Kling and Levegh at Le Mans 24 Hours, 1955

1955 24 Hours of Le Mans – Race Profile

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.

John Fitch and Pierre Levegh. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
John Fitch and Pierre Levegh. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
John Fitch and Alfred Neubauer. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
John Fitch and Alfred Neubauer. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)

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.

The start of the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans. Car #26 is the Lance Macklin Austin-Healey, the #19 300SLR is the Fangio/Moss car, #20 is Pierre Levegh, #21 is the Kling/Simon car. Briggs Cunningham is in the Cunningham C5R (#22) with the Tony Brooks Aston Martin (#25) and the da Silva Ramos Gordini (#30). (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
The start of the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans. Car #26 is the Lance Macklin Austin-Healey, the #19 300SLR is the Fangio/Moss car, #20 is Pierre Levegh, #21 is the Kling/Simon car. Briggs Cunningham is in the Cunningham C5R (#22) with the Tony Brooks Aston Martin (#25) and the da Silva Ramos Gordini (#30). (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
Karl Kling leading Pierre Levegh. Both are utilizing the innovative hydraulic air brakes of the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
Karl Kling leading Pierre Levegh. Both are utilizing the innovative hydraulic air brakes of the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
Pierre Levech (#20) is about to pass Jean-Paul Colas in the Salmson 2300S Spyder (#27). (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
Pierre Levech (#20) is about to pass Jean-Paul Colas in the Salmson 2300S Spyder (#27). (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)

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.

A fire burned for a number of hours after the crash because worker had tried to douse the flames with water. This made the titanium alloy burn fiercely. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
A fire burned for a number of hours after the crash because worker had tried to douse the flames with water. This made the titanium alloy burn fiercely. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)

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.

Rudi Uhlenhaut and John Fitch. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)
Rudi Uhlenhaut and John Fitch. (photo credit: Daimler-Benz archive)

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.

[Source: Art Evans]

Show Comments (21)

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    1. He still is, at 94. Come to some of the events at Lime Rock Park and you will see him and the ‘Fitch Phoenix’. Next event would be ALMS.

  1. I first read of the 1955 LeMans accident in Sports Car Illustrated in 1959 or 1960, when I was 12 years old. Since then I’ve read about it hundreds of times, but this is the first time I have read of Mike Hawthorn’s involvement. Thank you, Mr. Evans, for this revelation. 
    Additionally, I think this is the first photo I have ever seen of the “innovative hydraulic air brakes of the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR.” I had always assumed that the flap opened up at the rear. As pictured, when it was opened on the approach to a turn, and the wheel brakes were applied, wouldn’t the air brake un-weigh(?) the rear wheels, then the wheel brakes lock the rear wheels? Incredible instability under hard braking would result. Taking an abrupt avoidance maneuver (with the steering) should have been expected to cause exactly the sort of spinning somersault that happened to poor Levegh.

    1. OK, first young Mike was absolutely crucified by the press (especially the French press) and uniformly and correctly blamed for the crash at the time. Nothing new there. Secondly, the air brake was never connected to the foot brake pedal. It was separately actuated, and the driver could choose to use it or not. Moss was absolutely enraptured by it, Fangio less so, but everyone agreed it was a great aid…especially in acceleration, notably increasing grip. The air brake could hardly have been a partial cause of the crash, as that part of the course was at the time pretty much flat-out and the air flap would hardly have been engaged.

  2. Given what happened this year, the two spectacular crashes, I can’t help but believe both McNish and Rockenfeller would have been killed instantly had not safety standards been in place and there had been no more regard for safety than there was in 1955.  Had today’s safety guidelines been in effect those 46 years ago, what happened then might not have been as bad.  At least the danger of fire would have been lessened; the cars would have been more crashworthy; such things as roll cages or at least roll bars would have been in the cars, and the drivers would have worn flame-resistant clothing.

  3. Your article make a very good point about the crashes in this year’s race. Again, the difference in speeds was a factor. Watching the helicopter shots of the Audis passing other cars and knifing quickly through the Porsche curves was frightening.

  4. Good story, photos and a history lesson for all of us.  The impact that this tragedy had on racing worldwide was profound.  In America the major sanctioning body for automotive events (American Automobile Association or AAA) withdrew from racing totally leaving many events (including Sebring) without a sanctioning body.

