Potential Oscar contender 'Le Mans 1955' takes a human look at racing's worst crash

Jonathon Ramsey

Pierre Levegh's crash while driving the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR at Le Mans in 1955 is still the worst crash in motor racing, killing up to 84 spectators and one driver, Levegh. Although the tragedy happened more than 64 years ago, we can point to its consequences: Switzerland banned all motor racing and still does; and when the U.S. Automobile Manufacturer's Association American banned factory-supported racing in 1957 in part because of the Le Mans crash, Zora Arkus-Duntov created the Chevrolet Corvette RPO Z06 package to keep privateers racing with the best equipment. A new animated short film by Quentin Baillieux, "Le Mans 1955," looks at the crash from an often overlooked perspective, that of Mercedes team personnel before and after the crash.

We aren't clear on the source for tension in the Mercedes team between team boss Alfred Neubauer and U.S. driver John Fitch, who was Levegh's co-driver. The short presents the drama that Neubauer was committed to ending his tenure with a victory over the rival Jaguars, while Fitch was unhappy about playing second-string to Mercedes drivers Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss in the #19 300 SLR. Levegh's crash happens as Fitch is being told get ready to take over driving duties, and while Fitch is still campaigning to be given the chance to win the race. At that point, Fitch takes over as the moral protagonist of the story in order to keep a bad story from getting worse.

The brevity means "Le Mans 1955" leaves out a number of interesting details about what happened after the crash, namely why Fitch did what he did. Lengthy pieces in Hemmings and in Jalopnik, and Fitchs's story in Days of Dial Up can fill the blanks for those interested. Another visible consequence of the events of 1955: Fitch developed numerous racing and public safety innovations, including the yellow, sand-filled Fitch Barriers at highway off-ramps.

We won't say more about it for risk of spoiling the 15-minute tale. The short is well worth a watch, and having won at the St. Louis Film Festival is apparently a potential contender for a 2020 Oscar nomination.