1955 24 Hours of Le Mans
|1955 24 Hours of Le Mans|
|Previous: 1954||Next: 1956|
|Index: Races | Winners|
The Les 24 Heures du Mans was the 23rd 24 Hours of Le Mans, and took place on 11 and 12 June 1955 on Circuit de la Sarthe. It was also the fourth round of the F.I.A. World Sports Car Championship. Some 250,000 spectators had gathered for Europe’s classic sports car race, around an 8.38-mile course. Sadly, this race is infamous for the disaster that killed 84 people, plus some 120 injured in the most horrendous accident in motor racing history.
A grand total 87 racing cars were registered for this event, of which only 70 arrived for practice, trying to qualify for the 60 places for the race. In spite of the anticipated battle of previous years between Coventry and Maranello concerns, they were joined by the Stuttgart marque, Daimler-Benz, fresh from their triumph on the Mille Miglia. Scuderia Ferrari’s hope were in the hands of Umberto Maglioli and Phil Hill, Eugenio Castellotti and Paolo Marzotto, and Maurice Trintignant and Harry Schell. Jaguar arrived with three works Jaguar D-Types. Similar to the cars that raced in 1954, they were in the hands of Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb, the 1953 winners, Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton and Don Beauman and Norman Dewis. They were backed up by a pair of D-Types from the Belgian team, Ecurie Francorchamps, and from the American, Briggs Cunningham team. Cunningham also brought over to Europe, a Cunningham C6-R.
Meanwhile, Daimler-Benz assembled an all-star team for the race, pairing Juan Manuel Fangio with Stirling Moss, Karl Kling with André Simon and Pierre Levegh with John Fitch. Their cars, although designated W196S, they were commonly called 300SLRs were rated by many experts as the best sports cars in the world. Simon and Levegh were not regular members of the Mercedes team, but team manager Alfred Neubauer felt it would be popular, even diplomatic, to include two local drivers. Remember, World War II ended only ten years previously, and in the 1952 race, driving solo, Levegh almost won the race, until the 23rd hour when mechanical trouble sidelined him, handing the win the Mercedes.
At the end of the opening lap, local hero Levegh was down in seventh place, ahead of his Mercedes team-mates. It was good politics, but on the next lap Fangio made his move. His battle with Hawthorn became so intense, the Englishman missed several calls to pit.
Two hours into the race, an accident occurred on lap 35, Hawthorn leading in a Jaguar D-Type, was duelling with Fangio for the lead. As Hawthorn tried to stay in the lead, he continued ignoring signals to stop for fuel. By now, Levegh was just behind Hawthorn, albeit a lap down, when Hawthorn cut across Lance Macklin's Austin-Healey to enter the pits for fuel. Macklin braked and swerved into the path of Levegh's Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, which struck the Austin-Healey and became airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, where it landed atop the earthen embankment separating spectators from the track itself. The car hit the mound at such speed that it somersaulted and disintegrated. The bonnet decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine. With the front of the spaceframe chassis — and thus crucial engine mounts — destroyed, the car's heavy engine block also broke free and hurtled into the crowd. Spectators who had climbed onto trestle tables to get a better view of the track found themselves in the direct path of the lethal debris. Levegh was thrown free of the tumbling car, but his skull was fatally injured when he landed. Many others suffered burns when the fuel fire ignited the magnesium-rich alloy bodywork. When firefighters attempted to douse the flames with water, the fire burned even hotter owing to the resultant chemical reaction. Officials put the death toll at 84 spectators, plus Levegh.
By midnight, the Mercedes of Fangio/Moss and Kling/Simon were leading, by two laps from the Jaguar of Hawthorn/Bueb. Just after 2:00am, eight hours after the crash, Mercedes’ engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut received the call from Stuttgart. Neubauer stepped onto the track and called his cars into the pits and were withdrawn (in leading position) as a sign of respect for the dead and injured. The public address made a brief announcement regarding their retirement. Polite applause was heard from the tribunes.
With all the Ferraris having retired and Mercedes been ordered home, Hawthorn and Bueb were now leading the race. By the halfway mark, their D-Type was still in front. Dawn erupted grey and flat, by 6:00am it started to rain and with it the long weary slot to the 4:00pm finish. Bueb in his first event for the Coventry marque, surrendered the Jaguar in the final hour to Hawthorn for the final few laps.
Hawthorn and Bueb drove their D-Type, to victory covering a distance of 2,569.61 miles (4,135.38 km), over 306 laps, averaging a speed of 107.067 mph (172.308kph). Peter Collins and Paul Frère were classified five laps adrift at the finish, in second place was their Aston Martin DB3S. The podium was completed by the Belgian pair, Johnny Claes and Jacques Swaters, in their yellow Ecurie Francorchamps prepared Jaguar D-Type, who were 11 laps (over 92 miles) behind the winners. The little remarkable Porsche trio of 550 Spyders was fourth, fifth and sixth, with Helmut Polensky and Richard von Frankenberg winning the Sports 1500 class. The three-car Bristol Aeroplane Company team finished in formation seventh, eighth and ninth at the top of two-liter class.
The race was marred by this spectacular crash which came to be known as the 1955 Le Mans disaster, and still considered the greatest tragedy in the history of motorsport, with 84 spectators killed and over 120 injured.
The consequences of this race were and are far reaching. This accident led to great changes in the measures taken to ensure the safety of drivers and spectators involved with the sport and everyone who uses a car. Its fallout also led to many car manufacturers pulling out of motorsport (including Mercedes), and even the temporary outlawing of circuit racing in several countries. The next round of the World Championship at the Nürburgring was cancelled, as was the legendary Carrera Panamericana. The American Automobile Association stopped sanctioning motor sport competitions, as it decided that auto racing distracted from its primary goals, and the United States Automobile Club was formed to take over the race sanctioning/officiating.
Class Winners are in Bold text.
Did not finish
Did not start
|Sports 5000||6||Jaguar D-Type||Hawthorn / Bueb|
|Sports 3000||23||Aston Martin DB3S||Collins / Frère|
|Sports 2000||34||Bristol 450C||Wilson / Mayers|
|Sports 1500||37||Porsche 550 Spyder||Polensky / von Frankenberg|
|Sports 1100||49||Porsche 550 Spyder||Veuillet / Arkus Duntov|
|Sports 750||63||D.B. HBR||Cornet / Mougin|
|Biennial Cup||37||Porsche 550 Spyder||Polensky / von Frankenberg|
|Index of Performance||37||Porsche 550 Spyder||Polensky / von Frankenberg|
Standings after the race
|5=||23x15px Aston Martin||6|
- Note: Only the top five positions are included in this set of standings.
Championship points were awarded for the first six places in each race in the order of 8-6-4-3-2-1. Manufacturers were only awarded points for their highest finishing car with no points awarded for positions filled by additional cars. Only the best 4 results out of the 6 races could be retained by each manufacturer. Points earned but not counted towards the championship totals are listed within brackets in the above table.
- John Fitch, “Racing with Mercedes" (Photo Data Research, ISBN 978-0-9705073-6-5, 2005)
- Quentin Spurring. Le Mans 24 Hours: The Official History of the World’s Greatest Motor Race 1949-59. Haynes Publishing. ISBN 978-1844255375
- Brian Laban. Le Mans 24 Hours: The Complete Story of World’s Most Famous Motor Race. Haynes Publishing. ISBN 978-1852270629
|World Sportscar Championship|
|1955 season||Next race:|
RAC Tourist Trophy