  5. With this article on the 1955 Le Mans tragedy, Art Evans has once again contributed a well-written and significant piece of motorsport journalism.  His many years of experience as a driver, author and photographer of sports car racing give to these online pages a special quality to be admired by all.  I look forward to seeing more here from the knowledge and archives of this longtime friend and racing enthusiast known by so many through his past and continuing published works. Thanks, Art, for doing what you do with authority, intelligence and literary grace.

  6. WOW..! Just came across your article by coincidence. in 1955 Our Father took my brother Michael and I to the 24 hr du Mans in France. At the time of the accident we were standing above the Pit Stand right across the accident scene. My father hurried us back of the Pit area to spare us the carnage… After that I think we left and went back to Paris. We were only 8 and 9 years old. These moments will always be seared in our memories. I will look if my Mother still has photos…

    Philip Marcus

  7. In 1955 I was with Uncle Sam outside of Frankfurt and with 2 buddies got the 3 LeMans tickets for the 4 PM start.
    Our track entry gate was exactly where Levegh hit the dirt berm and snow fence. As the after wreck debris photo
    shows, there was a packed crowd of spectators (maybe 200) watching the cars go by, maybe 20-30 feet away. Most all were standing on chairs, step ladders, big boxes etc.and they were packed in quite tightly just inside of the entry gate. We watched, from around that area for the first 2 hours until 6 PM and then decided to go back to my car for some dinner and to get ready for the night racing. At 6:20 PM the explosion occured which changed my life, my future racing career, and all of sports car racing. Mr Evan’s story is excellent and accurate. I too discussed the event with P. Hill with about the same conclusions. The engine was still up maybe 20 rows into the grand-stand, about 2 hours after most of the area was cleaned up. The authorities decided not to red flag the race, as the roads would be clogged for the emergency vehicles, and the dead were stacked just like cordwood at the side of the entry gate. Thankfully so much has been learned about safety, since then, both for drivers and spectators.

  8. This website is an amazingly complete record of this terrible day.

    My opinion of this accident is that Mike Hawthorne intentionally shortbraked Lance Macklin to try and slow down the Mercedes race cars he knew he would never beat fair and square.

    Furthermore,to say that Pierre Levegh hit Lance Macklin’s car is totally wrong.

    Lance Macklin,God Bless Him,was only trying to not die in a massive fiery rear end collision with the shortbraking Hawthorne’s Jaguar and he had to do an emergency move very late to do it.

    The rear end of his Austin Healey slams into the side of Pierre’s Mercedes at such an angle it pushes Pierre’s right front tire FORWARD,which flips the right front fender up and over ,making a huge air pocket at the right front fender and then actually lifted up Pierre’s race car on the right side to start the terrible flight Pierre’s car went on.

    Macklin is not at fault at all for any of that as Hawthorne knew exactly what he was doing .

    No driver could have known Hawthorne would slam on his brakes way before reaching his pits.

    Also,Pierre’s Mercedes flew unhindered over the barriers and slammed bottom end towards the crowd high in the air where upon the rear axle tore out immediately and for some reason the driveshaft never released.

    That rear end tore the transmission and the engine out together as it headed over the crowd and the engine let go right past the car’s impact point.

    The rear end flew on,followed by the air brake panel which flew like a horrendous frisbee and that piece caught up with the rearend and slashed through some kind of fuel or oil tank that was released from the car and flying along with the rear end.

    That airbrake panel then went on into the crowd as the farthest piece to hit people.

    The debris field was so long it is absolutely unbelievable that only 80 some people were killed and 120 people injured.

    The tumbling engine and transmission at the start of the wreck rolled over perhaps three to four hundred people by itself.

    The body of the car with Pierre in it flew up and over the barriers and rolled over in the air,with the cockpit opening away from the crowd and it simply stuck itself into something like a concrete barrier at the front.

    The car was going flat out as Pierre was trying like heck to get away from Hawthorne and Macklin’s issues they were having.

    When the car stuck itself into the ground-that rear end simply tore out and flew speed unslowed away from the car.

    That rearend is the ‘engine’ -the piece of the car that makes the deaths and injuries in this accident so bad.

    The car then with all of it’s running gear just ripped out of it instantly by the departing rear end-does a lazy rolling move that throws Mr. Levegh out of the car.

    Sadly,with zero impact protection,Mr.Levegh must have died on impact as he would have hit anyhhting in the cockpit around him at a sudden 170 mile per hour stop.

    His body can be seen being thrown from the car’s cockpit before the car starts it’s final slow rolling move to land on the barrier beside the track.

    The poor spectator,probably a French policeman,is standing up right where the body of the car lands when the magnesium in the car just explodes.

