The crowds had come to Le Mans that Saturday in June, 31 years ago, in one of those paroxysms of chauvinism that periodically overcome the French, and all afternoon they had gorged themselves on p√¢té, cold poulet and wine and argued about which of their countrymen would win the big race, Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans. There had been some years when the food and the talk had been better than the competition, but by six o'clock on that unseasonably hot afternoon the dueling between Jaguar, Ferrari and Mercedes was keeping the fans pressed 20 to 30 deep in front of the grandstand, held back from the track by just a wooden fence and a small earthen embankment. In the soft light of the late afternoon sun, the crowd seemed to ripple like the surface of a lake as it strained to catch a glimpse of Juan Manuel Fangio in his silver Mercedes as the Argentine stalked the tail-finned Jaguar driven by England's Mike Hawthorn. As the crowd surged toward the track, journalist Fernand Bocage shook his head and thought, "They want to be so close they can touch the cars."
Pierre Levegh had once been part of just such a crowd at Le Mans; in 1923 he had stood across from the same narrow pit boxes at the first 24-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance and had watched with wild anticipation as the cars flashed by. Now Levegh, at the age of 50, was a driver on the Mercedes-Benz team. As he rounded the 90-degree turn called Arnage, Levegh saw Hawthorn slip by him; then the two cars thundered toward the White House bend and the short straightaway that hugged the main grandstands.
As Levegh slammed furiously through the gears, he caught the silvery glint of Fangio's Mercedes growing quickly larger in his mirror. Just in front of Levegh were Hawthorn's Jaguar and a comparatively underpowered Austin-Healey driven by the Englishman Lance Macklin. But it was the presence of Fangio that troubled Levegh the most. Only 2½ hours into the 24-hour race, he was about to suffer the ignominy of being lapped in front of thousands of his countrymen by a teammate driving a car identical to his own. There was little hope of staving off Fangio long enough to let this humiliation occur away from the main grandstands, out somewhere on the narrow rural roads that comprised much of the 8.383-mile circuit.
Suddenly, the cars in front of Levegh darted in unexpected directions. As he drew his last breath of life, he raised his right hand into the air. It is thought by some observers that Levegh was indicating that Fangio should make his pass on that side of him, but in light of what was to happen it seems almost as if he were delivering a final blessing to the crowd. An instant later, Levegh's racer (No. 20) went hurtling off the track and disintegrated as it plunged into the spectators. Eighty-three people—among them Levegh—died there amid the smoke and the screaming on the afternoon of June 11, 1955. Before the year was out, it was estimated that perhaps 100 had died—and an equal number had been maimed for life—as a result of the most horrific tragedy in the history of motor sports.
For many of the teams associated with Le Mans, 1955 had already proved to be a year of misfortune. The Ferrari team had lost its top driver in May when Alberto Ascari was killed at Monza, Italy; a dry run scheduled by Mercedes at the Hockenheim circuit in West Germany one week before Le Mans had to be cut short when one of the three new and innovative 300 SLRs (they were among the first race cars to employ fuel injection) was destroyed in a crash. Then, only days before the race, Michael John Lyons, the son of the founder of Jaguar, was killed in a collision as he drove to the race.
On June 8, at a dangerous night practice session, fate seemed to deliver an ominous warning. Stirling Moss, the gifted 25-year-old British driver who had only recently joined the Mercedes team, tangled with the tiny Panhard of Claude Storez. Moss's car slewed out of control and struck the Maserati of Jean Behra. It then careened into and seriously injured two journalists standing beside the track. Moss was unhurt but Behra's injuries were serious enough to keep him from driving in the race.
Several of the teams had earlier expressed their concern about the safety of the circuit. Alfred Neubauer, the head of the Mercedes racing team, had warned Charles Faroux of the organizing Automobile Club de L'Ouest that the track was too narrow and the pit area too short to accommodate a car with the speeds his Mercedes could reach, 175 mph. "I'm a little bit scared," Neubauer reportedly told Faroux. "Just imagine, a driver realizes a fraction of a second too late that he's been told [by his team manager] to slow down. He tends to brake suddenly. On a narrow track like this it could have disastrous consequences."
