Triumph and disaster

Forty years ago the sport was shaken to its very core by the Le Mans disaster. Indeed, it almost shuddered to a standstill. Of course, the human toll of that race will always remain uppermost. But the 1955 Le Mans was a landmark race for sports cars. It was landmark year; Mercedes-Benz returned with its superb 300SLR, and ranged alongside it was the stunning Jaguar D-type. Designed specifically to win at Le Mans, the latter scored a sombre triumph upon its second visit to Le Sarthe – the first leg of a magnificent hat-trick.

The D-type had made its competition debut at Le Mans in 1954. Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton brought their car home a close second to a 4.9-litre Ferrari 375 Plus driven by Maurice Trintignant and Froilan Gonzalez who, with due respect to Rolt and Hamilton, were in a different class. However, thanks to its advanced aerodynamics the Jaguar had proved quicker than the Ferrari in a straight line, despite giving away nearly 1,500cc. Allied to Hamilton’s inspired wet weather driving and a lengthy pit stop for the leading Ferrari late in the race, the winning margin was less than 21 miles. In a different era this might have been a Jaguar win. For, in their agitation when the car failed to start, more Ferrari mechanics worked on the leading car than the rules permitted. Jaguar had every right to lodge a protest, but refused.

Hamilton’s heroic charge in the wet made for compelling viewing and hundreds of column inches but, had it stayed dry, the Jaguar might have won at its first attempt. The conditions negated the advantage which Jaguar’s novel four-wheel disc brakes conferred because the Ferrari’s drums were cooled by the rain.

For 1955, therefore, Jaguar had unfinished business. The Coventry marque began the year by winning the Sebring 12 Hours. Then the 300SLR entered the fray at the Mille Miglia, the bumpy roads of which Jaguar decided to miss. So Le Mans Jaguar’s Holy Grail was to be the scene of the first battle between these two great cars.

Any account of this race must be overshadowed by Pierre Levegh’s terrible accident. The Frenchman’s 300SLR was launched into the crowd and exploded. The death toll estimates range from 85 to 96. It was a crash that changed the face of motor sport: racing was banned in Switzerland, which previously had staged a round of the World Championship; France put a temporary embargo on the sport, and the French GP and Reims 12-Hour were not held; other French races, run on street circuits, were cancelled, never to be revived.

This would all become apparent in the future. At the time the motoring press closed ranks and avoided the subject if possible. The future of their sport was in jeopardy. It was only much later that it was revealed that the disaster had played a major part in the decision of Mercedes-Benz to withdraw from racing — its competition department was working on the 1956 cars when the board of Daimler-Benz pulled the plug in the October. Among the developments planned was a four-wheel-drive system…

A varied field had promised a memorable race for more sporting reasons.

The headliners were Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Ferrari.

There were three 300SLRs, fresh from a debut 1-2 in the Mille Miglia. Unable to match the stopping distance of the disc-braked Jaguars, these were fitted with air brakes that took the form of a flap behind the driver which he could flip up hydraulically. It was widely admired at the time, but was actually a crude expedient an admission that the company was not as technically advanced as it liked to appear.

Jaguar had fitted its three works D-types with longer noses to increase their top speed to 175 mph.

There were three works Ferraris the 4½-litre, six-cylinder Tipo 12ILM raced by the works only in 1955 and two private Monza 750s in support.

There was a strong supporting cast, too.

Lagonda entered two 4½-litre V12s with the new Project 166 spaceframe (later used for the Aston Martin DBR2), but scratched one of them because the engine was so unreliable. Still, the David Brown organisation also had three of its latest Aston Martin DB3Ss in the field.

Briggs Cunningham made his final appearance at Le Mans with a car of his own manufacture, a C6 with a 3-litre Offenhauser engine, while a Ferrari 750 Monza and a D-type (the Sebring winner) were also entered under the American’s familiar white and blue colours.

