Despite Tragedy, Le Mans Always Goes On

Le Mans is a tough race, no one ever disputes that. What people sometimes do forget, though, is that it can be a deadly race. That was proved today with the death of Allan Simonsen, though the race has not been halted. Some may view that as insensitive, however the race has never been stopped, going back to 1923.


Now we're not saying that Le Mans hasn't been cancelled, just that once it has begun, nothing – not even the most unimaginable tragedies – has managed to stop it. The race itself has been canceled before, the first time in 1936 due to a strike (how French), and then from 1940 to 1948 due to World War II and its aftermath.

The first time someone was killed at the track was in 1925, just three years after the race began. Racing deaths were fairly common back then, and the first to occur at Le Mans technically didn't even occur during the race. Driver André Guillbert was heading to the track on the morning of the race in his Ravel 12 CV Sport when his car was struck by a van on the wrong side of the road. Still, the race went on.

The first fatality at the race itself came the very next day, when Marius Mestivier spun out at the end of the Mulsanne straight in his Amilcar CGSS, similar to the one pictured below. It's thought that he died instantly after spinning out and ending up in a ditch, after a bird hit him in the face.


Bodies continued to pile up every few years with some regularity, owing to the dangerous nature of racing back then. Safety wasn't really a thing like it is now, with our multi-point harnesses and fire suppression systems. There was the famous "Le Mans start," where drivers would line up across from their cars, run over, hop in, start up, and drive away. Whoever did it quickest got an advantage early on, and many drivers neglected to do up their safety belts.

Cars were made out of exotic materials, like they are today, except instead of carbon fiber reinforced plastic and kevlar, they were built out of magnesium. Magnesium is light, which is great for racing, but it also burns, and it burns hot. Spectators, too, received little protection, with nothing like a catch fence to protect them. This was tragically shown in 1955.


The 1955 Le Mans Disaster remains the worst tragedy ever to befall motorsport. 87 spectators were killed, along with driver Pierre Levegh, and 120 more were injured when Levegh's Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR crashed into the grandstand. Pieces of the car went flying into the crowd, and the car's magnesium bodywork quickly caught fire. A newsreel from the time is below – fair warning, the crash and aftermath may require some viewer discretion:

Mercedes-Benz made the decision to pull out of the race and invited Jaguar to do so as well, but the race itself continued. Mike Hawthorn's Jaguar ended up winning.


That's the thing, though. Tragedies are a part of motorsport. We try and mitigate them as much as possible, but the attitude of many drivers is that "the show must go on."

Allan Simonsen would have wanted it, and his family specifically requested it.

In total, 22 drivers have died at the track, and more probably will in the future.


But Le Mans always goes on.

Photo credits: David, Wikimedia Commons

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