In his archly worded reply, Faroux did not acknowledge Neubauer's principal point, that the technological advances of cars had outstripped the capabilities of the circuit. "We have been organizing this race since 1923," Faroux said. "Nothing of the kind has ever happened."
For the 23rd renewal of the ACO's classic (nine races had been canceled because of World War II), some 200,000 spectators had gathered in the town of Le Mans, 130 miles southwest of Paris. It had been unusually warm in western France that spring, and June 11 dawned hot and bright with a meringue of clouds hovering over the Circuit Permanent de la Sarthe, the official name of the roughly D-shaped course that is known worldwide simply as Le Mans.
In the decade since World War II had ended, industrial Europe had beaten its swords into carburetors and crankshafts, and Le Mans had become the new battlefield where national pride was challenged and tested for 24 hours each year. The ritual was so codified that there were official colors to identify the cars by country of origin: France, light blue; Germany, silver; Italy, red; England, dark green. The U.S., although it had no official entry in 1955, was assigned white. From what is known of the enigmatic Levegh, it seems fair to say that he felt this nationalistic responsibility as acutely as anyone.
He was not born Pierre Levegh, but Pierre Bouillin, the nephew of the Pierre Levegh, a pioneer race-car driver of moderate reputation. When young Bouillin began to race as an amateur, it was decided at a family convocation that the younger Pierre's last name should be changed to that of his uncle. He eventually surrendered himself so totally to this created identity that his close friend and mechanic, Louis Duperon, had never even heard of Pierre Bouillin.
Levegh didn't drive at Le Mans until 1951 when, at the age of 46, he finished fourth in a factory-prepared Talbot Lago. Instead of being pleased with such a respectable finish in his first try, Levegh was disappointed that mechanical failure had kept him from winning the most important of all French races. When Talbot offered him another of its team cars for the following year, Levegh turned them down and entered his own Talbot.
Levegh was so obsessed with the idea of winning at Le Mans that, in preparing his Talbot, he reportedly spent almost three times the amount of money that he could have hoped to earn by finishing first. For a while it appeared his investment might pay off. In the early hours of the 1952 race, Levegh remained among the leaders. Remarkably, he himself stayed behind the wheel through every refueling stop, waving off co-driver René Marchand. All during the night this bizarre scene was repeated at every pit stop, Levegh refusing to loosen his grip on the wheel, telling Marchand that he would go on just a little longer. Each time he came in for fuel, Levegh seemed increasingly disoriented, but through it all he drove superbly, building a remarkable three-lap advantage over a pair of heavily favored Mercedeses. When the morning sun appeared over the Tertre Rouge bend, Levegh was still in the Talbot, clinging to a victory he seemed determined to make his alone. In the early morning hours, Marchand desperately tried to remove Levegh from the car, only to be repeatedly shoved away.
Exhausted and suffering from dizziness, Levegh continued to press his advantage until only an hour and a half remained in the race. Then his luck deserted him. He missed a shift, the crankshaft spun wildly in the engine and split the block and the car clattered to a halt. With Levegh out, Mercedes finished first and second, a result so unpopular with the Gallic crowd that the ACO decided not to play the German anthem for fear of arousing nationalistic passions. Later Neubauer would go to the disconsolate Levegh, whose failed heroism had opened the door to the Mercedes sweep, and promised Levegh that one day there would be a place for him on the German team at Le Mans.
That promise remained unfulfilled for the next two years while Mercedes poured its engineering efforts into developing a new Formula 1 car, not even bothering to enter Le Mans. When the great German team did return to endurance racing in 1955 with its new prototype cars, Neubauer cleverly assembled a cast of drivers that was formidable for its talent, but not too Teutonic. The centerpiece of his team was Fangio, who would win the third of his five world-driving championships that year. Moss was made Fangio's understudy and teammate in the No. 19 car. Karl Kling of West Germany and Andre Simon of France would share the No. 21 car. In the third, essentially a backup machine, was John Fitch of the United States. Paul Fr√®re of Belgium was invited to share the No. 20 car with Fitch, but Fr√®re had already signed with Aston Martin (for whom he would finish second) so Neubauer turned to Levegh to fulfill the promise made three years earlier.
