Remembering the 1955 Le Mans Disaster That Marked Motorsports Forever
Though ten years had passed since World War II ended, the animosity between the Germans and the British could still be sensed. People everywhere still had a vivid recollection of the bombings, the sounds of Messerschmits and Spitfires, not to mention the mass destruction which lasted for five long years.
Unfortunately, the year 1955 won’t be remembered as a year of record-breaking, nail-biting racing, although it clearly was. Instead, it will be sadly remembered as the most cruel, to some even the most disgraceful, but definitely the most tragic year in the history of the sport.
Jaguar didn’t want to see Mercedes-Benz winning the 1955 Le Mans
As Le Mans, the most-awaited racing event of the year, was about the start, the excitement was growing on an astronomical scale. It didn’t even matter who was going to win, as long as it wasn’t Mercedes-Benz, whose triumph on an allied territory would have been unacceptable under all circumstances.
Jaguar took the first Le Mans win in 1953, and in the following year, it was Ferrari who claimed the throne. For 1955, the Germans prepared the magnificent 300SLR, a 1954/55 F1 based two-seater. With Stirling Moss behind the wheel, Mercedes-Benz had already conquered one major event – the Mille Miglia in Italy, and Jaguar was determined not to let that happen in Le Mans as well.
Alongside Moss, Fangio and John Fitch, Mercedes had signed the 49-year-old French driver Pierre Levegh, mostly because of his superhuman enthusiasm shown in the 1952 Le Mans where he single-handedly raced for 23 hours despite sharing the car with another racer. Unfortunately, Levegh didn’t manage to finish the race, but his sheer determination was enough for Mercedes to have him in the team.
In the second corner, Jaguar had an all-British crew of Ivor Bueb, Tony Rolt, Duncan Hamilton, and most importantly, Mike Hawthorn. Their prized car was the D-Type, a car which had its debut in 1954. In 1955, Hawthorn contracted a kidney infection, so he raced and lived like there’s no tomorrow, which wasn’t that far from the truth in his case. That kind of attitude, combined with frequent blackouts, the side effect of his health problems, could have been the cause of the upcoming disaster.
The excitement reached the peak level on 11th of June, 1955, when the race officially began. Mercedes-Benz’s dream team consisted of Fangio and Moss, while Jaguar’s key drivers were Hawthorn and Bueb. John Fitch and Pierre Levegh were in the second 300 SLR, and the Frenchman was the one who had a sprinting start.
The race was simultaneously held for all the classes and track safety didn’t change much since the inaugural event in the twenties when 100 km/h was considered a mind-blowing speed. However, this meant that shunts were quite frequent.
But no other crash will ever be as tragic as the disaster that took place 2 hours into the race near the pit lane. At the end of lap 35, soon after overtaking a much slower Austin Healey 100 driven by Lance Macklin, Hawthorn, who was leading, suddenly hit the brakes for no apparent reason. That caused a series of events which led to the crash.
A series of unfortunate decisions contributed to the magnitude of the deadliest disaster in the sport
Firstly, Macklin slammed the brakes as well, thus losing control and hitting the incoming 300SLR driven by Levegh. The 300SLR collided with the Austin Healey with such force that it immediately went airborne, directly towards the packed and unprotected grandstands.
The loose hood and the front axle flew separately from the car, killing and decapitating people who were running away in panic. Since the car’s body was made of magnesium, it soon caught fire. Over eighty people were killed in the crash and subsequent fire. Pierre Levegh, who was catapulted from the car, was also dead. Fangio, who was driving behind Levegh, miraculously managed to evade the disaster. In order for the ambulance cars to do their job properly, racing had to be continued, but the scandals were just about to begin.
Mercedes asked Jaguar to step out of the race, but their manager Lofty England declined. Despite causing the deadliest accident in history of motorsports, Hawthorn kept on driving, while Mercedes pitted all their cars out of respect for their teammate and the casualties, despite holding the first and the second place.
As was expected, Hawthorn went on to win the race, but not in the way anyone would ever want for it to happen. The only respect Jaguar has ever paid to the victims of the accident was a less flamboyant celebration. However, every person connected to the crash in any way will forever remember the image of Bueb and Hawthorn sitting in their D-Type, drinking champagne, holding a trophy with laurel wreaths around their necks.
The second place was held by Peter Collins and Paul Frère behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB3S. Collins soon signed for Mercedes-Benz where he befriended Fitch. He later went to Ferrari and formed a rivalry with Luigi Musso alongside Hawthorn.
1955 has been the last active season for Mercedes-Benz factory works
Mercedes-Benz drove the last two races of the championship and took the first place in manufacturers championship, which pushed Jaguar to third place overall, behind Ferrari which was at second. 1955 was the last year for Mercedes’ factory team which took a 30-year long hiatus following the crash at Le Mans.
All accident survivors continued racing
Hawthorn’s unscrupulousness was yet again shown in Formula 1 in the year of 1958, when he won the race in which Luigi Musso was killed without showing him any respect, if not as his rival, then as his team mate. The same year was fatal for Collins who died at the Nürburgring, which had an impact on Hawthorn who decided to end his career.
In the same year, karma wrote the last page of his life – Hawthorn died when his Jaguar 3,4l Sedan hit a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. Ironically, his name is hugely celebrated in the UK. Since 1959, a memorial trophy in his name is awarded to the most successful British F1 racer.
Macklin resumed racing until he crashed another Healy in an accident that killed two drivers. After that crash, he retired and worked in Facel Vega until the company went bust. Interestingly, it was Macklin who won the BDRC in 1952, a year before Hawthorn did. Macklin considered Hawthorn a friend until reading his biography in which Mike blamed it all on him. Lance Macklin died in 2002 in Kent.
Deeply shaken by these deaths to which he was a first-hand witness, John Fitch invented the Fitch Barrier which is still used today, as well as numerous other life saving devices. On the 31st of October, 2012, at the age of 95, John Fitch died at his home in Connecticut. He will be remembered as the great gentleman, a transcontinentally successful racer, and a great safety innovator who saved many lives in his quest to make racing safer.