A couple of days ago, we took a look at the various innovations and developments that were made for the cars competing at the Le Mans 24 hour race, and how they filtered down into the cars we all drive today. In honour of this weekend’s race, it’s only fair to take a look at one of the main things that draws people to the spectacle of the race every year: the danger. Endurance races by their very nature are filled with peril, and in a location such as Le Mans, this is amplified. It only took 2 years for the race to claim it’s first 2 lives, over the course of the race’s 87 year history, 20 other drivers have lost their lives in accidents during the race.
The Le Mans Track
To start with, it’s a good idea to take a look at the track. The Circuit de la Sarthe is double the length of a normal race track at just over 13km in length, meaning the drivers only get half the opportunity to make a pitstop, and have to remain switched on for double the time. As you could imagine, this makes mistakes easier to make, and also puts a massive strain on every component of the car. Here’s a quick comparison of how the track has developed over the race’s history.
As you can see, Le Mans is a brutal track on both car and driver. Even on today’s incarnation of the circuit, over 70% of the race is spent at full-throttle. Before many of the chicanes and turns were installed over the second half of the 20th century, this percentage was even higher. With much larger engines, less refined aerodynamics and less safety technology to protect both drivers and spectators in the event of an accident, the pursuit of racing glory over the course of the races history has led to countless accidents: some spectacular, some horrifying, some tragic. None of them however, tell a more grim story than that of the 11 June 1955.
A Century of Carnage
Up until the latter half of the 1900’s, the tracks were minimally barricaded from the surrounding suburbs and villages of Le Mans. This has already led to the deaths of two drivers 1 being decapitate by the wire fence of a neighbouring houses garden, and another crashing into a farmhouse that sat next to the track. In a similar fashion, spectator safety was still very much limited, and by the time of the 1955 race, the top speeds of the cars had already increased to over 300km/h. An earthen embankment generally separated the main spectator area from the track, and thousands of people would typically be packed in at a very high density. Warning, the following video is distressing:
At the end of lap 35, the Jaguar of Pierre Levegh collided with the rear of Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healy at a speed of around 240km/h and was catapulted airborne. Drivers chose not to wear seat belts, preferring to be thrown clear of a car in the event of a crash rather than trapped inside, and as Levegh’s car took off, it hit the earthen embankment and was launched into a somersault as it simultaneously came apart. The bonnet and engine block of the car were launched into the tightly packed crowd, along with white hot magnesium pieces of bodywork that combusted during the crash, causing small fires. 83 spectators and Levegh were killed, along with a further 120 injured in the carnage.
The crash generated calls for greater improvements in both driver and spectator safety, and over the course of the next few decades a number of revisions were made. The progress made in the pursuit of victory was much faster however, and by the 1980s a number of prototypes came onto the scene, laying the groundwork for the LMP cars we see today. Equipped with completely new aerodynamics and huge engines, these cars were more than capable of reaching speeds of over 400km/h down the Mulsanne Straight, and as such were involved in some truly brutal accidents that resulted in the chicanes we see along the straight today.
In 1984, John Sheldon crashed at 200 mp/h with such ferocity that a Marshall was killed and the nearby woods were set on fire. Sheldon himself escaped death, however a couple of years later, Jo Gartner was not so lucky, killed instantly after crashing his Porsche into the Mulsanne Barrier at such speed that it rolled multiple times and knocked down a telegraph pole. Throughout the 80’s numerous other cars were involved in similar crashes, some while travelling at well over 350km/h.
Since then, the deaths of drivers such as Ayrton Senna have led to motorsport becoming almost freakishly safe. The intense level of aerodynamic development that racing teams embark on have led to some freakish incidents however, and most notoriously Mark Webber flipped his Mercedes CLR twice in the same weekend, landing in nearby woods outside of the track. Thankfully he wasn’t seriously harmed. As recently as 2013, Dane Allan Simonsen tragically lost his life at Tertre Rouge, showing the world that despite everything, the nature of a race such as Le Mans still carries a huge amount of risk for the brave drivers who embark on it every year.
As the drivers run to their cars this Saturday to begin the race, spare a thought for every driver who has lost their life fighting for victory. May their legacy and bravery live on in the hearts of this weekend’s competitors and all of those to race in the future.