From the beginning the relationship was an uneasy one. Levegh was summoned to West Germany for test runs, and it was quickly apparent that the Mercedes three-liter straight-eight engine was more than a handful for him. Word leaked from the guarded practice sessions that Levegh's lap times had been pathetically slow. There was even talk—many would later theorize it had been fostered by others on the Mercedes team in the hope that Levegh would resign—that he was afraid of the powerful car. "We knew Levegh very well," says Jean Bernardet, a French journalist who was in the pits on race day. "We knew what he was able to do, and we knew that the Mercedes was very quick and that Levegh was not up to it. But we were very afraid because he wasn't able to face this." Whether Levegh was up to driving the Mercedes or not, this closed, proud man could never have tolerated the disgrace of resignation. He stayed.
The flags of the five participating countries flew over the Le Mans pits on Saturday. June 11. From behind the paddock came the clamor of carnival rides, tent-restaurants and a strip show. Shortly before 4 p.m., Levegh took his place near the wall in front of the crowded grandstand with the 59 other drivers who would start the race. They waited for Count Aymo Maggi, the founder of Italy's famed Mille Miglia, to drop the French flag, signaling the start of the race. At that instant the drivers would dash across the track, leap into their cars, and roar onto the course.
Fangio had never been good at these running starts. Behind the wheel of an automobile, the Argentine was a man of surpassing talent, but moving across the ground on his own he was a good deal less impressive. Even his admirers called him El Chueco, which is Spanish for "the bandy-legged one." On this day Fangio's clumsiness was conspicuous. As he clambered into the cockpit of the No. 19 car, he somehow got the gearshift lever stuck up one leg of his loose-fitting khaki pants. The greatest driver of his day was one of the last on the track.
The 4.4-liter Ferraris had been the fastest cars in practice, with Eugenio Castellotti turning a lap at an average speed of 118.56 mph, 1.035 mph better than the course record. As the race got under way it was Castellotti in one of the red cars who set the pace. But within the first hour his qualifying record was broken 10 times. First Castellotti himself did it, then Fangio and Hawthorn bettered the mark. Gradually, the Ferrari dropped back, but Hawthorn and Fangio maintained their record-breaking pace, trading the lead back and forth. "Fangio was inclined to go very hard," says Fitch, "something serious long-distance drivers didn't do. What happens in the first few hours doesn't usually influence the outcome of the race."
Hawthorn knew that his Jaguar was faster than any other car on the track when it was wailing down the long straightaways. But he also knew that in the eight corners of the Le Mans course, the Mercedes had an advantage because of its air brake, a manually operated foil-type device mounted directly behind the driver. Hawthorn had described the brake as looking "like a great fish rising at flies."
Just as the cars had different strengths, there was also a distinct contrast between the men dueling for the lead. Never looking as if he were fighting a circuit, Fangio appeared to seduce the turns and make them bend to his will. Hawthorn's style was less subtle, but with the right car he could be equally quick. "[He] had something hard, almost brutal, in his driving," Neubauer was to write later of Hawthorn, "something that demanded the maximum from his car and from himself."
Hawthorn's driving style was in distinct contradiction to his appearance, which was suave in an era when that word still had meaning. Tall for an Englishman at 6'2" and very blond, he was almost pretty. Biographers would later overuse the term "Byronic" to describe him. Even the French racing fans doted on him and. because he favored large butterfly-shaped bow ties—he frequently wore them when racing—they called him Le Papillon.