    I do not know if the fuel tank was in the car at that point or whether the liquid we see is the magnesium of the body of the car being instantly turned to liquid by the extreme forces and many sparking points plus being bathed in fuel at the time too.

    In closing though,I would like to point out four things.


    Two-Levegh DID act to miss Macklin and gave him room if Macklin had been only been able to control the primitive suspension never designed to do what Hawthorne was forcing Macklin to do anyway.

    Three-the deaths at this crash were undoubtedly in the hundreds and the injuries were certainly in the thousands-I do not know how that was kept quiet but the Mercedes race car destroyed itself in the worst possible way it could have ever done across thousands of race spectators.

    Not Mercedes fault at all-they could have never forseen a race car driver knocking their car at full speed into a crowd of spectators in flight in such a fashion-this was an almost impossible crash to forsee.

    And four-finally-this entire crash is the fault of Mike Hawthorne-whose determined and preplanned shortbraking manuever without concern for it’s consequences killed and injured all of these people.

    Team Jaguar,Team Mercedes,Team Austin Healey,the people who owned and managed the Lemans track at the time-all of those people are innocent in the consequences of this accident.

    Had Mike hawthorne not driven Lance Macklin off the right side of the track so he would heat up his drum brakes so there was no way he could stop when Mike Hawthorne shortbraked him-had Hawthorne simply gave a damn about the people he was racing agauinst-NO ONE WOULD HAVE DIED THIS DAY.

  9. It may take weeks for me to reexamine the wrecks true charcter because it is clear to me that the rear of the car is still in the car at the end of the accident as the wreck is burning.

    I apologize for my error.

    There is clearly something flying from the car that appears to have a wheel on it that appears to be a rear end unit.

    The air brake panel is flying right along with it and catches up to it.

    But the car appears to have the rear end in it when it is on the berm burning at the side of the track.

    I stand by my statements of what caused this accident.

    Mike Hawthorne shortbraking Lance Macklin.

    I also believe that Pierre Levegh engaged the rear air brake panel on his race car as it flew towards the stands and may have saved many hundreds of people by causing the car to not fly directly into the crowd of people in the flying race cars path.

    Sadly,that air brake panel then itself became a deadly piece of high velocity debris.

  10. Now knowing that the piece of debris that was simply storming away from the accident at a height of perhaps fourty feet off the ground was the entire front end suspension of the car now puts new prospective on this accident.

    Anyone wjho has seen the film(video) of this accident shot from the roof of the pits on the other side of where the accident took place-can see immediately as that footage opens,there is a huge piece of the car going almost at the exact race speed of the car away from the body of the car as it tumbles over afetr hitting the ground.

    That speed and way more importantly the perfectly straight trajectory would never happen if that piece of the car had been torn off when the car hit the ground.

    What we are seeing there is what happened when Pierre Levegh tried the one last thing he could do to try and slow the car and change the direction it was going.

    The 1955 Mercedes Le mans race cars were fitted with a panel that rose up behind the driver-a air brake-that could be used at slower speeds to help the drum brakes slow the car and more importantly give the drum brakes time to cool before their next use.

    That air brake panel must have been made of the same magnesium as the rest of the body and reinforced with another magnesium inner panel to help it deal with the massive forces it would encounter when opened by the driver.

    I also believe the drivers were told to never use that panel unless they were downshifting into third gear or below.

    The air speed above that would be so fast it would probably tear the car up if the panel were opened.

    Pierre faced something no driver of the time could have imagined-a full speed accident with the car flying through the air at a full crowd of spectators.

    I believe that by the time Pierre had reached where Hawthrone and Macklin were having their problems ,he must have been going as fast as 180 miles per hour trying to get past the two of them.

    That’s where the phenomenal energy came from to simply tear the car to pieces in the air.

    And that’s what happened.

    The last shot we see of Pierre’s Mercedes before the accident is of it at a roughly fourty degree angle to the track leaving the ground.

    I think right after that Pierre opened the air brake on his Mercedes.

    The car was still climbing and starting to level off when the panel opened.

    When the air finally got around the front of the car and contacted the air brake panel completely-so much force went through the car,it tore the car in half directly in front of where Mr.Levegh was sitting.

    Pierre unfortunatly must have been instantly killed here as the car being at least thirty feet in the air and suddenly jerking like that losing half of it;’s momentum INSTANTLY from the open air brake panel would have thrown him directly into the steering wheel and front cockpit area of his race car.

    With no full face helmet,no five point racing harness,no Hans device to keep the head from going forward,Pierre Levegh must have met the end of his life thirty feet above the track ,in a half of a race car still going perhaps over 130 miles per hour.

