1955 Le Mans disaster

1955 Le Mans disaster

The 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans when 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-Benz as 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 SLR sportscar 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 magnesium alloy called Elektron with a specific gravity of just 1.8 (for reference, aluminium has an S.G. of 2.7 and iron 7.8). This body lowered the overall weight of the car, improving performance. However, the car lacked the contemporary state-of-the-art disc brakes featured 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.


The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans began on June 11 that year, with Pierre Levegh behind the wheel of the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR run 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 Maserati was 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-type along the pit straight at the end of Lap 35. Hawthorn had just passed Lance Macklin's slower Austin-Healey 100 when 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 magnesium content 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-Healey which 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-Benz headquarters in Stuttgart, the official order came for the two remaining Mercedes cars, driven by Juan Manuel Fangio/Stirling Moss and 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 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.

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.

ee also

*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)

External links

* [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)]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans — Le Mans Races Previous = 1954 Current = 1955 Next = 1956The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans was the 23rd Grand Prix of Endurance, and took place on June 11 and 12, 1955. It was also the fourth round of the World Sportscar ChampionshipThis race saw the… …   Wikipedia

  • 1955 in France — See also: 1954 in France, other events of 1955, 1956 in France. Events from the year 1955 in France.Events*5 May Bonn Paris conventions come into force, putting an end to the Allied occupation of West Germany. *11 June 1955 Le Mans disaster.… …   Wikipedia

  • 1955 — This article is about the year 1955. Millennium: 2nd millennium Centuries: 19th century – 20th century – 21st century Decades: 1920s  1930s  1940s  – 1950s –  1960s   …   Wikipedia

  • 1955 Dutch Grand Prix — Results from the 1955 Formula One Dutch Grand Prix held at Zandvoort on June 19, 1955 Race report Despite a track made slippery by continuous drizzle, the record crowd were treated to some outstanding driving as the masters slid their machines… …   Wikipedia

  • 1955 Formula One season — F1 season Previous = 1954 Current = 1955 Next = 1956The 1955 Formula One season included the 6th FIA Formula One World Championship season, which commenced on January 16, 1955, and ended on September 11 after seven races.eason summaryMercedes… …   Wikipedia

  • 24 Heures du Mans 1955 — Précédent : 1954 Suivant : 1956 La 23e édition des 24 Heures du Mans s est déroulée les 11 et 12 juin 1955 sur le circuit de la Sarthe. Cette course est la quatrième manche du championnat du monde des voitures de sport 1955 (WSC World… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Deadliest Crash: The Le Mans 1955 Disaster — Deadliest Crash: The Le Mans 1955 Disater is a Documentary film made by Bigger Picture Films for the BBC in 2009. It was originally aired on BBC 4 on Sunday, 16 May 2010. It was subsequently repeated on BBC 2 and BBC 4.[1] The programme tells the …   Wikipedia

  • 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans — Le Mans Races Previous = 1998 Current = 1999 Next = 2000The 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans was the 67th Grand Prix of Endurance, and took place on June 12 and 13, 1999.Pre race1999 saw another increase in manufacturers involvement. Although Porsche did …   Wikipedia

  • 24 Hours of Le Mans — This article is about the sports car race. For the motorcycle race, see 24 Hours of Le Mans (motorcycle race). For other uses, see 24 Hours of Le Mans (disambiguation). 24 Hours of Le Mans Venue Circuit de la Sarthe First race …   Wikipedia

  • List of 24 Hours of Le Mans fatal accidents — This is a list of 24 Hours of Le Mans fatal accidents, which consists of all the drivers who have died during a 24 Hours of Le Mans weekend, or in pre race testing or practice sessions in preparation of the event. It does not include track… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.