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Terror on the track

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Terror on the track

Postby Adam on Wed May 19, 2010 2:55 pm

On a white wall at the Le Mans race track in northern France a small black plaque bears a cross and the words "In memorium 11 Juin 1955". It marks the worst disaster in motor racing history, a crash at the Le Mans 24 Hour Race that killed at least 83 people - though the exact death toll has never been established - and injured hundreds.

Six men had died chasing the winner's title since the race's inception in 1923. But as Jacques Grelley, in 1955 an excited 19-year-old spectator and later a Le Mans competitor, recalls: "I wasn't expecting danger. I just wanted to watch the race between Mercedes and Jaguar."

Leading the Mercedes challenge was the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, a chubby 44-year-old ex-mechanic and perhaps the greatest driver the sport had ever known. A 49-year-old Frenchman, Pierre Levegh, was at the wheel of Mercedes' second car, and the mercurial 26-year-old English driver, Mike Hawthorn, led for Jaguar. Blond, bow-tied and suffering from a kidney condition he had been told would kill him before he was 30, the Englishman was driven by a personal dislike of the Germans so intense he called his cars "Merc eaters".

The cars themselves were almost national clichés: the Jaguar D-Type, feline and sleek, was made by a small team of boffins. The Mercedes 300SLR, a solid block of a car, manufactured by over 100 technicians. But, as the 300,000-strong crowd would find out, the Mercedes had two fatal flaws - its lightweight magnesium body was highly flammable and its brakes unreliable.

With the two teams locked in battle two hours in, at the trackside a friend offered Grelley his binoculars: "Then someone shouted 'Here they come!' It was the Mercedes and the Jaguars and everyone was on their toes trying to see them."

But at speeds approaching 150mph there was a catastrophic coming together of cars, instigated by Hawthorn's manoeuvre to enter the pits. Failing to take evasive action, Levegh's Mercedes rode up the back of the Austin Healy driven by Brit Lance Macklin and was propelled into the stands where it exploded, killing Levegh, showering onlookers with a deadly hail of shrapnel and white-hot magnesium, and sending the engine block scything through the crowd.

"The car was up in the air, about the height of a telephone pole," Grelley recalls. "I don't know if someone pushed me or I threw myself down but in three or four seconds I got up again. I could see nothing on my left side; it was because I had someone else's brain on my spectacles. I also had a piece of scalp on my neck. My shirt was covered in blood." Grelley's acquaintance had been decapitated, his binoculars still around his neck.

"I was stepping over bodies, they were everywhere. Someone recognised me and took me behind the stand to a bar and cleaned my face. I couldn't talk for three hours. Not a word."

As the emergency services struggled to cope with the carnage, the organisers continued the race so departing spectators wouldn't block the ambulances. Mercedes, dreading a German victory on a day when scores of Frenchmen had died, pulled out, leaving Hawthorn free to open the victor's champagne as the injured were still succumbing to their wounds.

Grelley wandered in a daze for hours. Arriving back at his village he walked into a dance, which fell silent - everyone had been told he was dead. "I walked in and everyone stopped dancing and someone said: 'You need to go home.' I rushed home and when I opened the door my grandfather was sitting in his armchair. He opened his eyes - 'You're not dead!' On the table beside him were my portrait, a crucifix and a candle - what they do when someone has passed away."

To this day, Grelley, now 74, remains a very careful spectator: "I never turn my back at the start. I make sure they've all gone by before I look away. That's what le Mans left me."

While Fangio went on to win a total of five Formula One world championships, Hawthorn was blamed by many for the crash - and reportedly said his life as a driver was over. Within five years it was, though not from the kidney failure he had been told would kill him. On 22 January 1959 he crashed his "Merc eater" on the A3 in Surrey after losing control and hitting a tree at high speed, shortly after overtaking a Mercedes.



Written by Michael Hodges, for this week's Radio Times. The documentary to which it refers, Deadliest Crash: the Le Mans 1955 Disaster, was shown last Sunday on BBC4, though it is still on BBC iPlayer to UK viewers until this coming Sunday. I saw it first time around, and apart from the odd intrusive music chosen to play over the end credits, it's a riveting and quite harrowing watch. Also, some here will be glad to know that it has helped me become just a little less ignorant about the rich veins of motorsport history.
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Re: Terror on the track

Postby Funkmother on Thu May 20, 2010 1:52 am

That's a fairly horrific account mate. I'll be watching this year's race on 12 & 13 June. I hope its not as horrific.
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Re: Terror on the track

Postby D-Type on Thu May 27, 2010 8:18 pm

I caught up with it last night.

I'm still not quite certain how it came about. We saw the aftermath about 5 times and The "recently found" head-on sequence just once and not in slow motion. The same applies to the 3-D model at the end. If it was accurate, Macklin's swerve was extremely sharp and probably not fully under control.
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Re: Terror on the track

Postby Adam on Mon Nov 21, 2011 4:48 pm

"You can always count on Adam for being the smart-arse around here."
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Re: Terror on the track

Postby Funkmother on Tue Nov 22, 2011 3:42 am

I'm fairly amazed at some of the comments to the article saying that people are making money out of the misery of 1955 and that the car should have been "cubed" when it came back from the enquiry. Utter nonsense spoken by people who know nothing about motorsport. Nothing's going to bring back those people. I hope someone restores the car to its former glory.
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