Maserati had two of its new 300S (virtually a sports version of the 250F) and a 2-litre car. A Cooper-Jaguar made a rare appearance in an important race, while Gordini, which was struggling to survive, was represented by a single 2-litre car. As there was no entry from Talbot for the first time in years, the Gordini was the host country’s only chance of victory. The great French sports car tradition was almost dead.

Down the field there was a sudden interest in the 1,100cc class since the Coventry Climax FWA engine had been snapped up by a host of British constructors. Making their debuts at Le Mans were Arnott, Cooper and Lotus (with Colin Chapman driving), while Kieft was returning with a Climax-powered car and one with a Turner-modified 1,500cc Lea-Francis engine. Connaught entered its only Le Mans with a car in the 1,500cc class, while Bristol fielded three of its successful 2-litre 450s, this time in open form.

Porsche had four entries in the 1,500cc class, plus two 1,100cc cars. There was one 1,500cc OSCA. Nardi had a strange twin-boom car with a 735cc twin-cam Giannini engine; this proved impossibly slow and unstable, and was blown off the course by the wake of an overtaking car when holding last place! Eight cars using the Panhard engine (four each from DB and Monopole) were aiming for class wins and the Index of Performance; six had 750cc units, but two of the Monopoles had 850cc engines in an effort to beat the handicap. The 750cc class was completed by a VP-Renault. This company had attempted to strike up an official partnership with Renault, only to be was told that its cars were no good and that Renault had begun a relationship with Alpine. Stanguellini made its first works appearance in a race outside Italy with cars for the 750cc and 1,100cc classes, though the latter did not make the start.

MG made its first official works.entry since 1935 with three EX182 prototypes based on the MGA, then being readied for its launch. Triumph entered three TR2s. There were two Frazer Nashes, and one private Austin-Healey 100S. In fact, the latter was a works entry, but Donald Healey had fallen out publicly with the organisers the previous year when they allowed prototypes. Finally, there was a Salmson, a virtually standard 2300S GT with a sports body that provided the company with its last appearance in a race.

One of the Arnott drivers was to be Ivor Bueb… but Jaguar was a driver short. Conflicting fuel and tyre contracts narrowed its choice, and since Bueb was doing well in Formula Three and was driving a Cooper-Climax ‘Manx-tail’, he was approached, even though he had never competed in a sports car larger than 1,100cc or raced at night. The latter fact was to play a small part in the tragedy.

To replace him a young reserve was drafted into the Arnott and, feeling pleased with himself, he nonchalantly waved to his girlfriend as he passed the pits, lost control of the car and wrecked it beyond repair!

Levegh was the other surprise choice for a front-running car. His real name was Bouillion, but he adopted a pseudonym in honour of his uncle, Alfred Velghe, one of the greatest of the pioneer racing drivers. Levegh was a capable engineer, an excellent all-round sportsman and, although he made a speciality of Le Mans, had experience of Grand Prix racing and had scored place finishes.

Noted for his intelligent driving and mechanical sympathy, he had come within an ace of winning the 1952 Le Mans singlehanded in a self-prepared Talbot. Early in the race he noticed a slight engine vibration and, as the rev counter had broken, he feared his inexperienced co-driver would over-rev the car. So he did not hand over to him. Nor did he inform his pits why in case word got out to the opposition. With an hour remaining and holding a four-lap lead, the exhausted driver missed a gear change and wrecked the engine, allowing the carefully paced Mercedes-Benz 300SLs to take first and second places.

It was a sentimental gesture on Mercedes-Benz’s part to include Levegh in its team for 1955. Afterwards some people (regrettably, from the Jaguar camp) were to claim that Levegh’s inexperience contributed to the accident. This was ripe since Jaguar was running Bueb. Also, it was nonsense. No driver in the race had driven as many miles at Le Mans as Levegh, and not only did he post faster lap times than his team-mates, Karl Kling and John Fitch, but he was also quicker than all the Jaguar drivers except Mike Hawthorn and Rolt.

