On 10 June 2018 an extraordinary thing happened. A motor race took place in Switzerland. Sounds pretty mundane, especially if you are no fan of motorsport, but the reason it was so remarkable is that it was the first to take place in that country for 63 years. And that’s because in 1955 motor racing was banned in Switzerland, seemingly forever. The Swiss Grand Prix – then a regular feature on the Formula 1 calendar – was cancelled and circuit racing outlawed. How so?
Sport is often overburdened with hyperbole. A missed penalty is a disaster, a skewed putt a tragedy. But on 11 June 1955 at Le Mans in north-west France real tragedy struck. In the space of 10 seconds, 84 people were killed in the worst accident in motor racing history.
The sport is self-evidently dangerous. Far less so today, however, than it was all those decades ago. Three-time Formula 1 world champion Jackie Stewart is fond of saying that during his era in the 1960s and early seventies a racing driver had a one-in-three chance of dying before retirement.
Even world champions were not immune: Alberto Ascari, Jim Clark and Jochen Rindt (who, ironically, became the only posthumous champion) all died in racing cars. It gave motorsport a major image problem – anybody who witnessed the distressing scenes of David Purley trying unsuccessfully to rescue fellow driver Roger Williamson from beneath his burning car at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix would think twice before taking the kids to a fun day at the races. But the last Formula 1 world champion to be killed racing was Ayrton Senna in 1994, and only one other Formula 1 driver, Jules Bianchi, has died since. However regrettable that may be it’s a distinct improvement on the 1950s and 1960s when the number killed per season was measured in dozens.
Driver safety now trumps everything and, although it traumatised the sport in 1955, what happened that June afternoon in France was the turning point for a sport that had, until then, not been renowned for its sense of introspection.
Nonetheless, the transformation from carefree peril to cautious pragmatism didn’t happen overnight. Dragging motor racing from its insouciant era of derring-do to the hard-nosed realities of 21st-century safety and sensibility would be a long process.
The Le Mans 24-Hours has long been the pinnacle of endurance racing. Every June – war and Covid-19 permitting – the world’s great motorsport manufacturers converge, along with tens of thousands of fans, at the eponymous road circuit. The previous year, 1954, the British Jaguar team, after recent dominance had finished second to Ferrari and were determined to regain their crown. They would… but not in circumstances to relish.
Strong competition was expected from the 1952 winners Mercedes, which had returned to Le Mans in 1955 after great success with its Formula 1 team. But everything would change in the third hour of the race. The arguments have raged long and hard over who, if anybody, was to blame; and the drivers who survived along with race organisers – some of whom had guilt heaped on them from people not present – were destined to live with their part in what happened until the end of their lives. Blame and innocence have been apportioned and re-apportioned seemingly many times but the bare bones of what transpired were pretty straightforward.
Cars are frequently entering and leaving the pits at Le Mans because to run for 24 hours tyres, fuel and, indeed, drivers constantly need to be replenished and changed. One of the favourites, Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn – who would in 1958 become Britain’s first Formula 1 world champion – was leading and set to stop for fuel and tyres. He was being chased by Juan-Manuel Fangio in his Mercedes. As they approached the pits Hawthorn lapped Pierre Levegh, also driving for Mercedes, putting Levegh between him and second-placed Fangio.
But just up ahead was British driver Lance Macklin in a much slower Austin-Healey. He was travelling at around 215 kilometres-per-hour while Hawthorn, Levegh and Fangio were probably hitting 240. Macklin moved to the right to allow the faster cars to overtake. He didn’t realise Hawthorn was planning to head to the pits, which were also on the right-hand side of the track, opposite the packed spectator enclosures to the left. Hawthorn figured he had enough time and room to overtake Macklin and then pull across the front of him to reach his pit.
He put his arm up and crossed in front of Macklin. Macklin, startled and thinking he was going to run into the back of Hawthorn, swerved left, braking. And straight into the path of Levegh, who had been moving up to pass him on the left. With no time to brake, although instinctively he raised his arm in warning to cars behind, Levegh’s Mercedes hit the back of the Austin-Healey at an incredible speed, its sloping tail end acting as a ramp. Macklin later recalled the heat of the Mercedes’s exhaust as it passed over his head.
