Inside the 1955 Le Mans Tragedy
There were no sponsorship liveries on the 60 cars that started at Le Mans in 1955. Instead, they were adorned in the national racing colors of the countries that each represented: Rosso Corsa, Bleu de France, British Racing Green and German silver. As an endurance contest there was no qualifying for starting position. The cars were simply arrayed in left echelon from largest to smallest and each was numbered accordingly. The drivers stood in small white circles painted across the pit lane opposite their cars. When the flag fell at 4:00 pm to start the race the drivers sprinted to their respective cockpits and set off for the crucible that the 24 Hours of Le Mans had represented since its inception in 1923.
It had been said that any man could be fast for a few hundred yards but that no mortal could sprint for miles. Le Mans had always been a challenge of endurance and the early hours were typically spent in finding the right pace and preserving the car. But 1955 was not an ordinary year and there were no holds barred. It was like a Grand Prix contested with sports cars and the best drivers in the world were there.
Notwithstanding the tragic death of the great Alberto Ascari – killed at Monza just weeks earlier – the roster of drivers in 1955 was without equal: Phil Hill, Mike Hawthorn, Masten Gregory, John Fitch, Peter Collins, Les Leston, Dickie Stoop, Paul Frere, Briggs Cunningham, Tommy Wisdom, Ken Miles, Colin Chapman, Zora Arkus Duntov, Stirling Moss and the incomparable Juan Manuel Fangio.
World War II had ended a decade earlier and memories of the conflict were fresh in the minds of many watching the race. An internment camp where members of the French resistance were held was located not far from the course and many of the drivers themselves had participated in the war effort. The all-British team from Jaguar found it hard to disguise its antipathy for the Germans. Mike Hawthorn was openly dismissive of the German cars and fellow driver Norman Dewis was even more contemptuous of the men themselves, particularly Mercedes driver Karl Kling whom he considered an ardent fascist and an all-around “scowlish bloke.”
Mercedes-Benz had only recently returned to international competition and it carefully assembled the team for Le Mans with an eye towards public perception. The lead SLR was shared between Fangio and Moss, who were both among the greatest ever to drive on the world stage and their combined skills would make them prohibitive favorites. The second car was an all-German affair with Kling and Hans Herrmann. The third Mercedes featured a populist hero in the personage of elderly French driver Pierre Levegh – who had almost won at Le Mans in 1951 while driving his Talbot single-handed for 23 hours – and American star John Fitch.
The 300 SLR fielded by Mercedes was a technical marvel with its magnesium alloy body, fuel injection and an air brake that could be deployed to slow the car without threat of instability at triple-digit speeds. With the two best drivers in the world sharing the same seat, most competitors believed that a Mercedes victory was a foregone conclusion.
Jaguar had won at Le Mans in 1951 and 1953 and it refused to concede victory to the Germans. The D-Type was an amazing car in its own right with better stopping power than Mercedes – thanks to disc brakes over the SLR’s drums – and an aerodynamic advantage that allowed speeds over 190 mph on the Mulsanne straight.
The real difference between Coventry and Stuttgart came down to talent. Mike Hawthorn was very good, exceptional perhaps, but he was essentially a playboy that drove racing cars for hire. He was capable of beating Fangio – Hawthorn had won the 1953 French Grand Prix in a Ferrari by one second over Fangio in his Maserati – but none of the other five drivers for Jaguar were near his equal.
That knowledge weighed heavily on Hawthorn before the race. Fair-haired and resplendent in his bow tie, Hawthorne thought to himself as he surveyed the competition, “damn it, why should a German car beat a British car?” That thought also motivated Jaguar competition director Lofty England, who had devised a plan for dealing with the favorites – namely he wanted Hawthorn to drive them into the ground. The goal – as described by Jaguar’s Dewis – was for Hawthorn to go out and set a blistering pace “with no real thought of winning with that car. That was the car designated to go out and break the opposition. Hawthorn was sent off to blow up the Mercedes … that’s how we worked it. Fangio and Moss together: you couldn’t match anything like that. You could put Mike against them but I don’t know whom you’d put with Mike that would have the ability to stay with Moss or Fangio. Mike was going to push on as hard as hell with no thought of finishing …”
Lance Macklin glanced in his mirrors to see what was approaching from behind as he passed Arnage headed for the Maison Blanche. Less than three hours had passed since the start and he was already down four laps to the race leaders who were about to go past him again for the fifth time.
In the mirrors of his Austin-Healey 100 three cars were closing fast: a Jaguar D-Type was bracketed front and rear by two Mercedes-Benz 300 SLRs. Behind the wheel of the D-Type was his friend, Mike Hawthorn, who shared Macklin’s enthusiasm for pretty women, strong drink and good times.
