The Deadliest Crash: the Le Mans 1955 Disaster


The Deadliest Crash: the Le Mans 1955 Disaster

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June 11th, 1955.

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The most prestigious event in motor racing is under way.

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For an entire day, the world's greatest drivers

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are pitted against each other in the Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans,

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known the world over simply as Le Mans.

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Hundreds of thousands of spectators, many British,

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are packed around the narrow track,

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eager to witness 120 daredevil drivers battle it out

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in the fastest cars the world has ever seen.

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The 1955 race promised to be a dazzling chapter in the history of this glamorous event.

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Instead, it was destined to be remembered

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as the most catastrophic event in motor racing history.

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A sporting tragedy on an unprecedented scale,

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leaving scores dead and many more fighting for their lives.

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Next to me the guy's shoulder was decapitated.

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Using never seen before home movies,

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amateur photos and firsthand accounts of those involved.

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-He was out of control.

-"Bloody hell," he said, "this is suicide."

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This is the inside story of how what should have been Le Mans'

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most exhilarating race came to be remembered as The Deadliest Crash.

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The 1950s.

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After periods of economic depression and wartime austerity,

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a new wave of optimism was sweeping across Europe.

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And with it came a renewed appetite for sporting spectacle.

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Tailor-made to satisfy this hunger,

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were the thrills and spills of motor racing.

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This was to be the golden decade -

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an era when motor racing truly came of age.

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I love speed.

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The faster they are, they better.

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I could do it all day, beautiful.

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It's a challenge and it's tough and it's difficult.

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It's trying and it's stressful and demanding.

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It's everything.

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It's life, you know, condensed.

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To say I passed a Mercedes at 192 miles per hour.

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Beautiful, excellent.

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For any rising star of the era

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there was one victory that could not be equalled.

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To be on the podium at Le Mans, the biggest race in the world,

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was every driver's dream.

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For American driver John Fitch,

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now 92, 1955 was his year to grab the spotlight.

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Did we want to win in Le Mans?

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Everyone who goes to Le Mans wants to win, of course, yes.

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Norman Dewis, now 89, was also there challenging for the title.

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Since its origin in 1923,

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the 24-hour event had become one of the toughest

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and most dangerous events in the season.

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Consequently it had become the most respected meeting in the sport.

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And in 1955 all the elements were in place for a monumental race.

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The 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans in northern France

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was designed as a harsher, more demanding race than Grand Prix.

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It set out to cram more racing into one day

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than a whole season of Formula One.

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It challenged manufactures to field cars that were not only fast

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but reliable.

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The car that has finished the most laps after 24 hours wins the race.

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The top teams often entered not one but three cars,

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each car with two drivers.

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They hope that one of these cars will be strong enough

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to survive racing flat out non-stop for an entire day and win the race.

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Le Mans is more of a strategy.

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It takes a tremendous amount of preparation

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and thought to win Le Mans and also it needs a lot of luck.

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Le Mans provided a spectacle

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that television and cinema were taking to the rest of the world.

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Suddenly, the greatest drivers and manufacturers were attracted

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to the event that offered a brilliant marketing opportunity.

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Win the race on Sunday and you'd sell cars on the Monday.

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Very few races capture

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that fact that it is such a massive social

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gathering and event,

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triggered by

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the race, which is a great race.

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It's THE event,

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the event of the year.

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The world's most influential manufacturers, Ferrari, Maserati,

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Aston Martin, Jaguar, Mercedes,

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vied with one another to showcase

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their most dazzling technical innovations.

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1955 was shaping up to be a special year.

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A great head-to-head battle was on the cards.

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Two arch rivals stood out.

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Jaguar and Mercedes.

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It was to be billed as World War II on the track.

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I think you could say it was World War II on the track.

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It was certainly

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Britain versus Germany, in what had been occupied France...

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..at a time when the British car industry was very strong...

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..with worldwide sales and worldwide reputation

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and Jaguar was a very exotic name.

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And Mercedes were coming back

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after the factory was smashed during the war.

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So, in a sense, it was Jaguar trying

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to maintain what they had against the Germans,

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who were emerging so strongly.

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Since the beginning of Le Mans in 1923,

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the British had won almost half the races.

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Jaguar had recently become the most dominant force,

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winning in 1951 and 1953.

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Jaguar was a small company with big ambitions to produce the world's

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best sports cars, both for the track

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and more importantly for consumers.

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To stamp their dominance in 1955,

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they returned with the fastest car

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they had ever made -

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the long nose D-type.

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It's so tempting to go into stereotypes, but I will do.

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The Jaguar looked somehow more feline

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and the Mercedes looked much more

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somehow squarer, solid, reliable.

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In that sense perhaps more Germanic.

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So when you look at the two cars,

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you are looking at two different styles, two different approaches

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to the same problem of making a car go fast.

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After the war, Germany and Mercedes Benz returned to motor racing

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to win the Grand Prix championship.

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They were thought unstoppable and held prestigious prizes

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like the world speed record.

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Alongside their ambitions to dominate car manufacturing,

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Mercedes Benz and its Silver Arrow team

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were out to smash the stranglehold the British had on Le Mans.

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It was always recognised with the spectators this is going

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to be a race and a half, when there is Mercedes with Jaguar.

