TeamsMike Hawthorn & the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans: The Cause and the Effect By Jeremy McMullen
Amidst the darkest day in motor racing history, a day that would forever change just about everything in the motor racing world and beyond, Mike Hawthorn, until his World Championship in 1958, would experience his greatest achievement in motor racing. But while it should have been a moment of great acclaim for the young British driver, there would be more than a few that would be placing the crosshairs of blame and culpability squarely on his forehead.
The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans had been greatly touted. It had all the makings of a truly titanic battle between two nations. While Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati and other manufacturers were to be involved, everyone looked forward to the battle between England and Germany, between Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz. It was like the First and Second World Wars all over again. The British and the Germans would be set the fight and the French countryside would provide the setting.
Both teams would come to the race with some truly remarkable cars. Mercedes-Benz would be coming back to Le Mans for the first time since the end of World War II. After suffering from heavy bombing during the war, Mercedes would put all of its efforts into ascending back to the pinnacle it had once held before the war had started. They would start with a grand prix effort, but the following year, would come with their 3.0-liter 300 SLR complete with its large airbrake to aid its drum brakes in applying stopping power to a car capable of speeds in excess of 185 mph.
Then there was the D-Type Jaguar. One of the most dominant teams in the early 1950s, Jaguar would produce an all-new car. Boasting of a 3.4-liter inline 6-cylinder engine, the D-Type Jaguar certainly had the power to compete with the very fast Mercedes. But it would have an ace up its sleeve. And it would be this ace that many would believe helped to cause the race to become the darkest day in motor racing.
Besides having a very elegant and exotic body style with its incredibly rounded body and shark fin trailing behind the cockpit, but it also had a very new and innovative feature. Though debuting with the C-Type design, disc brakes would truly compliment the design of the D-Type Jaguar and would make it a very strong contender against the 300 SLRs.
As the crowds began to flock to the circuit in preparation for the 23rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on the 11th and 12th of June, all of the necessary ingredients existed for a truly great and memorable race. However, there were also other ingredients present that, when mixed into the equation, had the potential to create a truly disastrous recipe.
Mercedes' 300SLR chassis was a truly innovative design capable of reaching speeds near to 190 mph. These speeds would be the result of the car's 3.0-liter engine and its incredibly light and strong magnesium bodywork. However, its greatest weakness would be its drum brakes. They would not provide the stopping power of the Jaguar D-Type chassis.
But Mercedes had another major strength that could more than make up for the short-comings the car had. Juan Manuel Fangio would be one of the drivers piloting one of the team's three cars. However, Fangio wouldn't be paired with an unknown driver. Instead, Fangio would be partnered with his teammate in the World Championship, Stirling Moss. This posed a much greater challenge to the Jaguar team that only had Mike Hawthorn as its number one driver. In fact, Hawthorn's co-driver, Ivor Bueb, would note how uncomfortable he was with the speeds the car was capable of reaching down the long Mulsanne.
The weakness in the Jaguar's driver lineup would lead to the team adopting a strategy that would keep the early stages of the race on edge. Since Bueb could not match the pace of Moss, the team would have to employ a different strategy in the race to counter the clear advantage Mercedes had.
But it didn't stop there. The circuit had been the same used since the first running in 1923 when average speeds only approached 60 mph. That meant the circuit was no longer suitable for cars capable of reaching speeds of 190 mph with its narrow roads and a slight bend just prior to a very narrow start/finish straight that also included the pits on one side. On top of it all, the circuit was not a permanent circuit, but a road course made up of closed roads.
And then there was Mike Hawthorn himself. Hawthorn had lost a close relative in World War II and would be very clear about his dislike of anything German. On top of his dislike for Germany, many would suggest his own health issues would add a little something extra to the recipe.
Just months earlier, at the end of the 1954 season, Hawthorn would visit a doctor for pain in his kidneys. It would be realized then that he had a rare kidney disease and that his time was running out. Many would suggest this would cause Hawthorn to drive a little beyond the edge because he knew his time was short. This suggestion, therefore, meant he would take chances and make some poor judgments because he knew he was going to die.
