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 pâté, 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.