elder statesmen of French motor-racing Pierre Levegh. It had been Levegh's epic solo drive in the 1952 race which failed in the last hour, which gave Mercedes-Benz their fortuitous first victory.
Safety measures commonly in place today were relatively unknown in 1955. Aside from two layout changes to make the circuit shorter, the Le Mans circuit itself had remained largely unaltered since the inception of the race in 1923, when top speeds of cars were typically in the region of 100 km/h (60 mph). By 1955 top speeds for the leading cars were in excess of 270 kph. That said, the circuit had been resurfaced and widened post-war. Similarly the pits and grandstands had been reconstructed, although there were no barriers between the pit lane and the racing line, and only a 4’ earthen bank between the track and the spectators. The cars had no seatbelts, the drivers reasoning that it was preferable to be thrown clear in a collision rather than be crushed or trapped in a burning car.
The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans began at 4pm on Saturday afternoon and as predicted the lead cars of Castellotti (Ferrari), Hawthorn (Jaguar) and Fangio (Mercedes-Benz) started an exhilarating dice at the head of the field for the first hour. The other team cars were being kept on tighter leashes to conserve the cars but still racing in the top 10. Going into the second hour, Castellotti started dropping back but Hawthorn and Fangio continued the duel, swapping the lead and dropping the lap record further and further and lapping most of the field.
It was 6.26pm, at the end of lap 35 when the leading cars’ first pit stops were starting, that the accident occurred.
On lap 35 Hawthorn and Fangio were racing as hard as ever. In his biography, Hawthorn said he was “momentarily mesmerized by the legend of the Mercedes superiority... Then I came to my senses and thought ‘Damn it, why should a German car beat a British car.’” The lap before Hawthorn’s pit crew had signaled for him to come in the next lap. He had just lapped ”Levegh” (running 6th) after Arnage and was determined to keep Fangio at bay as long as possible. Coming out of Maison Blanche he rapidly caught Lance Macklin in his Austin Healey 100S, who had seen him and pulled over to the right to let him pass. Putting another lap on Macklin coming up to the main straight Hawthorn then raised his hand to indicate he was pitting and pulled across to the right (from Hawthorn’s testimony). What caught Macklin out though was that Hawthorn, using his advanced disc brakes, braked very hard to be able to slow the Jaguar from such a speed in time.
There are two key points to the track layout at this juncture – firstly there was no designated deceleration lane for cars coming into the pits, and secondly that just before the main straight there was the slightest right-hand kink in the road just after where Hawthorn started braking.
Macklin, who himself braked hard, ran off the right-hand edge of the track, throwing up dust. Attempting to avoid Hawthorn, whether it was an instinctive swerve from surprise, a loss of control from going onto the change of road-surface or his disc brakes operating unevenly, Macklin's car veered across to the centre of the track, apparently briefly out of control. This however only put him into the path of Levegh's Mercedes-Benz, closing at over 200 kph intending on doing another lap and in front of Fangio, himself patiently waiting to pass. Levegh did not have time to react, but with possibly his last action, raised his hand warning Fangio, thereby probably saving the great driver’s life. Fangio with his eyes shut, but with his own superb reflexes, was incredibly able to squeeze through the carnage just brushing Hawthorn’s now stationary Jaguar in the pits, but getting through unscathed.
Levegh's right-front wheel rode up onto the left rear corner of Macklin's and using it as a ramp launched the Mercedes-Benz into the air flying over spectators and rolling end over end for 80 metres. Levegh was thrown free of the tumbling car, but his skull was fatally crushed upon impact with the ground.
That critical kink in the road put the car on a direct trajectory toward the packed terraces and grandstand. The car landed onto the 4’ earthen embankment between the spectators and the track, bounced, then slammed into a concrete stairwell structure and disintegrated. The momentum of the heaviest components of the car – the engine, radiator and front suspension - hurtled straight on into the crowd for almost 100 metres, crushing all in their path. The bonnet lid scythed through the air, "decapitating tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine." Spectators who had climbed onto ladders and scaffolding to get a better view of the track, and those crowding to use the underpass to get to the pits, found themselves in the direct path of the lethal debris.
Jaguar driver Duncan Hamilton, watching from the pit wall, recalled “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.”
When the rest of the car landed on the embankment, the rear-mounted fuel tank exploded. The fuel fire raised the temperature of the remaining Elektron bodywork past its ignition temperature, which was lower than other metal alloys due to its high magnesium content. The alloy burst into white-hot flames, showering the track and crowd in magnesium embers, made worse by rescue workers totally unfamiliar with magnesium fires, pouring water onto the inferno, greatly intensifying the fire. As a result, the car burned for several hours.
