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Le Mans 1955

remembering the worst crash in motorsport history


The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans was labeled as WWII on the track. Mercedes and the might of German manufacturing versus the 'Garagistes' of Great Britain and their low-key high-success rate of garage-built manufacturing. New technologies including disc brakes and aero brakes were being introduced along with ever advancing speeds and lightweight chassis development.

”It was a dated and dangerous track that was suited for the cars of 20 years prior.“

But thesame could not be said for Circuit de La Sarthe. It was a dated and dangerous track that was suited for the cars of 20 years prior; not the 180 MPH sportscars that were inches from death every lap. The front straight featured a slight kink onto the pit straight with a completely exposed pitting area. Safety was regarded as something that might happen, and preventative measures were not implemented until an accident occurred and highlighted the issue.


Pierre Levegh

The 49-year-old Levegh was hired by Mercedes as a token to the people of France, and giving him a shot at winning after coming within an hour of a solo-effort win ruined by an engine failure (connecting rod), in 1952. He was a legend in France for his 23 hour straight drive for victory, and was a fan favorite of the race. Though Levegh died on the track, he may have saved legendary racer Juan Manuel Fangio by giving a hand-signal to slow down.


The 300 SLR was revolutionary in its design. It featured a lightweight, magnesium honeycomb chassis that made for an incredibly strong but light sportscar. It also featured an air brake to help its drum brakes compete with Jaguar's superior disc brakes.

Mike Hawthorn

Mike Hawthorn was born in Mexborough, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. Hawthorne pushed like every lap was his last and Fangio diligently returned the favour. His father owned the Tourist Trophy Garage in Farnham, franchised to supply and service several high performance brands including Jaguar and Ferrari.


Jaguar's legendary D-Type is still one of the most beautiful and beloved cars, 60 years later. It featured a revolutionary aerodynamic design for a more streamlined and slippery top speed, and also featured its distinctive rear fin to stabilize the car at high speed.

Lance Macklin

Macklin was born in Kensington, and educated at Eton College. He volunteered for service with the Royal Navy in 1939 and (in line with his father's business) was assigned to work on motor gun boats. Lance Macklin was trying to prove he could be a racer after WWII. He participated in 15 Formula One World Championship Grands Prix, debuting on 18 May 1952.


Built primarily with racing in mind, the aluminium-bodied "100S" (for Sebring) model developed 132 bhp (98 kW) at 4700 rpm. Only 50 production cars were made, plus an additional five works development/special test cars hand built by the Donald Healey Motor Company in Warwick.

Start, Race and Crash

The Start

After the drivers sprinted to their vehicles, the race started rather uneventfully. During the first lap, the key protagonists had already positioned themselves in the top ten. At the end of the opening lap, local hero Levegh was down in seventh place, ahead of his Mercedes team-mates.

"His battle with Hawthorn became so intense, the Englishman missed several calls to pit."

It was close racing, and on the next lap Fangio made his move. His battle with Hawthorn became so intense, the Englishman missed several calls to pit.

The Race

By lap 35, the pace was blistering as Hawthorne and Fangio exchanged the lead over and over. At this point, both lead cars were about to lap the slower-paced 300 SLR of Pierre Levegh and the even slower Austin-Healey of Lance Macklin. Needing to refuel, Mike Hawthorne required a fast pit stop to continue to challenge the Mercedes. Pierre Levegh was in front of the two lead cars, and was racing heavily to pass Macklin to get out of the way. Macklin, on the pit side of the front straight, did not have the speed and was about to be overtaken by Hawthorne, Levegh, and finally Fangio. Hawthorne passed Macklin just before the front stretch kink and immediately began to brake, saving as much time as possible for pit entry.

The Crash

The Jaguar’s disc brakes worked hard to slow the car in front of the unaware Lance Macklin. Macklin then swerved left to avoid the slowing D-Type and continue racing down the front straight. His car cut in front of the hard charging Levegh. As the track was just 3 car widths wide at this point, Macklin’s maneuver to avoid collision with the D-Type leaves him slow, and directly in the path of the 300 SLR which could not brake to avoid it at the last second. The 300 SLR vaulted over the back of the AH100 and landed on the 5 foot earth embankment on the spectator side of the pit straight.

"As the 300 SLR impacts, it tumbles and disintegrates."

As the 300 SLR impacted the embankment, it tumbled end-over-end and disintegrared. Levegh was thrown from the car into the ditch between the embankment and the crowd picket fence, killing him instantly. The front of the Mercedes – front axle, engine, and hood – launched into the extremely tight-packed crowd. The car's engine tumbled into the stands, the hood slicing through the crowd as well. The Austin-Healey meanwhile was hit and spun into the embankment, striking and killing a spectator attempting to avoid the explosion of Levegh's Mercedes. Macklin struck the pit wall before finally coming to a rest against the stand embankment and hopping out.

As the 300 SLR tumbled to a stop, its largely magnesium bodywork and chassis ignited after the fuel tank ruptured and lit the car past its ignition point. The car burned hot for 20 minutes, with even more spectators burned, and some fatally injured when marshals attempted to throw water on the chassis, causing molten balls to explode into the crowd. The chassis would not be extinguished until most of the car was burnt beyond recognition.

Course of Events

Phase 1

Lance Macklin is overtaken by Mike Hawthorn who brakes heavily in front of him to reach the pit.

Phase 2

Macklin has to steer left to avoid Hawthorn. Pierre Levegh crashes into the rear of Macklin and is catapulted off the road and over the track barrier.

Phase 3

The force of impact pushes Macklin into the right wall while Hawthorn comes to a halt in the pit.

Phase 4

Macklin comes to a rest against the stand, while Levegh's car catches fire and parts of it continue into the crowd.

The Tragedy on Film

1. Before the Crash
2. As it Happens
3. The Horror After

The Aftermath

Immediately following the crash, spectators were told minimal details of the accident, as to keep the roadways clear for emergency personnel. The organizers would receive flak for not abandoning the race in the aftermath of the disaster. Word quickly began to spread through the pits and to another Mercedes driver, American John Fitch, who suggested that Mercedes should withdraw from the race. At midnight, Mercedes pulled the then-leading car of Fangio and Stirling Moss, and Fitch's 300 SLR. Mercedes would not again race for 30 years after the disaster. Mike Hawthorne went on to take victory and was scorned by the French papers for his victory and celebrations after the race. He went on to win the Formula 1 World Championship but would die in a traffic accident in 1959 ironically overtaking a Mercedes 300SL.

"Mercedes would not again race for 30 years."

Le Mans changed after this. The kink was reduced, the pit road was widened, as well as the pit straight. The old stands were torn down, moved back, and rebuilt for further safety, and the track around the front straight was made safer.

It was the darkest day for motorsports, caused one car manufacturer to withdraw from racing for 30 years, and caused a nation (Switzerland) to ban motorsports in their country. It serves as a focal point for the 'Wild West' attitudes of safety and speed before the awakened need for motorsport safety.

It is something we should never forget as we reflect on 60 years since its tragedy.

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