Documenting Disaster

Part of what made the 1955 LeMans disaster so confusing and difficult to understand (beyond the enormity of the tragedy itself) is that it happened so quickly that it was nearly impossible to determine exactly what happened. If it were today, there would be several camera angles in high resolution to capture the event: a shot from at least one ground-based camera, a aerial view, on-board cameras in many of the cars. That doesn’t even account for the fact that virtually every spectator would be carrying a camera with them at all times—a camera phone at least. Investigations would commence and close in comparative short order.

In 1955, however, there were only a few grainy photographs and a single film camera (that I know of) running that caught the tangle between Mike Hawthorne, Pierre Leveigh, and Lance Macklin (with Fangio in the middle of it all as well). Leveigh would ultimately be thrown from his Mercedes which tumbled over the hay bales and into the crowd killing 83 spectators and injuring a further 120. It remains the single worst crash in the history of motorsport—and likely the worst accident in all of sport.

This is why it was so important to determine what happened. To assign blame, perhaps, but more importantly to find a way to keep it from happening again. Some were quick to blame Hawthorne, some rightly faulted the facility’s lack of safety measures, some governments decided that motor racing itself was to blame. France, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany banned motor racing entirely until tracks could be brought up to a higher level of safety. The Swiss ban remained in effect until 2007.

The lack of a visual archive—of a detailed record—made communicating exactly what happened challenging. So we had to leave it up to artists to show the public the details of the LeMans disaster. I find these artifacts fascinating. This type of record has become almost completely obsolete today, and the simple line drawings somehow both communicate what (they thought) happened and at the same time filters it. Looking at these diagrams, the LeMans crash becomes a cold, matter of fact, sequence of events; not a horrific and bloody nightmare.

These renderings omit the human tragedy; the emotion; the panic. They simply communicate the clinical facts of the crash—which car went which way, and when. In that way, you can argue that it’s more effective than the horror of looping the video feed back and forth.

One response to “Documenting Disaster”

  1. Mike Jacobsen says:

    I am unable to read the print in these as it is too small. I looked carefully at every published account in English at the time and have looked at the films and stills posted on the web in recent times. There isn’t any doubt about what happened, and you blame who you want according to your own idea of what racing is. Hawthorn elected to pass Macklin despite the fact he intended to pit, thus needing heavy braking immediately after the pass and cutting across the track. He took no account of the fact that Levegh was on his tail at the same speed (likely c. 140 mph); Macklin either did not look in his mirror when he moved over forcing Pierre into the wall, or else he was unable to avoid hitting Hawthorn without both braking and moving left (I consider this unlikely as Hawthorn’s speed was much greater than Macklin’s). Thus both Mike and Lance were simply trying to pick up a few seconds in a 24 hour race. Anyone know anything else? MJ

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