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Le Mans 1955: The last major disruption of auto racing

Le Mans 1955: The last major disruption of auto racing

This year, as of last week, auto racing has undergone a virtual complete shutdown and it is uncertain when things will get going again. Other than in wartime, there is probably the most complete and broad disruption ever in auto racing. The only other two instances that come to mind are the sort-of end of city-to-city road races after the disastrous 1903 Paris to Madrid race which saw so many casualties (eight dead, 100+ injured) that the race was stopped in Bordeaux  at the end of the first day and the monstrous accident at Le Mans in 1955 which saw more than 80 killed and many, many injured.

Note that both of those disruptions to auto racing came as the result of catastrophes involving the race cars while the current hiatus in auto racing has nothing to do with the races themselves but rather to the current global pandemic of the COVID-19 virus.

Despite the horror in the wake of the unprecedented death toll in the Paris-Madrid race more races were soon held again. However, there was a move from the long-distance city-to-city style of races to the “substitution of rigidly controlled circuit racing” with shorter laps where crowd control and other safety measures were more possible. Nevertheless, the 1000-mile Mille Miglia in Italy continued the city-to-city racing tradition until 1957. And the Mexican-based Carrera Panamericana ran as a 2000-mile road race from 1950 until it was cancelled in the wake of the 1955 Le Mans disaster. The Mexican race “was widely held by contemporaries to be the most dangerous race of any type in the world” The Targa Florio, which was a road race with 72-km long laps through the mountains of Sicily. This race, which first ran in 1906, ended as a World Sports Car championship round after the 1973 race. So, it can be seen that the lessons of Paris-Madrid were adopted very slowly.

The 1955 Le Mans tragedy had a more immediate effect and, for a while, it looked like the future of auto racing was in the balance.
Mercedes had re-entered auto racing only a few years after Germany had been laid low by the destruction of WWII – coming back into competition with the racing version of the 300SL in 1952. In 1955 they had the sports racing 300SLR which was, in effect, a two-seater version of the all-conquering 1955 Mercedes F1 car, the W196, which took Fangio to the world championship in 1954 and 1955.
In 1955, Sterling Moss scored a stunning win in the Mille Miglia driving a 300SLR. For Le Mans, he was paired with his F1 teammate Fangio. Two other 300SLRs were entered, one for the duo of Pierre Levegh and John Fitch. In 1952, Levegh had attempted to drive the entire 24 hours of the race but a driving error saw him out of the race in the 24th hour.

In addition to the Mercedes trio, there were strong entries from Jaguar with their D-Type race cars and from a large contingent of Ferraris. The British driver Mike Hawthorn was paired with Ivor Bueb in a Jaguar
The D-type had the advantage of the then-new disc brakes which gave them superior braking performance. The Mercedes 300SLR cars had been built with magnesium bodywork for lightness, and, to compete with the Jaguar’s disc brakes, they had a large air brake fitted over the rear of the car.

After the start of the race, Hawthorne and Fangio were racing full out as if it were a short Grand Prix race. Levegh, who was not a driver in the same category as these two had already fallen a lap down as the teams prepared to make their first pit stops of the race. As Hawthorne came onto the pit straight, he passed Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey and then he was given a late signal to pit. He pulled over to the right to go into his pit, Macklin swung to the left to avoid hitting the Jaguar which was braking hard to slow for his pit stop.

Just then Levegh came up the pit straight and he had the faster Fangio right behind him. He saw Macklin jerking over to the left in front of him and he tried to signal for Fangio to slow to avoid hitting him. Levegh was unable to slow before he rammed into the right rear of Macklin’s Healey and the Mercedes was launched. It bounced up over the earth banking opposite the pits and it sliced though the packed crowd on the terraces immediately behind the earth barrier.

The car broke into pieces; Levegh flew out and landed back out on the roadway, dead. Firefighters sprayed water on the burning car not knowing that magnesium burns even better under water. The race continued, the logic being that this prevented the mass of fans from exiting all at once and clogging up the rescue vehicle traffic.