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With this intense, escalating rivalry,

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the 1955 Le Mans was set up to be a thrilling race.

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300,000 spectators were piling through the turnstiles.

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Bernard Chotard is a lifelong fan of Le Mans.

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The race colours some of his earliest memories.

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Bernard and his wife, Jacqueline,

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had married just eight days before the 1955 Le Mans.

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Going to the race was a part of their honeymoon celebrations.

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For Giselle Pasquier and her husband, Henri,

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it was also a special outing.

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Jacques Grelley always dreamed of being a racing driver.

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He loved the event and went every year.

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Just like a show.

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Everybody walked with a bottle of wine in their hand

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or a bottle of champagne.

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People were drinking, happy, watching the race.

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Some were not even looking at the race, just talking.

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It's mostly the atmosphere of a fair.

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Women were very well dressed,

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most of the men come dressed with ties. A show.

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The Circuit de la Sarthe was and remains

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the largest track in the world

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and features the legendary four-mile long Mulsanne straight,

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the longest and fastest racing

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straight of any circuit in the world,

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where cars in the 1950s were already approaching 190 miles per hour.

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There are fewer corners compared to most circuits.

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Le Mans bends are tight after incredibly fast straights.

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This stresses the cars and especially, over 24 hours,

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the drivers.

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An added challenge for the drivers is that Le Mans is not a purpose-built race track.

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The Circuit de la Sarthe is made up of country lanes.

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The Le Mans surface, unlike most racing tracks

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which are smooth and clean, is rough and lethal.

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In addition, the course is surrounded by trees

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and other hazards,

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all threats to racing drivers travelling at full throttle.

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Le Mans is also unique

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in that different classes of car race at the same time.

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Some high speed, like the racing Jaguar, some low speed,

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like the road-going Austin Healey.

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This means there is a lot of overtaking,

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which delights the fans and challenges the drivers.

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But when there are cars of vastly different speeds

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racing on the same track,

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there could be serious consequences.

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People go to a race because it's dangerous.

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Tertre Rouge was always packed

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because they expected at that place that

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always one car or more car would lose control and hit the wall.

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I think most people that go probably expect to see one.

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It's expected of it.

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There's was one poor sod carted off dead.

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It livens it up if it happens in front of you.

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At the end of the Mulsanne straight,

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where you turn right, you really have to push the brakes very hard

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to make it and if you didn't make it you're on a sand bank

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and here you fly over the sand bank.

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While these circumstances

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might provide endless thrills for the crowd,

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they could be a matter of life and death for the drivers.

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In the '50s, track and car safety was all but absent,

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drivers preferring not to have seat belts,

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believing it was better

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to be thrown from a wreck than remain in it on impact.

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Drivers were killed.

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Probably used to get at least two or three a year.

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We lost friends every season, which is almost unheard of now.

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It says on your ticket that motor racing is dangerous, on the back.

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I don't take any notice of it.

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By 1955, seven drivers had already been killed at Le Mans.

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Anybody who measures their desires against their own life

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has to be respected,

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and in an era where a lot got killed respected even more.

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The levels of danger set motor racing apart from all other sports.

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The cult of the legendary driver was born.

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None were greater than Juan Manuel Fangio, nicknamed El Maestro.

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He was on his way to winning the world championship five times,

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a record that would remain his for over 45 years.

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With his graceful and fluid racing style,

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Fangio was soon to become the best driver of all time.

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He was an absolute presence,

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he was phenomenal

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and he was a thoroughly good person.

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He was from nowhere, absolutely nowhere.

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He was a mechanic for years and years before he got in a decent car.

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He began his career almost in middle age because of the war,

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a gentlemanly figure, slightly portly...

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very dignified looking man.

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And he won race after race after race.

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However, Fangio had yet to conquer the demands

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of the 24 hours of Le Mans,

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failing to finish here three times before.

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He was out to prove himself.

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Fangio was Mercedes' star man.

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But each car needed two drivers to take shifts over the 24 hours.

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Fangio's co-driver was Stirling Moss.

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Stirling Moss was then a rising prospect in Formula One and sports car racing.

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He was already one of Britain's best known

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and most highly skilled drivers.

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This was Mercedes' number one pairing

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but because of the uncertainty of cars surviving this harsh contest,

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many crashing or breaking down,

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top teams often entered more than one car.

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In 1955, Mercedes entered three.

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American John Fitch

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was selected to race that day in the second Mercedes Benz.

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I had one opportunity.

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Here I was, a member of what was thought to be the most successful

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and effective racing team.

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And I was on that team.

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It was...

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the opportunity of a lifetime.

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And I had to be very sure that I turned in my best performance.

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This was the big one, this was the grand opportunity

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which I was very fortunate to get.

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The talent in the Mercedes team ran deep,

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drawing on names from across the world.

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Co-driving with John Fitch in the second Mercedes

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was French icon Pierre Levegh.

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At 50, he was older than Fangio,

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and had driven more miles at Le Mans than any other driver there,

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but despite having competed several times, almost winning

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single handedly in 1952, he had never won at Le Mans.

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He was a folk hero for the French,

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a fact not lost on Mercedes team boss Naubauer.

