As we look forward to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, it’s worth recalling that it marks the 60th anniversary of a great British sporting triumph – in two works Ferrari cars… Peter Collins won from Mike Hawthorn – in a year that would prove to be Mike’s, as he became the first British sportsman ever to win the Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship title. For poor Peter Collins – a more cruel fate had been lying in wait – and two weeks after his Silverstone victory he would crash, fatally, in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. But that is just the way top-class motor racing was in those days…
Doug Nye: One of Britain's greatest sporting triumphs – in Mike Hawthorn's words
We have related here before how the 1958 Easter Monday Goodwood meeting saw Mike Hawthorn win the Formula 1 feature race in his latest works Ferrari Dino 246 Grand Prix car, while Peter Collins drove his works Ferrari 206S sports car home second in the supporting race. In the Silverstone May Meeting the drivers had swopped around – Peter winning the BRDC International Trophy in the Formula 1 Ferrari Dino 246 GP car – while Mike wrestled a big 3-litre Ferrari Dino sports-racing car around to finish second in the supporting race.
The best report of the subsequent 1958 British GP comes surely from Mike Hawthorn himself – in his poignantly-published autobiographical book ‘Champion Year’.
Mike relates how immediately before that year’s British GP, following an enjoyable Continental holiday he: “…flew back on the Monday morning as I had a lot of work to do at the garage [his TT Garage business in Farnham, Surrey] before going up to Silverstone on the Thursday.
“I drove up in the 3.4 [Jaguar saloon] and having dumped my bags at the Jersey Arms went on to the circuit, where I met Peter [Collins] and [lovely young wife] Louise. Despite our convincing victory at Reims we were not too hopeful at Silverstone, which is a medium-fast circuit where the present model does not show to its best and Pete had already warned me that it was a bit of a handful.
“Against this we had to set the astonishing record of Ferrari who had won the Grand Prix at Silverstone five times in a row, if one does not count the 1955 and 1957 races which were run at Aintree and won by Mercedes-Benz and Vanwall respectively.
“Pete was absolutely right. I went out in the car and found it very quick, but going into the corners we would get the understeer and when we tried to counteract this it would whip into a vicious oversteer. The only possible solution was to try and keep it understeering and just put up with it. Going round Woodcote was a very shaky do. One would go into it with a good deal of understeer. In fact, the inside wheel kept coming off the ground, as a number of my friends told me who had watched the race on television. They could plainly see air between the wheel and the circuit. I really had to watch that I didn't lose it past the pits. My car having a slightly longer chassis, two or three inches longer to give my large frame a bit more room, was even more tricky than Pete's standard-chassis car.
“The handling was reflected in our practice times and in the first period on Thursday between 3.15 and 4.30 pm the Vanwalls were much faster. Moss did a 1m. 39.4s., Brooks was 1m. 41.6s. and I was next with 1m. 42.4s. I was a bit shattered when Salvadori equalled my time on the Cooper. Pete did a 1m. 43.8s. and Trips on his first visit to Silverstone did well to return 1m. 45.2s.
“We were not unduly worried as practice times never seemed to affect race times very much and from what we could gather Vanwall were not nearly as happy as they might reasonably have been with their much faster times and they were out on the circuit very much more.
“On the Thursday Stirling did 20 laps to my 11. I still thought that the Vanwall would win, if it lasted, and if it didn't I thought the BRM might well pull it off. In fact when Nevil Lloyd interviewed me for the film of the race that Random Films were making for Shell, I tipped Behra [of BRM] to win. It was interesting to see this film later because I noticed that I was relaxing much more at the wheel.
“Much is written about style in driving but because of my height I have just had to adopt my own style and technique, and my hunched appearance at the wheel is entirely due to the fact that fitting myself into a Grand Prix car is a major problem, it is just a case of too much Hawthorn chasing too little car. In fact this particular car was slightly too long for me, which is a record for Ferraris it never happened before! An extra cushion of thin rubber helped too, and certainly the film showed me looking much more at ease. With my height it has never been possible for me to model my style upon any one driver and in any case I did not go to many races during my early days; I was very interested, but I just felt if I couldn't do it myself I didn't want to see the others.
