“Le Mans 1955” is a beautiful and horrifying short animated film by Quentin Baillieux, depicting the worst disaster in motor sports history, Pierre Levegh’s crash during the 1955 24h du Mans. More than eighty people were killed and 180 were injured when Levegh’s car crashed into the grandstands. It has won several awards already and has been nominated for the 2020 Academy Awards.
The film is not 100% historically accurate, but mercifully, it barely touches on the crash itself. The dead are depicted with sheets over them, not the true horror of bodies torn apart and the horrific fire (see below the fold for newsreel footage). This is a human film about emotions and decency in the face of disaster. One important true point: it was John Fitch’s outrage that led Mercedes to withdraw from the race.
John Fitch’s story is a fascinating one. He was a World War II american bomber and fighter escort pilot, one of three americans to shoot down a Messerschmitt Me262 (the first jet airplane). He took up motorsports after the war and was fairly successful. But it was his post-racing career as an inventor that made the biggest impression, developing Fitch barriers (barrels of sand) and many other safety devices that have saved thousands of lives. He also found a way to improve fuel efficiency in gas-powered engines, reducing waste of gasoline and diesel.
After Le Mans 1955, several countries issued temporary bans on motorsports until safety standards were improved. Switzerland’s temporary ban has been permanent, no racing in the country in almost 65 years.
People who build race cars want them to be light, so they eschew steel for other materials. Aluminium isn’t as strong as magnesium, but the problem with magnesium is that it is prone to burning. The firefighters at Le Mans unwittingly made the fire worse by pouring water on Levegh’s car. Carbon fibre didn’t enter common use until the 1980s.
This is from British Pathé’s newsreel footage catalogue:
Normally comparing people’s misfortune is tasteless, but the second worst crash (the 1957 Mille Miglia, when nine people died) and third worst (1994 San Marino Grand Prix) were minor incidents compared to Le Mans. There has never been another incident like it, and never will be thanks to modern safety standards. The greatest threats to motorsports today are the environment, the economy (the 2008 depression/recession) and the threat of terrorism (the cancellations of the Dakar Rally in 2008 and Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix in 2011).