Friday, June 11, 2010

Motor racing's biggest disaster: Le Mans, 11th June 1955


While we celebrate the start today of the football World Cup in South Africa, (more on the World Cup later), let’s not forget that today is also the 55th anniversary of one of the worst sporting disasters of all time, one in which over 80 people lost their lives. Here’s my piece to mark the anniversary of the 1955 Le Mans disaster from the Daily Express.

RECKLESS BRITISH PLAYBOY BEHIND MOTOR RACING'S BIGGEST DISASTER
Neil Clark


It was the worst – and most ­horrific – disaster in the history of motor racing. On June 11, 1955, at the Le Mans 24-hour race, at least 83 spectators were killed and hundreds more injured when the burning remains of the Mercedes car driven by 49-year-old Frenchman Pierre Levegh, flew into the crowd­ following a terrible on-track collision. A 400-square-yard stretch of cheering ­people became a black, hysterical horror,” reported Time magazine.

The disaster stunned the world and led to some countries banning motor racing altogether. Fifty-five years on, questions remain as to who was to blame for the tragedy, as a BBC4 ­documentary relates.

Was it caused by Mercedes gambling on unproven new technologies? Was the death toll so high because there was a secret fuel additive in a hidden tank which caused Levegh’s car to explode? Was there an official cover-up on the causes of the crash by the French authorities? Or was it all to do with the recklessness of a devil-may-care British driver who had been told he had only a few years to live?

The backdrop to the disaster was intense rivalry between German and British motor-racing teams and their drivers. But the fierce competition had dire consequences for safety.

Motor racing in the Fifties was far more dangerous than today. Safety measures such as guard rails and tyre walls were non-existent. Drivers risked life and limb in every race. Just a fortnight before the Le Mans disaster Alberto Ascari, a dual world champion, had been killed at Monza in Italy. Only four days earlier he had ­narrowly escaped when his car tumbled into Monaco harbour. At Le Mans, six men had died in the race since it began in 1923.

But before 1955 spectators did not expect to be victims.
At the 1955 race more than 250,000 people eagerly awaited a battle between Mercedes, the dominant force in motor sport, and Jaguar, its British rival. Lead driver for Mercedes was Juan Manuel Fangio, the reigning world champion from Argentina, regarded as the greatest driver of all time.


Jaguar’s star was the dashing blond and ultra-patriotic 26-year-old Englishman Mike Hawthorn, a man known to hate all things German. It was said of Hawthorn that if he had been born 10 years earlier he would have been a Battle of Britain pilot. As it was he focused on beating German cars on the race track – calling his own cars “Merc eaters”. But unbeknown to his adoring ­public the Golden Boy was a sick man. In 1954 he’d had a ­kidney removed and was told he would be dead before he was 30. Hawthorn was determined to live his short life to the full. An exuberant character, he smoked and drank to excess, loved parties and piloted his own plane. But his favourite form of recreation was chasing and seducing Europe’s most beautiful women.

In 1953, after celebrating his victory in the French Grand Prix, Hawthorn spent the night in bed with a French girl. She became pregnant but the affair was kept secret and the girl, from a respectable background, was forced to live in a house at the end of her family’s garden until the baby was born. Hawthorn travelled to Paris after his lover had asked him for help and five years later gave his young son a ride in his car when he and his mother visited England.

Hawthorn was also a practical joker. Fellow driver Stirling Moss recalls an occasion when he was standing under a tree outside a pub when he thought it had started to rain. When he looked up he saw Hawthorn poised precariously in the tree, urinating on him.

On the racetrack Hawthorn played to win. He was accused by some of reckless driving and the events at Le Mans did little to dispel that reputation. Around two hours into the race Hawthorn began to slow for a pit stop. The braking caused the car behind him, an Austin Healey driven by British driver Lance Macklin, to pull into the middle of the track. Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes, travelling at 150mph, mounted the back of Macklin’s car and soared into the air. After hitting a mound it exploded and broke up, spraying red-hot shrapnel and debris into the crowd. Levegh was thrown from the car and killed on impact in front of his wife.

Eyewitness Jacques Grelley later said. “I was stepping over bodies – they were everywhere. I couldn’t talk for three hours.” His companion was decapitated with his binoculars still around his neck. As people lay dying, priests administered the last rites.

Incredibly the race continued because organisers believed a mass ­exodus would hinder rescuers. While Mercedes withdrew their drivers six hours later as a mark of respect, Hawthorn was instructed to continue and Jaguar claimed a ­hollow victory.

The European media were quick to blame the playboy British driver for what had happened. A fierce war of words broke out between ­Mercedes and Jaguar. ­Hawthorn protested his innocence. “In my judgment I allowed sufficient time for the driver of any following car to be aware of my intentions and for him to take such action as might be required without being of danger to others,” he said. He considered quitting the sport but the official inquiry exonerated him and said no single person could be held responsible.