The early stages of the race were led by Eugenio Castellotti’s Ferrari, with the slow starting Mercedes of Juan-Manuel Fangio and Hawthorn battling for second as though they were in a 10-lap sprint. Just after the first hour Castellotti retired, and the Fangio/Hawthorn dice became a battle for the lead.

Time and again they passed and repassed, constantly breaking the lap record — it was a re-run of their epic Reims battle in the 1953 French GP. After two hours Hawthorn had an advantage of about 200 yards and his adrenalin was flowing. Furthermore, he despised all things German, and to be ahead of a Mercedes-Benz meant a lot to him. But he had a problem. He was due to hand over to Bueb in his first important race, while Stirling Moss, the world’s best sports car driver, was waiting to take over from Fangio…

At about 6.30pm Hawthorn headed for his pits. One needs to know that the road was fairly narrow, with no pit lane in the modern sense, merely an apron marked by white lines. The Englishman was determined to hand over while in the lead. He overtook Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey and braked hard. The ‘Healey was going full chat with much inferior braking, and Macklin was suddenly in danger of ramming the Jaguar. He had no option but to ease to the left — it had to be a gradual move, as a sudden jink would have sent him into a spin.

Levegh was close behind and he had no chance as Macklin was forced to the left; there was simply no more road. Levegh realised that he was about to be involved in an accident and raised his hand to warn Fangio, who was about 50 yards behind. The Argentinian braked, and was later to say that Levegh’s gesture saved his life, and possibly those of dozens of spectators.

Levegh’s Mercedes hit the low, sloping back of the ‘Healey and was launched towards the protective earth bank. It slammed in almost head-on and was catapulted into the crowd.

There were immediate casualties from the impact. Then the fuel tank exploded, spraying shrapnel among the spectators. There was much magnesium in the car’s construction and it burned fiercely. The scene was gruesome.

As Levegh’s car went into the crowd, Macklin was cannoned into the pits, injuring several people, before bouncing back across the track and blocking it. It was a miracle no further accidents occurred.

This all happened in full view of Bueb, who was waiting to take over for his first stint. It says a great deal for his moral fibre that he was able to take over the Jaguar.

The race organisers knew that if they stopped the race, the circuit would become congested and the emergency services would be hindered. So it continued. It was the right decision, but there was much criticism of it. It seemed wrong to some observers to continue to race while people lay dead and dying.

Hawthorn had been right about Bueb; Ivor could not match his pace, and soon Mercedes-Benz held a comfortable 1-2. But at 1.45am came the call from Stuttgart and its team was withdrawn as a mark of respect. It was a dignified gesture, and by any reasonable standard Mercedes-Benz was the moral victor. But the record books show that the winners were Hawthorn and Bueb, ahead of Peter Collins and Paul Frere in an Aston Martin, which won the 3-litre class. The Ecurie Francorchamps D-type of Johnny Claes and Jacques Swaters was third.

It was not a completely hollow victory, since the Jaguar had set a new distance record for the race; but it was not a great win.

Two Porsche 1500s came fourth, fifth and sixth overall to take a 1-2-3 in the class. The Weissach firm also won the 1,100cc class — a remarkable feat for a company which made its international debut (at Le Mans) only four years before. Bristol took seventh, eighth and ninth a 1-2-3 in the 2-litre class but it would be the company’s last appearance in a race. Later in the year two of its team drivers were killed in separate events. Neither was in a Bristol, but following so closely to the Le Mans tragedy, it persuaded Bristol to abandon racing, and so a future sports racer was still-born, along with a proposed F1 car.

Only two French cars finished, both DB-Panhards, but they scored a 1-2 in the 750cc class. The only Italian car to finish was the OSCA.

All three TR2s were running at the end, along with two of the three MGs, and a Frazer Nash the last time a ‘Nash would finish at Le Mans. The only Climax-engined car to complete the course was a Cooper third in the 1,100cc class if you want to be polite, dead last if you want to be accurate. Climax-powered cars would be back, however, and perform with distinction.