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They had Levegh as a great gesture to France.

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A heroic French figure who had tried to win it by himself was

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now being given a chance in front of a French crowd in France to win it.

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He was called the Bishop,

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privately among other drivers,

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not to his face, because he was rather solemn,

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and he was an old guy. He was 50 years old.

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He was a good driver. I know that.

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Levegh was in hallowed company and completed a formidable line up.

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It made Mercedes Benz the team to beat.

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The press believing nothing could challenge the combination

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of Moss and Fangio.

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Yet Jaguar had an ace up their sleeve.

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Their very own British rising star.

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A driver that had no intention of letting a German company take all the glory.

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The British selected Mike Hawthorn as its number one driver,

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one of the greatest mavericks the sport has ever known.

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Hawthorn, only 26-years-old,

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was already on his way to becoming a motor racing hero.

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Mike Hawthorn was everybody's idea of a public school boy.

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He drove in a bow tie, even Grands Prix he wore a bowtie.

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Behind the wheel of the best cars, Hawthorn was the young turk on the international circuit,

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achieving podium places at Grand Prix level.

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He was a real threat to Fangio.

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But it was not just his reputation as a talented driver

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which set Hawthorn apart from the crowd.

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Mike would go out and have a party night

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and then get up and get in the car and race, you know?

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Carefree and flamboyant,

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Hawthorn seemed the epitome of the light-hearted gentleman amateur,

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racing for the pure enjoyment of competition,

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and living life to the full.

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But there was another side to the man, a side that

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did not always endear him to some of his fellow racing drivers.

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He did have this sort of low ebb sometimes.

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He had a kidney complaint, he'd had one kidney taken away anyway

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and the other one wasn't doing too good.

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He was on a time scale of about...

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They reckoned he'd got about three years to live.

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Fully aware of his own mortality,

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Hawthorn was living life on the edge.

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Like Mercedes, Jaguar also entered three cars,

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but this British team only had British drivers.

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Hawthorn's co-driver was Le Mans newcomer Ivor Bueb.

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Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton were in the second Jaguar

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and in the third, Don Beauman and Norman Dewis.

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All would have to be at their best

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if they were to have a chance of beating Mercedes Benz.

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Manager Lofty England knew, however, that apart from Hawthorn,

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the Jaguar drivers were not in the same league as Fangio and Moss.

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And what it meant was that Hawthorn couldn't win

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because whenever he handed the over to Bueb,

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Fangio would be handing over to Moss

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and Ivor Bueb couldn't live with Stirling Moss, not over hours and hours and hours.

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Ivor Bueb was very, very concerned about

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the speeds he was going to do.

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He'd never been up in that speed range before.

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Going down that Mulsanne he said, "It's a bit scary," he said,

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"Getting up in the 180 mile an hour stuff."

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The spectators were all too aware of the tension building between the rival teams.

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As the countdown to the starter's flag continued

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they scrambled to get the best view.

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Overlooking the pit area was the most prized position.

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Le Mans really starts at 9am on Saturday.

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When the people start to come

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and choose their place where they are going to be.

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Some people want to be right in front of the protection wall,

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just behind the pressing, nobody is going to be in front of us.

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I was mostly in front of the grandstand.

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To see when the car arrive,

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to see how fast the driver get out of his car, get on the wall,

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how fast the mechanic was able to change the tyre, refuel,

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until the car is speeding, leaving again.

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That always fascinated me.

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With tickets at only four francs a piece, the main grandstand on the

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pit start straight was accessible to everybody.

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The low picket fences meant an uninterrupted view of the action

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and as the sun shone down it filled to capacity.

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Ten minutes to start time,

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the moment everyone has been waiting for.

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In all, 60 cars take their place to be raced by 120 drivers.

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When the cars are wheeled to their starting positions,

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the fastest go to the top of the line,

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Ferrari, Mercedes and Jaguar.

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Behind the scenes, the teams secretly worked on tactics

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to outwit the opposition.

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For Jaguar, Lofty England came up with a radical

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plan to combat Mercedes' ability to take a race dominating lead.

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They could not match them driver for driver

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but they might be able to turn Mercedes' advantage into a weakness

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in order to win a team victory.

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The only way Hawthorn could conceivably win,

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or Jaguar could win,

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was for Hawthorn to go out and try and blow up the Fangio car

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by stretching it so far it simply blew up

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and this apparently was the tactic they adopted.

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It was a strategy fraught with risk.

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Right from the race start the pressure was on Mike Hawthorn to

0:24:080:24:11

lure and stretch Fangio's car beyond its mechanical limits.

0:24:110:24:15

The Le Mans start is one of the most charged in motor racing.

0:24:230:24:26

The drivers stood waiting on the tarmac

0:24:260:24:29

find it difficult to concentrate and focus.

0:24:290:24:32

There's this plateau.

0:24:320:24:33

The race takes over, the event.

0:24:330:24:36

And it's full, you can't move and all the flags are up.

0:24:360:24:40

It just builds up and builds up to this crescendo.

0:24:400:24:45

The 1955 crowd is the largest ever seen at Le Mans.

0:24:460:24:51

The crowd does get to you a bit.

0:24:530:24:56

It's probably one of the biggest spectator races,

0:24:560:25:00

you get 300,000 there and that's a lot people.

