50 years ago, the day that tragedy struck Le Mans

Next Saturday, at 4pm, the Le Mans race will begin - a 24-hour endurance test of speed and driving skill. But 50 years ago today, it was the scene of appalling carnage. By Christopher Hilton

That warm, windless early evening, the crowd scanned the ordinary French road contorting through the countryside towards them. They saw an Austin Healey being drifted fast through the corners. The driver, an Old Etonian called Lance Macklin, liked pretty girls but he wasn't thinking about them now. The fast cars - the prehensile green Jaguars, the mighty silver Mercedes - were coming up behind him at a murderous pace and his priority refined itself into a great simplicity: keeping out of their way.

The clocks ticked towards 6.25pm this 11 June, 1955. Within two minutes a world governed by its own traditional mentality would be destroyed and nothing, even 50 years later, would ever be the same again.

Le Mans is a solid provincial town some 120 miles south-west of Paris and in 1923 a 24-hour race was first run just outside it to improve production cars by punishing them to see what they could, and couldn't, take. The race endured and grew into a strange, almost surreal, annual weekend pilgrimage for British teams, British cars, British drivers and thousands upon thousands of British spectators: some years there have been as many as 70,000, often chugging down in vintage cars.

In the first year the fastest lap was at an average speed of 66mph but it rose remorselessly and now the Jaguars and Mercedes were getting round the 8.3-mile circuit, all of it those ordinary roads, in just over four minutes. That translated to more than 120mph with 190 on the long straight.

Macklin had already been lapped four times. It was why he kept looking in his mirrors. Fifty-nine other cars rode this giant carousel of a circuit, and he couldn't know where they were on it at any given instant. He was, like so many drivers, solitary, isolated and permanently alert.

The road in front of him flowed up an incline through a kink then it cut between the pits, to the right, and the spectator area, to the left. The pits were a long, breast-high wall laden with team personnel and refuelling rigs like great insects. They faced the spectator area, three enclosures and huge, ponderous grandstands set back. In front of them the crowd, 50 deep and more, stood tightly packed up to the protective earthen bank on the rim of the road. It was a wonderful place to watch the cars go by just in front of you and see all the drama of the pit stops which were now due to begin. A pedestrian tunnel, an umbilical cord, passed under the road.

Macklin saw a Jaguar and two Mercedes loom into the middle distance behind him, beginning to swallow the ground as they came.

Mike Hawthorn, driving the Jaguar, wore a bow tie even in Grand Prix races. Another ex-public schoolboy, blond and genuinely debonair, he liked pretty girls, too. He did not like German cars and sometimes used four-letter words to describe them. Nor, so soon after the war, do the potential strains between a British and a German team need elaborating. Since the race began at 4pm he had engaged in a ferocious, almost fanatical, struggle with the Mercedes of the Argentine Juan-Manuel Fangio, the greatest driver in the world. Once Fangio got past and Hawthorn confessed to being momentarily mesmerised by the whole Mercedes legend. Then he thought, damn it, why should a German car beat a British car? The 300,000 crowd watched with mounting excitement and incredulity - this was supposed to be a 24-hour endurance test - as the two cars hunted each other nose-to-tail. Fangio beat the lap record twice, Hawthorn equalled that, Fangio lowered it twice again, Hawthorn beat that, Fangio beat that, and Hawthorn produced a climactic lap to beat that.

Jaguar and Mercedes fielded three-car teams and Hawthorn nursed an intractable problem: an inexperienced co-driver, Ivor Bueb, while Fangio would hand over to Stirling Moss. Hawthorn could hold Fangio during his stints, but Bueb could never hold Moss. Norman Dewis, another Jaguar driver that year at Le Mans, explains the tactic that was designed to combat this. "Hawthorn [would] go out and set a fast pace - so the Mercs would chase him - with no real thought of winning Le Mans with that car. Hawthorn was sent off to blow up the Mercedes." This would open the way for another Jaguar to win.

Passing the pits, Hawthorn saw a signal to come in next time round and hand over to Bueb. Macklin had no way of knowing that, nor did he know that, of the two Mercedes he'd seen coming up, the nearest was being driven by a 50-year old Frenchman, Pierre Levegh, who was on an orthodox endurance run and about to be lapped by Fangio.

Levegh, a pseudonym, had dedicated his life to winning Le Mans and three years before tried in a French car to drive the whole 24 hours himself. Leading, he willed himself to within 70 minutes of the finish before exhaustion or a mechanical fault defeated him. Mercedes were impressed, and when they had a place in 1955 they gave it to him even though he was little more than an occasional driver.

Macklin hugged the right-hand side of the road, keeping out of the way, and Hawthorn drew level. Macklin thought, "Fabulous! Mike's doing a great job." Hawthorn moved ahead and Macklin estimated that they were approaching the pits, about 400 yards away, at 250 feet a second. Hawthorn angled the Jaguar over to the right, where it needed to be for the pits, but that placed it directly in front of Macklin who, horrified, saw the Jaguar's brake lights blink on. Macklin thought, 'Christ! What the hell is he doing?' The world's worst motor-racing crash had begun.