The verdict was supported by Belgian racing driver and writer Paul Frere. “It is completely clear from the photographs ­Hawthorn did not make a sudden-brake-and-pull-sharp-right manoeuvre only a short distance from the pits, thereby endangering the cars near him.”

The tragedy could have been put down to many factors. Before the race Pierre Levegh had expressed ­concerns about the speed of the cars in the ­narrow pit straight.

Levegh’s car was made from a ­magnesium alloy which made it lighter and therefore faster but the downside was that it was highly inflammable. Also the car’s brakes were unreliable, a deadly combination.

For years rumours persisted that a secret fuel additive in a hidden extra fuel tank caused the car to explode when it hit the bank, though this has never been proved. The accident led to the imposition of new safety standards at Le Mans. Mercedes left Formula One at the end of the 1955 season, not to return for nearly 40 years.

Hawthorn recovered his appetite for the sport and in 1958 won a thrilling duel with Stirling Moss to become the first ever British Formula One world champion. Having reached the pinnacle of his profession he then decided to retire and planned to marry the model Jean Howarth.

There was no happy ending. But it was not his kidney disease that killed Hawthorne. On a wet morning in ­January 1959, his Jaguar spun off the A3 bypass near Guildford, Surrey, and hit a tree. He died in minutes.

Ironically, it may have been his fierce anti-German sentiment that killed him. A friend had been driving a ­Mercedes on the same stretch of road and Hawthorn, who couldn’t bear to see a German car get the better of his Jaguar “Merc eater”, decided to race against it. So the man whom many held responsible for the horrors of Le Mans, met his own tragic and untimely death less than four years later.

10 comments:

DBC Reed said...

Not sure that Hawthorn was that "reckless" (a word used somewhat recklessly in the piece).He certainly slows down but not suddenly:Macklin hits the side of the track sending up dust ,then veers into the middle of the track apparently out of control.The Merc collides with him.
The track with the pits down one side and the grandstand down the other was far too narrow at this point (and was widened subsequently.)Hawthorn, though conforming to a certain type of Bentley Boys British stereotype, cannot really be held responsible for the disaster.he could not have slowed for the pits any differently.

Robin Carmody said...

I liked the recent BBC Four programme about this tragedy - really set it in context (resurgent Germany, Britain desperately trying to retain supremacy the year before Suez ...)

Neil Clark said...

Hi Robin-
Yes, it was a great programme, as were the BBC4 documentaries on Graham Hill and Jim Clark. Did you watch those too?

Anonymous said...

Hawthorne passed the Healey, cut back in front of the Healey, saw a signal from his pit to refuel, stuffed the DISK brakes in front of cars with drum brakes and caused the accident. He in fact told his team members that it was his fault when he stopped the next lap. He later absolved himself. That's the truth, as reported by his teammate, John Fitch--who made racing much safer through his inventions and tireless efforts after being changed by the incident.

Anonymous said...

John Fitch was not his team mate, he was driving for Mercedes and was Co driver to Levegh.

Anonymous said...

John Fitch was not driving for Jaguar, he was, in fact, driving with Mercedes that day and was Levegh's co driver.

Anonymous said...

John Fitch was not driving for Jaguar, he was, in fact, driving with Mercedes that day and was Levegh's co driver.

Anonymous said...

John Fitch was not driving for Jaguar, he was, in fact, driving with Mercedes that day and was Levegh's co driver.

RICHARD MCNAMEE said...

I WAS APPOXIMATELY THE SAME AGE AS MIKE HAWTHORN IN 1955. I WAS STATIONED AT LANDSTUHL AIR FORCE BASE IN GERMANY WITH THE US AIR FORCE. OUR SPECIAL SERVICE OFFERED ME A FREE TICKET TO THE 1955 LE MANS ENDURANCE RACE. FOR SOME REASON I DID NOT ACCEPT THE OFFER AND NEVER MADE IT TO THE 1955 LE MANS RACE. HAD I ACCEPTED, I MAY NOT BE WRITING THIS COMMENT. LATER IN THE SEASON I WATCHED JUAN FANGIO, AND STERLING MOSS COME IN 1 AND 2 IN THEIR MERCEDES AT THE GERMAN GRAND PRIX AT THE NURBERGRING. AN EVENT I WILL NEVER FORGET.

Gordon A said...

Anonymous is wrong. Macklin's car was disc-braked, just as was Hawthorn's. Hawthorn's coming into the pits was not a sudden last-minute decision, but one that had been counted down by pit signals during the several previous laps. John Fitch was not Hawthorn's team mate but Levegh's co-driver, perhaps not an unbiased witness. It's important tro get the facts right.