“One race which I shall always regret missing was the British Grand Prix of 1951 when Gonzalez on the 4½-litre Ferrari beat Fangio on the 1½-litre Alfa Romeo. Not only was it an historic occasion, but also a tremendously exciting motor race with Gonzalez throwing the Ferrari round Silverstone at all angles, sideways and on and off the grass.
“Friday's practice was in the morning from 11am to 12.30pm., and our times were better, but so too were the opposition's. Stirling didn't improve upon his Thursday time, but Harry Schell shook everyone with a meteoric lap at 1m. 39.8s. and Roy Salvadori did a 1m. 40s. The best I could do was 1m. 40.4s., which only just gave me a front row grid position.
“Pete was only a fifth of a second slower and Taffy did 1m. 42s. which was excellent—Silverstone is not an easy circuit and I think that Maggotts, Becketts and Abbey Curve are very tricky indeed. We were being worried with a recurrence of a trouble we had had in the Argentine. The engine breather was continually throwing oil out and back over the windscreen, making a mess of everything. It was cured after Argentina and now it had come back. Anyway, they took a pipe from the breather, put it through the cockpit and down the outside of the tail and back into the oil tank in the tail, and that cured it again.
We had each worn out a set at Reims and so we bedded them in very carefully for Silverstone. Much later I found that for no good reason they had changed to a different type of lining and I could never get back to the identical type we had had in the Argentine. During the practice periods John Eason Gibson had allowed us an extra twenty minutes on the circuit to try the Ferraris out on the new Dunlop RS 5 racing tyre. Unfortunately my car had gone back to the garage in Northampton and I had to use von Trips’s short-chassis car. I found I couldn't get into it, as it had raised floorboards and I have to have my heels on the under shield.
“All this took time to put right as the tools had gone back with my car and Peter's. Dunlops set the pressures to the same as we had been using on the Engleberts, but what was good on one was no good on the other; it is interesting that with the Dunlops I had no understeer at all, but bags of oversteer.
“We were allowed to try it again with correct pressures the following evening and we both thought the RS 5 was a great improvement on the Englebert. For race day, of course, we were back on Englebert.
“It was a warm, sunny day and even for Silverstone there was a very large crowd indeed to watch the usual very full day's motor racing that the BRDC organise with the backing of the ‘Daily Express’. The Grand Prix was due to start at 2 p.m. after the sports car event and the Production Touring Car Race. The race distance was 225 miles, that is 75 laps of the 3-mile Silverstone circuit and Peter and I had talked over our plan for the race.
“Pete, in his typically generous way, had said that he was going to do everything he could to help me win the Championship and the general idea was that he went out in front if he could and forced the pace in an effort to blow the Vanwalls up; if he blew up himself it would be too bad. I remember reading somewhere that the Ferrari team suffered from having no definite team leader, but I do not believe that this was so.
“The agreement we had was that we were all equal members of the team, but when one driver appeared to have a reasonable chance for the title, then the team tactics would revolve around that driver and his car. Peter's gesture was typical of him, nor was it the first instance of his generosity: Most people will remember his sportsmanship in handing over his car to Fangio in the 1956 Italian Grand Prix. Fangio was out and Pete, lying third and just over a minute behind, with a very fair chance of winning the Championship himself, stood down so that Fangio could win it. One Italian paper had this to say: ‘…this Signor Collins has set an example of Nobility, Style and Class, an example which is unmatchable . It stands in the highly competitive motor racing world as a gesture of chivalry which has the taste and aroma of ancient times when chivalry was not a vain expression.’
“Perhaps that may sound a little flowery to us less articulate English but whoever wrote it did not exaggerate the nature and character of my friend Pete.