With only two hours gone in the race, Fangio and Hawthorn had lapped everyone except Castellotti, two other D-type Jaguars and Kling and Levegh in the other two Mercedes. As the sun began to sink behind the grandstand roof. Hawthorn led Fangio past the pits, where some of the teams were making their first driver changes. When the two lead cars breasted the bend at the end of the short straight and headed for the sweeping right-hand turn at Tertre Rouge, the clock that hung from beneath the tire-shaped Dunlop walkway over the track read 6:23.
Hawthorn fell in behind Levegh's Mercedes at Tertre Rouge, and together they ripped down the high-gear 3.6-mile straight run to the Mulsanne bend, with Fangio dogging them from behind. Then they raced another 1.6 miles at near top speeds until they reached the sharp right angle at Arnage, where the drivers had to shift to low gear to help decelerate their hurtling cars. At Arnage, this knot of leading machines encountered Macklin in his Austin-Healey, which had been lapped several times and was running 50th of the 54 cars still in the race.
"As I was accelerating out of Arnage," recalls Macklin, "I saw a group of cars [in my mirror], and I knew right away that it was the leaders."
Macklin is 68 years old now and lives in retirement in Alicante, Spain, a city tucked away against the Mediterranean Sea 80 miles south of Valencia. He is a delicately built man and his closely cropped hair is now white. Before the 1955 race, Macklin had competed at Le Mans five years in a row. Having driven for the Aston Martin team and then Donald Healey, the creator of the Austin-Healey, Macklin was an experienced hand at darting in and out of the hazardous traffic patterns that Le Mans creates, as cars of vastly different performance capabilities share the track through day and dark. The disparity in speeds was considered a serious problem in 1955, particularly so by the pros, whose disdain for dilettante drivers was not hidden. "Le Mans is a very unattractive race," said Stirling Moss. "You had 120 drivers, of whom only about 20 were competent. The slower ones were idiots."
Macklin seems to support the notion that Levegh was among the less gifted. He never knew Levegh, whose dour demeanor had earned him the nickname "the bishop" even among his Mercedes teammates. Macklin maintains that from what he saw in his mirror Levegh was stubbornly resisting being lapped. "I think he wanted to show his admirers that he could go as fast as Fangio and Hawthorn," Macklin says. "His car was as fast as theirs, so if he wanted to hold them up in the corners he could do it." Even after Hawthorn accelerated past Levegh coming out of Arnage, Macklin says, Levegh apparently entertained one last desperate hope of leading his teammate Fangio past the grandstand.
There were thousands of eyewitnesses on that day 31 years ago, and yet there is no agreed-to scenario of the tragedy.
This is what is generally accepted to have happened between 6:28 and 6:29. For the previous three laps Hawthorn had been receiving a series of countdown signals from Jaguar team manager Lofty England that indicated he was to come into the pits for a refueling and a driver change. England had adopted this system of early warnings to give his drivers plenty of opportunity to plan their stops in the notoriously crowded Le Mans pits. In light of what happened later, it seems possible that Hawthorn had either not seen or had ignored the signals until he had almost passed his pit. But at the last possible moment the No. 6 Jaguar swerved hard to the right and headed in.
In the nearby Mercedes pit area, Neubauer, dressed as always in a business suit, was intently watching the strategy of his rivals from England. "Twice the Jaguar pits had signaled Hawthorn to stop for refueling," wrote Neubauer, "but he seemed too absorbed in the struggle with Fangio to notice."
Paul Fr√®re, situated behind the leaders in his Aston Martin, wrote: "Hawthorn was engaged in a merciless battle with Fangio and was leading the race. It would have been unthinkable that, coming out of the White House bend, about one kilometer before the pit area, he should have been content with following Lance Macklin's much slower Austin-Healey. And why should he?"
