- 1955 Le Mans disaster
The 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the
1955 24 Hours of Le Manswhen a racing car involved in an accident flew into the crowd, killing the driver ( Pierre Levegh) and 80 spectators. In terms of human toll, it is the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.
Prior to the accident
Pierre Levegh had been hired by
Mercedes-Benzas a factory driver in 1955. Part of his appeal to Mercedes was his determination shown in 1952. Levegh had driven 23 straight hours of the race and was leading due to not having taken the time to switch drivers, even though he did have a driver who could replace him. He failed to win only because of a missed shift, resulting in engine failure, in the final hour of the race.
Mercedes had also debuted its new
Mercedes-Benz 300 SLRsportscar in the 1955 World Sportscar Championship season, with some notable success, including a win at the Mille Miglia. The 300 SLR featured a body made of an ultralightweight magnesiumalloy called Elektron with a specific gravityof just 1.8 (for reference, aluminiumhas an S.G. of 2.7 and iron7.8). This body lowered the overall weight of the car, improving performance. However, the car lacked the contemporary state-of-the-art disc brakesfeatured on the rival Jaguar D-Type, forcing Mercedes' engineers to incorporate a large air brake behind the driver's compartment that could be raised to increase drag and slow the car down with sufficient rapidity for most conditions.
24 Hours of Le Mansbegan on June 11that year, with Pierre Levegh behind the wheel of the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLRrun by Daimler-Benz. American John Fitch was Levegh's assigned partner in the car, and he would take over driving duties later. Competition between Mercedes, Jaguar, Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Maseratiwas close, with all the marques fighting for the top positions early on. After just over two hours of racing and approximately 6:26 pm local time, Levegh was following Mike Hawthorn's leading Jaguar D-typealong the pit straight at the end of Lap 35. Hawthorn had just passed Lance Macklin's slower Austin-Healey 100when Hawthorn began slowing to make a pit stop. Hawthorn, whose Jaguar had disc brakes, slowed much more quickly than other competitors using drum brakes, such as Levegh's Mercedes. The sudden braking by Hawthorn caused the recently passed Austin-Healey to swerve to the centre of the track, attempting to repass the slowing Jaguar. Unfortunately, Lance Macklin had not noticed both Pierre Levegh and Juan Manuel Fangio, in another 300 SLR, approaching quickly from behind. Fangio was in second place at the time and attempting to lap Levegh.
Levegh, being ahead of Fangio on the track, did not have time to react. Levegh's car made contact with the left rear of Macklin's car as he came quickly upon the slowed car. The aerodynamic design of the Austin-Healey featured a long, ramp-like rear bodywork. When Levegh hit the Austin-Healey from behind, his car became airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, where it impacted an earthen mound set on the side of the track to protect spectators.
The 300 SLR struck the mound at such speed and angle that it was launched into a somersault, which caused loosened and damaged parts of the car to be flung away from the car. This included the bonnet and the front axle, both of which separated from the frame and landed in the crowd. With the front of the spaceframe chassis—and thus crucial engine mounts—destroyed, the car's heavy engine block also broke free and slammed into the crowd. Levegh was also thrown free of the somersaulting car, fatally crushing his skull when he landed.
As the remains of the 300 SLR slowed its somersault, the fuel tank, situated behind Levegh's seat, ruptured. The ensuing fuel fire raised the temperature of the remaining Elektron bodywork past its flashpoint, which due to its high
magnesiumcontent was already very low. Magnesium's properties mean that a combustion in oxygen is possible at relatively low temperatures, allowing the alloy to burst into white hot flames, sending searing embers onto the track and into the crowd. Rescue workers attempting to put out the burning wreckage were initially unsuccessful, as they unknowingly used water on the magnesium fire, which only intensified the inferno. As a result, the car burned for several hours. In total, 80 spectators were killed either by flying parts or from the fire.
Fangio, driving behind Levegh, narrowly escaped the heavily damaged
Austin-Healeywhich was now skidding to the right of the track, in his path. Macklin then hit the pit wall and bounced back to the left, crossing the track again. He impacted the barrier near the location of the now burning 300 SLR, leading to the death of another single spectator, although Macklin survived the incident.
The race was continued, officially in order to prevent departing spectators from crowding the roads and slowing down ambulances.
Mike Hawthorn, who had just pulled into the pits, continued on although he was shaken by what he saw going on at the other side of the front straight.
During the night, after reports of the number of spectators killed began to be confirmed and relayed back to
Mercedes-Benzheadquarters in Stuttgart, the official order came for the two remaining Mercedes cars, driven by Juan Manuel Fangio/ Stirling Mossand Karl Kling/André Simon, to immediately withdraw from the race as a sign of respect to the victims. At the time, Mercedes was leading the race by a lap over Jaguar.
Mike Hawthorn and the Jaguar team, led by motorsport manager
Lofty England, kept racing, believing they were not responsible for the crash. Hawthorn won the race with teammate Ivor Bueb, although they did not celebrate out of respect. Funeral services for the dead were held the next day at the cathedral in Le Mans.
After the race, an official inquiry into the accident ruled that Jaguar was not responsible for the crash, and that it was merely a racing incident. The death of the spectators was blamed on inadequate safety standards for track design, leading to a ban on motorsports in
France, Switzerland, Germany, and other nations until the tracks could be brought to a higher safety standard. Switzerland's ban allowed for the running of timed motorsports such as hillclimbs, yet banned sport which allowed two cars to compete alongside one another. This forced swiss racing promoters to organize circuit events in foreign countries like France, Italy and Germany. In June 2007 the Swiss government lifted the ban on racing. [citeweb | title = Switzerland lifts ban on motor racing | url = http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Switzerland_lifts_ban_on_motor_racing | publisher = GrandPrix.com & DueMotori.com | date = 6 June 2007 | accessdate = 2008-07-05]
The rest of the
1955 World Sportscar Championship seasonwas completed, with two more races at the British RAC Tourist Trophyand the Italian Targa Florio, although they were not run until September and October, several months after the accident. Mercedes-Benzwon both of these events, and were able to secure the constructors championship for the season.
Levegh's co-driver, John Fitch, became a major safety advocate and began active development of improving safety to road cars and racing circuits.
After winning also the last major race of the 1955 season, the
Targa Florio, Mercedes-Benz announced that they would no longer participate in factory sponsored motorsport in order to concentrate on development of regular cars. The self-imposed ban on circuit racing lasted until the 1980s.
1955 24 Hours of Le Mans
* Le Mans 1965 in Automobile Historique n°48 May 2005 (in French)
* 24 heures du Mans 1973 in Automobile Historique n°49 June/July 2005 (in French)
* [http://www.mike-hawthorn.org.uk/lemans.php Le Mans 1955 from The Mike Hawthorn Tribute Site] - Extensive 1955 Le Mans coverage - reports, analysis, photos with another 80+ pages about Mike's life
* [http://www.ewilkins.com/wilko/lemans.htm Life magazine report of the 1955 Le Mans Disaster]
* [http://www.germaris.com/le_mans.html 1955 Le Mans Disaster depicted and analysed in depth by a witness (available only in French for the time being)]
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