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What happened in the 1955 Le Mans disaster?

Driving cars is always dangerous. It is a statistical likelihood that most of us who drive will at some point in our lives be involved with some sort of car collision. Hopefully, most of these will be incredibly minor crashes where no one is injured, but of course, there will be plenty of much more severe cases. With the invention of seatbelts, airbags and other safety devices, the average car is now much safer than it previously was, but terrible accidents do still happen.

Of course, the likelihood of collisions increases the faster the cars are being driven, which is why over the years there have been so many fatal crashes in motor racing. In the history of Formula 1, over 50 drivers have died after crashing in races. Some of the most notable examples are Gilles Villeneuve in 1982 and Aryton Senna in 1993. Thankfully after Senna died, safety standards in the sport were hugely improved, so there was not another fatality for over 20 years until Jules Bianchi crashed and unfortunately passed away in 2015, after being in an induced coma for 9 months.

The 24 hours of Le Mans race is an annual event that takes place near the French town of Le Mans. It is the world’s oldest endurance racing event, with the first race taking place in 1923. Unlike most conventional races, Le Mans is won by the car that has travelled the most distance in 24 hours.The cars obviously need to go fast but must be looked after to avoid them breaking down or having as few mechanical issues as possible. Each team has three drivers, which swap round throughout the race so that no one does more than 8 hours in total. It is incredibly popular with racing fans, who each year will be looking for odds, both in advance of the race and during the event itself. If you enjoy getting in the action make sure to check out one of the top sportsbooks Bookmaker to see the odds on upcoming races.

Given how long the race is, inevitably there are crashes during the event, often quite serious ones. To date, there have been 22 driver fatalities during the 24 hours of Le Mans races. Like in F1, safety standards in the cars that compete in the race have improved massively over the last 25-30 years, so that there has only been one death since 1997.

That incident was in the 2013 race, where Danish driver Allan Simonsen was driving an Aston Martin Vantage GTE. Simonsen spun off the course and hit a crash barrier, with the force of the impact crushing part of the roof and the car’s roll cage. He was treated at the scene but was later pronounced dead.

All fatal crashes are tragic, but in the history of the race, none more so than the 1955 Le Mans disaster, where not only were racers involved in the accident, but fans in the crowd were as well. For those of you who aren’t aware of what happened, we’ll now look into the events of that fateful day, the 11th of June 66 years ago.

The initial incident between Hawthorn and Levegh.

The collision occurred on lap 35, between Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn and Austin-Healey driver Lance Macklin. Macklin had begun to slow down for his pit stop, which caused Hawthorn to pull out to the right-hand side of the track. In doing so, the Jaguar went directly into the path of Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh. As Levegh was travelling much faster, his Mercedes crashed straight into the back of Hawthorn, sending it into the air.

From there, the car skipped over a protective berm made of earth, whilst travelling at speeds of around 125 miles per hour. At such a great speed, it made serious impacts with several parts of the area where the spectators were sitting.


The car then disintegrated, causing Levegh to be thrown from the car onto the track. The French driver was killed instantly. due to the impact. Not only that, but large parts of debris, such as the engine block, the radiator, part of the front suspension and the bonnet, went flying into the crowd, many of whom had no chance to get out of the way.

We won’t go into too many of the gruesome details, but 84 people were killed in total, including Levegh. On top of that, 120 people were injured. Amazingly, the race was not suspended or cancelled immediately, as the Jaguar team kept on racing, even though both Mercedes and Ferrari had pulled out.

Once the dust had settled, there was a huge amount of debate over who was to blame. Was it Hawthorn pulling into the middle of the road, not looking behind him? Was it Levagh and his Mercedes, who wasn’t able to brake in time? In the end, the official inquiry decided that it was in fact the layout of the track that was to blame, as it was built 30 years before when cars were nowhere near as fast as they were in the 1950s.

Thankfully nothing like this has ever happened again, but what occurred that day was a truly tragic event.

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