Hawthorn remembered seeing something like “a spinning top” flying through the air to his left; Fangio, following behind, saw Levegh’s raised arm – he insisted it saved his life – and braked hard. He realised he couldn’t stop so aimed for the gap between Macklin’s car and Hawthorn’s – passing so close to the Jaguar that it left green paint marks on his silver Mercedes. Macklin’s car slewed left into the wall protecting the spectators and then right into the pit wall and came to rest, crumpled on the track. All three survived.
Levegh and more than 80 spectators did not. The French driver’s car, launched by the Austin-Healey, hit the bank opposite the pits. He was probably killed instantly and his Mercedes, with its magnesium parts, became an intense, white inferno perched atop the earthwork. Worse, the huge impact broke the engine and gearbox from their mountings and they ploughed onwards, scything through the crowd – probably the “spinning top” Hawthorn saw out of the corner of his eye.
The bonnet was flung to the left and almost out of the circuit grounds. The front suspension and wheels, though, were probably the biggest killer. They carried on horizontally through the packed enclosure. The final death toll is quoted to be as high as 88 in some reports, but the figure is now generally accepted to be 84. It remains motor racing’s greatest tragedy, a sporting disaster to match or surpass Bradford, Hillsborough or Accra.
Eyewitness Renaud de Laborderie, quoted in Christopher Hilton’s book about the accident Le Mans ’55, said: “I thought a bomb had gone off. I saw the horror – a fireball coming out of the sky.”
Others described the spectator enclosure – and contemporary photographs confirm it – as the landscape from hell. Priests administered the last rites as emergency crews scrambled across bodies to help survivors. Spectator Jacques Lelong came round after being knocked unconscious to describe “wounded sitting, lying, standing, screaming in fear, limbs torn off, bloody faces riddled with injuries”. And there was far worse.
Meanwhile, the race continued, and while the organisers were criticised for allowing it, in hindsight they likely made the right decision. Halting the race would have meant tens of thousands of spectators leaving just when the emergency services needed access. Nonetheless it’s rather obvious and perhaps a little trite to say that it was the least joyous success Jaguar and Hawthorn – who won the race after Mercedes withdrew its team – would ever experience.
Hawthorn, who was accused of a lack of empathy by smiling in photographs on the victory podium – a charge he insisted was unfair as photographers insisted he pose for the traditional portraits and only minutes after the accident was seen utterly distraught and tearful – had this to say about his role in his 1958 autobiography Challenge Me The Race.
“In my view there was room to pull into the pits. I put my hand up, put on the brakes and pulled in. It was all over in a second or two, but it remains fixed in my mind. I did an extra lap, sick with horror. What had happened to the spectators? Back at the pits I only wanted to get away from it and blot out the scene. I staggered from the pit saying I was finished with racing.” He was persuaded by his team to continue but wrote that he “remembered very little of the rest of the race”.
For his part Lance Macklin, clearly haunted by what had happened, as indeed were all the unfortunate protagonists, approached both the French sports newspaper L’Equipe and then motorsport author Mark Kahn in 1976 in an attempt to tell his side of the story. In Kahn’s book Death Race: Le Mans 1955 and the newspaper Macklin stuck to his narrative – he had nowhere to go once Hawthorn braked and swung across the front of him. Macklin also believed Hawthorn’s autobiography implied he had caused the accident and began libel proceedings which were incomplete when Hawthorn was killed in a road accident in 1959.
The unfortunate Levegh – who three years earlier had been the last man to attempt to drive, and almost win, the entire 24 hours alone with no replacement driver – was, along with Hawthorn, initially considered culpable in the court of the fourth estate and public opinion.
At nearly 50 many considered he was too old to be taking part in such a gruelling race but, as Anders Ditlev Clausager wrote in his history of the 24 Hours, the inquiry into the cause of the disaster…. “completely exonerated” Hawthorn and Levegh and “established that no single factor, and no individual driver, could be blamed”.
In the end liability seemed to rest with an outdated track outgrown by cars of increasing speeds. It was, to use the mundane parlance of motorsport, “a racing accident”. Except that this one was far from mundane. It claimed more than 80 lives.
