On this day in 1955, the biggest disaster at a motor racing circuit, occurred at Le Mans in north-west France. At least 80 people died and a similar number were injured as a result of two cars colliding in front of a spectator grandstand. A Mercedes-Benz being driven by Pierre Levegh hit the bank by the grandstand and immediately exploded. Parts of the wreckage were blown into the enclosure packed with mainly French spectators. Pierre Levegh was speeding down the strait in front of the pits, at over 150 mph, when he clipped an Austin-Healey driven by British driver Lance Macklin. Levegh was killed outright. Macklin's car spun wildly before coming to rest in the middle of the track, but he was unhurt. The race was being contested by three teams, Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz. Shortly after the crash the Mercedes manager instructed the two remaining Mercedes to withdraw from the race as a mark of respect to those killed in the disaster. The accident happened about two hours after the 24-hour race began.
It was several hours before spectators on the far side of the track knew of the crash. It was only when Mercedes pulled out of the race, they realised something was wrong. The race had promised to be one of the fastest and most keenly contested ever held at Le Mans. Two British victims were among the dead, Jack Diamond (24) from London and Robert Loxley from Worcestershire, who was celebrating his 24th birthday.
Officials confirmed that security measures for the race went beyond standard requirements.
There was some criticism that race had not been abandoned, with the organizers claiming that stopping the race would have alarmed spectators and hampered rescue efforts. The French government concluded race security should be further improved and the distance between the track and spectators increased.
At the end of the 1955 season Mercedes-Benz withdrew from all motor racing and did not return until 1987.
Following the tragedy Switzerland banned all racing on motor circuits and this was only lifted in June 2007.
The race was won by the British Jaguar team, drivers Ivor Bueb and Mike Hawthorn who reached a record average speed of 106 miles per hour (170.5 kmh).