Even though it happened more than half a century ago, the 1955 Le Mans disaster is still the deadliest crash in motorsport history. It occurred during the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race in France and claimed the lives of 84 people of whom 83 were spectators. 49 year old Pierre Levegh who piloted the crashed Mercedes 300 SLR also died at the scene. In addition to casualties, 120 more were injured as large pieces of racing car debris flew into the crowd.
The 300 SLR Pierre Levegh piloted had less effective drum brakes and a bodywork made of ultra lightweight high magnesium content alloy called Elektron. At the end of Lap 35, Mike Hawthorn who was leading the race with his Jaguar D-type slowed suddenly to make a pit stop. Lance Macklin who was behind him in a slower Austin-Healey 100 swerved across the centre of the track leaving Pierre Levegh no time to react. Having been equipped with inferior brakes, the 300 SLR could not effectively slow down and rear ended the Austin-Healey which made the Mercedes to became airborne.
Pierre Levegh’s 300 SLR struck the mound and bounced off with a somersault, sending loosened parts of the car to fly toward the crowd at very great speeds. Before they could react, the jam packed spectators had engine block crushing their skulls while the flying bonnet decapitated those that didn’t get crushed. Pierre Levegh was safely ejected but landing fatally crushed his skull. The chunks of the car that did not take flight to assassinate the spectators quickly caught fire allowing for high magnesium content bodywork to burn brightly for hours.
Following the disaster, Mercedes withdrew from the race and competitive motorsport and did not return until the mid 1980’s. The Austin-Healey – car which sent the 300 SLR flying sold at auction in December 2011 for £843,000 ($1,323,915).
Video of the 1955 Le Mans Disaster with various available footages (mostly black and white, but also colorized) and computer generated 3D simulations of the deadly crash is below:
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