The 24 Hours of Le Mans, which takes place between Saturday 11th and Sunday 12th June 1955 on the Circuit de la Sarthe, is the third stage of the Sportscar world championship but it represents, above all, probably the most important yearly endurance race in Europe and in the Americas. In the 24 Hours of le Mans, besides the standings based on the distance raced by every contestant, there is another ranking that is as important as the first one: the so called performance index, which seeks to award the results obtained by each car, besides the displacement. In order to calculate this index, a minimum number of kilometers to run for each base displacement is established. The performance index is the ratio between the distance raced and the minimum established value. The contestant with the highest index will be the winner of this special ranking, which rarely coincides with the absolute standings. Le Mans will host once again the fierce rivalry between Italy and Germany, with which, this time, the British constructors can meddle, which have always prepared for the French challenge with particular attention. The list of participants, as for the main manufacturers, is the following: Ferrari, with three six-cylinder cars and the teams Castellotti-Paolo Marzotto, Maglioli-Hill, Trintignant-Shell (Taruffi missed the race due to a mild injury, replaced by North American Phil Hill, who gained absolute 2nd place in the latest Pan-American Carrera); Maserati, with two 3000 in the hands of Musso-Gino Valenzano and Mieres-Perdisa (Jean Behra reported light bruises after he was hit by a car in a practice session while he was standing in front of the box, and was unfit for the race); Mercedes, with three 3 liter cars, the 300 SLR that won the Mille Miglia, with the teams Fangio-Moss, Kling-Simon and Fitch-Levegh; Jaguar, which won the 24 Hours in 1951 and 1953, joins the race with Hawthorn-Bueb, Rolt-Hamilton and Walters-Spear on their powerful six-cylinder cars. Other cars that can aspire to success are the French Gordini, the American Cunningham and the British Lagonda and Aston Martin. The track is 13.492 km long.
The record for the distance raced belongs to Jaguar with 4088.060 km raced in 1953, with an average speed of 170.336 km/h, and the fastest lap was set by Ferrari (González) in the same year with 189.139 km/h. Castellotti proved that new and even more outstanding technical performances were possible this year, which behind the wheel of his Ferrari, during the practice, destroyed the average speed record established in 1954 by González; the Italian, in fact, managed to set a lap in 4'14"1 at an average speed of 191.149 km/h. Maserati and Jaguar, constructors that would certainly be the main protagonists of the big race together with Mercedes and Ferrari, hit the track as well, and the times set by Musso-Gino Valenzano’s Maserati (4'21"3) and Rolt-Hamilton’s Jaguar (4’23”3), even though they are slightly slower than their opponents, suggest that there will be an intense battle. The crowd’s outlook is spectacular: at least 250.000 people occupy the grandstands and gather along the 13.5 km track. Le Mans has never had a higher attendance. The weather is uncertain and there is light rain during the whole morning, but around 12 AM it starts to brighten up and eventually, at 3:45 p.m., the sun shines and tears the clouds. At 4:00 p.m., with extreme punctuality, the Italian count Maggi, the great patron of the Mille Miglia, gives the start sign. All the sixty drivers are in a circle traced with a chalk on the left side of the track; the cars, placed at herringbone pattern, are on the right side of the track. Once count Maggi lowers the flag, the drivers, according to a custom established in Le Mans that forces the drivers to a curious track start, run against their cars with their engines turned off. In an absolute silence, which anticipates a loud clamor, the sixty drivers reach their places, start their engines and hit their pedal to the metal. The fastest one is the Italian Castellotti, whose red Ferrari takes the lead. It is clear that the battle would have been furious. After twelve laps, Fangio gets behind Castellotti.
On the straights, Castellotti and Fangio, followed by Hawthorn, reach 300 km/h. The sound of the engines pushed to the limit is so loud and constant that the spectators near the barriers cannot even hear one another. After two and a half hours of race, the battle for first place is still fierce. Now, Fangio leads and Castellotti follows him angrily. At 6.30 p.m., the French Pierre Levegh is in sixth place with his Mercedes, behind the English Macklin’s Austin Healey. The two cars, which were few meters away from each other, take the long straight between the central grandstands. Suddenly, in an attempt of an overtake, the Mercedes touches the Austin and both cars start spinning: from this moment on, as a survived witness will say later, miraculously escaped from a sad fate, everything will unfold rapidly and absurdly, as in a dream. The Austin is violently pushed against a box where it injures two mechanicians, then bounces back in the middle of the track and stops without flipping outside down. Macklin, dazed and confused, leaves his car, but in that moment Kling’s Mercedes passes through, avoiding him by a meter. Meanwhile, Levegh’s Mercedes falls into the pit alongside the track. The impact is so tremendous that the car flies away and jumps over the wooden barrier, crashing on the crowd. It immediately catches fire and explodes. Its pieces are scattered all around in a 100-meter range. Fuel jets on fire hit the screaming and terrorized spectators that try to escape. A thick and acrid veil of smoke covers the scene in brief moments. Gendarmes rush in to bring first aid but they have to open a path through hundreds of people that are going mad with fear. As the smoke thins out, a gruesome scene appears. The French driver’s Mercedes burns furiously and is reduced to a bunch of debris: Pierre Levegh is inside, carbonized. Few years later, Andrèna Fangio, World Champion Juan Manuel’s wife, will say:
"It was 6.30 p.m.: I remember it precisely because I checked the stop-watch multiple times. The 24 Hours race started more than two hours ago. For sixty minutes, Manuel and Mike Hawthorn, respectively behind the wheel of a Mercedes and of a Jaguar, were fighting. While I was curled up on my seat in the grandstands, with my eyes gazing towards the big turn where extremely fast cars emerged from, I felt that the atmosphere was unusual. There was a strong rivalry between the two drivers that defended the colors of two rival manufacturers. At a certain point, I saw the car of the English driver pitting for recharging fuel. I knew that, twenty minutes later, even my husband would have done the same operation before swapping places with his teammate, Stirling Moss. It was a wild race, run at an impressive pace. Never had I seen such a tough competition, I would say almost hellish. The technical director of my husband’s team was sitting next to me, which told me after checking my stop-watch: He will be here in a few seconds, in front of Levegh and Kling. Suddenly I saw him. He was in a group of contestants who were running alongside the grandstands at an outstanding speed. Suddenly, I heard a horrible brake screech, then I saw one of the cars jumping into the air and crashing onto the ground scattering a rain of fire and twisted metal sheets. Levegh’s wife was sitting next to me, who grabbed me, trying to make me look away from that scene. She too saw his husband’s car disintegrate at Le Mans. A scream was raised from the crowd. I was shaking and my eyes glazed over. Mrs Levegh was desperately trying to help me overcome that terrible moment. Few seconds passed, then I heard a shout coming from the crowd: Fangio. And I opened my eyes. My husband was on the track, relaxed, serene. He waved me with his hand. It was not Manuel’s car that crashed, but poor Levegh’s. And it was me, in that moment, to catch the grief of the poor widow, reigniting in my heart a pain that lasted many years. Will it be my turn sooner or later?"