    The body of the car-front torn competely off -becomes totally unaerodynamic and turns over-cockpit away from the crowd and slams into the ground.

    levegh is not thrown out until the body of the car does a slow roll and then the body of the car does one more slow roll,lands on the barrier and immediately explodes.

    The moment the Mercedes rips in half happens above the crowd and before it.

    Just before that film clip of the accident begins.

    The front clip of the car sails at horrendous speed over top of the crowd.

    The air brake panel which tore off as soon as the car lurched towars the ground from it’s influence is following the front clip spinning.

    The engine dropped right out from under the front clip almost immedately after the car tore itself in half-as the tubular frame pieces simply opened oup and let the engine drop out from the forces they were under.

    That engine then dropped into the crowd and started rolling over at least three hundred people.

    The front clip then loses momentum as it starts to spin and hits the improvised stands where so many people are standing.

    One of the radiators-I can’t say is it’s the main one-gets released from the front clip as it is simply doing awful things to the people it is landing on and that radiator sails up again in the air-just in time for the air brake panel to find it-as it spins like a sawblade through the air.

    The impact tears that radiator to pieces and sprays super hot coolant over a wide area of the crowd before all of those pieces again fall into the crowd.

    As terrible as the accident was-as indeed it was so awful as to not be believed-had Pierre Levegh not had the option of opening that air brake panel-this accident would have been a far more deadly accident.

    The front clip shows EXACTLY where Pierre’s car was going and more importantly JUST HOW HIGH IS WAS AT THAT POINT AND HOW UNBELIEVABLY FAST IT WAS GOING TOO.

    Pierre Levegh did something no driver has ever done before or since,he deployed a revolutionary air brake panel in mid air to try and slow his race car and try and stop a horrendous accedient he could see was happening right in front of him.

    The Mercedes car tearing itself to pieces because of that was awful.

    But imagine the entire car finding the crowd,rolling over into it for a distance of several hundred years and then exploding.

    Pierre might have done something every driver might have done in the same circumstances by activating the air brake panel but his action saved many-many spectators that day.

    While parts of his race car did find the crowd,the body of his race car did not land where that front clip did.

    If it had,so many more people would have died.

    Form an accident he tried to avoid,to a car he tried to stop from killing so many people,Pirre Levegh deserves to be recognized as a man who was not only innocent of any blame in this accident but who tried with everything he could to stop it from being the disaster it became.

  11. And additional note-the frame on Pierre’s Mercedes rce car was hit on it’s right side front by a mssive amount of force going left and forward by the rear of Macklin’s car before the Mercedes left the track surface.

    That severe impact must have broken the welds holding the front clip to the car.

    Once that air brake panel sent a massive shudder of reverse force through the car in mid air,the mass of the engine and front suspension simply tore itself away from the frame part of the body and kept going forward.

    As those parts left the car,peeling back the magnesium skin as they went,that forward yank must have torn away the air brake panel.

    All of this would have happened in a few hundreths of a second.

    Immediately,the car body-now freed of the weight of the engine and front suspension and with the front of the car’s magnesium skin shaped now like a parachute,just dived into the ground,underside towards the crowd.

    It then rolled as I described.

    Pierre tried with all he had to stop this.

    He paid for that with his life.

  12. A last detail is necessary to be told as to why Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes fell apart so fast after the Mercedes air brake was applied.

    Pierre’s Mercedes had a very complex front suspension that included in it torsion bars and two double wish bone shaped extensions.

    The actual frame that held the motor to the car was very light,very small tubes of high strength steel in triangular high strength welded shapes.

    On the right side there were two huge exhaust headers with mufflers on them.

    These high performance mufflers were snaked between the suspension parts so close a heat shield was laid over the suspension parts.

    When Lance Macklin’s car made it’s one in a billion chance strike on that side on Pierre’s car,Macklin’s Healey’s left rear tire and axle drove Pierre’s front right tire forward-snapping the connection pin that held the front of the axle.

    Furthermore,Macklin’s car also forced-by way of striking those mufflers and exhaust headers-the engine block forward and to the left snapping the connection pin on the front suspension on the left side also.

    The only thing holding the front suspension parts in the car was the double wishbone shape and the astoniching forward motion of the car.

    When Pierre engaged the Mercedes air brake in mid air and it got a complete supply of at least 170 mph wind,that sudden shuddering slowdown-tore the front suspension out of the wishbones and the engine that had been busted out of it’s motor mounts by Macklin’s car before the Mercedes ever left the ground -came out as well-following the front suspension towards the crowd.

