A really great one
- Mattijs Diepraam
- December 8, 2005
- Mike Hawthorn - The driver to lead the way to British dominance, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
- Stirling Moss - How Stirling got his Mercedes breakthrough, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
Ferrari 246 Dino
1958 RAC British GP (July 19, 1958)
Fiercely competitive human beings as they are, drivers are seldom great friends. As rivals they will respect each other, they might develop a warm professional friendship, but true comradery is a phenomenon rarely seen among racing drivers. That is probably why the history of soulmates Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn is still tantalizing the imagination of so many people even today, no doubt aided by Chris Nixon's memorable account of their friendship in his already legendary book.
Whereas Hawthorn still retains a special place in the Grand Prix annals in his own right - as Britain's first World Championship points scorer, first Grand Prix winner, indeed first World Champion - Collins today is mostly remembered in conjunction with his Mon Ami Mate, while his name irrepressibly comes to the fore when team orders are once again the center of debate. This seems grossly unfair to a driver described by his patron saint Enzo Ferrari as "a really great one".
As was the case for many up-and-coming British stars Peter Collins was practically born into motor racing by virtue of his father being a prominent figure in the motor trade. The Worcestershire youngster spent three years working as an apprentice at Ford in Dagenham, and was given a brand-new Cooper-Norton for his 17th birthday in 1949 – so it can’t be said that father Pat and mother Elaine stood in the way of their son’s racing career, on the contrary. Like most of his contemporaries, the (very) young Collins exploited 500cc racing to learn the ropes, on circuits as well as in hill-climbs such as Prescott and Shelsley Walsh, where he excelled by taking class BTDs using a 1000cc JAP engine. Starting in the ephemeral Cooper he switched to the JBS-Norton in 1951, but that wasn’t before his first full year in International F3 was silverlined by stunning victories at Goodwood and in the big 100-mile race at Silverstone.
Helped by his family team members, the handsome and cheerful teenager had several people in the F3 business gradually warm to him, building up relations that grew beyond the professional. Along with Frank Aiken, Curly Dryden and Alf Bottoms – the latter responsible for building the JBS – Collins travelled across Europe, but it was an unhappy season. Bottoms was killed when he crashed into a marshal’s car that was parked beside the track in Luxembourg. Curly Dryden died at Castle Combe after overturning his car.
Collins then teamed up at HWM with another extremely talented young man, and when F2 became the World Championship formula he found himself a Grand Prix driver at the age of 20, a mere two seasons of F3 comprising his motor racing career to date. Forming a three-car team with Lance Macklin, Moss and Collins took in most of the F2 races in Britain and on the continent. Collins showed his speed but the underbudgeted HWM-Alta rarely made it to the finish, usually braking a shaft somewhere along the way. Peter’s best result was second place at Les Sables d’Olonnes in 1952 and third at the Eifelrennen in 1953. His best result in a ‘big race’ was sixth in the 1952 French GP at Rouen.
Meanwhile, he had better luck in sportscars. In 1951, his performances had impressed old hand Reg Parnell who recommended the boy to John Wyer of Aston Martin. After proving himself in a test Collins was taken on to partner Pat Griffith in one of Feltham’s DB3s. Wyer wasn’t let down – Griffith and Collins won the Goodwood 9 Hours by two laps in 1952, and the pair topped that by racing their DB3S to victory on handicap in the 1953 RAC TT.
Collins’s association with Aston Martin would last until well into the fifties, bringing him second places at Le Mans in 1955 (with Frère) and 1956 (with Moss), but it wasn’t exclusive. Peter also marked himself out as a terrific sportscar driver racing for Mercedes and Ferrari. Collins’s late-1955 appearance in the Targa Florio for the three-pointed star, sharing with team regular Stirling Moss, was a memorable one-off that clinched Stuttgart’s second World Championship that year. It is said that Collins would have been a shoe-in for the 1956 Mercedes line-up, had the Germans decided to continue. Racing for Ferrari he took one sportscar success after another, ranging from the Giro di Sicilia, that chaotic race at Caracas and, in what proved to be his final season, the Buenos Aires 1000kms and Sebring 12hrs, sharing a 250 TR with Phil Hill.
