TIME Magazine, June 20, 1955, p. 60:|
Death at Le Mans
There were two things that every good race driver in the world knew about the 24-hour Grand Prix of Endurance at Le Mans. First, it was still the supreme test of driving skill and sports-car durability. And second, it was growing increasingly risky because of the conglomeration of big cars, e.g., Mercedes, Ferrari, Jaguar, and little cars, e.g., Gordini, M.G., Porsche, racing side by side on a strip that in some places is little wider than an old-fashioned two-lane U.S. highway...
Last Gesture. A crowd of 250,000 had come from all over Europe to watch les vingt-quatre heures, and thousands of them spurned the grandstands to cluster as close as they could to the dangerous turns. The cars to watch, said the wise ones, were the three Mercedes entries, for the Germans had put three months of methodical, painstaking planning into this all-out effort to prove their 300-SLR cars the best in the test.
But... at the end of the first two hours... Britain's Mike Hawthorn, in a Jaguar, was well in the lead, followed by two Ferraris and then the three Mercedes. Hawthorn had done 28 laps in less than 120 minutes, and was just about due to pull in for refueling.
...He braked his Jag and swung to the right toward the pit. Behind him, Britain's Lance Macklin in an Austin-Healey, running four laps slower than the leader, was caught short. He braked hard and swung left. Behind the Austin-Healey was Pierre Levegh's No. 20 Mercedes, tearing along at 150 m.p.h. Levegh raised his arm in a slowdown wave for his teammate, Argentine Juan Fangio, 100 yards astern.
...Levegh's Mercedes clipped the rear of the Austin-Healey, sending the little car spinning like a top. The Mercedes rose as if jet-propelled, crashed into a 6-ft. dirt retaining wall.
Black Horror. The car was shattered by the impact; its flat motor hood ripped loose and scythed through spectators like a guillotine knife. The heavy engine followed, spewing parts. The first row of the crowd was cleanly decapitated. Twenty yards away, the chassis cut another swath. Gasoline took fire; then the Mercedes' magnesium body went up in a searing white flame. Levegh's headless corpse was burned to a crisp.
...Skittering and screeching along the pit's wall, the Austin-Healey ran down a row of mechanics, but Driver Macklin escaped with his life. Nearly 50 yards back of the pits a young girl jumped and screamed as a flying foot hit her. Bits of bodies and pieces of machinery rained everywhere. The roadside turned into a seething mass, the maimed trying to escape, the unhurt trying to see more... Toll at week's end: 78 dead, 105 seriously injured.
Meanwhile, the Grand Prix ground on. Around 1 a.m. on orders from Stuttgart, Mercedes pulled out of the race. After a while, rain pelted down... when Mike Hawthorn's Jaguar ripped past the finish line to win the 1955 Le Mans next afternoon... [he] had clocked a record 2,564.28 miles at an average of 106.84 m.p.h.