Peril and pizzazz unite tragic F1 ace Peter Collins with Lewis Hamilton
After driving his Mercedes-Benz to a commanding and unexpected , Lewis Hamilton emerged to a mixed reception from the grandstands. Ferrari fans can sometimes allow their loyalty – currently to Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton’s chief rival, to become distorted. More seriously, some people just don’t like to see a helmet being removed to reveal the corn-rowed hair, nose stud and earrings of a four‑times champion who does not conform to the old European ideal of a grand prix ace.
No English driver ever conformed more precisely to that template than Peter Collins, a startlingly handsome, blond-haired, devil-may-care character who was killed 60 years ago this week when his left the track while he was fighting for the lead in the German Grand Prix. At 26 he was vying to become the youngest ever world champion, and the first Briton to take the title.
He and Mike Hawthorn, his teammate and best friend, were chasing the Vanwall of Tony Brooks around the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife circuit, 14 miles of mountain road featuring 176 corners. A year earlier at the same circuit the two pals had cheerfully given best to the virtuosity of Juan Manuel Fangio, who overtook them both in his Maserati near the end of the race after a hair‑raising pursuit in which the 46-year-old Argentinian had broken the circuit record nine times. As they climbed out of their cars to congratulate him, their smiles and handshakes acknowledged that he had given the greatest performance of his career. Collins, Hawthorn, Brooks and Stirling Moss were the heroes of British motor racing in the 1950s, graduates of a world in which former RAF pilots and army mechanics built racing cars from spare parts while veterans of the prewar racing scene at Brooklands and Donington Park organised meetings on abandoned airfields that had only recently thrummed to the sound of Lancasters and Hurricanes.
Moss, the son of a prewar amateur driver, was a pioneer of professional preparation who kept fit, was careful about contracts and knew the value of public relations. Brooks, his Vanwall teammate, was a quiet man from Cheshire who had qualified in dentistry before becoming a full‑time driver. Hawthorn, whose father owned a garage in Farnham, raced in a bow tie, liked a beer, and in 1953, in his first season with Ferrari, had become the first British driver to win a postwar F1 grand prix. Collins, the son of a Kidderminster haulage contractor, was the pin-up boy, permanently bathed in a golden glow. In 1956, as one of four young drivers alongside Fangio in the Ferrari team at Monza, in the last race of the season, he had readily given up his car to the Argentinian veteran towards the end of the race. The rules of the day allowed the two drivers to share the points they won for second place, enough to give Fangio his fourth title. When he offered his car to his team leader, Collins still held an outside chance of taking the championship himself. One of his teammates, Luigi Musso, had already refused a similar request, furiously accelerating out of the pits to continue what turned out to be a vain effort to win his home grand prix.
Collins’s chivalrous gesture was appreciated not just by Fangio but by Enzo Ferrari, who had already warmed to him on a more personal level. Ferrari’s adored first son had died from muscular dystrophy two months earlier. At 24, Dino Ferrari was just a handful of weeks younger than the Englishman, who had visited him often during his long decline. After his death, Enzo showed his gratitude by inviting Collins to move into Dino’s apartment, close to the factory in Maranello.
Two years later Enzo Ferrari’s attitude was significantly cooler. During a stopover in Miami in February 1957, Collins had been introduced – by Moss, as it happened – to Louise King, an American actress. A week later they were married and making plans to live on a yacht in the harbour at Monaco, meaning that Peter would be moving out of Dino’s old living quarters. Enzo Ferrari believed that a married driver’s concentration would no longer be solely on the only job that really mattered, that of winning races for the Scuderia.
As Collins and Hawthorn swarmed around Brooks on 3 August 1958, the Ferrari pair had already won one grand prix apiece that season – Hawthorn at Reims again, Collins at Silverstone – and were engaged in what looked very much like a four-way battle for the title with Moss, who had won in Buenos Aires and at Zandvoort, and Brooks, the victor at Spa.
In those days there were no seatbelts. Helmets offered only the most minimal protection. As his car mounted an earth bank on the outside of a fast right-hand bend, Collins was thrown out of the cockpit and hit a tree head-first. By the time a medical helicopter had reached the nearest hospital, he was dead, one of many drivers of his era to leave a grieving young widow in the pits. It was his best mate who would go on, a few weeks later, to become Britain’s first world champion.
Collins, Hawthorn and Moss liked the bright lights. So does Lewis Hamilton. But anyone who doesn’t think the man who made it from Stevenage to the cover of the current issue of GQ magazine isn’t serious about his profession should have heard the degree of detail he revealed while analysing, for the benefit of the TV audience, the lap with which, on a drenched track, he snatched pole position for Sunday’s race. may be in a safer place than Peter Collins ever was, but for the life of me I can’t see much difference.