A RACE TO REMEMBER
Icons were about to do battle on the circuit. One of them was the charismatic British driver Mike Hawthorn, driving for Jaguar. A blond and bolshy womaniser and practical joker, known for his signature bow tie and devil-may-care attitude behind the wheel, Mike Hawthorn cut a flamboyant figure in the sport. Another British legend racing that day in 1955 was Stirling Moss, driving for Mercedes. Moss's Mercedes teammates included Pierre Levegh, a veteran driver from France, and Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine who many still regard as the single greatest racing driver of all time.
Mike Hawthorn wasn't just determined to do well in the race. He was particularly determined to take Mercedes down a peg or two. The 1955 Le Mans became a gruelling, thrilling duel between Hawthorn in his Jaguar, and Fangio in his Mercedes. Packed crowds watched intently as the cars zoomed by, until the fateful moment struck. On lap 35, while hurtling ahead of his rival Fangio, Hawthorn had to make a pit-stop, cutting ahead of another driver, Lance Macklin, before hitting his brakes.
Taken by surprise, Macklin desperately swerved to avoid a crash, putting himself directly in the path of Pierre Levegh, who was coming up behind him. Levegh had no time to swerve out the way. His last conscious act was to wave his hand to warn drivers behind him, before his car literally drove up the side of Macklin's vehicle like it was a ramp, and launched into the air.
Thrown out of his cartwheeling car, Levegh smacked into the ground, crushing his skull and dying in an instant. The car itself slammed into the side of the circuit, sending sharp chunks of metal spinning into the dense crowd. As a journalist at the time put it, the hood of the car "decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine". The fireball of the car rained flaming debris down on the whole bloody scene, and a driver watching from the pits would later say that "the dead and dying were everywhere... I stood as in a dream, too horrified to even think."
The death toll has never been properly verified, but it's thought that at least 83 people died in a matter of seconds, with countless more maimed. Despite this shocking carnage, the race wasn't stopped, because officials wanted to keep the surviving spectators where they were and avoid a mass exodus that might have stopped emergency crews from getting to the site.
Mike Hawthorn and Jaguar went on to win Le Mans 1955, which must rank as the hollowest victory in the history of motorsports. The responsibility for the disaster has been hotly debated ever since. Some blame Hawthorn, saying his obsessive rivalry with Mercedes and Fangio caused him to act recklessly in the seconds before his ill-fated pit-stop. Others point the finger at Macklin, suggesting he should have been able to swerve around Hawthorn without getting in Levegh's way.
Either way, it was the worst disaster in the history of motorsports. It cast a shadow over Mike Hawthorn's career, and there was more tragedy to come for the glittering star. Just a few years after Le Mans, Hawthorn would become Britain's first ever Formula 1 World Champion, yet that same year he grieved for the death of his friend and teammate Peter Collins, who was killed in the German Grand Prix. And, in a final grim denouement, Hawthorn himself would die in a car crash just months after retiring, while driving his own Jaguar on the A3 Guildford bypass.