Evidently Hawthorn was not content to sit behind Macklin, choosing instead to pass the slower car and then hit the brakes hard to dive into the pits. "Mike could have been mistaken about how fast my car was going," Macklin says. "He came alongside me, and I gave him the thumbs-up sign as he overtook me to wish him luck. He pulled across in front of me, and then I remember being surprised to see his brake lights come on. I think he misjudged the speed of my car [which would have been around 120 at this point] and its position and that he was afraid of having to go around again and run the risk of running out of petrol. I believe he wanted to turn the car over at his stop, still in the lead. But by overtaking me and braking sharply he forced me to overtake him again, which meant I had to pull out in front of Levegh and Fangio. My instant reaction when he did it was, 'Bloody Mike Hawthorn, he must be out of his mind!' "
Macklin veered to his left to avoid plowing into Hawthorn. That left a space about 16-feet wide between his car and the lefthand edge of the track. Whether or not Levegh should have been able to maneuver his car through the opening was never decided by the panel of experts that conducted a 17-month-long official inquiry into the accident. In any case, Levegh did not make it. Instead, the right front wheel of his Mercedes climbed the sloping rear end of Macklin's Healey at a speed of around 150 mph and Levegh's car was launched into the air. The force of the collision spun Macklin's car completely around and sent him slewing down the track backward.
Though Macklin's testimony, given days later at a judicial inquest, was often vague and imprecise, the passage of time has focused the image of the accident in his mind. "It's a most extraordinary sensation," Macklin says, recalling those terrible instants. "Everything slows right down, as if you were watching a slow-motion film. Your brain acts so fast you can see everything, and I can remember as I was spinning I saw the timekeepers watching me from their booth. As I was rolling along backward I saw Levegh's car following me in the air, with Levegh sort of hunched over in the cockpit. I felt the heat of his exhaust as he went by me, no more than three feet over my shoulder. Then there was a hell of a bang, like a bomb had hit."
At the moment of impact, George Fraichard of the French publication Le Maine heard the explosion from the press box. Turning to journalist Fernand Bocage, he said, "One hundred dead."
"We told him he was crazy," Bocage recalls. "It was impossible, such a thing."
When Hawthorn finally came to a stop in the pits, he discovered that he had overshot the area assigned to the Jaguar team. Backing up in the pits is not allowed, but Hawthorn was in no frame of mind for more driving. When England reached him. Hawthorn was scrambling out of the Jaguar, anxious to find out what had become of the car that he had seen disappearing into the crowd. The team manager coaxed his driver back into the car to run another lap so that Ivor Bueb could take over, and, although he was upset, Hawthorn got back behind the wheel. Hawthorn was a driver who did as he was told.
As Levegh's Mercedes shot over a dirt embankment bordering the left side of the course, a priest who was standing in the crowd felt the heat of the car pass through his cassock and later discovered that his legs had been burned. The Mercedes somersaulted for 85 yards before it finally slammed down atop the concrete entrance to a tunnel that runs between the grandstand and the pits. When the car landed, the body broke into two parts. The rear portion, which included the cockpit, rose hideously into the air again and went cartwheeling down the verge of the track. A woman standing just behind the wooden fence near the circuit was gathered up in the flying wreckage when one of the car's rear wheels caught her dress. For one long ghastly moment, she and Levegh went hurtling past the crowd in a macabre death dance.
The Mercedes's engine and a segment of its front suspension were not stopped by the wall, but were transformed into an 860-pound scythe that went slicing through the dense ranks of spectators. Fourteen people were decapitated. "There was a doctor who was carrying his young son on his shoulders," recalls Raymonde Galisson. a Le Mans resident who was among the spectators that day. "The man was not injured by the flying debris, but his son was killed. The doctor laid the boy in his car. then went back and tried to rescue others."
Michel Lardry was one of those who assisted in the removal of the dead and injured. He first saw the carnage from atop the embankment where Levegh had crashed. "There was no noise," Lardry says. "People didn't seem to realize that there had been a bad accident. The bodies were lying on top of each other, and some of the dead had no apparent injuries at all. One man who had died had only a small dent in his head, like a table tennis ball that had been lightly crushed."
