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Monday, 17 October 2011

Le Mans Disaster 1955

Le Mans 1955
Le Mans in France is a great motor racing venue and in 1955 many of the top car makers were competing tenaciously against one another. The best and most skilled drivers of the time were employed to drive these great car manufacturers to victory.
Mike Hawthorn 1929 - 1959
Britain’s Mike Hawthorn was one of the old school Brits who chose to champion the Jaguar car making company. They were in a constant battle against all other car designers like; Mercedes, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Maserati. The rivalry was bitter and none more so then the German constructor of Mercedes.
Pierre Levegh 1905 - 1955
The Mercedes team had a veteran Frenchman named Pierre Levegh driving for them with an American driver called John Finch ready to take over driving duties at a later stage of the race.

When the race started it was extremely fast and more lap records were being broken than normal. On the fatal lap 35, Mike Hawthorn was flagged for a pit stop and he hit his brakes upon reaching the stop. These new disc brakes made his Jaguar slow much quicker than usual for the other cars following – they still had the drum brakes. Another Brit named Lance Macklin in an Austin Healey was forced to brake and swerve. He did not see two Mercedes Benz 300SLR coming from behind as he swerved outwards to by- pass Hawthorns slowing Jaguar.   
Pierre Levegh's car smashes upon the mound scattering debris
The rear of Lance Macklin’s Austin Healy had a ramped rear design and as the Mercedes driver, Pierre Levegh, clipped the side;  his racing car shot upwards and became airborne. It twisted and smashed into a mound that separated spectators from the track. Fragments of the car flew off at high speed as the smashed vehicle somersaulted – wreckage sliced through the tightly packed spectators like a scythe – decapitating and killing 83 of them and leaving another 120 injured. It was one of the worst racing disasters in history. The French driver Pierre Levegh was killed too.
Aftermath
The race was continued because the French authorities did not want more spectators from other parts of the track congesting the accident scene where ambulances and other emergency services were at work.  Hawthorn and his teammate Bueb were pictured by French press celebrating their race win with champagne; this was looked upon with scorn and distaste.

The entire race of Le Mans 1955 is infamous because of the horrific accident. The inquiry found that Jaguar was not at fault, but that safety barriers were inadequate. Many nations stopped races being staged until new safety criteria were brought in.

Mike Hawthorn was killed in a motoring accident in 1959 when his Jaguar crashed into a lorry on the A3 Guilford Bypass. He was just twenty nine years.




 



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