0:25:000:25:04

So you look across to the grandstand

0:25:040:25:06

and the grandstand is packed with people.

0:25:060:25:09

It's all about how fast the drivers can run to their cars and get away.

0:25:090:25:13

Everyone is watching the starter's flag.

0:25:160:25:18

It goes quiet, and, you know, with a huge crowd like that

0:25:180:25:22

you can just hear the fluttering of the flags.

0:25:220:25:26

The tricolour comes down

0:25:320:25:34

and 60 drivers sprint across the track and leap into their cars.

0:25:340:25:38

From that silence moments earlier

0:25:400:25:42

to this sort of sea of

0:25:420:25:45

action and sound.

0:25:450:25:48

There are no seat belts to don, nothing to slow them down.

0:25:490:25:54

Engines roar into life and cars accelerate away.

0:25:540:25:58

All except Fangio, who is stranded -

0:25:580:26:01

his trousers stuck on his gear stick.

0:26:010:26:03

Everyone is expecting their usual jockeying for position

0:26:050:26:09

and a settling down as the front runners open up a lead ready for the long haul.

0:26:090:26:13

It is clear right from the start, however,

0:26:130:26:16

that this race is not going to be like that.

0:26:160:26:19

Right away, Hawthorn is in second place, soon chasing the lead.

0:26:190:26:24

After a poor start, Fangio has to battle through a mass of cars,

0:26:240:26:28

but neither Hawthorn or Fangio are concerned about other cars.

0:26:280:26:33

They know that this is a race between the mighty Mercedes

0:26:330:26:37

and the unbreakable Jaguar.

0:26:370:26:39

The Jaguar plan is put into action.

0:26:390:26:41

Mike Hawthorn goes flat out.

0:26:410:26:43

Fangio, El Maestro,

0:26:430:26:45

is under pressure to respond.

0:26:450:26:48

Fangio's instructions were to race,

0:26:480:26:52

not to run at an even pace and get to the end, race, race as you want.

0:26:520:26:57

So he was a racer, Hawthorn was a racer, so they set off,

0:26:570:27:01

they sprinted into the ultimate endurance test.

0:27:010:27:05

Fangio and Hawthorn seemed to forget that there was a 24-hour race.

0:27:050:27:08

For the first...

0:27:080:27:10

nearly two hours it was just an out and out Grand Prix.

0:27:100:27:14

Every lap

0:27:140:27:16

Fangio was leading or Hawthorn was leading

0:27:160:27:19

and they were breaking the lap record consistently lap after lap.

0:27:190:27:24

The two were dicing, dicing,

0:27:240:27:26

and Hawthorn had so much guts in those days, he really had guts.

0:27:260:27:30

A driver of that calibre always intends to win a race,

0:27:300:27:36

and he has to go to considerable...

0:27:360:27:40

lengths in effort, in willpower,

0:27:400:27:44

pressing himself,

0:27:440:27:47

risking his life,

0:27:470:27:49

everything to win a race.

0:27:490:27:51

Just to hear those cars, the noise of the cars when

0:27:590:28:02

they were flat on the floor.

0:28:020:28:04

When you hear the noise

0:28:040:28:06

of the Ferrari passing by, the noise was fantastic

0:28:060:28:10

and the Mercedes had a lot of noise also.

0:28:100:28:13

It so happened that Hawthorn,

0:28:230:28:25

who on that day equalled the driving ability of Fangio,

0:28:250:28:30

he was equally...as good as Fangio,

0:28:300:28:32

neither one of those two could get ahead and get a good lead.

0:28:320:28:37

Fangio was...

0:28:370:28:39

what...

0:28:390:28:40

three feet behind the Jaguar, not even,

0:28:400:28:43

sometimes they were going to touch.

0:28:430:28:46

If Hawthorn had put his foot up a little bit

0:28:460:28:48

I'm sure Fangio would give him a push.

0:28:480:28:51

It generated a self-sustaining atmosphere

0:29:060:29:10

of going faster and faster and faster,

0:29:100:29:13

with a huge crowd, perhaps 300,000,

0:29:130:29:15

getting more and more intoxicated as this duel went on.

0:29:150:29:19

Who is going to break first, Fangio or Hawthorn?

0:29:190:29:22

One of the two,

0:29:220:29:23

at the speed they were going, one of the two has to break down.

0:29:230:29:28

It was certainly the notion that we must beat the Germans

0:29:440:29:47

and several people have told me that the French, who of course

0:29:470:29:50

do remember the occupation, were absolutely thrilled

0:29:500:29:54

that the Jaguar was doing this to a German team.

0:29:540:29:56

So that added another dimension to it.

0:29:560:29:58

This, however, was not just World War II on the track.

0:30:020:30:06

It was also a confrontation between David and Goliath.

0:30:060:30:09

The Mercedes 300 SLR was produced by a battalion of engineers,

0:30:090:30:13

backed by of one of the world's

0:30:130:30:14

most powerful manufacturers in the heart of industrial Germany.

0:30:140:30:20

The D-type Jaguar was engineered by 14 men in Coventry.

0:30:200:30:25

But both companies had produced cars packed with innovation,

0:30:250:30:30

utilising the most advanced technology.

