Paul Frère, 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."