A lovely image: Eugenio Castellotti accelerating hard through Tertre Rouge in the early stages of the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours in a Ferrari 121LM. Castellotti was the acknowledged team leader at Ferrari in the mid-1950s, being handsome, brave, talented and Italian.
During the initial hours of this Le Mans there was a kind of “Grand Prix” involving Castellotti’s Ferrari, the Jaguar D-Type of Mike Hawthorn and the Mercedes 300SLR of Juan Manuel Fangio, all driving at the limit and pushing their cars relentlessly. Castellotti’s Ferrari was the first to retire, its engine having expired after 52 laps from the usual overheating and water leaks which had plagued the Ferrari 121LMs all season. The very powerful 4.4 liter six cylinder in-line engine of the 121LMs had been designed by Aurelio Lampredi, as an extension and enlargement of his famous four cylinder units which had won two Formula 1 World Championships for Ferrari in 1952 and 1953. The six was to be Ferrari’s response to the highly sophisticated Mercedes 300SLR for the 1955 sports car championship. But design flaws and a lack of development led to poor reliability and never allowed it to meet its potential.
However, well before Castellotti’s retirement at Le Mans, Hawthorn had taken over the lead but in diving into the pits near the two hour mark apparently triggered a huge accident in which the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh (Levegh’s actual name was Pierre Bouillin, his racing name of Levegh being an anagram created by his uncle Alfred Velghe, an early racing driver) broke up and exploded on the banking opposite the pits, killing both Levegh and over 80 spectators with many more injured. It remains the worst motor racing disaster of all time. Fangio, about to lap his teammate’s Mercedes narrowly avoided the crash and went into the lead, but the Mercedes team withdrew during the night as a mark of respect to the killed and injured. Hawthorn and co-driver Ivor Bueb continued on to score a most sad and empty victory.
Although his race at Le Mans would end early, Castellotti would go on to race Grand Prix cars for Lancia in 1955 and then for Ferrari. He would win the 1956 Mille Miglia for Ferrari with a superb drive in terrible weather conditions. In the spring of 1957 he was killed in a Ferrari Grand Prix car while attempting to set a new fastest practice time at the Modena Aerautodromo, as demanded of him by Enzo Ferrari.
Photo by Louis Klemantaski ©The Klemantaski Collection