And of course, one final important ingredient for this disastrous recipe would begin to file into the circuit. Thousands upon thousands would cram their way along the start/finish straight behind a white picket fence placed just behind a chest high earth embankment, the only protection offered along the start/finish straight against the cars hurtling along at 150 mph.
The atmosphere would be electric. Hundreds of thousands of spectators would be eagerly anticipating the 4pm start of the greatest endurance race. The drivers would be lined up across from their cars ready for the famous running start. In spite of the incredible crowd, all would be nearly silent as everyone prepared for the start of the race.
And then it would be on. The drivers would sprint across to their cars and would begin to streak off around the Dunlop Curve on the first lap of the 24 hour race. Hawthorn would be away well running in 2nd place while Fangio would still be stuck back on the start/finish straight. As he jumped into his car his overalls would cover the gear lever making it impossible for him to get started for a moment.
Hawthorn would be running in 2nd while Fangio would recover and would quickly make his way up to the front of the field. This is where Jaguar's strategy would come into play. Knowing full well that Bueb would be no match for Moss when it was time for the second drivers to take over behind the wheel, Jaguar would need a strategy that would work things to their favor.
There was one big advantage Jaguar had over Mercedes. Over the last few years Jaguar had earned a couple of overall victories. Therefore, it knew full well that its cars had the endurance whereas the Mercedes would be untested and something of an unknown. And while Jaguar had only a handful of employees responsible for its racing effort it had great confidence going up against Mercedes' army of engineers and mechanics. And in Mike Hawthorn, they had the driver that would do anything he possibly could to keep a German car behind him. Therefore, the strategy would be simple: break the Mercedes, especially that of Fangio and Moss. Hawthorn would follow the strategy to the letter.
Over the course of the first couple of hours the pace would be more akin to a sprint than an endurance race. The lap record would continue to be broken just about each and every lap. Fangio had been given instructions to race, not hold back. He would not. He would be right there with Hawthorn pushing his car just as hard.
Many would be surprised at the pace of the Jaguar and Mercedes. From the pits to the grandstands everyone thought the two were going too fast and it would be a question of who would break first. Hawthorn would be intent on making the Mercedes break first, and yet, Fangio would remain right there each and every lap.
Lap after lap throughout the first couple of hours, mere feet would separate the two drivers. Their pace would be so incredible that people would wait with eager anticipation just to watch the two scream by. Their pace would also be so extravagant that Pierre Levegh, driving another Mercedes 300SLR was becoming closer and closer to being lapped.
Pierre Levegh had come close to winning the fabled race just a few years earlier. In 1952, Levegh came within one hour of winning the race when his car developed mechanical problems and forced him to retire. It would be a truly heroic, and yet questionable, act as he would drive the whole race by himself. It would be suggested he drove the entire race by himself because he didn't trust his co-driver. Likely because of driver fatigue causing him to miss-shift, Levegh's race would come to an end. At 50 years of age in 1955, Levegh would be the oldest in the Mercedes team but had the most miles around the circuit. More than anything, it was a gesture of friendship by the German Mercedes team to have the Frenchman on the team. It would be yet another tragic element in the story about to unfold.
Hawthorn would be absolutely flying around the 8.37 mile circuit. Fangio would remain right there with him. It would be very reminiscent of the another French race in 1953, the French Grand Prix, in which Hawthorn and Fangio would duel throughout the remaining half of the race. In that race, Hawthorn would come out on top. And now, with Fangio driving a German car, Hawthorn was determined to come out ahead again on French soil. Just short of two hours into the race Hawthorn would break the lap speed record. Urged on by the pleased feelings of some of the French recalling the days of German occupation, there seemed to be a force propelling the action and the actors forward seemingly unable to do anything to stop it.
Often, throughout those first couple of hours, Hawthorn and Fangio would change position. But just prior to 6:30 in the evening, it would be Hawthorn in the lead of the race with Fangio following not all that far behind. Hawthorn needed to keep the pressure up in order to try and break Fangio's Mercedes before he handed the car over to Moss, at the same time when Hawthorn had to hand his car over to Bueb.