Meanwhile the heavily damaged Austin-Healey, rammed the left-side barrier then veered to the right of the track into the pit lane, narrowly missing Kling’s Mercedes, Mieres’ Maserati and Beauman’s Jaguar all of whom were already in the pits refuelling before the accident. The car hit the unprotected pit-wall, just short of the Cunningham and Mercedes pits where Shell and Lockheed equipment were stationed, running down a policeman, a photographer and two officials (all seriously injured), then rebounded back across the track again to end up skating down the left-side fence for a second time. Macklin survived the incident without serious injury, jumping out of the wreck and over the bank.
Hawthorn himself had overshot his pits and stopped. Getting out he was immediately ordered by his team to get back in and do another lap to get away from the total confusion and danger. When he pitted next lap he staggered out of the car completely distraught, adamant that he had caused the catastrophe. Ivor Bueb and Norman Dewis, both Le Mans debutantes, had to step into their respective cars for their first driver stints. Bueb in particular was very reluctant, but given Hawthorn’s condition had no choice as Dewis pointed out to him.
Everyone expected the race to be red-flagged and stopped. Given the scale of the disaster, the race officials took the only reasonable action to keep the race running. If the huge crowd had tried to leave en masse they would have filled the main roads severely restricting access for medical and emergency crews trying to save the injured.
Levegh’s co-driver, American John Fitch was suited up ready to take over the car at the upcoming pit-stop and standing with Levegh’s wife Denise Bouillin, they saw the whole accident unfold. Levegh’s lifeless body, terribly burned, lay in full view on the pavement until a gendarme hauled down a banner to cover the body. His wife was inconsolable and Fitch stayed with her until she could be comforted. It was a half-hour after the accident when he realised that news was probably being broadcast on radio, and he needed to phone his family to reassure them that he was not the driver of the crashed car. It was when he got to the media centre to use a phone that he got his first inkling of the sheer enormity of the disaster, overhearing a reporter filing that 48 deaths were already confirmed.
When he returned to his pit he urged the Mercedes team to withdraw from the race – he could see that win or lose, it would be a PR disaster for the company. Mercedes team manager Alfred Neubauer had already reached the same conclusion but did not have the authority to make such a decision. After an emergency meeting and vote of the company directors by phone in Stuttgart, Neubauer finally got the call approving the team’s withdrawal just before midnight. Waiting until 1.45am, when many spectators had left, he stepped onto the track and quietly called his cars into the pits, at the time running 1st and 3rd. The public address made a brief announcement regarding their retirement. The Mercedes trucks were packed up and gone by morning. Chief engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut had gone to the Jaguar pits to ask if the Jaguar team would respond in kind, out of respect for the accident's victims. Jaguar team manager ”Lofty” England declined.
Mike Hawthorn and the Jaguar team kept racing. With the Mercedes-Benz team withdrawn and the Ferraris all broken, Jaguar’s main competition had gone. Hawthorn and Bueb won the race by an easy margin of five laps from Aston Martin. The weather had closed in on Sunday morning and no-one felt like celebrating. However, an inopportune press photo showed him smiling on the podium swigging from the victor’s bottle of champagne, and the French press ran it with the sarcastic headline “Here’s to You, Mr Hawthorn”.
Accounts put the death toll at 80 to 84 (83 spectators plus Levegh), either by flying debris or from the fire, with a further 120 to 178 injured. Other observers estimated the toll to be much higher. It has remained the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history. A special mass was held in the morning in the great Le Mans Cathedral for the first funerals of the accident victims.
The death toll led to an immediate temporary ban on motorsports in France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and other nations, until the tracks could be brought to a higher safety standard. In the United States, the American Automobile Association (AAA) dissolved their Contest Board that had been the primary sanctioning body for autosport in the US (including the Indianapolis 500) since 1904. It decided that auto racing distracted from its primary goals, and the United States Automobile Club was formed to take over the race sanctioning/officiating.
Switzerland's ban did not allow for the running of timed motorsports such as hillclimbs. This forced Swiss racing promoters to organize circuit events in foreign countries including France, Italy and Germany. In 2003 the Swiss parliament started a lengthy discussion about whether this ban should be lifted. The discussion focused on traffic policy and environmental questions rather than on safety. On 10 June 2009, the Ständerat (one chamber of the parliament) defeated the proposal to lift the ban for the second time. In 2015, the ban was relaxed for electric vehicles only, such as cars involved in Formula E electric racing.