    The engine,having no aerodynamic flight characteristics fell directly below where the car was going to land-right into the crown and started to tumble over perhaps as many as three hundred spectators right away.

    The front end left the car body in mid air at full race speed-the radiator still in that piece and it began to spin and fell into the crowd.

    When it did-the action of that piece of the car bouncing off of spectators-released the radiator so that it flew up into the air-just in time to get hit by the spinning air brake panel which had been flying along just behind the front end of the car but caught up with that piece when it decended into the crowd.

    The body of Levegh’s car,once the front structure of the car as well as the engine left the car was much lighter,rear end heavy now and still had the magnesium bodywork still on it-that had now because of the extreme speed opened up like a parachute at the front of the car.

    Levegh was already dead when the car leaned over and struck the ground on it’s front and left side-on the left side double wishbone assembly and then it rolled over on the right wishbone assembly-threw his body out on the ground and then rolled end wise over on it’s axis and landed on the barriers where it immediately exploded from the gas tank spilling all of the gasoline it had been holding until that point.

    The most important thing I can tell you about this tragic complete explanation of what Pierre Levegh went through is this.

    Thanks to the Mercedes team fitting an air brake on that car and thanks to Pierre Levegh being the driver who for first and only time in racing history using that air brake while flying at near 170 miles per hour in mid air as a last ditch effort to try and slow the car-as bad as this accident was-had the air brake not been there or Pierre decided to not use it-the complete Mercedes race car would have flown directly into the crowd,rolled over and over on the crowd spraying parts on the thousands of spectators assembled there with no where to escape and killed perhaps thousands instead of the close to a hundred people who died there that day.

    Pierre Levegh and the engineers at Mercedes who fitted that air brake to the car therefore saved thousands of spectators lives who were at Lemans that day in 1955 from dieing in a far more horrendous accident.

    Thank you Mercedes for fitting the car with that air brake and Thank you Pierre for using the air brake to try and stop the car from injuring as few people as possible.

    Rest In Peace Pierre.

  13. Le Nans 1955 driver Paul Frere examined the only film footage that shows the entire incident up to the point where the cameraman was hit by flying debris. His informed analysis does not attribute the blame for the accident to Hawthorn, as AaronC does. Hawthorn was not brake-testing Macklin. By the way, both the Jaguar and the Austin Healey were disc-braked. The film shows clearly that Hawthorn did not cut in sharply on Macklin nor did he brake suddenly. The most likely explanation is that, having been passed by Hawthorn, Macklin assumed that the Jaguar would quickly draw away from him. So his attention was more on the two Mercedes following him. By the time Macklin’s attention switched from his rear-view mirror, Macklin had missed Hawthorn’s hand signal and the fact that the Jaguar was slowing for its planned pit stop. The film shows Macklin making a sudden violent swerve that swung his car far further across the track than was necessary for an overtaking move. Poor Levegh had allowed sufficeint space to overtake Macklin, but the Austin Healey’s violent swerve left him neither time nor space to avoid Macklin. The two cars collided and the tragic rest we know.

  14. I WAS THERE with Tony Parravano for the entire weekend and had one of only 5 Full course press passes and have about 10000 feet of 16 mm film of the race.
    Iwas on top of the pit parapet and the description by Gordon A is as close as you can get, except the signal by LeVegh for Fangio and Hawthorne to pass..
    I spent a day with Fangio in Buenos Aires at his Mercedes dealership and he never commented on who was at fault. I have a photo of He and I that I treasure.
    I was the guy riding with Castellotti when he did the 180 in the esses… he has trying to determine if the gas tank repositioning would make a difference and I was the right weight…

  15. At one point this reports says the SLRs were built partially with titanium, a second with magnesium. I believe it was the latter, and I have seen magnesium burn.

  16. Anyone making an unprejudiced study of the film of the accident will conclude that Hawthorn was totally innocent. I fail to understand why so many authors try to blame him.

  17. Was there, stationed in US Army about 60 miles away. At the horrific scene an hour or so after the accident. Have read extensively and at length and my conclusion is simply too fast on too narrow a circuit for the 1955 speeds. Racing accident and being over analyzed to death.

  18. I was also there as a member of Mintex Competition department.
    Lance Macklin’s 100M Healey had disc fronts drum rears, The Jaguar had Dunlop discs all round.
    The disaster has weighed heavy over the years but I find difficulty in blaming Mike Hawthorn and would never believe that he would test brake another competitor.