“Motor sport can be dangerous”
Printed on all the tickets, wherever you attend a race will be these chilling words (or at least some to the same effect).
As we have grown accustomed to the high safety standards of modern Formula One and motor sport in general, events of the past serve as a poignant reminder of just how far safety has come. Nowadays, we are sheltered from the horrendous crashes which caused large numbers of fatalities with the blanket of ‘that was back in the day.’
However, crashes like Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez in Canada last year, Mark Webber in the World Endurance Championships at Interlagos also last year and even Max Verstappen’s mishap with Romain Grosjean at Monaco which saw the Dutchman walk away with only ‘slight stiffness’, lull us into a false sense of safety.
It is 60 years ago to the day that 83 spectators and 1 driver, Pierre Levegh, were killed in a tragic turn of events at the 24 hours of Le Mans. Occurring after a series of unfortunate, if not ill-considered, turn of events, the incident will always be remembered as the worst in the history of event and one of the worst in motor sport overall.
2 hours into the race, the Mercedes-Benz piloted by Levegh collided with the left rear of Lance Macklin’s car, sending it into the bank by the side of the track, the only separation between the race and spectators. Macklin’s Austin-Healey remained on the track while the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR broke on collision with the earth and send different parts of the car in all directions – importantly the bonnet and front axle which were sent into a crowd of people.
The car’s heavy engine block also broke free from the front of the spaceframe chassis and hurtled into the crowd. What remained of the car was launched into the crowd, which included the fuel tank. When it subsequently ignited the ensuing fuel fire raised the temperature of the remaining Elektron bodywork past its ignition temperature. The higher magnesium content meant this happened far more quickly than it would with other alloys.
The incompetency of the rescue workers was highlighted when they sprayed the fire with water, which only served to intensify the combustion and increased the amount of white hot embers which were send around the surrounding areas.
The race was continued in order to maintain calm and order, which otherwise would hamper rescue efforts. The organisers were heavily criticised for this later on, but eventually the reasoning was accepted as the right course of action.
At the request of John Fitch, the Daimler-Benz board of directors was convened an emergency meeting by midnight. They elected to withdraw from the race as a sign of respect to the victims, strongly influenced by the sensitivities surrounding a German car manufacturer in a French race so soon after World War II.
For those who wish to learn more, there is a documentary embedded below.