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JUNE 11, 2005

Let us not forget

The reason that there always seems to be an ongoing fight about safety in motor racing is, in part, due to an event 50 years ago today at Le Mans when the factory Mercedes-Benz 300SLR of Pierre Levegh was caught up in an accident caused by a thoughtless Mike Hawthorn, who swerved his Jaguar into the pits at the last moment, leaving Lance Macklin with nowhere to go. Macklin braked and tried to miss Hawthorn while Levegh, in the much faster Mercedes had nowhere to go and hit the rear of Macklin's car. This launched the Mercedes into the air and over the wall into the crowd of massed spectators opposite the pits. At least 83 people were killed in addition to Levegh and another 80 were seriously injured. The implications of the accident were enormous around the world. The safety backlash after the accident resulted in the disappearance of many temporary racing circuits across Europe. This meant that a number of new permanent facilities were built instead. The French passed a law that forbade racing in towns with only the event at Pau being allowed to continue. In Switzerland it was even worse and in 1958 the Road Traffic Act Article banned all motor racing in the country. The only events allowed since then have been time trials in which cars do not run together. At the end of 1955 Mercedes-Benz withdrew from all motor racing and did not return until 1987. The crash also had an effect in the United States where the American Automobile Manufacturers agreed not to be involved in racing.

The Le Mans disaster remains the worst crash in the history of the sport, the only accident which comes close having been a crash at Monza in 1927 when Emilio Materassi cartwheeled opposite the pits in 1928, killing himself and 27 spectators.

The French government enquiry into the Le Mans disaster, headed by the magistrate Zadock Kahn concluded that no-one was to blame for the Le Mans disaster, and that the cars were running too close to the crowds.

"After passing me Hawthorn turned too sharply towards the right and braked," Macklin told the court. "I braked my car as hard as I could to avoid him. My wheels locked and I was carried towards the left. Levegh's car hit the back of my car.

"In an affair of this kind it is difficult to speak of responsibility. Hawthorn no doubt committed an error but the real responsibility was the speed of the cars. In the excitement of his struggle (with Levegh and Juan Manuel Fangio) Hawthorn executed a manouevre which astonished me and he left me no other alternative than to either run into him or turn to the left."