With each and every lap run at a pace like it was a grand prix, there would be little room to maneuver. Instead of great care taken due to it being a 24 hour endurance race, everything: every decision and every movement, would be made very quickly and without much warning. This was real danger, not only for a 24 hour race where fatigue can come into play, but, quite simply, because there were other classes of automobiles out on the track that didn't have the performance, either in outright speed or in braking, as the top teams overall.
Finally, all of the ingredients would come together on the 35 lap of the race. The crowd had been thoroughly entertained by Fangio and Hawthorn throughout the first two and a half hours of the race. And now, along the start/finish straight, all eyes would strain looking back toward Maison Blanche for the first glimpses of the Jaguar and the Mercedes.
And then there they were. Hawthorn was clearly visible powering his way down toward the final right hand kink just before the start/finish line. Just to his left would be a Mercedes, but it was not Fangio. It was Pierre Levegh. And the recipe of disaster was about to be served up for all the world to have to digest.
The incredible duel between Hawthorn and Fangio meant that neither would pull out much of a lead any time they were in the lead. This meant that the two cars ran close together on a public road course that wasn't much more than three cars wide anyway. And as the action resumed powering its way down from Maison Blanche there were now two other cars present amidst the incredible two car duel.
Hawthorn would easily fly by Lance Macklin driving a production Austin-Healey. Hawthorn had already overtaken Levegh, who was being closely followed by Fangio in the Mercedes sister-car. Levegh needed to move out of the way of his fellow Mercedes driver but couldn't as he too approached Macklin's car, also over on the right hand side of the road just a little behind Hawthorn.
All seemed well, but an unfortunate chain of events would take place just milliseconds later that would forever darken this day in motor racing history. And it would be just the beginning of a terrible moment of blame, conjecture, tragedy and death.
Hawthorn would pass Macklin but would see that he was to come into the pits for fuel. Being far over to the right, he would step on his brakes to help him slow down from 150 mph. The disc brakes would slow his car at a greater rate than what Macklin, right behind Hawthorn, would have time to react to and match with his drum brakes. Macklin would get on the brakes and touch the grass to the inside of the track as he tried to hold onto his car. Still, Hawthorn would slow at a greater rate than what Macklin could match. Macklin would then swerve to his left to try and avoid hitting Hawthorn. It would be an impulsive reaction, but it would be the worst thing that could have happened at that moment.
Lance would swerve across the middle of the road while Levegh was quickly approaching. Levegh, his age not really mattering at all, had no time to react. Macklin's attempt to avoid Hawthorn would cause him to drift further over than anyone would have hoped, and at a time where Levegh would barely be able to notice him, let alone have the time to do anything about it. Macklin would suddenly appear just to Levegh's right-front. Levegh would make contact with the downward-swept backend of the Austin-Healey and would be launched into the air. Thus would begin the horror.
Levegh's car would strike the earthen barrier and would somersault further forward. At the same time, parts would break loose traveling through the record crowd like a horizontal guillotine. Wheels, axles, hoods, even the Mercedes' engine, would all barrel into the crowd. The damage to lives would be catastrophic. The scene would look as if during the days of World War II, the French citizen's bearing the brunt of the epic battle between the English and the Germans. Even more would be burned and would later perish when an unsuspecting marshal put water on the already burning magnesium body of the Mercedes. It would explode sending white hot balls of fire into the crowd. Sheer panic and chaos would break out on one side of the track. On the other, the side of the pits, there would be confusion and an inability to figure out what to do.
Instead of pitting, Hawthorn would carry on for one more lap before finally coming into the pits. When he emerged from his car it was very clear that he knew full well what had happened, although he hadn't seen everything. He was broken, with tears streaming down his face. At the same time, the race would go on and Ivor Bueb would have to get into his car and drive. He had no conviction to do so, but would end up doing so anyway.
The race would go on while more than 80 spectators would lay dead and more than a 100 more would be severely injured. The race would continue, officially, due to the organizers not wanted 300,000 people trying to leave at the same time when there were scores of dead and injured that obviously needed to be rushed to the nearby hospital.