Under the car, next to it and all around it, burning corpses can be seen, and also others who got their head chopped: injured and dying people are rolling through the flames desperately asking for help. Women and children are present, and the survivors who are trying to find their beloved ones move around those bloodied and mangled bodies. The police are therefore compelled to use force to moderate the crowd and open a path for the ambulance and the trucks required for the painful emergency aid action, while the dead people are aligned behind the central grandstands and the injured are immediately brought to Le Mans hospital. It is easy to imagine in which state of anguish the thousands of spectators are at the moment, who unfortunately had to see all the details of that tragedy, and now see under their eyes the work of the rescuers without the possibility of acting in any way. Meanwhile, the race marshals order the drivers to slow down the race.
The order is executed but, shortly after, having stated that the track was clear (the ambulance cars are outside the race track), the race director allows the drivers to resume the race. At 7:00 p.m. it is announced that there are about forty dead and seventy injured people. At 8:30 p.m. the death toll reaches about fifty. The news astonishes the crowd: in the box of the different constructors, the mechanicians, veterans of many races, confess horrified that they have never seen such a disaster in a car race.
At 9:00 p.m., the incident appears even more horrendous: around a hundred injured, more than sixty dead. But the sad death toll is going to worsen: shortly after, Le Mans police will officially announce that there are seventy deaths (and the number will rise again). In the hospitals, a lot of heavily injured people have their life hanging by a wire. It must be noted that in Le Mans hospitals there are not enough adequate health services for such a number of injured, therefore the loudspeakers are continuously asking for blood donors. The call for donors receives immediately a response and hundreds of people reach the hospitals in order to help the healthcare workers. The Minister of Health will come in the evening, who assures an emergency response in Le Mans with all the necessary means in order to help the work of the local healthcare workers, while the police will block the area around the hospitals in order to prevent friends and family who are desperately looking for their beloved ones from obstructing the hard work of the nurses and medics. Heartbreaking scenes will occur multiple times in front of the doors of all the emergency rooms. Meanwhile, race marshals and police agents are trying to retrace the chain of events of the tragedy with the highest possible precision, but the investigations are difficult because of the statements of the shocked survivors and the contrasting words of the injured, most of which cannot even connect because they are living a nightmare. One of the survivors states:
"I was having a drink behind the barrier and I had the impression that a bomb fell onto us. I was violently thrown into the ground in an entanglement of screaming people. Everyone was running away. The area was immediately cleared and the gruesome scene of the victims met our eyes: some of them stuck to the ground were burning like torches, others were trying to run away terrorized with their burning clothes. Some others, injured, were trying to rescue themselves with their own means".
Meanwhile, the cars are still racing, which can be seen even from a long distance thanks to the powerful lights that are turned on as it gets dark. The billboards report the position and the average speed of the single drivers, while the loudspeakers inform the spectators about the course of the race. A hallucinating scene. The remaining crowd pays a partial, distracted attention to that technical information but follows with an always more serious sense of concern the drivers who are fighting at 300 km/h, and they fearfully see their cars that may cause such a massacre. At 8:00 p.m., while Fangio’s Mercedes leads the race in front of Hawthorn’s Jaguar, the German constructor decides to retire their cars as a sign of mourning. The order came in the meantime from Stuttgart from the director of the German manufacturer Fritz Konecke via a telephone call from the central headquarters. The speaker of the German house, present at Le Mans, states:
"The pride of the constructors and of the drivers should be allayed before the cruelty of this scary incident".
