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."