“Slowly the minutes ticked away towards two o'clock , the photographers took their photographs , team managers patted their drivers on the back and I had my usual handshake with Lord Howe, the President of the BRDC and a great driver in his day. I think it was in 1955 that he started coming over and wishing me luck before the start and, whenever he did, something always went wrong. It became a bit of a thing with me and last year I said that I was awfully sorry but I would rather he didn't wish me luck as things seemed to go wrong whenever he did. He laughed and said ‘Fair enough, in future I shall just shake your hand and say nothing’.
murmur a very rude word in French; polite society refers to it as ‘cinq lettres’. There is also an Italian phrase, in bocca al lupo, which means, literally, ‘in the mouth of the wolf’, to which there is a rude answer; the origin of the phrase has never been satisfactorily explained, but this too serves to wish a driver well. It all may sound a little silly, but those minutes on the starting grid are twitch-making in the extreme and small things can assume an importance quite out of proportion.
“The starts at British meetings are invariably efficient—one has none of the worry one has in continental events that a nonsense will be made of it—and so it was promptly at two o'clock that the flag fell with Moss shooting off into the lead and me making my usual hesitant getaway.
“I let the clutch in too quickly and revved too low. I must have let it in at about two-thousand-five – a thousand revs light – so I had to sit there and let it build up. Pete made a tremendous leap from the second row and was behind Stirling into Copse. Schell was third and I was behind him. As we went into the left-hand swerve at Maggotts, Pete whipped inside Stirling and I took the BRM on the outside. When we reached Hangar Straight Peter simply streaked away from the Vanwall, the power coming up to the corners was fantastic. Stirling could catch up slightly on the corners, but the Ferrari was much faster leaving them.
“Stirling told me afterwards that there was just nothing he could do about it. Lap after lap we stayed like this, Pete out front going like a bat, Stirling hanging on in second place and me lying third, just watching. It was after only a few laps that I noticed smoke coming out in little spurts from the left-hand side of the engine, by the exhaust pipe. It wasn't continuous, but every now and then there would be a little puff of it and I thought ‘Hell, that's the end of that, I'm not going to last very long’.
“I slowed up a little to nurse it along because the oil pressure and the temperature were all right. By one-third distance, 25 laps, Pete led Stirling by 6.4 seconds and the Vanwall had 14.6 seconds over me. Then on the 26th lap Stirling was out; he drove straight into the paddock without stopping at the pits and I remember being given the signal that I was second, glancing at it and doing a double take when I saw that the letters MOS weren't on it; I didn't know at the time that he'd gone into the paddock. This left us very content except that I was still worried about these puffs of oil smoke. The temperature was all right, but the pressure was dropping lower and lower. Our rate was seven kilos to the square centimetre, but I had started the race on five and it went down and down, eventually dropping to two. Remembering the Argentine and how I had lost the race through calling in for oil I decided to keep going…
“Behind Pete and me there was quite a race going on and Roy Salvadori was going wonderfully well, he finally caught Lewis-Evans on the Vanwall to take third place. Driving fifth was Brabham who was keeping the little Cooper a few seconds ahead of Taffy on the third Ferrari. Behra had not shown up well with the BRM and retired on Lap 10 as a result of hitting a hare. One of its bones became embedded in a rear tyre, causing a slow puncture which upset the handling of the car, and so Behra brought it in; as a reason for retirement it was something new in motor racing.
“Pete was still going like the wind and at about half distance he lapped Schell in the remaining BRM. This woke Harry up and he proceeded to tuck in behind Pete who didn't go much on that and let him through again. Meantime I had decided that with Pete going so well it would be best to come in for oil, and as I passed the pit on Lap 43 I pointed to the oil tank and banged the top of my crash hat with the palm of my hand, my usual signal that I was coming in. The pit was not sure whether it was oil or tyres that I wanted so both were ready when I arrived. "Olio, olio," I yelled in my far from faultless accent. As they poured it in I had a quick drink and was away again in 30 seconds, just as Roy Salvadori, lying third with the Cooper, came round Woodcote.
“Roy was going wonderfully well with the Cooper and next time round the pit gave me a signal that he was six seconds behind me, so I pressed on a bit and put up the fastest lap on Lap 50 in 1m. 40.8s., a speed of 104.54m.p.h. It didn't beat Pete's 1m. 40s. which he and Behra set up in May, but it was enough to score me an extra point for the Championship.
