'The hood decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine': Le Mans '55 and the worst disaster in motorsports history

The images may be black and white but even the faded frames of a tragedy 65 years ago still pack a powerful punch.
'The hood decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine': Le Mans '55 and the worst disaster in motorsports history

Tragedy At Le Mans; The gutted wreckage of the Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh burns on the shoulder of the Le Mans 24-hour track after hurtling through the crowd of spectators, leaving a toll of 83 dead. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)
Tragedy At Le Mans; The gutted wreckage of the Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh burns on the shoulder of the Le Mans 24-hour track after hurtling through the crowd of spectators, leaving a toll of 83 dead. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

The images may be black and white but even the faded frames of a tragedy 65 years ago still pack a powerful punch.

In the current world of social distancing, it is hard to imagine the crowd of spectators who had squeezed into Le Mans on the afternoon of June 11, 1955.

An estimated attendance of between 250,000 and 300,000 crammed together to witness one of the most spectacular driver line ups ever assembled to contest the venue's iconic 24-Hour race.

Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, and Mike Hawthorn were household names in the fifties with the marquee manufacturers of Ferrari, Jaguar along with Mercedes Benz all throwing resources at claiming the crown.

Fangio and Moss were the lead pairing for the German company who had pinned their hopes on a new 300 SLR which boasted an ultra-lightweight magnesium alloy body.

The opening hours were a fast and furious affair with drivers battling for early supremacy.

Thirty-five laps in the worst disaster in motorsports history unfolded.

The investigation zeroed in on Hawthorn’s attempt to overtake British driver Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey and a sudden catastrophic decision to pit.

"Mike could have been mistaken about how fast my car was going," Macklin would tell Sports Illustrated in a 1986 interview.

"He came alongside me, and I gave him the thumbs-up sign as he overtook me to wish him luck.

"He pulled across in front of me, and then I remember being surprised to see his brake lights come on.

"I think he misjudged the speed of my car [which would have been around 120 at this point] and its position and that he was afraid of having to go around again and run the risk of running out of petrol.

"I believe he wanted to turn the car over at his stop, still in the lead.

"But by overtaking me and braking sharply he forced me to overtake him again, which meant I had to pull out in front of Levegh and Fangio. My instant reaction when he did it was, 'Bloody Mike Hawthorn, he must be out of his mind!' "

Pierre Levegh, in a Mercedes Benz, was next on the scene.

He tried to avoid a collision with Macklin but he was too close and too fast.

His Mercedes Benz clipped the edge of the Austin Healey and was launched skywards.

"It's a most extraordinary sensation," Macklin said when recalling an incident that spun his car around and sent it skittling down the track backward.

Everything slows right down as if you were watching a slow-motion film. Your brain acts so fast you can see everything, and I can remember as I was spinning I saw the timekeepers watching me from their booth.

"As I was rolling along backward I saw Levegh's car following me in the air, with Levegh sort of hunched over in the cockpit.

"I felt the heat of his exhaust as he went by me, no more than three feet over my shoulder.

"Then there was a hell of a bang like a bomb had hit."

Levegh’s car, which was estimated to be travelling at over 150mph (240khm), flipped over and flew on before slamming into the bank by the spectator enclosure.

It exploded like a grenade spewing debris through the grandstand, killing anyone within the blast radius.

Levegh was killed outright as he was flung from the car and thrown onto the track.

Smoke conceals Pierre Levegh's Mercedes which crashed into the crowd at the Le Mans 24 hour race. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Smoke conceals Pierre Levegh's Mercedes which crashed into the crowd at the Le Mans 24 hour race. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The scene in the aftermath was hellish. A reporter for Life magazine recounted that: “the Mercedes took off like a rocket, struck the embankment beside the track, hurtled end over end and then disintegrated over the crowd.

"The hood decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine. The engine and front axle cut a swath like an artillery barrage. And the car's magnesium body burst into flames like a torch, burning others to death.”

Fourteen people were decapitated with the death toll in the crowd recorded at 83 - though more were believed to have succumbed to their injuries in the weeks and months afterward.

"There was a doctor who was carrying his young son on his shoulders," Raymonde Galisson, a Le Mans resident who was among the spectators that day, told Sports Illustrated. "The man was not injured by the flying debris, but his son was killed. The doctor laid the boy in his car. then went back and tried to rescue others."

Jaguar driver Duncan Hamilton, and a teammate of Hawthorn, watched the tragedy unfold from the pit wall.

He recalled: "The scene on the other side of the road was indescribable.

The dead and dying were everywhere; the cries of pain, anguish, and despair screamed catastrophe. I stood as if in a dream, too horrified to even think.

Bodies were strewn throughout the stands The majority of the dead were French, with the numbers injured running into the hundreds.

While all of this unfolded, the race continued. The cars continued to zoom around the massive 8.383-mile circuit as emergency morgues were set up and ambulances ferried the walking wounded to hospitals.

Shortly after midnight Mercedes retired its cars from racing were running first and third.

Indeed, the German company withdrew from all motor racing at the end of that season and did not return until 1987.

Hawthorn and his co-driver Ivor Bueb won the race the next afternoon.

A photographer captured Hawthorn slugging from the customary bottle of champagne presented to the victory - just over 20 hours after the tragedy. French magazin L'Auto-Journal published the image with the sarcastic laden caption, “À votre santé, Monsieur Hawthorn.” ("To your health, Mr Hawthorn.")

The investigations and reviews of the accident continued for a year and a half afterwards. The official inquiry cleared all drivers of any fault. Instead it pointed the finger of blame at the track layout which was deemed unsuitable for such high- speed racing.

Hawthorn retired from motorsport soon after but was ironically killed when overtaking a Mercedes on a slippery road near his Surrey home in 1959. Shortly before he died, he wrote of the race: "It was as though we were at the point where a great rock had been hurled into a pond, sending out waves of shock and horror and indignation which would later flow back, bringing consequences which no one could foresee."

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