Mark Glendenning, Australia
LE MANS '55: THE CRASH THAT CHANGED THE FACE OF MOTOR RACING.
By Christopher Hilton;
Published by Breedon
When did motor racing 'come of age'? It's an intriguing question, and one that you could use to kick off what with any luck would be a very long discussion, preferably at a well-stocked local pub.
It's hard to even pin-point when Formula One 'grew up'. Was it when Jim Clark proved that 'it' can happen to anybody when he slid a Formula Two Lotus into the trees at Hockenheim? That changed the sport, just as it did when Ayrton Senna brought the message home to a whole new generation at Imola in 1994. And just when you think we are modern and have no more learning to do, we get a race with six cars at Indianapolis.
Our friends discussing this in the pub would eventually reach a point where someone would declare that the whole thing was a load of bollocks, and they'd probably be right. You'd be hard-pressed to convince anyone that one race single-handedly changed the face of the entire sport forever but with the 24 Hour race at Le Mans in 1955, you come close.
This is a theme that Hilton enthusiastically picks up and runs with in his exploration of the disaster at Le Mans in 1955, where Pierre Levegh's Mercedes Benz was flicked into the crowd and killed dozens of spectators. To a degree he has a point, but in keeping with a number of his books, Hilton takes it a little too far in somberly (and repeatedly) referring to the time before the crash as the 'age of innocence'. Given that we're talking about a generation that had was barely a decade out of the worst war the world had ever seen (and was, in many ways, very much still in recovery mode), this seems to be a case of opting for dramatic impact over fact.
It's irritating, but the rest of the material is good enough that you can ... not forgive him, exactly, but at least blip past and pretend that you didn't see it. The day that Hilton understands that an account of an accident of this magnitude is dramatic enough without having some guy intoning "The age of innocence had exactly three minutes to live" on every second page will be the day that marks a new era of great historical motorsport books.
That's the most frustrating thing. OK, so his history of the British Grands Prix at Donington in the late 1930s is pretty much beyond salvation, but most of his other 'serious books (we're not counting the crappy bioraphies here) have been genuinely worth reading. They are well researched, well structured, clearly and accessibly written and invariably bring something new to our knowledge of racing's past. They don't need cheesy melodrama. Still, if I were so smart, I'd be writing them, right?
Let's get back to the book. Given how far the ripples from Le Mans 1955 reached the ramifications are still being felt today the 50th anniversary of the crash came and went amazingly quietly a couple of months ago. The crash triggered a rethink into safety in motorsport, both for the drivers and those watching on the sidelines. It saw Mercedes Benz withdraw from racing for decades, and Switzerland pull the pin on circuit racing with a ban that continues to this day. (It has always puzzled me how a nation that so sensibly prioritises cheese and chocolate above all else could be so irrational in that one regard).
So historically, it was tremendously significant. And given the scale of the disaster, the facts quickly became muddied as all those connected with the accident sought to clear their name. Trying to untangle all of this half a century later must not have been an easy task, but Hilton has done a remarkable job of sorting out the leads to offer a clearer idea of what really happened. He does a good job of balancing the different perspectives those of Lance Macklin, Mike Hawthorn, Mercedes and an army of eyewitnesses and while he never really offers much in the way of a conclusion, the door is left open for you to make up your own mind.
There are plenty of examples where Hilton reads too much into things, such as where he describes a diary entry by Stirling Moss - "I flew to Frankfurst arriving at 1pm. Lunch at Hockenheim, tried the GP cars did a 2:12. Food and bed." - as 'cryptic', when in fact Moss was more likely being brief simply because for him, this was just another day in the office. (If he had written something like "Arrived at Hockenheim. Drove GP cars. Did a 2:12. Suspect that Age of Innocence is almost over perhaps the gypsy woman with the fortune-telling cat was right. Food and bed", then Hilton might have been onto something).
Amid all the fairly floss though, there is enough good stuff to make reading this book worthwhile. Especially intriguing are the internal memos recovered from the archives of Mercedes Benz, which offer an unprecedented glimpse into the company's internal communication regarding how they were going to cope with the crisis and its aftermath.
Ignoring the fluff, there is more than enough in this book to make it a worthwhile purchase. There is a lot of new information, supported by a swag of formerly unpublished photographs, and the finished result is a great account of a sad milestone in racing's past.