In the 65 years since the accident that, according to contemporary reports, caused motorsport to lose its innocence, have lessons been learnt? Well yes, but it’s an equivocal yes and with many caveats – motor racing would remain extremely dangerous throughout the following decades, right up until – arguably – the death of Senna in 1994.
Progress towards safer cars and tracks was painfully slow but it’s fair to say that Le Mans in 1955 was a huge kick up what was a hideously complacent bottom. Without doubt it changed the way in which the sport was viewed by the general public and, importantly, those who earned their living from it.
Motor racing was temporarily banned in France, as it was in Italy, meaning the 1955 French Formula 1 Grand Prix would not go ahead. Spain, Germany and Switzerland also cancelled their Grands Prix, the latter introducing a permanent ban only rescinded for the 2018 Zurich race.
For Le Mans itself, immediate action was imperative. A ditch filled with sand was added before the earth banks that should have protected the spectators. The track was widened and some of the corners reshaped to help avoid collisions under heavy braking. The stand where many spectators died was demolished as was the ageing pit area and the apron in front of it made wider. Spectators were moved further back and the number of cars allowed to start the race reduced. Other tracks, although not all, followed suit.
Significantly many of the innovations subsequently made at circuits came via the work of American John Fitch. Fitch was Levegh’s co-driver and was suited up ready to take over driving duties at the car’s next pitstop. He saw the tragedy unfold as he stood next to Levegh’s wife.
He retired from racing immediately, his motivation switched from driving cars quickly to preventing future catastrophes. He was the brains behind safety capsules in cars to protect drivers but perhaps more significantly he developed crash barriers that compressed on impact and barriers that would move rather than remain rigid, deccelerating rather destroying cars. His designs are now used on public roads and it’s estimated they have prevented more than 20,000 deaths.
Mindful of public reaction motorsport’s international governing body, the FIA, attempted to slow racing speeds by changing regulations and making crash helmets and overalls mandatory – 65 years on it seems extraordinary that they weren’t already. Yet still, on average, from 1955 until the early 1970s an average of more than one Grand Prix driver would die each year.
It was this stubborn death toll that finally saw the tide begin to turn. Following the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix in which rain turned the circuit into, in the words of Jackie Stewart, “a skating rink” with cars ploughing off track and medical teams unable to cope with the numerous incidents and injuries (fortunately nobody died), the Scot had finally had his fill. Things weren’t changing fast enough.
Stewart’s quote regarding the high mortality rate of his fellow drivers meant that he was considered something of a coward by those who thought motorsport should be a red-blooded pursuit with gung-ho drivers eschewing death at every corner.
It seems an extraordinary attitude to modern sensibilities but Stewart didn’t care and, alongside BRM team owner Louis Stanley, who provided funding, set up the International Grand Prix Medical Service, essentially a hospital in a truck that would travel to major motor racing events. Similarly both men were instrumental in introducing fireproof racing overalls after the sickening death of driver Jo Siffert in a burning car in 1971.
As Stanley wrote in his autobiography: “Some racetrack first-aid facilities had mould on the walls. Anyone treated for burns would die of infection instead. Ambulances were sorry-looking affairs with virtually no first-aid equipment. I saw them used to transport farm equipment covered in mud.”
It cost Stanley huge sums of his own money but he felt he “owed it to Jackie and his fellow racers to change things for good. Even then people told me I was just making extra work for myself.” Later in the 1980s neurosurgeon Sid Watkins would build on this work, improving medical facilities at tracks around the world as head of Formula 1’s medical team. He is credited with saving the lives of, among others, Formula 1 drivers Martin Donnelly, Gerhard Berger and double world champion Mika Häkkinen.
Fatalities did begin to decline as perhaps an even more significant influence began to play a role in sport – sponsorship. When cars were competing at Le Mans in 1955 and on into the 1960s when Stewart’s career was starting they raced in plain, national colours – British racing green or French blue.
By the late 1960s companies were starting to splash advertising across cars, paying big sums to do so. And those commercial organisations did not want to see one of their high-speed billboards careening into spectators or burning with a driver trapped inside. It was bad for the brand. And litigation in all its forms was never far away and becoming more prevalent with each passing year.
