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Photo:AP

Photo:AP

The Deadliest Crash in Motor Racing History

Le Mans, 1955. The Mercedes-Benz exploded as it hit the grandstand.

The scene of the deadliest accident in motor racing history, remembered soberly to this day, the lessons from this single accident would go on to revolutionise modern auto racing.

The three teams competing were Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz.

The accident happened about three hours after the 24-hour race began at the Le Mans circuit. There was no official announcement of the disaster and the race was allowed to continue.

Hours after flame and flying metal erupted; few of the spectators at Le Mans, France knew what had happened. It was days before drivers’ stories and pictures could reconstruct the worst accident in racing history.

Some 250,000 spectators had gathered for Europe’s classic sports car race, the 24-hour test around an 8.38-mile course. Concerned about a course laid out years ago for slower cars, Mercedes Driver Pierre Levegh complained, “We need a signal system. Our cars go too fast.”

As the race entered its third hour the cars were breaking records at every lap when Jaguar Driver Mike Hawthorn received a signal from his pit crew to stop for gas. As he braked, an Austin-Healey swerved to avoid him. A few lengths behind, Levegh raised his hand, signalling another Mercedes to slow up. At 150 mph he had no chance to do so himself.

Hitting the Healey, 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. In a few searing seconds 83 people were dead and over?120?were maimed.

Levegh was killed outright. Macklin’s car spun wildly before coming to rest in the middle of the track, but he was unhurt.

The race had promised to be one of the fastest and most keenly contested ever held at Le Mans.

Shortly after the crash the Mercedes manager instructed the two remaining Mercedes to withdraw from the race as a mark of respect to those killed in the disaster.

It was several hours before spectators on the far side of the track knew of the crash. The first sign something was wrong was when the Mercedes team pulled out.

Hawthorn, though unnerved, went on to win and set a new record. But few spectators had the enthusiasm to cheer.

Officials pointed out that security measures at Le Mans went beyond standard requirements. There was some criticism of the decision to complete the race, but the organisers claimed stopping the race would have alarmed spectators and hampered rescue efforts.

The race was won by the British Jaguar team, drivers Ivor Bueb and Mike Hawthorn who reached a record average speed of 106 miles an hour (170.5 kmh).

The French cabinet concluded race security should be further improved and the distance between the track and spectators increased.

Mercedes-Benz withdrew from all motor racing at the end of the 1955 season and did not return until 1987. Switzerland banned all racing on motor circuits following the tragedy, a ban that was only lifted in June 2007.

http://www.ewilkins.com/wilko/lemans.htm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/june/11/newsid_3726000/3726535.stm
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