Motor Racing's Darkest Day
A documentary which appeared on the intermittently wonderful BBC4 recently reminded viewers of a time when spectator safety was altogether more rudimentary, if not non-existent. It told the story of the Le Mans disaster of 1955, which resulted in the death of 83 spectators, with many more injured. Drawing on interviews with two men who drove for the front-running teams, Mercedes and Jaguar, and a number of spectators who were present that day, the documentary was interesting not only for the black story at its heart, but for the way in which it showed viewers a picture of motor racing culture as it was over half a century ago.
Over 300,000 people attended the race that year, which, to judge by what those interviewed on the programme had to say, was then seen as one of the major events on the social calendar. A woman recalled being excited to go to Le Mans that year on her honeymoon. Another recalled how everyone would dress up for the occasion (the contrast between 50s race goes in their hats and bow ties, and the modern equivalent in their replica team gear was especially striking). Just 10 years after the end of World War 2, the world was beginning to rediscover a sense of levity, of excitement, after the austerity of the immediate post-war years. With the war still very much in the recent past, much was made of the battle between the two front running teams, the German Mercedes squad and their English rivals, Jaguar (though it should be pointed out that this can be taken too far - Mercedes had one Stirling Moss on their driving squad, which was very international in flavour).
If the documentary has a flaw (aside from the schoolboy error of claiming La Sarthe is 'the longest circuit in the world') it is that it appears to try to suggest that the accident was in some way the result of that rivalry. The fatal accident occurred some time after seven in the evening. Mike Hawthorn, having just lapped Lance Macklin's Austin Healey, slowed to enter the pits. Macklin lost control of his car as he swerved to avoid Hawthorn's slowing Jaguar, which sent him straight into the path of Pierre Levegh's Mercedes. Levegh's car launched itself off the back of Macklin's car, catapulting straight into the packed grand stand opposite the pits, disintegrating and exploding on landing, its magnesium chassis burning fiercely. The result was far and away the worst death toll at any motor racing event, grainy black and white photographs showing a scene not unreminiscent of the aftermath of a terrorist bombing.
As is perhaps inevitable with an event of that magnitude, the controversy would go on long beyond the end of the race. Amazingly, from our modern perspective, the race was not stopped. The organisers cited the need to ensure that ambulances heading to the circuit to tend the injured were not obstructed by tens of thousands of spectators heading in the opposite direction. Mercedes withdrew their cars from the race, inviting rivals Jaguar to do the same. Jaguar declined the invitation, and when Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb were photographed celebrating their victory, spraying champagne, it became a national scandal in France. In the long term, the result was the same for both teams. Mercedes and Jaguar withdrew from international competition in the aftermath of the accident, neither to return until the mid-80s when both would again fight it out for victory at Le Mans - with Jaguar taking the honours in 1988 and 1990, and Mercedes winning the last race before the introduction of chicanes on the Mulsanne in 1989.
The single issue which caused the most debate at the time, though, was that of whose fault the accident was. Even now, the two surviving drivers interviewed for the programme, Levegh's team mate, American John Fitch, and Jaguar driver Norman Dewis, had radically different views on the subject. In Fitch's view, the blame lay with Hawthorn, who according to Fitch, was devastated by guilt in the immediate aftermath of the accident and only later changed his story, blaming (by implication at least) an error from Macklin. Dewis, by contrast, considered that Macklin had simply lost control at the near-flat out corner leading onto the pit straight, and questioned whether the ageing Levegh (he was nearly 50 when he died) still had the reflexes necessary to race the powerful Mercedes 300SL, suggesting a sharper driver might have taken avoiding action when Macklin's Healey went out of control.
Watching the amateur cinefilm footage of the accident, which had been seen by few before the making of this documentary, though, it strikes me that this was simply a racing accident, that really, nobody could be said to be to blame for the accident. A public inquiry (which also had access to this footage) came to the same conclusion. Perhaps it is because people wanted someone to blame, but it seems to me that by focusing on the actions of the drivers, they were looking in the wrong place.
The government's report on the accident remains unpublished to this day, but it doesn't take a long government inquiry to establish that the reason the accident had such devastating consequences, the 'blame' if you wish to use the word, lay with the complete absence of protection for spectators. Back in the 50s, armco and catch-fencing had yet to become standard features (and no matter how much the latter may frustrate amateur photographers like me, it is simply a necessity when spectators sit level with the track surface, on the outside of a fast corner). The grandstands were right next to the circuit, the track at that point was very, very narrow, and there was no 'in road' to separate those heading for the pits from those continuing at full chat across the start/finish line. Add in the vast performance differentials between the fastest and slowest cars and the only real surprise is that such a serious accident didn't happen earlier.
It remains the single worst day in motor racing history. Thankfully, there has been no accident on such a scale since. I for one rather doubt that the sport could, in these safety conscious times, survive another accident in which there were mass casualties among spectators. Looking at the footage from the 1955 Le Mans race, the casual disregard for spectator safety is faintly chilling. But then those were different times. Two World Wars had caused devastation across Europe on a scale which is hard for people of my generation to really understand. The documentary suggested that the 1950s were the 'golden age' of motorsport. And if your romantic ideal of the sport is a vision of brave amateurs, fighter pilots with steering wheels, doing battle in dangerous circumstances, then perhaps it was. But the world has moved on, and those of us sitting in the grandstands should perhaps be grateful.