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The Day That Almost Killed Racing: 1955 Le Mans

Written by Michael Randall, Edited by Alessandro Erazo

There are many days that will live in infamy. The darkest days for many and the times that people got hurt and perished. This race seemed like it was going to be another great Le Mans weekend. The 1955 running of the race happened almost 70 years ago now but its effects are still being felt around motorsports. Before the race, the Mercedes Number 19 was designated as the lead Mercedes with famous drivers Juan Manuel Fangio and Sterling Moss being at the helm of that team. One of the other teams that Mercedes was running was the number 20 of John Finch and Perrie Levegh. Their main competitors were the Jaguars with Formula One driver Mike Hawthorn in the Number 6 Jag. There were many other slower cars throughout the field. One of those slower cars was the #26 Austin-Healey of Lance Macklin.

The race was going fine until the 35th lap. Mike Hawthorn was in a tight battle for the lead with second place taken by Fangio in the number 19 Mercedes. The cars were on their edge. The design of the Circuit De La Sarthe at the time had a fast kink right before the pit area started, at the time most pit lanes were only areas just off to the side of the track. Hawthorn knew that he needed to pit as his team put out his pit board a lap before. Hawthorn was trying to build as much gap as possible and in doing so, he lapped the #20 Mercedes of Perrie Levegh just before Arnage. The problem was that as Hawthorn neared the pit boxes, he was coming up to Lance Macklin at a rate of knots. After getting past the #26 Austin-Healey he dove into his pit box at the last possible moment trying to get the jump on Fangio. The Austin-Healey behind was right on his tail and swerved at the last possible moment to try and get out of the way of Hawthorn. Levegh was right behind all of this and was closing in at 200 km/h (120 mph). He had no time to react and hit the back of the #26 Healey. Even if he had time to react, the Mercedes only had an aero brake and drum brakes. Levegh launched up into the air and due to the kink in the track was aimed right at the spectators. Levegh would die on impact as he was launched from the car.

The parts of the car were thrown into the crowd. 84 people would die from their injuries and 120 in total were injured. When Finch went to get Levegh’s wife to tell her the news, she just looked at him and told him, “I know”. After a few more laps of racing, Mercedes would pull their cars out of the race and leave motorsport all together until 1989. The incident made three drivers, including Finch, quit racing all together. Later the driver of the Healey, Lance Macklin, would quit racing after he was involved in another fatal crash. Some of the effects of this incident are still felt today as Finch went on to help Sir Jackie Stewart later in life with getting more safety on the roads and track. Many countries would ban motorsports too as it was seen as a danger. Almost all ended after a year, except Switzerland, which has only held hillclimbs and two E-prixs since the incident. This day will go down as a day that will live in infamy. The darkest day in motorsports history and the day that almost killed motorsports.


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