Not known as a man gifted with technical knowledge, Collins was happy to have his mechanics set up his car. He simply drove. And did so with consummate natural skill. This was seen in 1954, when Tony Vandervell recruited Collins to drive the fearsome ‘Thinwall Special’ previously raced by the man who tipped him at Aston Martin, Reg Parnell. The potent machine was a crowd pleaser at popular Libre events at Snetterton and Goodwood, and a winning one too. He was also among the first to handle the original Cooper-based ‘Vanwall Special’, in which he finished 7th in the Italian GP.
He had been a constant thorn in their side for BRM in 1954, racing and beating their Libre V16s, and he now joined them to race that very car in Libre events and the stop-gap Owen Maserati 250F in Grands Prix, pending the long-awaited arrival of BRM’s proper 2.5-litre Type 25. His World Championship appearance with the 250F was unlucky but he did win the International Trophy in it. At Monza he made a one-off start in a works Maserati, qualifying 11th, but again failed to finish when the rear suspension succumbed.
The 25 finally arrived in the autumn but in his only race, the Oulton Park Gold Cup, Collins had to retire early-on while suffering from terrible vibrations. These had shaken the oil-pressure gauge so violently that it appeared to Peter that the car was running dry, pushing him to precautionary retirement. Until then he had been flying.
The opportunity to join Ferrari for 1956 proved to be an immense boost for the Kidderminster youngster. He would team up with the Maestro himself, who would be very influential in improving the amount of application that Collins put into his sport. He would remain the lighthearted and outgoing fellow that had grown so close to fellow Brit Mike Hawthorn, pulling irresponsible stunts and dazzling the birds, but inside the cockpit Peter quickly matured under Fangio’s guidance. There was bitter irony involved in his moving to the Italian stable, as he replaced his friend Hawthorn, who had decided that he needed to spend more time near home to support his mother after father Leslie Hawthorn was killed in a road accident – as would happen to Mike a couple of years, fresh from becoming the first British World Champion. In fact, Hawthorn had proposed Collins to Enzo Ferrari, and the Old Man would become very pleased with his decision to follow Hawthorn’s advice.
Peter’s debut season for Ferrari saw him win his first World Championship Grand Prix, becoming only the third Briton to do so after Hawthorn and Moss. The victory came at Spa, at which he took a joined Championship lead with Moss, and then was followed up by another win, at Reims, now taking a five-point lead in the title race. He suffered in the German GP, where he lost his original car through a fuel leak before crashing De Portago’s Lancia-Ferrari. However, through some shared second places – with Fangio at Monaco and Fon de Portago at Silverstone – Collins was in with a shout for the Championship come Monza, trailing Fangio by eight points.
A lot is still said about Peter reliquishing his own 1956 title chances to his team leader Fangio, but as in most occasions the nostalgic myth is bigger than historical truth. Peter’s gesture is often set as the prime example of sportsmanship of days gone by, compared to today’s egotistical driver morals. Looking at the points situation ahead of the 1956 Italian GP, however, the chances of Collins winning the World Championship were purely mathematical, and they didn’t improve during the race. In fact, after Fangio had retired both Behra and Collins needed a win and the point for fastest lap to take the title. So to become World Champion the Englishman would have had to up his pace considerably to overtake his flying countryman, and set fastest lap in the process, as a mere win would not suffice on countback, as both Fangio and Collins would have taken three wins. But at the moment Collins gave his car to the Maestro, team manager Sculati had told Collins that Moss had just set fastest lap, thus effectively finishing his title hopes. Also, the other only title outsider – Jean Behra – had retired on lap 23, quite a number of laps before Collins stepped out of his car to hand it over to his team leader.
Strangely, several commanding sources claim that Fangio needed to go out to take second place to gain the title, but looking at the points situation that is simply nonsense. With the best-result rule still firmly in place, any result by Fangio in a shared car would have been scratched anyway, so 30 points was the best he could do at the moment the Argentinian took over the No.26 car. Even more peculiar is the often heard suggestion that Moss was on his way to the title by taking the win and fastest lap, with Fangio needing those points to stay ahead of Moss, but being on 19 points leaving the Nürburgring the Maserati driver had stopped being a title candidate after the preceding German GP!