0:30:300:30:33

The difference between the D-type Jaguar and the 300 SLR Mercedes

0:30:330:30:40

was the difference between day and night.

0:30:400:30:43

The 300 SLR was a complete revolution in design and in concept.

0:30:430:30:50

The 300 SLR's sleek body shape owed its success to a unique chassis.

0:30:500:30:55

It was constructed on a revolutionary space frame principal,

0:30:550:31:00

a rigid structure made from interlocking struts

0:31:000:31:04

in a geometric pattern.

0:31:040:31:05

With magnesium body panels,

0:31:050:31:07

it was incredibly light and extremely strong.

0:31:070:31:11

It was designed by a genius whose name was Rudolph Ulenhaut.

0:31:110:31:17

The 300 SLR had a three litre, eight cylinder Formula One engine,

0:31:170:31:22

relatively small compared to other top cars at Le Mans.

0:31:220:31:26

But its cutting edge technology,

0:31:260:31:27

such as desmodromic valves

0:31:270:31:29

and a specially developed fuel injection system,

0:31:290:31:33

gave the engine 310 horse power - a lot for its size.

0:31:330:31:37

This was effectively a Grand Prix car with a sports car body.

0:31:370:31:41

The Jaguar D-type had a larger 3.4 litre engine with 295 horse power.

0:31:410:31:48

It also had an innovative chassis and body and was available as a road car as well as a racer.

0:31:480:31:54

Jaguar may not have had the financial resources of Mercedes,

0:31:540:31:58

but, by reputation,

0:31:580:31:59

they were able to attract the most creative engineers and designers.

0:31:590:32:03

Malcolm Sayer, he brought the aircraft principal into the D type.

0:32:030:32:07

They bolted a sub frame onto the bulkhead

0:32:070:32:09

and the engine was put into that sub frame.

0:32:090:32:12

So he adopted these principals way ahead of everybody else.

0:32:120:32:16

The Jaguar also incorporated an aerodynamic tail-plane at the rear

0:32:160:32:21

to give it superior stability at high speed.

0:32:210:32:23

But the biggest difference was the Jaguar's brakes.

0:32:230:32:27

The disc brakes were highly developed by British manufacturers.

0:32:270:32:32

They were not so highly developed by the German manufacturers,

0:32:320:32:38

so they didn't use them.

0:32:380:32:40

They used huge drum brakes, that's the old technology.

0:32:400:32:43

Mercedes were getting a bit near the bone, the speeds were going up

0:32:430:32:49

but the brakes could not match the performance to stop the car.

0:32:490:32:53

Mercedes' old-fashioned heavy drum brakes, prone to overheating,

0:32:530:32:58

seemed unlikely to last a 24-hour race.

0:32:580:33:01

Their radical solution?

0:33:010:33:03

An air-brake!

0:33:030:33:05

The driver pressed a button and the whole panel at the back of the car,

0:33:050:33:11

like a big boot lid, it came up vertical,

0:33:110:33:14

and that acted as an airbrake to slow the car down.

0:33:140:33:18

People like Moss realised very quickly

0:33:180:33:20

that you could use this air brake

0:33:200:33:22

to stabilise the car through corners.

0:33:220:33:25

So that in theory would have given it an enormous advantage,

0:33:250:33:30

excepting that Le Mans is not about corners,

0:33:300:33:33

it's really about naked speed and the Jaguar had that.

0:33:330:33:38

The Jaguar was...brutalised,

0:33:490:33:53

he didn't beat the car he brutalised the car.

0:33:530:33:57

Hawthorn was at the limit.

0:33:570:33:59

Hawthorn never accepted that a German car could pass a British car.

0:34:060:34:10

That's what he was doing,

0:34:100:34:12

dicing with a Mercedes, to be in front of that Mercedes.

0:34:120:34:16

It was his aim all the time to be in front.

0:34:160:34:19

I mean he did it time and time again,

0:34:190:34:21

he passed Fangio time and time again, and Fangio passed him.

0:34:210:34:25

They must have changed places well over a dozen times.

0:34:250:34:28

Hawthorn with no braking, you could see that he was not braking,

0:34:280:34:32

went straight past him

0:34:320:34:33

and when he braked for the Dunlop bridge the car snaked unbelievably.

0:34:330:34:38

He would be determined to beat that Mercedes at all costs.

0:34:380:34:43

The smell of the racing oil.

0:34:510:34:54

All the cars had racing oil in the car

0:34:540:34:56

and they passed by and it smells good!

0:34:560:34:58

Part of the armoury of being a driver

0:35:130:35:16

is almost a...

0:35:160:35:18

A sense of superiority or aloofness that...

0:35:200:35:23

..shows other drivers, don't mess with me

0:35:250:35:28

because I am the biggest dog here.

0:35:280:35:30

Race drivers don't really care how fast they are going.

0:35:300:35:34

We don't even have speedometers in the cars, we don't care.

0:35:340:35:38

All we want to know is if we are in control, that's all.

0:35:380:35:42

And we keep going faster and faster

0:35:420:35:45

until we approach that limit of control

0:35:450:35:48

and that's where we balance ourselves and try to stay

0:35:480:35:52

and that's how we make good time.