After the race wild stories circulated, including one that Mercedes-Benz had a secret fuel additive in a hidden tank, which had caused a separate explosion and added to the death toll. It was nonsense.

Levegh was blamed by people anxious to shift the blame from Hawthorn. It was even suggested that a man who used a pseudonym was mentally unbalanced. There were no depths to which some would not stoop to point the finger. It helped that Levegh was dead and could not defend himself.

The official inquiry declared that no driver was to blame, but there is no question that Hawthorn triggered the sequence of events – as he knew only too well at the time.

One could say that it was a “racing accident”, that there were many contributory causes. But the fact remains that Hawthorn caused Macklin to brake and change direction, and it is a general principle of driving that anyone who causes another to react so is always at fault. Thus blame can be apportioned, though one hesitates to hang 80 deaths around a man’s neck for an error made in the heat of a race, one which would normally have led to nothing more harmful than a shaken fist.

Macklin, the innocent party in the accident, and a very gifted driver, retired from the sport a few months later. Three years on, Hawthorn published an account of the accident in a national newspaper, which caused Macklin to serve a writ for libel, but Hawthorn was dead before the case came to court.

When Levegh was buried a great number of drivers attended, and the ceremony became farcical as autograph hunters turned out in force. Some of the mud stuck, but Levegh was entirely innocent and, far from being out of his depth, he had had the presence of mind to warn Fangio and so prevent worse carnage.

Mercedes-Benz’s withdrawal ensured that neither Fangio nor Moss ever won Le Mans. The only person to come out of the event with advantage was Bueb. His conduct under trying circumstances was widely admired and doors began to open for him. “Ivor the Driver” was never of the top drawer, but he was a great personality and practical joker, who was to win Le Mans again for Jaguar, in 1957, and be an occasional Formula One driver. He died in a French hospital in 1959 after crashing in a Formula Two race at Clermont-Ferrand. He should have recovered, but the doctors did not notice that he had a ruptured spleen.

It was now clear that Le Mans had become inadequate for cars capable of over 170 mph. which was acknowledged by the fact that it was reconstructed for 1956.

Ironically, the tragedy also helped Jaguar to a second successive win at Le Mans. In 1956 the race was confined to cars of no more than 2-litres unless they were production cars (i e at least 50 had been made).

Aston Martin pretended that it had made 50 examples of the DB3S, while Ferrari could not even pretend, so built special 2-litre cars. But Jaguar had really made more than 50 D-types, so its win was kosher and deserved, while Aston Martin’s second place was dubious.

That it was the Ecurie Ecosse car which took the flag on this occasion persuaded Sir Williams Lyons that a works team was no longer required, so Jaguar withdrew from racing at the end of the year while supporting Ecurie Ecosse. It proved a perspicacious move, for Ron Flockhart was joined by Bueb to secure Ecosse’s second consecutive Le Mans victory and Jaguar’s hat-trick in 1957.

But that same year Fon de Portago’s Ferrari crashed during the Mille Miglia. Both he and his passenger were killed, together with nine spectators, five of whom were children. It was the final straw, This and Levegh’s accident had made organisers acutely aware of safety, and the road racing tradition died.

This altered the balance of power in motor racing. Italian car makers, in particular, had tended to construct rugged chassis to cope with the cobbles and manhole covers which were part and parcel of street racing. Now constructors had to build for the smoother surfaces of airfield circuits and, therefore, paid more attention to chassis and suspension design. The new breed of British designers was able to exploit this change, whereas the Italians had no depth of culture in chassis design.

Within a very few years most of the manufacturers represented at Le Mans in 1955 had folded or left racing, and it was left to the newcomers – Porsche, Lotus, Cooper and Ferrari – to take racing into the future.

Truly, this ill-fated race changed the history of motor racing. It also set the D-type on the way to a hat-trick of wins at Le Mans. A remarkable feat considering that it was based on production components, including an engine which powered them to 175 mph along the Mulsanne Straight, yet was tractable enough to power Daimler limousines.