Television too was starting to cover races. From the early 1980s many of them would be live with no chance to edit out distressing incidents. TV executives did not want to explain to viewers that the driver happily chatting to the interviewer before the race was now lying dead in an ambulance. As former Grand Prix winner John Watson said following Senna’s death on TV: “When do you last remember seeing somebody die live on television in a sporting event? Nobody forgets they saw the world’s most famous driver die”.
New materials meaning stronger cars, fuel tanks that did not explode, and crash helmets with air supplies in case of fire meant that by the mid 1990s motorsport was transformed.
Complacency had morphed into practical recognition of the risks and the chances of Le Mans 1955 being repeated, while never entirely going away, were greatly diminished. The weekend of Senna’s death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix – and that of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger the day before – was probably the last one that truly invoked memories of those earlier years when drivers died with terrible regularity. But motorsport is inherently dangerous and drivers will perish. Participants and supporters alike understand this. Take away the danger and motor racing becomes something else. But that does not mean the risk is embraced readily.
Driver safety is one thing but what marked out Le Mans in 1955 as especially horrific was the death toll among those who had just come along to watch. The former accept the risks as willing participants. The spectators less so. And spectators, like drivers, continued to die at tracks long after 1955.
Wolfgang von Trips’s Ferrari somersaulted into the crowd at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix killing himself and 15 bystanders. Four more died in 1976 in Spain when Rolf Stommelen’s car leapt the barrier into a fan enclosure. But those same imperatives motivating driver safety were also at work on the tracks.
Although venerable and dangerous motorsport temples such as Spa in Belgium – scene of that waterlogged 1966 race – and the Nürburgring in Germany (where more than 200 people have died since it opened in 1927) were still being used into the 1970s, other tracks such as Silverstone in England and Monza in Italy upgraded spectator protection: high mesh fences and grandstands above track level along with larger gravel-filled run-off areas to stop wayward cars meant the chances of a spectator death were greatly reduced.
Modern tracks, some criticised as sterile, have such huge run-off areas that the cars seem far away, but safety is the primary concern of 21st-century race organisers. Even some of those old, once-venerated circuits have moved with the times. The Nürburgring, closed to Formula 1 cars after world champion Niki Lauda nearly died there in a fireball in 1976, reopened as an entirely new track and Spa, drastically shortened, returned to Grand Prix racing in 1983.
Following Senna’s death no Formula 1 driver has died while racing, although Jules Bianchi died 10 months after injuries he suffered at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Bianchi’s death was stupid and avoidable. In heavy rain he hit a service crane removing another crashed car from the track.
“You can never make motor racing totally safe,” says Watson. “Chance plays a huge part. But although fans and drivers know it can happen, and can have entire conversations about spectacular crashes they have witnessed, we still want the drivers to get up and walk away.”
Which is a key point throughout all that has happened since 1955. In many ways, down the years, motorsport fans have gained an undeserved reputation. It’s often asserted, mainly by non-racegoers, that one of the draws of motor racing is the chance of seeing somebody die. How the myth arose is unsure, although every time it recurs in documentaries it is accompanied by the same brief cameo from a well-spoken chap, possibly half-cut, who announces that he’s there in the hope that maybe somebody will get killed. The clip has been around since at least the early 1970s. It’s not even amusing.
Beyond this, evidence for the belief is lacking. Most fans go to watch skilled exponents (or sometimes otherwise) racing in a capricious sport in which the denouement is impossible to foresee until the last corner is negotiated. As motorsport journalist Charles Fox wrote in 1972: “You only have to witness the reaction of the crowd to a fatal accident – intense depression at this affirmation of their own mortality – to know the truth of this.”
Those who witnessed Pierre Levegh’s car tumbling through the crowd in 1955 were aware of this more than anyone. The psychology of motor racing subtly changed that day. And although it took a long time – too long for sure – before the chances of another accident of such magnitude were reduced to pretty much zero, that psychological change from innocent sporting pursuit to a business that has welfare as its overriding priority began on 11 June 1955. In 1999 another Mercedes being driven at Le Mans by Peter Dumbreck became airborne, vaulted the crash barrier and crashed through woodland. He survived and no spectators died.
There are no guarantees of safety for anybody competing in or attending a motor race, but the fact that Switzerland finally reversed its moratorium is perhaps small proof that, thankfully, we live in a safer world.