0:35:520:35:55

It's lap 35.

0:36:050:36:07

The crowd in the grandstand

0:36:070:36:09

strain to see as the lead cars roar into view.

0:36:090:36:13

Hawthorn is leading Fangio and is about to lap Pierre Levegh.

0:36:130:36:17

The slower Lance Macklin, in his Austin Healey, is in the way.

0:36:170:36:21

The cars are heavily bunched-up as they round White House,

0:36:210:36:26

approaching at 150 miles per hour.

0:36:260:36:29

Suddenly someone say, here they come,

0:36:380:36:41

so on the tip of our toes just to look a little more.

0:36:410:36:44

A Mercedes has left the track.

0:36:530:36:57

I remember the car high, high in the air,

0:36:570:37:00

as high as the top of an electric pole.

0:37:000:37:03

The momentum of the car has taken it into the packed grandstand.

0:37:460:37:51

You hear a whistle like a car at speed like a wind.

0:37:510:37:54

It scythed through the crowd that was tightly packed.

0:37:560:38:01

That's why a lot of people got decapitated.

0:38:040:38:08

People were cut in two pieces.

0:38:160:38:18

You look down on the ground and see the guy lying down

0:38:200:38:23

with the binocular around his head and the head is gone.

0:38:230:38:26

The Mercedes is now a raging fireball,

0:39:550:39:58

its magnesium body spitting out balls of molten metal.

0:39:580:40:02

Drivers are still racing by unaware of what is really happening.

0:40:020:40:06

People rushed to help their friends in vain,

0:40:510:40:53

whilst others are given the last rights.

0:40:530:40:56

The 25 doctors on standby were not prepared for something like this.

0:40:560:41:01

The race carries on.

0:41:040:41:07

John Fitch is waiting to take over driving from Pierre Levegh

0:41:070:41:11

in the second Mercedes.

0:41:110:41:13

He is standing with Mrs Levegh in the pit area.

0:41:130:41:16

Someone shouted out that it was number 20, our car,

0:41:160:41:23

and Madame Levegh repeated several times her conviction

0:41:230:41:28

that her Pierre was dead.

0:41:280:41:31

She knew without confirmation

0:41:310:41:35

by anyone else that he was dead.

0:41:350:41:39

I am certain that he died at the wall.

0:41:390:41:42

Or if he didn't die at the wall,

0:41:420:41:44

seconds after, because if you look at the photographs

0:41:440:41:48

of what remained of the car,

0:41:480:41:50

what could possibly remain of a human being after that?

0:41:500:41:54

Pierre Levegh, the most senior of the Mercedes team, is dead.

0:42:060:42:10

The pit area is in disarray. Nobody knows what is happening.

0:42:150:42:18

Macklin's car lies wrecked by the side of the track,

0:42:180:42:21

though miraculously he has survived.

0:42:210:42:24

Hawthorn, having done another lap, finally comes in to pit.

0:42:240:42:29

Hawthorn was a broken man, in tears and agony,

0:42:290:42:33

and a mistake that he's just made

0:42:330:42:35

that has caused the death of innocent people by the scores.

0:42:350:42:41

That breaks men

0:42:420:42:44

and that broke Mike Hawthorn.

0:42:440:42:47

As stretchers rush past, Hawthorn's co-driver Ivor Bueb

0:42:470:42:51

is in the unenviable position of taking over at the wheel

0:42:510:42:55

He just turns to me and he said, "Bloody hell, this is suicide.

0:42:550:42:58

"I'm not going to drive it," he said, "I'm not going to drive in this."

0:42:580:43:02

I really pushed Bueb and I said, "Get in the car and drive, come on,

0:43:020:43:07

"the race is still on."

0:43:070:43:09

On the other side of the track in the grandstand, it is much worse

0:43:090:43:13

than anyone could have imagined, the death count rising towards 100.

0:43:130:43:19

For three hours I could not say a single word.

0:43:190:43:22

If I tried to talk...ugh, ugh, ugh.

0:43:220:43:25

It was... I was stuck. I was stuck.

0:43:250:43:27

Hours later, Jacques Grelley manages to find his way home.

0:43:270:43:32

Unable to telephone ahead, his grandfather is convinced he's dead.

0:43:320:43:36

I walked up the stairs,

0:43:360:43:38

opened the door, his eyes were huge and he said, "But you are not dead!"

0:43:380:43:45

I said, "No" because the rumour was that he was gone.

0:43:450:43:49

On the table there was a picture of me, a candle and a crucifix.

0:43:520:43:57

You know, when you passed away, the memorial was already right there.

0:43:570:44:03

The race still carries on.

0:44:030:44:07

Hawthorn is back in the driving seat again,

0:44:070:44:10

challenging Fangio for the lead.

0:44:100:44:13

One of the most controversial aspects of the crash, of the

0:44:130:44:16

aftermath of the crash, is that the race was not stopped.

0:44:160:44:21

The officials did not want to stop the race for fear 300,000 spectators

0:44:210:44:25

would block the side roads,

0:44:250:44:27

preventing the movement of ambulances and the 200 injured.

0:44:270:44:32

Giselle Pasquier was one of them.

0:44:320:44:35

Soon after, Madam Pasquier's severely burnt hands were bandaged.