When Macklin's Austin-Healey finally came out of its spin, it veered straight at the Mercedes pit, sending the 300-pound Neubauer scrambling for his life. He ended up in the middle of the racetrack. A gendarme stationed near the Mercedes pit was hit when the car struck the pit wall, after which it bounded back onto and across the track. Neubauer, who was later credited with trying to signal the oncoming race cars of the danger, was in fact unable to escape his predicament and stood helplessly in the middle of the track waving his fedora until he could lumber off to safety.
The Austin-Healey finally thudded to a halt against the earthen embankment on the grandstand side of the circuit, and Macklin leaped out without a scratch. As soon as he saw the wreckage from Levegh's Mercedes, Macklin began running to it. "When I saw the car burning on the barrier," he recalls, "I said to myself, 'Thank Christ it didn't go into the crowd.' " Macklin was in grim error; what he saw was only a portion of the shattered car.
With smoke and debris spewing forth from Levegh's car and Macklin's mangled Austin-Healey still careening about like a deadly pinball, it was up to Fangio to drive through safely. "After I had passed through the crashing cars without touching anything or anyone," the Argentine said years later, "I started to tremble and shake. For at that moment I had been waiting for the blow, holding strongly to the steering wheel awaiting the blow."
Fangio continued driving for three more laps (the race was never for a moment stopped, a decision made to prevent mass panic) before turning the car over to Moss. When Fangio stepped out of the car he crossed himself, then told Neubauer that Levegh had signaled to him of the trouble that lay ahead when he raised his hand. "Levegh warned me," Fangio told Neubauer. "He was about to be killed, but still he saved my life." Neubauer later testified at the inquiry that he doubted Levegh would have had time to carry out such a noble act. "The movement that Levegh made was not a special sign," he said, "but an act of helplessness in the face of a danger impossible to avoid."
It was six minutes before the surviving cars could complete another lap around the circuit, and it was not until then that anyone in the stunned crowd could be certain that the ruined silver car was Levegh's. When Denise Levegh realized that it was her husband's car that was in flames on the other side of the track, she began to scream, "Take him out of there. You're not going to let him burn!" As the fire grew hotter, the Mercedes began to burn white, a result of its bodywork being made of a magnesium alloy. Later there would be suspicions whispered by the French that the magnesium mixture, like one which had been used as a flash powder in the early days of photography, had been responsible for the intensity of the fire.
In fact, Levegh was already dead and his corpse—untouched by the flames—lay yards away from the pyre being fed by his car. He had been partly decapitated by the force of the explosion.
Behind the pit wall. Hawthorn was now out of his car and weeping uncontrollably. "When Mike got out of his car he had already had a nerve-racking two or three hours with Fangio," says Duncan Hamilton, a teammate of Hawthorn's who had won Le Mans for Jaguar in 1953. "Even under normal circumstances he would have been wound up—and there were people lying about dead, remember. I told him he wasn't involved in the crash and that he had to press on, that he'd had a jolly nasty fright and he'd gotten away with it."
But Hawthorn was not so easily soothed. Macklin saw him later that night. "Donald Healey said we should go and celebrate getting out of a mess like that," Macklin recalls. "We were having champagne when a mechanic from Jaguar came in and said that Mike was in a terrible state and asked me if I would come to their pit and calm him down. I wasn't very pleased with Hawthorn because he nearly killed me, and I told the mechanic I would be more likely to pop him on the nose than calm him down.
"A few minutes later Mike came through the pit door, tears streaming down his face, and he tottered over to where we were sitting. 'Lance, I'm terribly sorry,' he said. 'I feel terrible. I've caused all these deaths. I'll never drive a car again.' Donald [Healey] got up from where he was sitting and said, 'Come on, Mike, pull yourself together.' Just then a man named Les Leston came into where we were sitting and said, 'Jesus, it looks like a butcher shop out there.' I told him we didn't need people going around saying things like that, but he kept right on. That was the first indication I had that the accident was as bad as it was."