As Ferrari are disappeared and Mercedes are retired, the few remaining spectators pay no longer attention to the race. Their eyes are all directed towards the place of the tragedy, where there are nothingness and desolation: the carcass of the Mercedes is still in the middle, and around the bedazzling lights, pieces of clothes and blood stains are still visible. Sixteen victims have still not been identified; between the dead, at least two boys and a dozen women. Despite the scariest catastrophe on the history of racing, the race goes on with its infernal carousel. The retirement of the Mercedes in sign of mourning, which were certainly heading to the final win with Fangio, clears the way for Jaguar, which, since the Ferrari disappeared, have no more rivals. The only Maserati, driven by Musso and Valenzano, which tirelessly keeps adding laps and kilometers raced, tries towards sunrise to reach the head of the race. The two drivers, who often switch places, will gain a lot of the distance lost and reach second place in the general standings, five laps away from Hawthorn’s Jaguar. At 10:00 a.m., six hours before the finish, the two Italians, who keep attacking despite the rain, will regain two more laps but, suddenly, the engine performance of the last Maserati will drop, forcing Musso to a first stop. Shortly after resuming the race, he has to stop again, losing many laps. All the efforts made and the risks taken by the two drivers in the night have become vain. At hour 19, Maserati, which resumed the race, has 15 laps of disadvantage from Jaguar; despite this, it still stays at third place, behind Collins and Frère’s Aston Martin. Only 13 out of the starting 61 cars are still racing; among these, Cabianca-Scorbati’s Osca is there. Anyway, the number of the retirements will still rise: Musso and Valenzano, eventually, are forced to abandon the race. Meanwhile, about 9 AM, as per custom, the Holy Mass is celebrated on the field, almost at the edge of the track. The rite is officiated in three languages: French, English and German. In the silence of the crowd, the voice of the priest, covered from time to time to the rumbling engines, asks the bystanders to think about the victims of the tragedy:
"You have to thank God for not being among the deceased, innocent victims of a day of entertainment, and pray that He gives strength and comfort to the families of the victims".
After the mechanicians, during yet another pit stop, attempt the impossible to fix a mechanical issue, Maserati’s car is pushed into the barrier at the side of the track, where all the other cars that were eliminated by the unforgiveness of the race are aligned. Even Cabianca and Sgorbati’s and Englishman Jacob’s Osca met the same fate, whose car flipped and caught fire. The driver is hospitalized in severe conditions. After sunrise, it starts raining heavily. The crowd, who experienced intensely the heartbreaking tragedy of the night before, is silent; the fence reserved to fun is closed; no music, no more songs played by the loudspeaker, where the voice of the speaker announces again outstanding average speeds. It is noon when the crowd shakes in fear again: Mike Hawthorn goes out of the track. The English driver reaches the Mulsanne turn at an excessive speed and ends up in the grass. Miraculously, the car does not flip over nor suffers severe damage, so Hawthorn and his teammate Bueb manage to return to the track without any help, accordingly to the rules. A similar incident occurred to Beauman-Dewis on their Jaguar, but the two drivers did not manage alone to pull their car that was sunk in the sand and had to quit. Moreover, Jaguar does not lose its chance of success. The positions are stable and the tragic 24 Hours is about to end. It is few minutes before 4:00 p.m. when Hawthorn crosses the finish line, followed by Collins, Swaters and all the other survivors. Without Saturday’s catastrophe, this edition of the hard challenge would have gained a special place in the history of racing, since all the speed records have been broken. Anyway, the shadow of the tragedy takes all these results in the back seat. The winning duo shows up at the finish line, the organizers respect the usual ceremony even this time and they deliver the laurel wreath to the winners, despite everyone is too sad and next to the grandstands the policemen still protect the area inside the barbed wire, around the explosion of Levegh’s car.
Hawthorn and Bueb quickly receive the congratulations from the organizers without applauses from the crowd. The young English driver will leave the track crying. Meanwhile, the long and painful work of identification lasts the whole night from Saturday to Sunday, and will still continue because many people, as if they were gone mad, run from a clinic to another to seek for their deceased beloved ones, in order to gather news and information. The crowd throngs towards the door of the hospital, waiting for statements, where in any case only the medics and the volunteering blood donors can enter. From time to time, the door opens and an employee comes out with a list of the names of those who cannot be saved: sometimes a painful scream is raised from those who hear in quivering silence. Few women pass out, some others fall down sobbing desperately into the arms of their people around them. The desperation of an infinity of families, who came from every part of France and even Europe for a happy weekend and were struck by a horrible tragedy, does not allow us to delve into a detailed report of every single case. But how can one disregard the personal tragedy of Levegh’s wife, who was present at the race and saw the atrocious end of his husband? The main protagonist of the fatality was 50 years old and was named Pierre Bouillin, since Levegh was only a pseudonym used in sporting events. The Parisian had been racing for twenty years and was considered one of the greatest French champions. During spring 1955, Alfred Neubauer, Mercedes’s sporting director, decided to hire Levegh since his presence would have improved the German image in France, where the memories of the Nazi occupation were still way too vivid in the minds of the potential buyers. Twelve hours before the incident that cost him his life, Levegh had had another one, in the practice session on the track with his Mercedes. While he was testing the car he touched another car, a Gordini upside down in the middle of the track, in which his driver, Bayol, was stuck with his smashed skull. He was safe for a miracle and, while reaching the refuel spot, Levegh had said:
"Our cars are too fast".
Few hours later, Levegh was noticed while he was walking nervously to the pit, after he confessed to a teammate to fear a particular segment of the circuit, the straight of the garages:
"It is too narrow for these cars. Every time I run through it, I have the worst feeling. One has to be at ease during the race, and with this car I am not".
The journalist Jacques Ickx will write.
"He was terrorized, all the ingredients of the tragedy were there: pride, stubbornness, inability to admit that he should have done a step backwards because that car went over his capabilities. Mercedes thought that he would have dumped them sooner or later. They didn’t want to tell him that he couldn’t do it, so they expected that he quit on his own. But he didn’t".
