The occurrences at the 2011 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans brought to mind those of 1955, the race that lives in infamy. During the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, more than 80 spectators were killed plus some 120 injured in the most horrendous accident in motor racing history.
Le Mans Motor Racing Disaster (1955) | Source: YouTube: British Pathé
My longtime and very close friend, John Fitch, was on the Mercedes team, co-driver with Pierre Levegh, whose car caused such carnage. A few years ago, I co-authored a book with Fitch, Racing With Mercedes. He told me a great deal about the accident and the surrounding circumstances. Also, I talked with some others—Ken Miles and Phil Hill—who were there as well.
The 1955 season started on a down note when, on May 26, World Champion and revered driver Alberto Ascari died at Monza. A week later, Bill Vukovich was killed while leading the Indy 500. Both were highly skilled with vast experience.
Daimler-Benz assembled an all-star team to pursue the World Driving Championship (Formula One) and the World Sports Car Championship. Drivers at Le Mans included Juan Fangio with Stirling Moss, Karl Kling with Andre Simon and Pierre Levegh with John Fitch.
The three Le Mans cars were designated W196S, commonly called 300SLRs. Many experts rated them the best sports cars in the world. With Moss at the wheel, they debuted at the Mille Miglia with an overall win. Fitch, driving a production 300SL, won the Grand Touring Class. The bodies were made from a flammable, but ultra-lightweight magnesium alloy.
French hero Pierre Levegh was not a regular member of the Mercedes team but team manager Alfred Neubauer felt it would be popular, even diplomatic, to include him. Remember, WWII ended only ten years previously. In 1952, driving solo, Levegh had led Le Mans until the 23rd hour when mechanical trouble sidelined him, giving the win to Mercedes.
A week before the race, Levegh and his wife invited Fitch to dine with them at their hotel. John told me, “I was greeted with warm animation and made to feel completely at home. My cursory knowledge of French had to suffice, as Levegh spoke no English. But we managed to communicate surprisingly well. He told me that a victory at Le Mans had long been his most cherished ambition.”
Here’s what happened. More than 250,000 spectators lined the 8.38-mile course, which was essentially the same as it was for the first race in 1923 when the top speeds were around 60 mph. But by 1955, many exceeded 190 mph. In those days, safety requirements were minimal; seat belts were not required, much less harnesses and roll bars.
After two hours, Mike Hawthorn in a D-Type Jaguar was dueling with Fangio for the lead. In an effort to stay ahead, Mike had been ignoring signals to stop for fuel. Levegh was just behind Hawthorn, but a lap in arrears.
Entering the pit straight, Mike had just passed Lance Macklin’s slower Austin-Healey when he decided to pit at the last minute and cut in front of Lance. Macklin braked, swerving to the center of the track. He had failed to notice the rapidly approaching Levegh and second-place Fangio, both going over 150 mph.
Levegh hit the Austin-Healey, became airborne, and landed on top of an embankment with a closely-packed crowd behind it. The 300SLR went into a somersault and disintegrated with parts flying about. Then the fuel caught fire causing the magnesium alloy to burst into flame.
Workers poured on water, not knowing this would intensify the fire. In consequence, the inferno continued to burn for several hours. Officials put the death toll at 84 spectators plus Levegh. Later, however, others claimed the count was actually much higher.
Just before the accident, Madame Levegh invited Fitch to join her for coffee in the Mercedes trailer just behind the pit. When they heard an explosion, John told Madame Levegh, “Wait here, I’ll see what’s happened.” Finding everything in chaos, he helped some injured gendarmes and journalists. Then he returned to the trailer. “I suppose my grim face must have told it all, for I didn’t have to speak. Madame Levegh nodded slowly. ‘I know, Fitch. It was Pierre. He is dead. I know he is dead.’”
Mercedes had a tradition of retiring the team when spectators or drivers were killed. Fitch thought they should, so he told Mercedes chief engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut about the appalling number of deaths and injuries, recommending that the team withdraw. Uhlenhaut called Mercedes headquarters in Germany, but the decision required a vote of the directors, all of whom couldn’t be immediately contacted. A few hours later, John again urged Uhlenhaut to try again for a decision, which was finally made to withdraw. Two hours after the accident, the two 300SLRs were called into the pits. The Fangio-Moss car was then two laps ahead of second-place Hawthorn, who went on to win.
There was little doubt that Hawthorn was the proximate cause of the accident. Whether or not he was the actual cause became a subject of some controversy. Some of the press claimed that he was culpable. Many years later, I became acquainted with a retired English nurse who it turned out was then Mike’s girlfriend. She told me that at times he would become depressed when remembering. As we all know, Hawthorn went on to win the first World Driving Championship for the United Kingdom in 1958, after which, he retired. The following year he was killed in a traffic accident.
The Mercedes Team went on to win not only the World Driving Championship with Fangio at the wheel, but also the World Sports Car Championship. After Moss won the Mille Miglia, Stirling and John Fitch won the Tourist Trophy, then Moss and Peter Collins clinched the title at the Targa Florio. Afterward, Mercedes dropped out of racing and didn’t return for some 30 years.
The consequences of the 1955 24 hours of Le Mans were and are far-reaching. They have affected all of us involved with the sport and even everyone who uses a car.
The American Automobile Association stopped sanctioning automotive competition. Racing was banned in Switzerland. The next round of the World Championship—the Nurburgring—was canceled, as was the Carrera Panamericana. And a great deal of attention was paid to driver and spectator protection as well as accident prevention. Everyone with a TV has seen—ad nauseum—the disintegration of the Audi R18 TDI of Allan McNish at the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans. But it didn’t go over the barrier, the fuel cell didn’t rupture, there was no fire, no spectator was injured and the driver walked away! This was because of improvements that have been made subsequent to 1955.
Another positive result was that self-taught engineer John Fitch devoted himself to problems of safety. Among other innovations, he invented the Fitch Inertial Barriers, those ubiquitous barrels found on highways that have saved countless lives.