Along the shallow "W" formed by the road between the tricky White House turn and the pits of the sunlit Le Mans race course, four dots detached themselves from the landscape and breasted the gentle rise at incredible speed. One instant they were indistinguishable even through a pair of binoculars; the next they could be discerned with the naked eye. It was almost 6:15 p.m. on the 32nd lap of the 23rd Le Mans International Grand Prix of Endurance, and at that instant 87 people had only a few seconds—or at most a few hours—left to live. They were about to be killed in the most shocking disaster ever to darken the history of the sport of motor racing.
The foremost car was the green D-type Jaguar driven by young, tow-headed Mike Hawthorn, leading the race—and Juan Fangio's silver Mercedes—by a few seconds. Hawthorn had just lapped Lance Maeklin in the Austin-Healey for the fourth time and teammate Pierre Levegh in Mercedes No. 20 for the first time. A hundred yards astern, Fangio also was getting ready to take Levegh and Macklin in his relentless pursuit of Hawthorn.
Already, during those opening 32 laps, the two leaders had traded places five times. Fangio had broken the lap record on the fifth, 15th, 17th, 20th and 22nd laps; Hawthorn on the 16th, 24th and 25th laps. It now stood at 4 minutes 6.6 seconds for the 8.38-mile course—a fantastic average of 123 mph—and for the remaining 22 hours no driver was again to come anywhere near that breath-taking speed.
At any time now, the leaders were due in for refueling. Hawthorn had received his signal on the lap before, and as he approached the pit row he appeared to slow suddenly and veer off to the right as though looking for his pit stall. Macklin, a scant 10 feet behind, stood on the powerful disc brakes of his Austin-Healey and swung sharp left to avoid hitting the Jaguar. His sudden swerve combined with violent braking was enough to throw his car into a spin. Twice in as many seconds, the Austin-Healey gyrated like a top. It dived backwards into the pits, struck the wall a glancing blow, ricocheted across the narrow, 35-foot pit road, spinning again as it went; bounced off the earth and timber bulwarks shielding the dense crowd on the opposite side and limped to a stop broadside across the track. Dazed but miraculously unhurt, Maeklin was still nimble enough to hop out of his car and sprint to safety into the nearest pit—which happened to be his own.
June 19, 1955
"THESE CARS GO TOO FAST"
Veteran Pierre Levegh's Mercedes, traveling at 140 mph, was less than a hundred yards behind Maeklin and Hawthorn. In those desperate, penultimate instants of his life he perhaps recalled a prerace concern expressed to a friend: "We have to get some sort of a signal system working. These cars go too fast." He was able to raise his arm in a despairing warning gesture to Fangio, behind him. To stop was utterly impossible. Levegh took the only remaining course. He swung left, apparently in an effort to squeeze through the narrow gap between Macklin's derelict machine and the earthen bulwarks. The Mercedes grazed the Austin-Healey, struck the five-foot bulwark, vaulted it end over end, then rolled three times. The engine, ripped from its mountings by the almost instantaneous deceleration, shot out of the car like a shell from a gun, mowing a lethal path through the crowd which stood five deep at that point, and through a mass of unwary spectators milling around in the grandstand paddock (see page 42).
Levegh, also projected out of the wreckage, was dead before the flames reached him. Fangio, warned by Levegh, somehow managed to weave his way through the dense smoke, but came so close to the disaster that his windshield cracked from the intense heat of the wreck. Alfred Neubauer, the brusque, portly, authoritarian Mercedes team manager, showed great courage and presence of mind by dashing out to the middle of the track and, at the risk of his life, flagging down oncoming cars.
Not even this appalling disaster had any appreciable effect on the iron discipline of the Mercedes team. On the following lap, the remaining two cars came in for refueling, according to plan. Stirling Moss, obsessively purposeful as ever, took over from Fangio who was pale and almost speechless. "What luck," he stammered, over and over. "I was lucky. I was going to pass Levegh but he signalled to me to stop. Why was I so lucky?"
Voluble, high-strung Andre Simon relieved veteran Karl Kling. Neither Moss nor Simon had any idea of the magnitude of the tragedy, and that was just as well. The race went on. As starter Charles Faroux phrased it: "La bataille continue—the battle continues."
After the taut, merciless battle of the opening laps between Eugenio Castellotti (Ferrari), Fangio and Hawthorn, climaxed by Levegh's blazing crash, the rest of the race was a dreary affair that gradually fizzled out until, with the official retirement of the Mercedes team at 1:40 a.m. Sunday, it became a procession. The record crowd of 300,000, however, at least got its fill of excitement during the first two hours. When the starter's flag dropped at 4 p.m. Saturday, sending the 60 drivers (27 British, 12 French, 11 Italian, nine German, one American) scuttling to their cars, Castellotti's red Ferrari No. 4 was first away, according to a tactical plan worked out by Signor Ugolini, Ferrari's team manager. This plan climaxed a war of nerves during practice, in which on Thursday Castellotti broke the record set up by Gonzalez (Ferrari) last year, covering a lap in 4 minutes 16 seconds—118.56 mph. On Friday, Moss got his Mercedes around in 4 minutes 15.1 seconds (119 mph), scooping a 500,000-franc jackpot for the fastest practice lap, but also implementing the Mercedes principle that if you show enough strength you may not have to use it when the time comes. But dapper Ugolini was unimpressed. "We'll win as we did last year," he said.