Shortly after, in the horrendous stack of bodies, his one will become a burning cinder. While he learns about the scary tragedy happened in Le Mans, the president of the Western German Republic sends a telegram of mourning to the French president Coty; other mourning messages will reach Paris Government and the race organizers from every part of the world. Former World Champion Giuseppe Farina, who just came back from Belgium where he was a guest of the kings in the Laeken castle, confesses in an interview about Le Mans’s tragedy:
"A seven-meter large track is not enough for cars that run at 300 km/h. Saturday’s tragedy was an alarm bell. We are reaching the boundaries of possibilities in sportscar racing. I should have been there today. I didn’t feel perfectly good, anyway, and I preferred to ask Ferrari to leave me out. It’s a tremendous moment for racing. First the poor Alborghetti, then Pau, then Ascari at Monza, then Vuckovich at Indianapolis, and now Levegh. I knew that he had been resting for a long time in this season. Of course, as much as one tries to stay strong, every driver carries the weight of the tragedies that occur to friends that are divided by rivalry on track but united by a sense of affectionate fellowship towards the risks taken. Sportscars are as fast, if not even faster, as Grand Prix cars, but while in Formula 1 it has always been decided to limit the displacement, sportscars have no limitations. In the same race, in addition to this, there are 300 km/h fast cars and others that are 100 km/h slower. This increases the dangerousness of the races. Let’s be clear, my considerations are not against specific organizers. They are general and reflect the opinions of every driver. We are reaching the boundaries of possibilities in racing. The deceased people at Le Mans, whom we pay our respects, indicate that it’s time for new regulations".
Farina, after explaining his ideas, observes in silence a racecar model on the chimney of his nice house. Meanwhile, Carlo Salamano too, the great Fiat technician, has his say:
"Le Mans made me revive the seconds of anguish experienced in Monza. I had already quit racing for three or four years. I was an observer in the box of a rival constructor, Maserati if I remember correctly, when I saw Materassi’s car soar, flying in the air and falling into the crowd. A scene that I will never forget. I can only be understood by those who witnessed, on television, the film shot by an exceptionally cold-blooded Le Mans cameraman, in which a fireball is seen rising above the crowd, flying over it, then falling back in a gruesome cloud. What is the cause of this tragedy? It will be impossible to tell, probably, even standing there. It is certain, in any case, that Levegh was a good driver. The fire that involved that car cannot be due to Mercedes’s special ignition system. The car caught fire for the sparks ignited in the sliding of steel parts on concrete; this tragedy cannot be predicted".
Meanwhile, Eugenio Castelletti arrives at Malpensa airport on Monday 13th June 1955 at 5:55 PM, after surviving the tragic Le Mans race. Surrounded by journalists, while he submits his luggage to customs control, the young driver describes the dramatic phase of the tragic race:
"The English Hawthorn and the Argentinian Fangio were separated by only one minute and one second: between the two, there were two backmarkers, the Scottish Macklin and the Frenchman Levegh. I was in third place after leading the race shortly before. I noticed that I was running out of fuel, so I decided since lap 30 to make appropriate hand signals as I passed the pits to warn that I had opened the side tank. Maestro Ugolini, fearing that I would run out of fuel, made me stop two laps earlier. It was this very short pit stop that made me avoid that tragic collision. The carnage, anyway, occurred before my eyes. It probably started from Hawthorn’s braking. Maybe he abruptly had the idea of a refuel, maybe he feared, given the speed, that he would be laid down after the pitlane".
On Monday 13th June 1955, all the world's sports and non-sports press devotes pages and columns to the disastrous Le Mans tragedy, and in first place the French one. The cover of all Parisian newspapers, and partially even the inside pages, are full of big-sized titles, photos, diagrams, chronicles and comments. These ones contain rather critical judgments towards the organizers and the authorities, stating that not all the prevention measures have been taken as the common sense and consciousness would have suggested. The toughest critics of the authorities and the organizers were the conservative paper Le Figaro and the leftist Le Combat, which, after assessing that the race has been an English triumph as Mercedes were forced to retire, affirm that nobody can find a reason to be happy and the authorities and the organizers should learn a lesson on safety. Every newspaper of the British press expressed grief and horror for the tremendous tragedy. While the photos of a detailed report fill the first pages, the op-eds delve into comments and criticisms that can be summarized as follows: the race should have been suspended right after the catastrophe; those responsible should have taken better precautions; future sportscar races must be regulated by stricter precautional rules. In particular, the Daily Herald writes in large print:
"Why did they let the race go on?"
Then the Daily Sketch says:
"Why did not they stop the massacre race?"
The influential Times devotes its op-ed to the event, in which they state:
"The impressive calamity of Le Mans is the cause of deep sadness for the many victims and awakens a profound sympathy for the parents and relatives of the poor deceased people. This, in addition, raises awareness about the safety of this kind of races. The authorities and the organizers should seriously think about it".
Even the German press is unanimous in criticizing Le Mans’s organizers, for not stopping the race after the serious crash. The illustrated weekly magazine Bild, among the others, says that it was a huge mistake not to suspend the race instantly, and Koelische Rundschau joins them by saying:
"It is our duty to condemn the behavior of the organizers, who did not suspend the race".