The next round of the World Sports Car Championship at the Nürburgring was cancelled, as was the Carrera Panamericana. The rest of the 1955 World Sportscar Championship season was completed, with two more races at the British RAC Tourist Trophy and the Italian Targa Florio, although they were not run until September and October, several months after the accident. Mercedes-Benz won both of these events, and were able to secure the constructors championship for the season. Having achieved that Mercedes-Benz withdrew from motorsport. The horror of the accident caused some drivers present, including Phil Walters (who had been offered a drive with Ferrari for the rest of the season), Sherwood Johnston, and John Fitch (after completing the season with Mercedes-Benz), to retire from racing. Lance Macklin also decided to retire after being involved in another fatal accident, during the Tourist Trophy race at Dundrod. Juan-Manuel Fangio never raced at Le Mans again.
Much recrimination was directed at Hawthorn saying that he had suddenly cut in front of Macklin and slammed on the brakes near the entrance to the pits, forcing Macklin to take desperate evasive action into the path of Levegh. This became the semi-official pronouncement of the Mercedes-Benz team and Macklin's story. The Jaguar team in turn questioned the fitness and competence of Macklin and Levegh as drivers. The first media accounts were wildly inaccurate, as shown by subsequent analysis of photographic evidence conducted by Road & Track editor (and 1955 second-place finisher) Paul Frère, in 1975. Additional details emerged when the stills reviewed by Frère were converted to video form.
The media also speculated on the violent fire that engulfed the wreck, that intensified when fire marshals poured their water-based extinguishers on the flames. They suggested that Mercedes-Benz had tampered with the official fuel-supply with an explosive additive. The intensity was instead due to the magnesium-alloy construction of the chassis. Neubauer got the French authorities to test residual fuel left in the wreck’s fuel injection which vindicated the company.
Opinions differed widely amongst the other drivers as to who was directly to blame for the accident, and such differences remain even today. Macklin claimed that Hawthorn's move to the pits was sudden, causing an emergency that led him to swerve into Levegh's path. Years later Fitch claimed, based on "what I saw and what I heard", that Hawthorn caused the accident. Dewis ventured the opinions that Macklin's move around Hawthorn was careless and that Levegh was not competent to meet the demands of driving at the speeds the 300SLR was capable of. Both Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz issued official statements, mainly in self-defense against the accusations leveled against them and their drivers. Neubauer limited himself to suggesting improvements to the pit straight and making pit-stops safer. Macklin, on reading Hawthorn's autobiography Challenge Me The Race in 1958, was embittered to find that Hawthorn now disclaimed all responsibility for the accident without identifying who had actually caused it. With Levegh dead, Macklin presumed that Hawthorn's implication was that he (Macklin) had been responsible, and he began a libel action. The action was still unresolved when Hawthorn was killed in a crash on the Guildford bypass in 1959, ironically when overtaking a Mercedes in his Jaguar.
The official government inquiry into the accident called officials, drivers and team personnel to be questioned and give evidence. The wreckage was examined and tested and finally returned to Mercedes-Benz nearly 12 months after the accident. In the end it ruled that no specific driver was responsible for the crash, and that it was merely a terrible racing incident. The death of the spectators was blamed on inadequate safety standards for the track design. Tony Rolt and other drivers had been raising concerns about the pit straight since 1953.
Over the next year the Automobile Club l'Ouest (ACO) set about making extensive track improvements and infrastructure changes – the pit straight was redesigned and widened to remove the kink just before start/finish line, and give room for a deceleration lane. The pits complex was pulled down and rebuilt giving more room to the teams, but thereby limiting spaces to only 52 starters rather than the previous 60. The grandstand was demolished and rebuilt with new spectator terraces and a wide ditch between them and the race-track. Track safety technology and practices evolved slowly until Formula 1 driver Jackie Stewart organized a campaign to advocate for better safety measures 10 years later. Stewart's campaign gained momentum after the deaths of Lorenzo Bandini and Jimmy Clark.
John Fitch became a major safety advocate and began active development of safer road cars and racing circuits. He invented traffic safety devices currently in use on highways, including the water-filled ”Fitch barrels”.
Macklin's Austin-Healey 100 was sold to several private buyers before appearing on the auction block. In 1969, it was purchased for £155. In December 2011, the car was sold at auction for £843,000. The car retained the original engine SPL 261-BN and was valued at £800,000 prior to the auction. Its condition was reported to be 'barn find'.Citations