HARE AND HOUNDS
That Castellotti had been detailed as the hare in an effort to lure opposition into destructive speeds was evident from the outset. He led for 15 laps, driving as though in a 100-mile race, and sometimes leading the entire field by as much as 12 seconds. But no one took the bait. The other two teams were pacing themselves, and when Castellotti began dropping back with a failing engine, Hawthorn simply took over. Eventually, all three Ferraris went out with the same complaint-cracked cylinder blocks induced by terrific engine loads when downshifting at high speeds.
During the first few laps, while Hawthorn chased Castellotti, Fangio climbed carefully from 13th to sixth place, then to fourth and finally into third place. The battle for leadership began in earnest on the 17th lap when Fangio passed Castellotti, and continued until the accident on lap 32.
From then on, the superior speed and braking of the Mercedes began to tell. The flap-type air brakes of the Mercedes were a strange, Wagnerian sight. At the flick of a switch, a hydraulically controlled-flap behind the driver rose like a lid, slowing the car through the turns by about 45 mph. Another flick after downshifting and the flap folded down into place.
At the third hour, Moss led Hawthorn comfortably. An hour later he was a lap ahead; two hours later he had gained another lap. At 1 a.m., Moss was again at the wheel, having relieved Fangio for another spell, and the Mercedes still held its two-lap lead. The Rolt-Hamilton Jaguar, which had made a poor start, was in third position, one lap behind Hawthorn; Simon, spelling for Kling, held the remaining Mercedes in fourth position, one lap behind Rolt. Then the Rolt-Hamilton Jaguar began to drop back with gearbox trouble and Simon's Mercedes took over third spot.
The German team seemed to be in an unassailable position when at 1:40 a.m. it withdrew from the race in deference to the terrible toll of life exacted by Levegh's crash. It was a dramatic scene, climaxing several hours of parleying by Mercedes with the Stuttgart factory and with the redoubtable Charles Faroux. Earlier, Art Keser, Mercedes public relations officer, had offered to withdraw the cars after a long-distance talk with Dr. Fritz Koenecke, Mercedes general manager, but Faroux flatly refused. Nonetheless, from the public's standpoint, even though a Frenchman had gone to his death, a German car was involved and strong undercurrents of feeling were in evidence which had the makings of a potentially explosive political situation. "After all," one Frenchman remarked with a bitter shrug, "the Germans killed a lot more people last time they were here."
At 1:20 a.m. Keser received an official order to withdraw the team. The order came from Dr. Fritz Nallinger, Mercedes chief engineer, who said: "The pride of designers and drivers must bow to the grief suffered by countless French families in this appalling disaster." General Manager Dr. Koenecke concurred. "Even if we continue and win," he said, "I won't accept the victory. We've got to retire."
"HOW IS IT POSSIBLE?"
At precisely 1:40 a.m. Neubauer flagged in Moss. Under the bright lights of the pit the young Britisher got out of the car, vaulted the pit counter to a round of applause from the crew and, without saying a word to anyone, disappeared. Simon came in and immediately lit a cigarette. Squatting on the concrete pit floor, he kept repeating: "How can so many have been killed? How is it possible?"
Neubauer barked an order to Herr Geyer, Mercedes timekeeper, to fold up his charts. Frau Wilma Kling, who usually helps with the timing, began putting away the stop watches. Neubauer, bulldozing his way out of the pit, remarked in his gruff voice: "The race is over for us. Too many dead. That's all I have to say." He was not in favor of withdrawing the cars. He felt the gesture would inevitably be construed by many as being motivated by other reasons. This was precisely what happened. Immediately, rumors began circulating that Mercedes had called in their cars because they were having clutch trouble. This was positively untrue. Both cars were in perfect shape. And the decision was a wise one.
After the Mercedes withdrawal, the race became pointless. Barely 50,000 people were on hand Sunday morning to watch the roaring procession of cars through the long hours, which finally ended at four p.m. when Hawthorn brought the Jaguar driven by him and Ivor Bueb in for the checkered flag (the Ferraris and the Maseratis, too, had dropped out during the night). The car had covered 2,564.28 miles at an average speed of 106.84 mph, a new record average for the race.
But though deserving, it was a hollow victory. The shadow of disaster clouded the scene as Hawthorn's car pulled at last to a stop, and it could not be dispelled. Said the winner afterward, when asked if he had been aware that by his sudden swerve so many hours before he had cut off the car behind him: "I don't know. I just don't know."
A REPRINT FOR THE INFORMATION OF SI READERS
Tragic crash scene of this year's Le Mans race can be spotted on this picture from last week's color spectacle (SI, June 13). Explosion star indicates point near starting line where Driver Levegh's car struck earthworks, disintegrated and decimated crowd.
HOW IT HAPPENED: As four cars roared toward pit area, Hawthorn (No. 1 in diagram) braked and swerved right to enter pit stall. Macklin (No. 2) braked hard and swerved left to avoid him, throwing his car into series of violent spins which sent it first into pit area, then across track to rebound off earth wall opposite pits where it stopped broadside to track. Levegh (No. 3), trying vainly to get by on left, grazed Macklin's car and hit wall where his Mercedes disintegrated, its flaming parts cutting swath of devastation as front end tore through crowd. Fangio (No. 4), barely forewarned by Levegh's last warning gesture, managed to slalom his Mercedes through the holocaust.