Like Hawthorn, Macklin was a playboy – Stirling Moss credited him with all he knew about the fine art of seduction – but he had also been educated at Eton. Lance had good looks and lots of money. His father had founded Railton and Invicta and manufactured torpedo boats in the war. After leaving the Royal Navy, Macklin set out for a career in motorsports. He raced on the Grand Prix circuit but was never very competitive. That said, he was still very good and his Healey at Le Mans had the blessing and support of the Healey factory despite its privateer label.
Most importantly, Macklin was smart and realistic. His 100 could never compete with the faster cars from Aston Martin, Jaguar, Ferrari, Maserati and Mercedes. His real battle was against the three works Triumphs – and to a lesser extent against the BMC factory team competing with the MG EX182 – so he was running at his own pace and keeping an eye out for faster traffic.
The fans, however, were treated to a spectacular show with Hawthorn and Fangio trading record laps one after the other. The Ferrari 121LM driven by Eugenio Castellotti was in third but it had fallen more than a minute behind their pace in the early going. What was even more astounding was that only four other cars from the original 60 were on the same lap as the leaders after just two hours of racing – with each lap 8.3-miles long.
Hawthorn was practically spent: “I was momentarily mesmerised by the legend of Mercedes superiority. Here was this squat silver projectile, handled by the world’s best driver, with its fuel injection and desmodromic valve gear, its complicated suspension and its out-of-this-world air brake. It seemed natural that it should eventually take the lead. Then I came to my senses. As there was no one in sight but me to stop it, I got down to it and caught up with him again.”
The pace of the Jaguar and Mercedes weaving through traffic was not only enthralling the fans, it was also placing pressure on the other drivers to stay the hell out of the way. What made Le Mans different from Grand Prix races was the widely variable differences in performance among the competing cars and an even wider gap between the skill of the drivers, some of whom were outright amateurs and others professional privateers not quite good enough to be hired for factory rides.
Even for the better drivers in the faster cars, the pace set by the leaders was daunting. Roy Salvadori, driving in the works Aston Martin DB 3S recalled, “you’d be watching for Hawthorn and Fangio to come up and then let them go … We were trying to make it as easy as possible for themselves and ourselves.”
When Macklin looked in his mirror he had seen Hawthorn’s D-Type behind one SLR and ahead of another. As he watched the D-Type pull abreast of the first SLR – it was Hawthorn lapping Kling – Macklin may have noticed the third SLR approach into view. Macklin made sure to get through Maison Blanche directly which he drifted through at about 110 mph and set up to the right as the course narrowed towards the pits.
Checking again he saw the D-Type and the second SLR side-by-side – Hawthorn and Levegh – with the third SLR just behind them both. Macklin moved further over to the right so that if they reached the kink ahead at the same time there would be plenty of room for the faster cars to pass.
Looking to his left, Macklin saw Hawthorn in the Jaguar draw alongside – in the overall lead – and then pull ahead with the two 300 SLRs (Levegh and Fangio) still behind his Healey. Macklin continued to hold his line as it went by. It was 6:27 pm on June 11, 1955. The worst accident in racing history was about to begin.
Something Like A War
Between Fangio and Macklin’s Healey was the 300 SLR driven by Levegh. He was off to the left but would have to move right to get on the racing line as the road ahead narrowed. Levegh was not yet scheduled to pit so he continued at speed. As Macklin looked up he saw Hawthorn move sharply over to the right and then brake hard so that he could enter the open pit area.
Macklin saw the brake lights of the Jaguar ahead of him and he hit his own brakes hard. The Healey was on the verge of wheel lock and Macklin feared that he would hit the rapidly decelerating Hawthorn. As he eased left – astride the white center line – he began to lose control and the car began to veer. Fangio remembered that Hawthorn braked “rather violently” leaving Macklin no choice.
The track at that point was almost 23 feet wide but due to the kink it was necessary to drive to the right of the centerline at speed. Levegh was closing too fast and the right wheel of his Mercedes struck the rear of the Healey and launched it into the air. Macklin felt a strong blow and then saw “a silver shape with the driver hunched over the wheel “ in the air above his car, which was knocked into a spin and moving backwards towards the pits.
Fangio would later estimate that he was less than 50 yards away and credited Levegh with raising his hand in warning sufficient to steer him clear of the danger unfolding. He saw the Healey ahead begin to spin and then – with no room or time to brake – drove between the spinning Healey and Hawthorn’s D-Type.
