It was like a battlefield. That period in motor racing history was relentless in its disregard for the lives of drivers. The 1955 season had already tasted tragedy prior to the 23rd running of the Le Mans 24 hours. It had also witnessed some of the most notable events, in terms of outright performance and bizarreness, that are still referenced frequently as part of the folklore of the sport.
The Mille Miglia performance of Stirling Moss and his cockpit cohort Dennis Jenkinson was one. The 100mph race through 1000 miles of Italian countryside and towns still stands as one of the most significant drives produced by an individual in a car in competition. That early May display was followed, towards the end of the month, by Lancia’s former Ferrari double world champion Alberto Ascari parking his D50 in the harbour at Monaco, then swimming free from the submerged machine. That moment is etched in the history of F1 as one of its greatest escapes. Three days later though and Ascari was dead. An accident at Monza while testing a Ferrari sports racer claimed one of the biggest names in the sport at the time. Motor racing has moments where its duplicity can intertwine fateful and fanciful moments.
Five days after the loss of Ascari the US racing scene also lost one of its big stars. Indianapolis had already claimed the life of Manny Ayulo in practice for the 500 in mid-May. Race day took the life of Bill Vukovich, who was charging on for his third consecutive win at the speedway when he was caught up in an accident that launched his car over the wall. The reigning champion was killed instantly.
Then came Le Mans. The race that changed everything.
83 people perished when the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh collided with the Austin Healey of Lance Macklin who had swerved to avoid a Jaguar heading to the pits, driven by Vanwall and Ferrari F1 driver Mike Hawthorn. The Mercedes became airborne and vaulted the earth barrier at the side of the track. Levegh perished instantly. The impact of his car barrelling through the crowd flailing components and igniting fuel was devastating. The race continued.
Initially the organisers made the decision to continue so as to allow the emergency services access to the circuit to deal with the aftermath. The cessation of the race would have meant that hundreds of thousands of race fans would have clogged the area upon exiting, which would have inhibited the inbound, and outbound emergency traffic.
Mercedes withdrew from the race in the early hours of Sunday morning. A vote by board members in Stuttgart hours after the accident set in motion the withdrawal of the company from motor racing at the end of the year. Ferrari had no such qualms and continued before faltering. Jaguar, with Hawthorn at the wheel, continued on to take victory.
Racing was banned by many European countries in the immediate aftermath. For some it was a reactionary response that didn’t last too long, for others – like Switzerland – it would be a long term move. Some national bodies initially planned to restart once they could be satisfied that safety measures would be implemented to prevent another tragedy. Holland was not one of them.
Mercedes-Benz were mauled at the hands of the press. Internal strife amongst the board meant that the company was hesitant to recommence racing. The thought of paying off the driving talent and quitting racing was mentioned to the racing division to whom it was unimaginable. The racing team, who firmly believed that Levegh was simply a victim of circumstance, warned that the closure of the workshops, and the releasing of its drivers, could be seen as an admission of guilt. These were not conversations held in the weeks and months following Le Mans, but the hours and days. It was certainly a cold and pragmatic process, but it was that modus operandi that had led to them carrying over their pre-war procedures to bring instant success when the had returned to racing a year earlier.
It was under these circumstances that the Mercedes team travelled to Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix. The team had packed up and left Le Mans during the race in the early hours of the morning of Sunday June 12. Back in Stuttgart a series of cars were being prepared for the race. Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Karl Kling would have two cars each to choose from – a standard car and a short wheelbase Monaco spec machine. Practice was slated to begin on the afternoon of Friday June 17. Five days after their quiet exit from the La Sarthe region.
Moss, writing about the withdrawal from the race in 1987 stated: “That struck me as a rather empty theatrical gesture which came close to accepting some responsibility for what happened. It achieved nothing except hand a very prestigious race on a plate to Jaguar.”
It could be argued that in the wake of a conflict that had decimated Europe not ten years earlier, that the value of human life was a currency still in recovery. But the opinion of Moss was not a one shared in the press. Chilling reports of the incident were published in various news outlets. The French Press went to town on Hawthorn after he smiled when receiving his congratulatory garland and champagne after the race. Motoring magazines were questioning the validity of racing – racing magazines were not.