Even Bonn’s General Anzeiger agrees. The calm and quiet town of 90.000 inhabitants had swelled to 350.000 for two days, earning about $200.000 for the organizers and procuring local commerce a turnover of a $750.000, and on Monday 13th June 1955 takes back its usual outlook: the race is over and the 260.000 people who invaded it leave little by little by train, bus or car. The usual outlook, but with a strange silence, especially around the hospital and the clinics: the flags that earlier were happily waving the windows, now are at half-mast, the radios in the bars are silent. They are turned on only at the time of the news. Around the hospital, the clinics and the postal office, the friends and families of the victims continue to throng: those who had come here for a party left, and those who lost their father, son, brother come here. Why, people ask, was the race not stopped immediately? Even its organization, which had a reputation as a role model, is now being criticized. The events have shown too late that the safety of spectators is not protected enough. But regarding the harsh comments made against the organization of the race, the director of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Charles Faroux, gives Le Figaro an interview in which he states:
"Immediately after the disaster, I was asked to suspend the race. Despite the horror brought upon me by the appalling tragedy, I decided that the sporting venture should not be interrupted. The British set the precedent three years ago at Farnborough, at a disaster similar in scale. In addition, if the large number of parked cars had all left the area at the same time, there would have been such a traffic jam on the roads that the available ambulances would have been unable to provide their services to the victims and the injured".
In the interview, Foroux refers to the incident that occurred during the Farnborough air show in which a jet fighter disintegrated at low altitude over the crowd causing the death of thirty people. Meanwhile, at Le Mans call center the calls keep coming from all towns of Europe, at the point that it is necessary to call for volunteer operators from Paris and other nearby cities, in order to relieve the exhausted local ones. Even at the blood bank, volunteers continue to arrive, showing wonderful human solidarity, and the fifteen doctors and surgeons from Le Mans are reinforced by many colleagues from Paris. A funeral service is held in the cathedral on Tuesday, June 14th 1955. Meanwhile, French authorities are expected to conduct an investigation in order to determine the causes and circumstances that led to the most tragic accident that motoring history can remember, and to this end on Thursday, June 16th 1955, René Floriot, one of France's leading jurists, is asked in Paris what judicial complications the Le Mans automobile disaster may have. Floriot responds that claimants may bring an action for damages against the organizers of the 24 Hours race, but such proceedings will be dismissed if no fault is proved against the Automobile Club De l’Ouest. The families of the victims may then sue the drivers, and in this case the constructors will be civilly liable. The action can be brought against Levegh’s heirs and Mercedes, or against Hawthorn and Jaguar. According to Floriot, anyway, the easiest trial will be against the material originator of the catastrophe, since it is a simple civil procedure.
Levegh, guardian of his own car, was civilly liable of it according to article 1382 of the French civil code and the victims do not need to prove any guilt on his part. According to Floriot, it is a trial that was already won before starting, since Mercedes would be ordered to pay the amount of the compensation. Levegh’s heirs and Mercedes, though, may retaliate against another driver and indirectly against his manufacturer, should they be able to prove that he committed a fault on which the disaster depended. In the particular case they could take action against Hawthorn and Jaguar. In this case, anyway, it will be a completely different proceeding, that is a penal one. It has to be proved that Hawthorn committed a fault. In other words, according to Floriot, the liability of Mercedes exists in any case, while the liability of Jaguar exists only in the event that a criminal action against Hawthorn is recognized. This legal clarification explains the untimely controversy stirred up by the German manufacturer even before the investigation promoted by the Le Mans court has been accomplished. In fact, arriving in Paris along with Fangio to attend Pierre Levegh's funeral, Mercedes’s sporting director Neubauer repeats the accusations against Hawthorn, and claims that Macklin, the English driver of the Austin against which Levegh's Mercedes collided, is able to testify to responsibility. However, Macklin refuses to accuse the competitor:
"In such a situation it is difficult to talk about responsibility. Hawthorn maybe made a mistake, but the true responsible is the speed of our cars".
Another English driver, Ivor Bueb, Hawthorn’s teammate in Jaguar, makes it even clearer:
"A single person can’t be the only responsible, because, after all, each of the drivers in the race can be considered such".
Bueb, who saw the catastrophe at few meters distance, since he was at that moment before Jaguar’s refuel spot, confesses:
"Levegh was running around the circuit by overtaking the other cars in a part of the track that was considered extremely dangerous from every contestant. He tried really hard to pass through between Macklin’s Austin and the side protection, and he hit it with his rear left wheel. The way the Mercedes disintegrated shows that the car was built as an airplane. It was gone to pieces. Mercedes is clearly a very dangerous car in those conditions: if the engine, the axis and the other parts were not thrown away like bomb shards, the number of the victims wouldn’t have been this large".
In order to reassure the families of the victims, alarmed by this controversy, on Thursday 16th June 1955 the insurance company of the 24 Hours circuit states that, in any case, the compensation will be regularly paid. It will be then decided if ACO, Mercedes, Jaguar or the insurance company itself will be responsible for that. In the following days, Le Mans’s tragedy leaves, besides a sense of astonishment towards the grievance caused, a sense of disorientation in the motoring field, since while new protection measures for the spectators are demanded, the races in France are suspended. But, meanwhile, the races go on. On Sunday 19th June 1955, the Formula 1 Netherlands Gran Prix is on schedule. Ferrari will send three cars driven by Castellotti, Trintignant and Mike Hawthorn, while Maserati will compete with Musso, Mieres and Behra, who should have been recovered after the injury at Le Mans, when he was hit by a car in the practice. Mercedes will be present with Fangio, Moss and Kling, although the controversy in Germany is still heated. There are protests for the prosecution of the race after the tragedy, it is pointed out that only foreign drivers run on German cars and, lastly, according to the Stuttgart technicians themselves, the cost of the race car is very high.