0:44:490:44:52

Her injuries were so bad she feared she would never

0:45:040:45:06

hold her newborn baby again.

0:45:060:45:08

Even when the dead and injured were taken away,

0:45:320:45:34

the race was still not stopped.

0:45:340:45:36

Mercedes continued racing for almost eight hours,

0:45:360:45:39

eventually pulling out to avoid a public relations disaster.

0:45:390:45:43

They invited Jaguar to do the same, but they abruptly declined.

0:45:430:45:47

The Mercedes director's words down the phone

0:45:470:45:49

to the press chief came terribly true.

0:45:490:45:51

"What are you going to do when you win?"

0:45:510:45:54

And the answer to that was that when Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb won it,

0:45:540:45:58

they shook up the champagne and smiled

0:45:580:46:02

and French newspapers carried that photograph

0:46:020:46:06

with really very savage captions.

0:46:060:46:08

"Cheers, Mr Hawthorn," they said. "Cheers."

0:46:100:46:14

I suspect that in the heat of battle, which is what

0:46:160:46:20

it certainly was, nobody at Jaguar was thinking what it would look like

0:46:200:46:24

in 50 years further down the line.

0:46:240:46:26

Nobody, and you can forgive them for that, you really can.

0:46:260:46:31

You can forgive them also in that although that it was apparent that

0:46:310:46:36

the accident happened across from the pits, a lot of people saw that

0:46:360:46:40

terrible things had happened,

0:46:400:46:42

but they weren't totally aware of the scale of it.

0:46:420:46:45

'When the world's greatest motor race,

0:46:490:46:51

'the Le Man 24 Hours, opens on a perfect summer's day, none of the

0:46:510:46:54

'spectators can suspect the utter devastation that lies ahead.'

0:46:540:46:58

The events of the 1955 Le Mans shocked the world.

0:47:000:47:03

There were no easy ways to explain how such a tragedy occurred.

0:47:030:47:07

A picture had to be built from eye witness accounts and hearsay.

0:47:070:47:12

No-one could say definitively what happened between the four cars involved in the collision.

0:47:120:47:17

Inevitably, blame and accusation soon followed.

0:47:170:47:21

Mike Hawthorn, by my evidence, the things that I saw and heard

0:47:240:47:30

and knew from this event, caused the accident.

0:47:300:47:34

I'd never blame Hawthorn, no.

0:47:340:47:36

Never blame Hawthorn.

0:47:370:47:39

Hawthorn simply made a miscalculation.

0:47:390:47:44

In the intoxication of the moment he made a miscalculation

0:47:440:47:49

and it had the most terrible consequences.

0:47:490:47:51

I would put most of the blame on Macklin myself, yeah,

0:47:510:47:54

because if he'd have looked in his mirror, he couldn't possibly pull out

0:47:540:47:59

because the Merc is coming here, he knew he wouldn't have done it.

0:47:590:48:03

The main weight of culpability fell on Pierre Levegh.

0:48:070:48:12

He was mid-fifties,

0:48:120:48:14

if his reactions had been quicker, he'd have reacted quicker but

0:48:140:48:18

there was something else about Levegh.

0:48:180:48:20

He was dead, and the dead don't sue you whatever you say about them.

0:48:200:48:26

My personal feeling is Levegh shouldn't have been in the Mercedes team.

0:48:260:48:30

The car was too quick for him, for his age.

0:48:300:48:32

That's my personal opinion.

0:48:330:48:35

Hawthorn had...

0:48:350:48:37

all kinds of problems.

0:48:370:48:40

He recognised, as we have discussed,

0:48:400:48:44

he told Rob Walker and Donald Healey

0:48:440:48:48

and Lance Macklin that he was the cause of this tragedy.

0:48:480:48:54

And he said his life as a driver was over.

0:48:540:48:58

And he was shattered

0:48:580:49:01

and in tears,

0:49:010:49:04

and then, a few hours or a day later when he appeared publicly,

0:49:040:49:11

he denied it all.

0:49:110:49:13

A subsequent public enquiry absolved all the drivers of blame.

0:49:140:49:19

Important evidence in this was some amateur cine footage shot

0:49:190:49:22

by a spectator, himself injured, hit by the debris of Levegh's car.

0:49:220:49:28

This footage had been hidden away for almost 55 years.

0:49:280:49:32

But journalist and Mike Hawthorn biographer Paul Skilleter,

0:49:320:49:36

who's studied the tragedy for many years,

0:49:360:49:38

has decided to share his archive and in particular

0:49:380:49:42

a set of still photographs taken from the original film footage.

0:49:420:49:46

This series of pictures offers a unique perspective,

0:49:460:49:49

looking directly at the oncoming, colliding cars.

0:49:490:49:53

When re-constructed as a moving image, this sequence

0:49:530:49:57

shows how rapidly events unfolded, and how the disaster was triggered.

0:49:570:50:01

As the lead cars approached the end of lap 35,

0:50:180:50:21

Mike Hawthorn started to move over.

0:50:210:50:23

Overtaking Macklin's slower car,

0:50:230:50:26

Hawthorn began to decelerate ready to re-fuel.

0:50:260:50:30

He was now in front of Macklin.