"The oil refill sent the pressure up from two to about two-and-three-quarters and after I had put a safe distance between Roy and myself I let up. The smoke was still puffing out, but I was not as worried for myself as for Pete, wondering whether he would have to come in. Taffy Trips, who had been having a race-long duel with Jack Brabham on the Cooper, came in to retire on his 60th lap having run out of oil and lost all his bearings.
“Peter's lead at 55 laps was 61 seconds over me and I was 20 seconds ahead of Roy. Peter was easing up now and I picked up at the rate of about two seconds per lap. Behind us a great race was going on between the Cooper and the Vanwall for third place, whilst Schell was pushing the BRM round in a last-minute effort. Pete and I seemed to be safe in first and second places and it was the fight between Roy and Lewis-Evans which kept the crowds on their feet. The final laps were reeled off and to everyone's joy, especially mine, Pete toured round to win the British Grand Prix at an average of 102.05mph.
“I came in just twenty-four seconds behind him with Salvadori third, a fifth of a second ahead of Lewis-Evans. Eleven cars retired out of the twenty starters. It had been a slightly surprising victory for us, we hadn't really expected it.
“I remember the last few laps of the race very well because I was very hot and thirsty and every time I went through Becketts the marshals on that corner, Tony Rolt, Bill Ruck-Keene and David Phillips, were standing there drinking beer from pint mugs and taunting me by swigging the stuff as I went through—it made me even thirstier.
“On the last lap I signalled to them that I would like a drink myself, so after I got the flag I kept going fairly fast until I reached Becketts where I stopped and was given a pint of shandy. Then I drove on sipping the shandy, I had my crash hat off and drove in with the drink – it foxed a lot of people.
“A friend of mine overheard a couple discussing this. One chap said that he wondered how I had got hold of the beer. His friend, obviously out to impress, said ‘Oh, that's just a gimmick, he's had it with him all through the race!’. It made a sort of triple pint act that, because at Goodwood when I raced the Grand Prix car Peter had got hold of a black-board on which he had drawn a wonderfully lifelike picture of a pint of beer and he had shown me this on my last few laps; the thought of it had helped me on my way.
“Then during the May Meeting at Silverstone when Pete was well in the lead I got a pint of beer from the beer tent and stood in front of the pits with it holding it out so that he could see what was waiting for him besides the chequered flag.
“The Grand Prix was a great result for us, it gave me a seven point lead over Stirling and it brought Pete up to fourteen points, which meant that he was in a position to challenge Stirling for second place. This called for drinks and Pete, Louise and I repaired to the beer tent for a few before he and Louise went off to Kidderminster. Unfortunately they took my sports jacket with them in their car and, of course, my money, my keys and my pipe and everything.
“I hadn't a clue that they had taken it and I thought it had been stolen from my car… After they had gone I went off to the White Horse in Silverstone itself and had a drink or two with the landlord there. We always used this pub when testing Jaguars at Silverstone and we would always have bread and cheese and pickled onions. The landlord's wife makes very good home-made pickle and once she made us a Yorkshire pudding which went down very well.
“From there I went back home on the Sunday, well content with the weekend's work and Pete's long overdue victory. The Autocourse report of the race summed it up well when they said: ‘The race was won by Peter Collins, who led from start to finish, and gave the first real demonstration of the genius which he so frequently showed last year and, in particular, in 1956’.”
It must have been a wonderful weekend for the English boys… in sunlight – before the dark…
Photography courtesy of The GP Library
Doug Nye began writing about racing cars at ‘Motor Racing’ magazine in 1963-64. Today he is a multiple award-winning motor sports journalist and author of over 50 years’ experience, with some 70 books to his name. He is Goodwood Motorsport’s founding Historian and consultant and fulfils similar roles for Bonhams Auctioneers and the Collier Collection/Revs Institute in Naples, FL, USA. He is a member of the National Motor Museum Advisory Council at Beaulieu, Hants, and is a regular columnist for ‘Motor Sport’ magazine, while contributing to many other specialist periodicals worldwide.
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