The one of the poor Levegh, for example, costed $25.000. Moreover, the suspension of the French Grand Prix at Reims would compromise the Mercedes’s business. In this regard, since they are surrounded by controversy, Mercedes announces their retirement from racing. It must be highlighted that this is not a temporary suspension of Mercedes from Formula 1 challenges but a permanent withdrawal from the manufacturing of race cars. On the other hand, one can hope that Mercedes keeps joining some race for sportscars, at least in 1956. At the moment, it is only known that such decision will be made after the 1000 Km of Nürburgring, which takes place at the end of August. Here is a brief summary of the reasons for the retirement: the high costs of the manufacturing of race cars, since according to some newspapers, the Stuttgart brand reportedly spent about $150.000 in 1954 for car setup, signing bonuses for the drivers, etc.; the development of their touring models; the lack of German drivers who are able to drive cars that go faster than 300 km/h; the Le Mans tragedy, which showed that automotive races are extremely dangerous for drivers and spectators. During a press conference in Stuttgart, the general director of Mercedes, Dr Koenicke, clarifies that the retirement from racing of the Silver Arrows was already considered before the carnage at the French track:
"The horrible consequences of Levegh’s incident convinced us that it was necessary to suspend our sporting activity. Many experts suggest that the displacement of the race cars is reduced. Anyway, it would be absurd to build cars for great international challenges with engines that are smaller than the ones belonging to city cars".
Mercedes’s executives think that there are only two tracks in Europe, Monza and Reims, that are equipped with adequate systems for the protection of the spectators, so the presence of the German race cars at the Dutch race depends on the adoption of rigorous protection measures: the participation of the three Mercedes cars will be decided by engineer Neubauer only Saturday evening, that is at the end of the official practice. Competitive motor racing comes out from Le Mans tragedy severely disturbed, has become the subject of attacks and reservations, not all of which taking a realistic view of the situation. Among the plethora of speed events that fill the international calendar, and a probably utopistic suppression of all motorsports activity, an acceptable solution will be found halfway as always, of course proceeding to a revision of regulations, technical formulas and safety measures currently in effect. Meanwhile, the main races planned on Sunday will be held regularly, once the requirements to ensure the greater regularity of performance are fulfilled. The only variable is the absence of Giuseppe Farina, who prefers to ask Ferrari to be left at rest; Mike Hawthorn, as foretold, will take his place. Mercedes, once the reservations made earlier about the race safety are dropped, will line up Fangio, Moss and Kling in the race, since the Zandvoort circuit, its layout being below sea level, runs through high sand dunes, and spectators are placed far away from the track. The recent hints on the efficiency of the Stuttgart cars do not leave many doubts on their likely success in the Dutch Grand Prix: if Fangio won again, the position of the Argentinian ace would become practically untouchable.
After the two recent tragedies, if besides Le Mans even the less tragic but still painful loss of Della Favera in the Parma race is considered, after the controversy and the inquiries, the race is still on. While Fangio refuses to share his opinion on the causes of the catastrophe, saying that he was busy in the practice for the Dutch circuit, precise accusations are raised against Hawthorn instead, which are naturally followed by lively reactions from those involved. The company from whose workshops come out the Jaguar cars, in one of which Mike Hawthorn finished first in the tragic Le Mans race, issues on Friday, June 17th 1955, a sharp statement commenting on the claim made by Lance Macklin during the official investigation on the disaster. As is well known, the English driver, if initially he had not charged his compatriot, he later indicates that Hawthorn made the mistake of overtaking him before slowing down to stop at the filling station:
"I suddenly found myself before the Jaguar, and in order not to hit it I had to move outside and as a consequence Levegh crashed into my car".
These words are reported with great prominence throughout the whole French press, making Jaguar’s direction fear that the liability of the tragedy could be attributed entirely to Hawthorn and his team. Therefore, since there is an ongoing investigation, no company or individual could be expected to express an opinion that defines liabilities, but since this has immediately done, Jaguar has no choice but to disclose an inquiry made between Jaguar race personnel and other witnesses to the incident. According to this inquiry, there is no evidence that Hawthorn acted against the race rules, and a report of the event made by Hawthorn itself on Friday 17th June 1955 is inserted in this regard, who confesses:
"After overtaking Levegh’s Mercedes at Arnage, I overtook Macklin’s Austin-Healey between the corner of the white house and the refueling spots. After making the adequate hand signs, I braked and I brought myself in front of Jaguar’s box, as it was asked to me in the previous lap. I am confident that I gave enough time to Macklin who followed me in order to make him understand my intentions and to act in a way that does not cause danger to the other drivers".