The Jaguar's brakes were much more powerful than Macklin's. He thought, "I'm going to hit him." He wrenched the Austin Healey left to clear the Jaguar but that took it into Levegh's path - Levegh in the most powerful car he'd even driven. Worse, the road kinked to the right. Levegh had to angle the Mercedes right to go through that and Macklin slewed across there in a four-wheel slide.

Macklin felt a tremendous impact, felt heat from an exhaust pipe passing beside his face, saw the Mercedes airborne, saw Levegh hunched within it. The Mercedes came down into the bank on the left side of the road but that acted as a launching ramp. It rose and passed about a foot and a half over an English spectator who'd remember it snapped a wire and showered the woman next to him with shards of its silver paint.

On the wall at the Ferrari pit, one waiting driver saw the danger and fell backwards. A woman had been knocked down and people trampled on her trying to get to the rear exit and away to safety. They didn't know they were safe where they were.

The Mercedes crossed one of the enclosures and, coming down, killed 14 people before it struck a concrete wall at the tunnel entrance. That tore it to pieces. The carcass flipped forward onto the bank and burst into flames. The engine, exhaust manifold and front axle were thrown head-high in different trajectories through the crowd, standing so tightly packed. In something like three and a half seconds, from the impact with the Austin Healey, the wonderful place became a killing field. Most victims were decapitated. One British driver in the pits heard a "great scream, a sort of unison scream". Dewis remembers: "Levegh came out of the car while it was in the air. It exploded like a bomb ... we saw a couple of officials lying in the road over by the bank. We knew they were dead."

It was savagely arbitrary: one man unmarked, the fiancée beside him cut down; a grandmother unmarked, her seven-year-old granddaughter cut down; four lads together on a treat, two short and two tall. The tall ones saw the impact and ducked, the short ones heard the noise and stood on tip-toe to see.

A Belgian doctor went in search of his wife's body and found it, laid her in the car, and took her back to Brussels. A young girl in shock wandered round saying: "My mummy is dead, will somebody please take me home?" Priests who had been spectators moved among the fallen giving them the Last Rites while, beside them, wooden advertising hoardings were being used as stretchers. Maybe 81 people died, maybe more. There is no definitive total. One Briton went over from the pits to see what had happened and, coming back, distilled it: "Butcher's shop."

The race was not stopped because the organisers feared the 300,000 exiting people would block the roads needed by ambulances. Hawthorn suspected it was his fault and had to be ordered back into the Jaguar. Dewis says: "One or two people turned round when Mike was standing there in the pits - which they shouldn't have done - and said 'By the way, Macklin's blaming you for this.' Mike said, 'What?' And of course that really upset Mike."

A Porsche driver was signalled in because "I had blood group O rhesus negative and it seemed I was the only person at the circuit to have that. They knew because, before taking part, you have to give the organisers your blood group and so on. Now one of the wounded needed it."

Mercedes, leading, withdrew at 1.45 am after protracted talks with the directors in Germany. The war, and the German occupation of France, were only 10 years in the past and still raw. Withdrawal is the only possible decision, the directors said. Some disagreed, including Moss. "It was an enormous tragedy, but withdrawing wasn't going to bring anybody back so I didn't see it achieved anything."

Jaguar continued and Hawthorn won. He drank champagne and a French newspaper, under a picture, carried a bitter caption. "Your good health, Mr Hawthorn."

Because Le Mans is so vast and the accident covered a relatively compact area, most of the spectators had no idea of what had happened or, if they did, the scale. The woman trampled in the Ferrari pit saw the stretchers but even she didn't know. The day after the race, on the Paris Metro, "a person sitting across from me was reading the newspaper and there was a picture of the grandstand. I fainted".

Three British spectators later contacted Jaguar and recounted what they had witnessed - Jaguar insisted Hawthorn was innocent. Inadvertently, they proved the opposite. (Levegh, of course, was relatively old, French and dead so anybody could heap whatever they wanted on to him.) The three gave different estimations of the distance Levegh to Macklin: 75, 50 and 25 yards. With the speed differential between the two cars Levegh had only some 4.1, 2.7 or 1.3 seconds to react and, in the kink, had nowhere to go anyway.

So many deaths almost killed motor sport (it remains banned in Switzerland). Tony Brooks, who had been in an Aston Martin and driven past the flaming carcass, reflects: "Le Mans was an accident of enormous magnitude for the sport and a lot of countries started backing off it. It shook the racing world up enormously because, although we appreciated it was dangerous, we never wanted to see spectators injured. It woke circuit owners up to their responsibilities. Track spectator protection was beefed up quite a bit round the world in response."

Motor-racing would never be so dangerous again.

Why Hawthorn pulled and braked so sharply in front of Macklin remains a mystery. One theory holds that, even though he was pitting, symbolically he would not slow enough to let Fangio's Mercedes overtake in front of the spectator area before he reached the Jaguar pit - so he went too fast, misjudged the distance and presented Macklin with his terrible dilemma.

The man who could tell us, John Michael Hawthorn, never will because he died four years later, soon after becoming Britain's first Grand Prix world champion, in a crash on the Guildford bypass. Driving a Jaguar, he had been involved in a dice with another car.

It was a Mercedes.

He would not let it past.

Christopher Hilton is the author of 'Le Mans '55: the crash that changed the face of motor-racing'; (Breedon Books).

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