Levegh was still in his car as it flew through the air headed for the stands across from the pit area. It landed with a terrible crash that tore the car to pieces as it flung the helpless driver onto the track. The chassis – fueled by the magnesium from the body – burst into flames and showered fire across the stands. The various components cut through the crowd like a fiery scythe. The front axle and the flying engine decapitated several fans and within moments at least 50 people were dead.
Dewis was watching from the Jaguar pit counter when he saw the Mercedes “go very high in the air – and crash down nose first on the banking. It exploded like a bomb.”
The Healey careened into Jaguar’s pit area after crashing into three people and came to rest at an angle. Smoke from the burning Mercedes obscured the track and Macklin’s first thought was to get out of the car as quickly as possible. Dewis could hear him shouting, “this was all Hawthorn’s fault, it’s Hawthorn’s fault.” Distraught, Macklin was led away. Meanwhile, Hawthorn had stopped his D-Type far beyond his own pit. No one was allowed to reverse on course so he soon went out and completed another lap then came in to hand the car over to his co-driver Ivor Bueb.
Macklin was livid. He explained to Donald Healey that Hawthorn “had pulled straight in front of me and clapped his brakes on” and was “a bloody idiot” for doing so. Healey calmed him down and they retired to the paddock where they shared a bottle of champagne to celebrate the close escape. Afterwards, Hawthorn approached Macklin. He put his arm around his friend’s shoulder and said, “Oh my god, Lance, I’m terribly sorry. I bloody near killed you, and I killed all those people. I’m really sorry. I’m certainly never going to race again.”
Whatever moral culpability Hawthorn may have expressed in the immediate aftermath of the crash could not obscure the fact that it was a Mercedes that had crashed, exploded and killed dozens of people in the stands. It was also a Mercedes that was still in the lead as Moss opened up an unassailable advantage on the rest of the field even as authorities gave aid to the injured and tried to identify the dead.
Afraid of the bad publicity that would result from the appearance of racing to victory over the dead bodies of French fans, Stuttgart directed its team to pull out. The head of the Mercedes team paid a courtesy call to the Jaguar pits to inform them of their decision. Lofty England was nonplussed. Mercedes could withdraw if they wished, but Jaguar would press on regardless.
So it passed that at 2:00 am, with an almost insurmountable lead and running 1-2, Mercedes called its drivers in and packed up its gear. Within minutes after the cars were loaded onto the transporter, the pits were packed up and the team was headed quickly for the border in the darkness. The only thing left behind – the wreckage of Pierre Levegh’s 300 SLR. Getting out was also on the mind of the Healey group. Macklin’s car was impounded, but Geoffrey Healey thought it prudent to go: “I ordered our team to pack and disappear immediately after the accident. I drove the spare 100S non-stop in the rain to the coast and took the first available boat.”
By morning, the only Jaguar still running was Hawthorn’s and it held a comfortable lead over the Maserati and Aston Martin in second and third place. The attrition was terrible, even by the standards of Le Mans, with two-thirds of the field knocked out for various reasons. Before the end of the race that afternoon, Hawthorn went back out so that he could be in the car for the finish and he took the checkered flag with a ebullient smile that was soon doused with celebratory champagne offered up by Lofty England. The British car had beaten the German car – but the price of victory was paid in human life.
Picking up the Pieces
The final toll remains in dispute, but most sources agree that 84 people were killed in the accident on June 11, 1955. During the inquiry held after the race it was impossible to precisely determine what had happened and who was at fault. After the race had ended, Hawthorn had changed his tune – so much so that his friend Macklin would sue him later for slander – stating that he had (1) signaled to Macklin his intention to enter the pits; (2) moved to the right with time for Macklin and anyone else to maneuver past him; and (3) that he was in no way at fault for the resulting accident.
For his part, Macklin acted, as he believed a British gentleman should, and avoided any direct recrimination of Hawthorn or anyone else. Instead, he said, “the main thing responsible was the speed of the race … I would not say any one particular person is responsible.” Ivor Bueb apparently had no such qualms: “The Mercedes is evidently a very dangerous car to drive. If the engine, axle and other parts of the car had not been projected the number of victims would not have been so high.” Some questioned Levegh’s reaction to the Healey in his path – which was attractive since he could not defend himself – in that he was too old, too slow in reacting and well off the racing line when his car was launched in the air. The final verdict assigned blame to no one. The 1955 Le Mans tragedy was deemed a terrible accident but in truth was the end of an era that would never come again. Innocence – along with a tragic human toll – was lost forever.
By Johnny Oversteer
Images courtesy of the Healey Museum (NL) and Bonhams UK.