Anyway, the current opinion is that it may be impossible to determine an individual liability in the Le Mans tragedy, but everyone agrees on making a list of factors that should be urgently considered from all the race organizers. In order to avoid other tragedies, at Zandvoort the drivers will be asked to indicate with two hundred meters notice a possible return to the pits. Even if in the official practice of Saturday 18th June 1955, the fastest Maserati and Ferrari drivers are closing the gap from the German cars, it is unlikely that they are going to challenge the latter to the point of making their victory uncertain. On the technical side, Mercedes gained a certain advantage, a gap which is not to be closed in few weeks. Moreover, the death of Ascari and the consequent retirement of Lancia from racing worsened the symptoms of the sporting automotive crisis in Italy, which is very vital in other sectors instead. In order to avoid new tragedies, the circuit is inspected by Mercedes’s executives and drivers who find it flawless, yet they suggest slight changes. On the other hand, the track is 4.193 meter long and the drivers really like it because of its highs and lows, even if it has to be noticed that the circuit is made tricky by the gusts of wind from the North Sea, since the structure is located near the beaches of the Dutch town. Only sixteen drivers join the Grand Prix: after Lancia’s retirement, only four manufacturers participate officially, and all of them line up three drivers: Ferrari, with Hawthorn, Castellotti and Trintignant; Mercedes, with the usual Fangio, Moss and Kling; Maserati, with Behra, Mieres and Musso; finally, Gordini with two French drivers, Manzon, Pollet, and the Brazilian newcomer Silva Ramos. Anyway, the performances of the French single-seaters are so low that they cannot even be considered as outsiders, a scenario that has already been seen in all the previous races. The four privateers are Walker, Rosier and Gould on Maserati while Johnny Claes uses a Ferrari.
The qualifying session is a triumph of the Silver Arrows, with the three Mercedes placing at the first three places: Fangio sets the pole position with 1'40"0, four tenths faster than Stirling Moss, while Kling, with the less powerful Kling, sets the time of 1'41"1. In second row, Luigi Musso, Maserati’s flag bearer; his 250F has 10 HP more than his teammates, while Mike Hawthorn takes fifth place with his Ferrari 555. The two following rows are the theater of a Modena derby where Ferrari and Maserati share the available places, while the last six places are taken by the privateers and Gordini. Race day is warm and dry, with no sun, and but for a stiff breeze conditions are perfect. The start is one of the best seen for a long time and Fangio just manages to jump the flag sufficiently to get a length lead, but not sufficiently for anyone to complain, and this masterly touch puts him into the lead at the first corner. Musso has followed him closely and got in front of Moss, so that the end of the first lap sees the Maserati sandwiched between the two German cars. Afraid that Fangio will go ahead and leave him, Moss makes a big effort on the swerves behind the pits, draws alongside Musso and frightens him into lifting off a fraction of a second too soon for the right-hand bend before the sharp hairpin. This lets Moss through and away he goes, right on Fangio’s tail. None of the Maseratis or the Ferraris can cope with these two and, lapping in 1'44"0 the man and boy proceed to give a fine demonstration of Grand Prix driving, running round only a few feet apart. Musso is driving splendidly, losing only a very little ground on the leaders and leaving the rest of the field far behind. Hawthorn is leading the Ferraris but is no menace to either Mercedes-Benz or Maserati teams, while Walker is leading the independents and all the Gordinis. He does this for only 2 ½ laps, for then one of the disc wheels cracks round the hub and only the ears of the hub cap stop it coming right off. He is lucky to escape undamaged during the ensuing pirouettes.
Pollet comes into his pits for a brief moment, has a shouting match with Amedee Gordini, and then drives off again in a bad temper, and after 10 laps the order is Fangio, Moss, Musso, Behra, Kling, Hawthorn, Trintignant, Castellotti, Manzon and the rest. Castellotti is not really happy in the new Ferrari and all three cars are demonstrating the most fantastic understeer round the hairpin at the back of the pits. The two Mercedes-Benz are going steadily now at 1'43"0 and at lap 20 the order has not changed, though Hawthorn stops at the pits for a moment, not satisfied with his gear-change, while Gould stops to pour more oil into the gearbox, the casing having split. At lap 24 Kling disappears, having spun off the road on one of the fast right-hand swerves on the back of the course, and then Gould spins on the hairpin, with a resulting pantomime while he tries to restart coasting downhill, then reversing up the course looking for somewhere to turn round. He eventually arrives back at the pits and retires, the crack in the casing losing oil too fast. Although Moss is gaining a little ground on Fangio on the fast curves, he is losing it on the pit hairpin, being very ragged at times. He is driving a medium-length car with inboard brakes, while Fangio has the short car he drove at Monte-Carlo, with the engine mounted forward; Kling has been driving the other short car that Moss used at Monaco. Round and round they go, gradually lapping the other runners, and are 17 seconds ahead of Musso at 50 laps, or half-distance, but the Italian is still driving very nicely and close enough for the Mercedes-Benz drivers not to relax or make mistakes. Mieres suddenly finds new life and overtakes Behra, driving with great verve, and two laps later Behra stops to complain about his rear end but soon rejoins the race. By 60 laps, however, the two Mercedes-Benz have lapped Mieres, but they still can not really get away from Musso. Then some light rain comes down, making the circuit slippery, and Musso drops back a bit, even Fangio and Moss slowing to laps of 1'50"0. Trintignant brakes his transmission on lap 67 and coasts in to the pits, and then the rain stops and the track begins to dry, but not completely and Musso spins on the pits’ hairpin, but, keeping his engine running, he soon carries on, losing barely 30 seconds. By 85 laps it is all over; the two silver cars are more than a minute ahead of Musso and they just have to tour home and win.