Even hours afterward, the race would go on. Rain would begin falling on the circuit and Hawthorn and Fangio would still be battling it out. Hour after hour, Jaguar and Mercedes would continue to race while their team management decided what should be done. Levegh's car still smoked and smoldered along the wall.
Eventually, after eight hours of racing, Mercedes, at the behest of John Fitch, would withdraw from the race. Fitch was Levegh's co-driver and had actually been speaking with Levegh's wife at the time of the accident. Fitch would approach the team management a couple of times and would make it very clear he believed the team should withdraw. Being a German team involved in the worst motor racing accident on French soil, it was clear what the team needed to do. Mercedes, with Moss at the wheel at the time was in the lead, two laps ahead of the car of Hawthorn and Bueb.
Mercedes would invite Jaguar to do the same, but yet another controversial decision would be made. Lofty England would not withdraw. Hawthorn and Bueb would be in the lead of the race and would carry on hour after hour in the lead. This decision would only add fuel to the fire of controversy that was now brilliantly burning in the horrible aftermath. And nearly at the center of it all would be Hawthorn.
Mercedes' withdrawal from the race meant the only real challenge left to Jaguar would be from Ferrari. However, in the early morning hours that threat would come to an end entirely. And coming into the final couple of hours of the race, Hawthorn and Bueb still held onto the lead over the Aston Martin driven by Peter Collins and Paul Frere. Ecurie Francorchamps, with its own 3.4-liter D-Type Jaguar would by lying in 3rd.
In the final few minutes of the race, Hawthorn would be cruising at the head of the field. Many of the spectators located at other parts of the circuit still had no idea of the tragedy that had taken place the day before. The only hint of there being anything wrong would come when Mercedes decided to pull out early in the morning. And as Hawthorn rolled across the line to take the overall victory it would seem very clear that Hawthorn, too, had either forgotten or blocked the memory of it all out of his mind. Big smiles and grins would beam from his face as he hoisted the champagne and sipped, savoring the victory. This would be yet another coal heaped onto the already white hot flame of controversy.
The day before, in the midst of his titanic battle with the German car driven by Fangio many of the French would be pleased at the sight remembering all too well the days of German occupation during World War II. But the following day, after the devastating accident, of which Hawthorn would be one of the major players in the catastrophe, the mood would be entirely different. While this principal player in the tragedy would be sipping the champagne many of the French newspapers would boast of some very nasty headlines aimed at the controversial Brit. One in particular would read very simply, 'Cheers Mr. Hawthorn, Cheers'.
While nothing could compare with the sheer vastness of the devastation to human lives, the aftermath of the accident would be just as tragic. Blame, finger pointing, accusations and immature behavior would all seem to rule the events following the accident.
There would be many witnesses that would note Hawthorn's reaction and words immediately after stepping out of the car one lap after the accident. With tears streaming down his face he would let many others, including Rob Walker and Lance Macklin know that he had made a mistake. But despite the fact this story would change later, something that would forever embitter Macklin, Hawthorn, and the rest of the drivers, would be released from all guilt when evidence from an amateur film showed just how quickly events transpired.
And while many would want to make Hawthorn public enemy number one in the incident, especially when reminded of the scenes of him smiling and jovial after taking the victory, many would be unfamiliar with just how depressed he would be remembering the event afterwards.
Nevertheless, the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans would be remembered as the most horrific motor race in history. Instead of being a titanic battle between two powerful manufacturers, the race would be forever remembered, and rightly so, for the vast number of deaths and injured that resulted from racing on a circuit no longer capable of dealing with the speeds more modern cars were able to achieve. Therefore, the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans would bring about the slow evolution in safety in motor racing. Many races would be cancelled. And in Switzerland, motor racing would be banned altogether.
Instead of being a memorable Le Mans, it would be remembered as the race that changed the face of motor racing. It would change lives, moods and relationships, and it would never really be solved. Perhaps for as long as the earth exists the battle over who is to blame or who was at fault at the 1955 Le Mans will rage. However, one thing that is for certain is that the one that will be at the center of the debate with be the blonde-haired man from Farnham.