Le Mans, 1955.
The prestigious and exciting Twenty Four Hours of Le Mans race, or Les 24 Heures du Mans, is the oldest sportscar race in the world, having been run since 1923.
It is also one of the most dangerous.
Twenty two drivers have died there in total but this figure doesn’t include serious injury or other personnel such as marshals, track employees and spectators.
The worst of these events was the 1955 Le Mans race when a total of at least eight four people died; one driver and eighty-three spectators. This was and is the worst motorsport accident in history.
The car of one driver, Pierre Levegh, lost control of his car which was launched into a crowd of spectators. You can see in the video below that safety measures at races in those days was negligible, if not non-existent. Spectators weren’t protected from this type of accident and when the car hit an embankment, huge and weighty pieces of the vehicle, including the rear axle and the engine block, went hurtling through the air causing mayhem.
The attendants were not used to dealing with magnesium fires and the stricken car, a Mercedes Benz was made from magnesium alloy. Attempts to extinguish the ensuing fire actually made it worse.
It’s not known exactly how many people died.Contemporary reports say as many as one hundred and thirty people lost their lives. In those days, assessing the damage in terms of numbers was difficult. No-one knows how many people were seriously injured or died of their injuries later. The police files have never been public. There was complete chaos. In those days, there were no pit-to-car radios, no television cameras mounted at every point on the circuit, no-one tweeting and no-one taking cellphone images. No-one knew what was happening.
The organisers didn’t stop the race
It was said later that this was because they were concerned that if they did, and hordes of people left the circuit, then ambulances and emergency services would have found the roads clogged.
If you read a report of the race now, you’ll probably read that the Mercedes team withdrew from the race.They did, but not immediately. It was six hours later that they decided to do so. Remember this race took place under ten years since the end of the Second World War. The Germans (and Mercedes is a German make) had occupied France during the war and been responsible for the deaths of countless French people. Here was a German car that had caused a huge number of French deaths within seconds. When this was pointed out to them, they withdrew their cars. In fact, at the end of that season, Mercedes withdrew from motorsport altogether for several years. You can see an explanation of that in the second video below.
See the Pathé News coverage in the video below.