There is no official figure for the number of dead but estimates vary from 80 to 100. Blame was directed variously at Hawthorne and at Macklin but, in reality, the culprit was the narrowness of the racing area in front of the pits. It was years later before it became standard practice to have a substantial barrier separating the actual racing surface from the pit lane.

After the race, Lance Macklin only raced once more (the crash-filled Dundrod race) before he retired for good. Phil Walters, an American driver who had been working with Briggs Cunningham, never raced again. John Fitch retired at the end of the 1955 season. Hawthorn, who was initially horrified by the accident,  did continue to drive in the 24-hour race, which he won. Three years later he won the F1 world championship and then immediately retired.
In the wake of this disaster racing almost shut down completely for a while. Racing was banned in France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland and more countries – until new higher safety standards could be put in place. Only three more Grands Prix were ever held that year – the Dutch Grand Prix the next week, followed by the British GP a month after that and then the Italian Grand Prix in early September. Three GPs which had been on the 1955 F1 schedule – France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland were never held. The French GP, which was initially postponed from its July 3rd date, was eventually held on September 25.

All of the countries which suspended racing allowed the resumption of racing before long – except for Switzerland which has never allowed auto racing in the country in all the years since. That is, except for Formula E (which I don’t consider to be ‘real racing’) which has permitted in Switzerland since 2018.

After the Le Mans circuit underwent significant modifications to widen the pit lane section of the track and to eliminate the standing-room terraces right beside this part of the track the 24-hour race returned the next year, 1956. This race was again won by a D-type Jaguar.

Safety provisions at the Le Mans circuit would be gradually improved over the years that followed – widening the pit straight and rebuilding the pits, Adding the so-called “Ford Chicane’ to slow the cars before they came into the pit lane area. An end to the traditional ‘Le Mans Start’ which saw drivers racing across the track to jump into their cars and roar away. Building a pit lane barrier to separate the pits from the racing surface. Adding the Porsche Curves. Adding the two chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight. But these safety improvements only happened over a period of many years. 

The next round of the sports car championship after Le Mans, scheduled for the Nürburgring, was cancelled, as was the non-championship Carrera Panamericana. Only the RAC Tourist Trophy which ran at Dundrod in Northern Ireland (and which saw three fatalities during the race) and the Targa Florio were run this year after the Le Mans race, giving a total of six championship races that year.

In America, the most notable direct consequence was the decision of the AAA to no longer act as the national delegate of the FIA in controlling racing in the United States. This left the Indianapolis 500 without an FIA sanction so Tony Hulman created an ‘in-house’ as it was ASN which was named the ‘United States Auto Club’ (USAC), in its place. 

While it is not so easy to draw a straight line between the Le Mans crash and the transition from actual road-racing to purpose built road course circuits at Watkins Glen, Elkhart Lake and Laguna Seca, it should be noted that these three tracks were built in the mid-fifties and the new awareness of circuit design safety in Europe must have had an influence on these developments in America – albeit that the Road America project was well underway before the Le Mans race in 1955.

In 1955 I was living in a bubble knowing nothing about the current state of affairs in international racing. A week after the Le Mans race, I was at the Edenvale airport circuit for a BEMC club race, my first ever experience at an actual race. After my introduction to sports car racing at Edenvale, I began buying Sports Cars Illustrated and Road & Track at the newsstand and the first Grand Prix report I remember reading was about the Dutch GP which followed soon after the Le Mans race. So anything I know about the Le Mans race and its aftermath comes on an after-the-fact basis.

So, how big was the disruption that followed the Le Mans tragedy? Four Grands Prix cancelled, two major sports car races cancelled, the Mexican sports car race and racing in Switzerland Never happened again, and the precipitous retirement of two or three drivers. The withdrawal of the AAA from sanctioning races. Against that I am counting 17+ auto races either cancelled or postponed to date this year. At the moment the race promoters are holding out hope that many of these races can be rescheduled for later in the 2020 year. It seems hard to imagine where NASCAR, for example, will be able to fit seven of their race weekends into a revised schedule which is unlikely to get back underway before the Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May. And the improbability that few of the ‘postponed’ races will ever be held this year makes it almost certain that this current hiatus will be the biggest disruption of an auto racing schedule in the last 100 years.

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