As for the sportsmanship issue, Peter’s gesture was nothing but magnanimous but it only came after young Musso point-blank refused to give up his car in front of his home crowd – so much for widespread sportsmanship in the good old fifties. This is also why it can be argued that the Collins/Fangio myth is often misused in today’s debate on team orders. Collins didn’t obey to team orders, he gave up his car voluntarily. And Musso didn’t obey his team manager either, he simply didn’t – which was seen by some as ungraceful to Fangio, the multiple World Champion. It shows that team orders were seen in a totally different light – they were part of the deal and disobeying them was the unsportsmanlike thing to do, instead of the other way around, as most motor racing fans in today’s individualistic world want it to be. They even go as far as asking themselves how Enzo Ferrari would have felt, which would probably be the opposite to what they are romantically inclined to think. One thing is certain – Collins’ sportsmanship created an even bigger affection with the Commendatore, but perhaps for different seasons than often believed. Knowing where Mr Ferrari’s interests were usually located – with the team, and the team only – it can be argued that he valued Collins most for being the team player that he proved to be by handing over his car to the greater and faster driver.
Ferrari followed that up by re-signing Hawthorn, who had been languishing over at BRM, pairing the two British mates as team mates when Fangio left for Maserati. However, Hawthorn, Collins, Musso, Trintignant and their occasional team mates, such as the young Wolfgang von Trips, suffered as their ageing Lancia-Ferrari cars couldn’t keep up with the revived 250Fs, while the Vanwalls were also starting to make an impression. The Ferrari drivers were left picking up the crumbs that Fangio and Moss left behind and were defenseless against the Maestro’s brilliant comeback drive at the Nürburgring. While he was generally out of luck or off the pace in Championship events, Peter did score some wins that season, taking victory in the local F1 events at Syracuse and Naples. Although Musso and Hawthorn both outran him in the World Championship these two wins (against Musso’s sole win at the non-championship Reims GP) made him the most successful Ferrari driver in a season that was best forgotten quickly.
The tables were turned in 1958, when Hawthorn re-established his position as team leader, outqualifying Collins on every occasion. This matched handsomely with Ferrari’s regained form after they ditched their V8s in favour of the Dino V6. The new car firmly put the Prancing Horse back in the picture as it experienced an extremely successful month of April, with Hawthorn, Musso and Collins posting a series of wins at Goodwood, Syracuse and (in early May) Silverstone – a salvo of warning shots across the bows of the competition, i.e. Vanwall, as the works Maserati team had disappeared while the rest of the British onslaught were getting there but not yet quite. Ferrari’s victorious start to the season was complemented by great sportscar wins in the early-season Buenos Aires 1000kms and Sebring 12hrs, both won by Collins and Phil Hill.
Although Hawthorn proved to be the faster qualifier in their Grand Prix season, in the races Mike and Peter were more evenly matched. But as the younger of the two suffered terrible reliability, not finishing three of the first four Championship races in which he competed, Hawthorn had developed into the Scuderia’s title candidate by mid-season. As the two lined up on the grid of the British GP, Hawthorn tied for the championship lead with Moss, Collins was sent out to set the pace in an effort to break the Vanwall – a tactic that worked out brilliantly when Moss blew his engine on lap 25. Peter’s Ferrari, now firmly in the lead, wasn’t expected to last the race, especially given his fraught reliability of late, but it did. Such was his pace that he finished 24 seconds ahead of Hawthorn, the pair taking a resounding one-two for Ferrari on Vanwall’s home ground.
The British GP double was a welcome gift to the Ferrari, which had lost Luigi Musso at the previous GP at Reims. Sadly, they were unaware of the fate that the British GP winner would befall at the very next race (discounting the Caen event won by Moss immediately on the Sunday after). Now third in the championship and back within distance of Hawthorn and Moss, Collins was duelling for the lead with his team mate and Vanwall’s Tony Brooks in the German GP when they came up to the twisty Pflanzgarten section. There is no telling whether mechanical failure or wear was responsible for Peter getting slightly off-line, but he did. It caused him to miss the following turn, and while trying to refind the groove he half-spun into the grass before sliding the car into the fencing. The 27-year-old Englishman was thrown out on impact and was terribly unlucky to hit the only tree standing beyond the forest rim – head on. His helmet cracked upon, as did his skull, and he lay on the ground unconscious when he was found. He never woke up again and died in hospital the same evening.
Peter left a widow, an American girl called Louise Cordet, but remained in the minds of everyone who knew him as the light and bright twenty-something who was a natural in the sport he loved and in the life he lived.