0:50:300:50:32

Macklin kicks up some dust,

0:50:350:50:37

either from locking the brakes or drifting onto the grass verge.

0:50:370:50:42

At this point, Levegh was bearing down on Macklin,

0:50:420:50:45

aware that Fangio was behind.

0:50:450:50:47

He would know this is no time to slow the lead Mercedes.

0:50:470:50:52

Macklin then swerved to his left,

0:50:520:50:55

crossing the central line, apparently out of control.

0:50:550:50:59

Macklin started to correct his course but was hit

0:50:590:51:02

immediately by Pierre Levegh, racing at 150 miles per hour.

0:51:020:51:08

Levegh has no time to respond,

0:51:080:51:10

and drove up the sloped back of Macklin's Austin Healey.

0:51:100:51:14

This acted as a ramp

0:51:140:51:16

and Levegh's Mercedes was launched towards the crowd.

0:51:160:51:20

Using a scale 3D model of the track as it was in 1955,

0:51:220:51:26

we can see that the catastrophe

0:51:260:51:29

was caused by more than just the actions of the drivers.

0:51:290:51:32

Firstly, the pit straight was narrow,

0:51:320:51:35

merely three cars across, with the pits not separated from the track.

0:51:350:51:40

Secondly, it was a place where some cars

0:51:400:51:42

were slowing to go into the pits

0:51:420:51:44

while others continued racing full throttle, and so had to overtake.

0:51:440:51:49

Both these factors created congestion at high speeds.

0:51:490:51:53

Thirdly, there was a slight bend in the track here.

0:51:530:51:58

The nature of this is seen clearly in this photo.

0:51:580:52:02

At slow speed this bend would be un-noticeable,

0:52:020:52:05

but at race speeds this was a serious bend for the drivers,

0:52:050:52:09

which may explain why Levegh did not move to his left to avoid Macklin.

0:52:090:52:14

Fourthly, the popular main grandstand

0:52:160:52:18

was right on the outside of this bend.

0:52:180:52:21

Between the speeding cars and the spectators

0:52:240:52:26

there was only a chest-high wattle and earth barrier.

0:52:260:52:30

Any car out of control at this point

0:52:300:52:32

had nowhere to go but into the crowd.

0:52:320:52:35

When Le Mans was conceived in 1923,

0:52:390:52:41

the cars averaged 55 miles per hour and the track was relatively safe.

0:52:410:52:47

30 years later the cars were capable of speeds in excess

0:52:470:52:51

of 190 miles per hour, yet the track had remained virtually the same.

0:52:510:52:56

The cars had outgrown the track.

0:52:560:52:59

A tragedy was perhaps inevitable.

0:52:590:53:03

Even today, there is still no confirmed death toll.

0:53:030:53:06

Estimates range from 80 to 120 dead.

0:53:060:53:10

The 1955 Le Mans disaster went on to shape and scar

0:53:120:53:16

the lives of many of those involved.

0:53:160:53:18

Mercedes soon stopped racing for over 30 years.

0:53:180:53:24

The Jaguar works racing team was closed down a few months later,

0:53:240:53:28

not returning to Le Mans as a factory team for over 30 years.

0:53:280:53:32

Norman Dewis never drove at Le Mans again.

0:53:320:53:35

He spent the rest of his career developing cars for Jaguar.

0:53:350:53:38

Fangio never raced at Le Mans again.

0:53:380:53:42

Three years later he retired.

0:53:420:53:44

John Fitch continued racing, but became obsessed with road safety.

0:53:440:53:49

He went on to invent the Fitch Inertial safety barrier

0:53:490:53:53

which has saved thousands of motorist's lives.

0:53:530:53:56

The once jovial and relaxed Lance Macklin

0:53:560:53:59

became embittered and litigious, suing Mike Hawthorn for libel.

0:53:590:54:04

Mike Hawthorn went on to win the world championship in 1958.

0:54:040:54:09

He retired shortly afterwards,

0:54:090:54:11

only to die while overtaking on the rain-drenched Guildford bypass.

0:54:110:54:15

The vehicle in his way was a Mercedes.

0:54:150:54:19

For many, the accident at Le Mans in 1955 marked a watershed.

0:54:220:54:27

The event came to represent motor sports' loss of innocence,

0:54:270:54:31

an ugly episode that was quickly swept aside.

0:54:310:54:35

An important police report remains buried

0:54:350:54:38

under a secrecy law almost 60 years on.

0:54:380:54:40

There is no lasting memorial, no remembrance service to attend.

0:54:400:54:45

There was an immediate review of all race tracks,

0:54:450:54:48

the beginning of a slow revolution

0:54:480:54:51

in racing safety that continues to this day.

0:54:510:54:53

The Le Mans pit area

0:54:530:54:55

and grandstands were bulldozed and re-built soon after.

0:54:550:55:00

Found in an archive is this extraordinary series of photographs

0:55:020:55:07

taken before and after the crash.

0:55:070:55:09

When put together,

0:55:090:55:10

this panorama forms a tragic record of the scale of the disaster.

0:55:100:55:15

The moment between life and death.

0:55:150:55:18

It's a sad day.

0:57:110:57:13

Very sad day.

0:57:130:57:14

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