11 March 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 99 - Three weeks of disaster

History has a way of isolating events from one another, leaving future generations to miss the continuity of events and thus it is hard to understand the atmosphere in a certain place at a certain time. This was certainly true of a three week period in 1955 when the motorsport world went through a traumatic period.

It began in Monaco on Sunday May 22 when Grand Prix racing returned to the streets of the principality for the first time in five years. Mercedes was dominant with team-mates Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss running 1-2 until halfway through the race when Fangio dropped out with transmission trouble. Moss looked to have victory in his hands but 20 laps from the finish his engine blew. A few minutes later the new leader Alberto Ascari, World Champion of 1952 and 1953, made a mistake at the chicane and his Lancia smashed into and over the barriers and flew into the harbour with a not inconsiderable splash. For a few seconds there was a sense of horror and then Ascari’s pale blue helmet appeared and the driver was quickly taken aboard a small boat, his only injury being a broken nose. The race went on and Ferrari’s Maurice Trintignant scored his first F1 victory – at the age of 37.

In Britain the focus was on politics with a general election due to take place on Thursday, May 26. As the British were going to the polls, Ascari paid a visit to Monaza, decided to test a Ferrari sports car and was killed in an inexplicable accident. The same day Sir Anthony Eden became the British Prime Minister, at the head of a strong Conservative government.

The World Championship that year included the Indy 500, although none of the Europeans went to America. In fact, it was a triple header of races with Monaco followed on May 30 by the Indy 500 with the Belgian GP on June 5.

At Indy Bill Vukovich was in dominant form. He had won the 500 in 1953 and 1954 and was looking for a hat-trick and had built up a lead of 17 secs when on the 57thlap he came up to lap three slower cars, driven by Rodger Ward, Al Keller and Johnny Boyd. Ward lost control and hit the wall and his car flipped and came back on to the race track, hitting Boyd and punting his car into the path of Vukovich. He hit the wall and the car cart-wheeled over the wall, landing on top of a group of parked cars, where it burst into flames. Vukovich was dead.

The Grand Prix teams were in Belgium a few days later. Lancia had withdrawn from Formula 1 in the days after Ascari’s death and Fangio and Moss finished 1-2 for Mercedes. The big names then headed down to Le Mans to prepare for the 24 Hours on June 12. History relates that in the late afternoon Mike Hawthorn made a late decision to pit in his Jaguar and pulled across the track rather took rapidly. Lance Macklin in an Austin Healey tried to avoid him and went into the path of theMercedes-Benz of Pierre Levegh, which hit the English car and few into the wall and disinetegrated when it hit a tunnel support, sending wreckage into the packed area in front of the grandstands. At least 83 people were killed (including Levegh himself) and a further 120 were injured, many of them seriously. No-one knows the full total of those killed as some did not survive their injuries but such was the scale of the accident that the injured were sent to 11 different hospitals.

The accident led to the banning of motor racing in several countries, although only Switzerland maintained the ban in the long term…

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