As they lap Hawthorn yet again he tries to keep up with them, but it is not possible and for the last few laps Moss is touring round most of the way in fifth gear, but gets a bit of a fright when a plug oils up and his engine begins to pop and bangs on the last lap. All is well and they finish a length apart, Fangio having led from start to finish yet again. After an almost three-hour long challenge, the Mercedes duo cuts the finish line separated by only three tenths, despite the fact that smoke can be distinctly seen coming out of Moss's car from the rear. Musso takes third place with almost one minute of disadvantage, the rest of the group is backmarkers. Mieres, fourth, and Castellotti, fifth, take points, despite the Ferrari driver finished the race with a three-lap delay. The great protagonist of the day is the Roman Musso, who receives congratulations directly from the winner, Juan Manuel Fangio. Another race dominated by Mercedes, which are experiencing a season as absolute masters, helped by the crystalline talent of the strongest driver duo of the moment, Fangio and Moss. Maserati, especially Musso, provided a stalwart and buoyant performance, but the third place was the best that they could do. Even if the reports of the moment do not announce the final world championship victory of Fangio, given the uncertainty of the calendar since the choice of the cancellation of the planned Grand Prix, according to the final standings, Juan Manuel will already become World Champion in the Netherlands. Ferrari, who have never been a protagonist, are disappointing, which cannot even be satisfied with the win at Imola at the second Shell Grand Prix for sportscars with up to 2L engines. Obviously, after the events in Le Mans, it was not totally certain that the race would be held, but the organizers made their best efforts to guarantee the spectators complete safety. The Italian Motorsport Commission, during a long meeting held on Friday 17th June 1955 in the evening, in Milan, pointed out the urgent necessity, in light of the ascertainments made in Le Mans, and waiting for the results of the official investigation, of taking some measures in order to guarantee the safety of the drivers and of the spectators:
"These measures will be presented by the Italian Automotive Sporting Commission of Automobil Club d’Italia purposedly summoned on next 8th July in Rome at the convention of the Sporting Commissions of the Automobil Club d’Italia and immediately transmitted to the Automobil Club d’Italia for the eventual necessary ratifications from the organs in charge. Pending the formulation of such specific rules, the Italian Motorsport Commission has resolved the revoke of all the organization permits already granted for the races reserved to Formula 1 cars and sportscars with engines bigger than 2000 cc, which may be held in the established dates provided that they are organized on adequate circuits and with prior new authorization".
Similar decisions have been made in France and in Spain with the cancellation of the Barcelona Grand Prix. Even in Great Britain, the problem of the automotive races has been discussed in every form in the days after the Le Mans tragedy, which in total caused the death of the driver Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators and the injury of 120 people. Despite this, the fight on the Romagna circuit unfolds through two different stages: the first one, until lap 30, characterized by the dominance of Bellucci and Perdisa’s Maserati, who have been gradually gaining advantage on Maglioli’s Ferrari since the start of the race. Taruffi disappears from the fight for the lead already in the starting lap, as he hits the protection straw bales in order to avoid a struggling opponent. The Roman driver comes out from the crash completely unscathed, but the car is KO. On lap 20, Perdisa, which at the start lost few seconds from his teammate Bellucci, completes his long chase by taking the lead of the race. The two Maserati will dominate for other ten laps. From this moment on, the second part of the race begins, the more interesting one. On lap 30, Bellucci stops for few seconds at the pit complaining about clutch issues; he restarts almost immediately, but his race is hopelessly lost. Already on lap 31, Maglioli overtakes him and starts his chase against the leader. The distance between him and Perdisa is too long anyway: 41 seconds. The driver from Biella will only regain about 20 seconds from his rival. Finally, Perdisa wins with his Maserati, followed by Maglioli and Schell.
Despite these two sports events did not report severe incidents, on Monday 20th June 1955, in Italy, people are still asking whether the motorsport races should be abolished by the government, after the Le Mans catastrophe and the three fatal accidents during the Milan-Taranto. The opinions are contrasting, but it appears anyway that the Italian government wants to take some measures about the abolishing of every event on open roads while adopting special criteria for races on tracks. Awaiting the enactment of the new standards, every competition would be suspended unless a specific permit is granted. The decision recently made by the CSAI of suspending the Formula 1 races is judged by the responsible competent organs as not completely sufficient. In Italy, the races for 2.5L engines without compressor or 0.76L with compressor are very rare and exceptional, while the other events are way more dangerous, if we think for example about the Brescia-Rome, where Moss’s Mercedes and Taruffi’s Ferrari run at an average speed of 178 and 171 km/h on common roads, and that Mille Miglia winner Moss set the outstanding average speed of 157 km/h. A call to the Automobil Club of Italy and the provincial associations depending on it is also announced, so that they collaborate in the process of regulating this sector of the sporting activity.
The provincial associations of the Automobil Club must observe a stricter adherence to their statutes, reducing the organization of sporting events to a minimum and devoting themselves mainly to the motoring assistance of members, particularly since sporting activities especially for pure speed competitions entail substantial burdens that are detrimental to the members themselves. On Monday 20th June 1955, the general board of the Automobil Club d’Italia, held in Rome under the presidence of the ACI president, Dr Filippo Caracciolo, examines the situation of the regulations of the automotive races in Italy about safety, and proposes, also in relation to the decisions of the CSAI, that at the technical convention of the sporting commissions of the Automobil Club even the representatives of the organizing entities of automotive races should participate. In this regard, the convention will be held in Bologna on 8th July 1955. Meanwhile, on Tuesday 21th June 1955, it is learned from Paris that the French government confirms the retention of the suspension decree of automotive races until a new international regulation is elaborated, which is desired by many. As a result, the Formula 1 race scheduled on 3rd July 1955 in Reims is cancelled, the fifth stage of the World Championship, to which Mercedes already signed up. In the course of the same day, it is learned from Bern that even the representatives of the Swiss motor racing federation, the tourist board and cantonal and federal officials decide, after a prolonged night session, not to organize the Swiss Grand Prix for 1955, which is held every year on the Bremgarten circuit, near Bern. The organizing committee of the race announces the news officially at the end of the meeting.