Review - coming soon to an online shop named after a river near you
:Le Man's '55 - The Crash The Changed The Face Of Motor Racing
by Christopher Hilton
Though Formula 1 dominates the motor sport agenda these days, a novice could tell you about the annual sportscar race at Le Mans. The basic premise is this - cars go round the 8 mile track for 24 hours, and the one which covers the most distance is declared the winner. A curiosity is the fact that several classes of cars take part simultaneously, with large differentials between their top speeds. This provides some interest, but in the case of the 1955 race, it resulted in tragedy.
After about 2 hours of racing, Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn was about to pull into the pits to hand over the car to his co-driver. At exactly the same point, Lance Macklin in his far less powerful Austin Healey had to brake and swerve to avoid him. The car behind Macklin, a Mercedes driven by veteran Frenchman Pierre Levegh had nowhere to go and ran over the back of the Austin Healey. The Mercedes flew up into the air and landed in the spectator area, and bits of high speed debris flew off into the crowd. 80 people were killed, including Levegh himself.
Hilton provides a good background to the race and the people involved, and devotes a chapter to investigating the crash and working out who was responsible. This can be difficult, due to the passage of time and the fact that Levegh, Macklin and Hawthorn are all dead. Interviews with their contemporaries and fellow drivers give the best account of the events, and as ever the witnesses provide conflicting accounts. In the end, it seems to come down to an unfortunate chain of events, the cause of most big accidents.
Thankfully, Hilton does not dwell on the more morbid aspects of the crash, and we only see a few photographs of the scene. By all accounts, it was very distressing to see. Phil Hill (driver) says it best : "The impact was about 10 pits down from us but the immediate aftermath was right in front of out pit. I understood that something terrible had happened. I can't tell you...the realisation of it was absolutely horrific, and to be in the middle of it all..."
Bravely, the book goes on to describe the equally unfortunate collision between the motor racing world and the real world. One journalist stubbornly asked why the Mercedes team (who were leading by this point) should withdraw. Levegh's co-driver John Fitch said it all by giving a probable newspaper headline : RUTHLESS GERMANS RACE ON TO VICTORY OVER DEAD BODIES OF FRENCH.
After reading this, you wish Hilton would stop referring to the 'Age Of Innocence' that supposedly existed before Le Man's 55, as if no drivers and spectators had been killed before. But that's a minor flaw. If you feel you really should know about the awful events of 11th June 1955, this is the book to have. But don't expect to be cheered or uplifted by it.