Peter Collins – the man who gave up a world championship

60 years after Collins died, we reflect on a driver who embodies the spirit of 1950s motorsport – to the point of selflessly ceding a world title chance

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You know what is sometimes said about stereotypes – that they exist because, on some level at least, there is truth in them. And if you were to describe the characteristics of an identikit 1950s racer a few things no doubt would come to mind.

Tall. Well built. Elegant. Handsome. Debonair. Blond, swept-back hair. Charm to throw away. And wit. An enchanting personality. A ready, broad smile. Plenty of easy talent, too. A light approach to life. Full of joie de vivre. Devil-may-care. Liked living it up. Chivalrous. Noble. Selfless. Self-sacrificing. Minded of the greater good. Brave. The sort who no doubt would have been a fighter pilot had he been born a few years earlier.

And his name would be Peter Collins.

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After showing youthful burgeoning talent Collins joined Ferrari for 1956, and the Commendatore Enzo Ferrari quickly grew to adore him. Leading the driver line-up that year was a certain Juan Manuel Fangio, but by contrast his relationship with Ferrari was fraught.

Fangio was both unsettled and underwhelmed by the Maranello environment, far removed from methodical Mercedes he’d just left. It appeared to impact his driving, too, which was oddly erratic – and sometimes grumpy, while he muttered about sabotage after the Mille Miglia. Boss and driver clearly chafed against each other.

Collins, meanwhile, was the opposite – obedient, consistent and malleable. He provided not a hint of trouble and was clearly happy to be there, to the point of fully embracing the Italian way of life and learning the language.

But it went deeper. Ferrari’s son Dino was just two months younger than Collins and chronically ill with muscular dystrophy. And Collins showed Dino considerable kindness, visiting him frequently prior to his June 1956 death.

‘Ferrari looked upon Peter as a kind of surrogate son,’ Collins’ widow Louise recalls of her husband, ‘and it was the same with Laura – Mrs Ferrari, that is. They had lost their only son, Dino, and they kind of adopted Peter.’ Indeed, after Dino’s death Enzo invited Collins to move into Dino’s vacated apartment near the factory in Maranello.

Success for Collins followed quickly, too, with two wins on the bounce in mid-summer. At fearsome triangular Spa-Francorchamps, he upstaged his fellow Ferrari pretenders by qualifying third behind Fangio and Stirling Moss’s Maserati. Then in the race he showed impressive touch in typical-for-Spa wet-to-dry conditions, and inherited the win after Fangio’s differential failed.

Next time out at Reims in France, the day after Dino’s passing, he won again while Fangio hit more problems. All of a sudden Collins led the championship and was man of the moment – seeming unable to do wrong. On any level.

Fangio won the next two, and come the season-closing Italian Grand Prix at Monza was favourite for the title. Still Collins and Stirling Moss retained a championship chance. And it was here that we likely saw the greatest definition of Collins.

Back then Monza was a monster, not only shorn of chicanes but also featuring a fearsome banked section. And the Ferraris’ steering arms and Englebert tyres struggled with the challenges; both played a crucial part in the showdown.

Fangio peeled into the pits with a broken steering arm after 19 laps, and it seemed his title hopes were dashed – particularly as another of his team-mates Luigi Musso ignored subsequent persistent requests that he hand over his car for Fangio to take over (allowed, and indeed quite routine at the time), including when he came in for a routine stop. Partly it reflected Musso being wrapped up in being an Italian in a Ferrari at Monza, but also that the plan in advance was for Alfonso de Portago to hand his car over. However, he’d retired from the race early.

The title fight therefore looked a matter for Moss vs Collins, albeit with race leader Moss remaining in the box seat. But on lap 35 when Collins came into the pits for a tyre check, as one of his tyres had failed earlier, he saw Fangio standing in the pits. Amid a general atmosphere of chaos, and without being asked, he gave up his red machine to Fangio – and in so doing dashed his own title chance. Fangio in it proceeded to finish second behind Moss, thus cementing title number four of five

To underline what he sacrificed, had Collins continued and beaten Moss he would that day have become the youngest-ever world champion, and held it until Fernando Alonso won the title in 2005. He also would have forever had the accolade of being Britain’s first champion, this being two years before his close friend Mike Hawthorn achieved that.