Irrespective of opinion, Mercedes were ready. It was their job to be ready. Some of those who had watched the disaster unfold in front of them from the Le Mans pitlane including co-driver to Levegh, John Fitch, were readying for the continued domination of Mercedes in Grand Prix racing. Context did not matter, this was a racing team and that is exactly what it was going to continue to do.
The 16 car invitational World Championship round kicked off at 1pm on the Friday afternoon. Alfred Neubauer, resplendent in his large waisted suit, hat, and collection of stopwatches oversaw the three cars that had been selected. The Mercedes mechanics climbed around the three W196s with a purposeful nuance that would not be seen on a regular basis in F1 for another couple of decades. Mercedes itself was a machine, and its cogs kept turning.
Moss went fastest on Friday, his senior team mate Fangio – who’d went opposite to Moss and had selected the short wheelbase machine – took the accolades with pole in the Saturday session. The three-pointed-star occupied the front row with Kling in third place.
It was business as usual on raceday. Fangio rolled at the start as drizzle swept in from the North Sea and got away ahead of Luigi Musso who jumped Moss and Kling in the Ferrari. Around the back, through the sand dunes towards the hairpin Moss slipped by Musso and hooked onto the rear of Fangio.
The two leading Mercs lapped in the one minute 43 second barrier – way out of reach of the other entrants. Kling, however, did not. In attempting to catch up to his team leaders he binned his W196 and was out.
Mike Hawthorn, whose wayward entry into the Le Mans pits was seen by many as the catalyst for the Le Mans disaster, struggled with his gearchange all afternoon – he finished five laps down. Towards the end of the race he tried to keep pace with the Mercedes duo to test his own mettle, he had returned to Ferrari after a couple of races with Vanwall and had quickly discovered first hand that neither were anywhere near the pace of Mercedes.
Fangio ran as clockwork as anything in human form could. Moss, in the long wheelbase car, was catching his master on the straights, but losing out in the tight stuff. Riding close to Fangio might have taught Moss a thing or two about driving racing cars, but his W196 was ruining its engine as Fangio kicked up sand and dirt that, combined with rain and lubricant, was having a negative effect on four of its cylinders.
Moss continued on in second behind Fangio to the flag. The one-two would be mirrored in the points standings at the end of the season. The championship would be the last for Mercedes in F1 until McLaren took the 1998 world championship.
1955 had been a bloodletting of sorts for motor racing. In the Pau GP in April Mario Alborghetti had lost his life. When Moss took his sensational Mille Miglia victory, John Heath had already perished during the race. A month after Le Mans Don Beauman lost his life in a non-championship race in Wicklow, Ireland.
There was more to come. After Le Mans, the next two races in the championship for sportscar racing were cancelled. At Dundrod in September, during the Tourist Trophy meeting – the first race in the series since Le Mans – Mercedes took the top three spots. Stirling Moss put in a stupendous display alongside teammate John Fitch as the company headed towards the title. The seven hour race around country roads claimed three lives. Jim Mayers, William Smith and Richard Mainwaring were added to the list of drivers whose names were to lead the obituary columns.
Mercedes’ exit from the sport discarded a portion of the image of being the Teutonic automatons of motor racing. The next few decades were to see the company produce some of the most elegant motor cars of their time. Their return to racing with Sauber in the eighties came at a time when the quest for safety was a paramount endeavour.
There is still heady debate about the rights and wrongs of the decision for Mercedes to see out the 1955 season. The implications of the Le Mans disaster could have had a huge effect on motor racing in Europe. Had more nations followed the lead of Switzerland then the landscape of the pastime would have been very different in the decades that followed and the rich history of the sport would have never been able to grow to what we have today.
Away from the moral standpoints of the decisions made after Le Mans one thing was clear, Mercedes had raised the bar in professionalism in motor racing. Everything from their preparation and development to their cohesive message to the outside world was planned perfectly and wouldn’t be mimicked in the sport effectively and successfully until three decades later. The team had closed ranks at the Dutch Grand Prix and had got on with the job at hand. From that perspective motor racing has not changed. It might be a controversial statement in the eyes of some, but the professionalism of modern motor racing is exemplified by that team and their reactions on that weekend.