First held in 1923, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a true test of speed, skill and, above all, endurance. Fans come from across the globe to witness one of the great spectacles of world sport. The 1955 event was billed as the greatest ever. All the best drivers of the day were there and over 250,000 fans had gathered to view the extravaganza.
In the first two hours of the race, drivers were breaking records on almost every lap of the circuit. However, just into the third hour, the British driver Mike Hawthorn was ushered into the pits for a fuel stop. He applied the brakes and, without realizing it, caused the car behind to swerve. This had a knock-on effect, ultimately causing a Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh to hit a bank close to the grandstand.
The car exploded on impact sending the wreckage deep into the crowd. The driver and scores of spectators were killed instantly. Many more were injured and urgent medical attention was needed. This presented the race organizers with a dilemma and, though their decision not to stop the race may now seem harsh, it was probably the right one. Ambulances and fire crews were coming from the town and if such a vast crowd were to leave en masse they would have blocked their way. The circuit was so large that few had any inkling that something had gone terribly wrong.
Out of respect for their driver, Mercedes withdrew their cars from the race immediately, but all the other teams continued. The race was eventually won by the British Jaguar team of Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb. At the official inquiry into the crash, it was ruled that Hawthorn had not been at fault – it was simply a tragic accident.
When was the 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster: June 11 1955
Where was the 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster: Le Mans, France
What was the 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster death toll: 83
You should know: The accident at Le Mans caused much soul-searching in the world of sports car racing. Mercedes-Benz withdrew from all motor racing and did not enter a car again until 1987. Switzerland banned all circuit motor racing – the ban was only lifted in 2007.