Yet Collins made his greatest act of selflessness precisely when his personal stakes were at their highest. Fangio never forgot the generosity; even decades on, his eyes would fill with tears when recalling the sacrifice of his young stable-mate.

But Collins himself, as Louise noted, did not place his act on such a lofty pedestal.

‘Peter never gave it a thought,’ she said. ‘He was only 24 years old at the time, and never felt there was much urgency about winning the championship. For one thing, it always seemed that he cared much more about winning individual races; for another, he felt that, as long as Fangio was racing, no one else deserved the title of world champion. Peter simply revered him.’

Sadly Collins didn’t have the time to win the title. His Monza generosity got the Commendatore’s approval, too, but Collins quickly discovered that approval was fickle.

It was all to do with his afore-mentioned spouse – Louise King, an American actress. After a whirlwind romance they married in 1957, and Enzo disapproved. Possibly he saw it as some kind of personal rejection – Collins left Dino’s apartment to live with King on a yacht in Monaco – or he viewed her as distraction to Collins’ racing, or he personally disapproved of King (he noted sniffily that she was ‘a divorcee’).

Perhaps it reflected Enzo’s dark belief that keeping drivers on edge was the best way to get results from them and Collins’ contentment would work against that. Whatever, the driver-boss relationship, once so warm, was never the same again.

Other things – related or not – were going on around the same time. 1957 was difficult year for Ferrari, and results were meagre, then the following year the suggestion floated around Maranello that Collins with Hawthorn had deliberately wrecked a clutch at Le Mans – a race neither cared for – so they could knock off early.

Likely the suggestion was nonsense, but the Commendatore believed it and fumed. And this, combined with what Enzo reckoned was Collins’ more general underperformance, meant that at the French Grand Prix Collins was humiliated; demoted to take part solely in the F2 support race. He was reinstated only when Hawthorn, leading Ferrari’s title charge that season, made a dramatic ultimatum to Enzo on Collins’ behalf.

But – again related or not – this was followed swiftly by Collins’ greatest victory. At the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the following round.

Collins qualified only sixth but from somewhere summoned extraordinary speed on race day, passing habitual pacesetter Moss in the Vanwall by Becketts, and leading the rest of the way.

‘Once out in the front he really motor-raced in a big way, and though Moss had the Vanwall in full-lock slides round many of the corners and was driving as hard as he knew how, he could make no impression on the leading Ferrari,’ noted legendary scribe Denis Jenkinson admiringly in his race report.

‘Collins had led for the entire 75 laps and done a real job of work, driving with that spirited air of full-opposite-lock that he enjoys so much, and which recently seemed to have gone from his driving.’

‘It was a perfect day,’ Louise recalls. ‘The weather was great, and Silverstone had an English garden party atmosphere back then. Once Peter was in front, no one could challenge him. Wonderful…’

Some observers, though, noting Collins’ borderline abandon that day, feared for him. Perhaps it contributed to what awaited him two weeks later at the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring.

It was a race with uncanny echoes of the famous one a year previously – Fangio’s day of days chasing down and beating the Ferrari pair Collins and Hawthorn. This time it was Tony Brooks in a Vanwall playing the Fangio role, in his case making an astonishing comeback after struggling with handling on full tanks. He made up a scarcely credible 32 seconds on Collins in 70 miles and passed to lead at two-thirds’ distance.

A few corners later Collins’ Ferrari left the track at Pflanzgarten, somersaulted and threw Collins out of the cockpit into a tree. He died before reaching hospital.

Brooks reckoned Collins had simply pushed too hard in trying to stay with him, although Phil Hill, who was competing in the race in an F2 Ferrari, noted that even his lighter machine was out of brakes before the end and perhaps Collins simply couldn’t slow the car enough. Hill noted also that the Ferrari’s handling was poor due to using volatile shock absorbers.

Yet as an embodiment of his age Collins has lived on. Much of his story seems far removed to the modern perspective. More’s the pity.

Images courtesy of LAT Archive

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