All through the night the race roared on. The wounded were removed in a hastily recruited armada of ambulances. The bodies of the dead were laid out anywhere space could be found. Hamilton recalls going for a massage between shifts at the wheel of his D-type Jaguar. He lay down on the masseur's table in one of the infield tents and discovered that there were corpses covered by sheets on the floor beneath him. Several troops of French Boy Scouts formed circles around the tents where most of the bodies were taken because authorities feared that the crowd might try to rush the makeshift morgues.
No announcement was ever made at the track that night that anything out of the ordinary had occurred. Even as priests from the local Catholic parishes moved grimly through the grandstand area performing extreme unction for the dying and the dead, a few hundred yards away people totally unaware of the carnage were dancing and singing at the infield carnivals.
At 2 a.m., via telegraphed orders from the company's directors, Mercedes retired from the race while its cars were running first and third. When Mercedes decided to withdraw, Neubauer sent a messenger to the Jaguar pit thinking that the British team might also want to drop out. But when Lofty England was informed of his rivals' decision, he turned to one of his drivers and said, "They retire, you can take it easy."
Within an hour, the two remaining Mercedes were loaded on transporters for the trip back to the company's headquarters near Stuttgart. Mercedes finished out the year, winning both the sports car and the Formula 1 championships, but at the end of the 1955 season the company announced that it was withdrawing from competitive racing. On May 9, a practice will be held for the 54th Le Mans, which will take place on the weekend of May 31-June 1. There will be no Mercedes entered this year, just as there have been none for the last 31 years.
Hawthorn and Bueb went on to win in 1955. Hawthorn crossed the finish line in a steady rain on a cold, gray Sunday afternoon. There were still 50,000 spectators left at the track. Almost none cheered. When Hawthorn was handed the traditional winner's bottle of champagne, he absentmindedly drank from it. Later that week L'Auto-Journal would run a picture of this with the bitterly sarcastic caption, √Ä VOTRE SANTÉ, MONSIEUR HAWTHORN! (To your health, Mr. Hawthorn).
Pierre Levegh was buried in the P√®re-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his funeral attended by many of the world's greatest racing figures. At Le Mans, 300 million francs ($857,000 at the time) were spent to move the grandstands back from the track, widen the course and build a concrete wall to separate the racing circuit from the main spectator area. At the spot where Levegh's car went into the crowd, a simple marble plaque bearing a cross and the words 11 Juin 1955 was fixed to the new wall. In the years immediately following the accident, the plaque was often covered by superstitious drivers during the 24-hour race.
Mike Hawthorn was exonerated of guilt in the disaster by a board of inquiry. He continued racing, winning the world championship in a Formula 1 Ferrari by a single point over Stirling Moss in 1958. But two of his Ferrari teammates, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins, his closest friend, were killed in racing accidents that season. At the end of the year, Hawthorn abruptly retired.
Hawthorn is remembered as one of the last of the burn-the-candle-at-both-ends drivers, an all-night partygoer who the next afternoon could step into a car and drive with the best of them. Yet the 1955 Le Mans race never left him. Before he died, he wrote of the race: "It was as though we were at the point where a great rock had been hurled into a pond, sending out waves of shock and horror and indignation which would later flow back, bringing consequences which no one could foresee."
Less than two months after his unexpected retirement, Mike Hawthorn, too, was dead. He was killed instantly when the Jaguar he was driving spun and crashed at high speed on a rain-slick curve near his home in Surrey.
As Hawthorn (6) cut off Macklin (26), Levegh (20) raised his right arm, a gesture that put teammate Fangio (19) on the alert.
These four drivers will be forever linked by a single moment of racing catastrophe.
Racing continued at Le Mans that June day, the rationale being not to panic the crowd.
With his own—and his drivers'—safety in mind, Neubauer lumbered onto the track.
Much of the crowd was unaware of the tragedy, even as priests moved through the accident area administering the rite of extreme unction.
The anguished Hawthorn was ordered back into his Jaguar by team manager England.
Early the next morning, Neubauer got news of the Mercedes withdrawal.
What would turn out to be Hawthorn's only win at Le Mans was a very subdued occasion.
Hawthorn himself died 3½ years after his much-criticized toast.