The death of Peter Collins on this day at the 1958 German Grand Prix cast a pall through the motorsport establishment. Almost all racing drivers’ deaths are unexpected, but Collins’ seemed especially so, particularly given his reputation as one of the safest drivers of his era.
Collins was one of Formula 1’s poster children in the 1950s. Dashing, handsome and very friendly, his professional career kicked off in the early 1950s in 500cc racing in both hillclimb and circuit racing events.
He moved to Formula 2 in 1952, driving in a three-car effort with HVM. While he was often quick, the cars proved far too fragile, and good results were few and far between.
Nonetheless, his performances earned him the attentions of Aston Martin, which signed him up to its sports car operation. His success was immediate: he won the 1952 Goodwood 9 Hours and backed that up with victory in the Tourist Trophy the following year. In what became an excellent association with the team that lasted a number of years, Collins also twice finished in second place at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Collins joined the Vanwall F1 team in 1954, but the programme was in its infancy and so he moved to the Owen Racing team in 1956, and had a pair of outings in a Maserati 250F in World Championship events.
In 1956, he took up the invitation to join Ferrari and drive alongside the maestro, Juan Manuel Fangio. The Argentine would be a pillar of support in Collins’ career, giving the Englishman a new insight into the discipline and rigour required to be a top-line racing driver.
Collins relished the challenge and Fangio’s experience and set about proving his worth, although he was still more than capable of enjoying himself away from the circuit.
Ever the team player he handed over his car to Fangio at the Monaco Grand Prix (the pair finished second), but backed this up with his maiden Grand Prix win next time out at Spa-Francorchamps. He followed this up with another win at the French Grand Prix, and a shared drive to second place at Silverstone.
By the time it came to the season-ending Italian Grand Prix, Collins remained in with an outside chance of taking the championship crown from his team-mate. But Fangio would be forced to retire early in the race, and Collins unhesitatingly handed over his car to the great driver to help him claim the championship.
While it meant the end of his own championship ambitions, Collins’ gesture is still talked about as one of the most sporting in Formula 1’s rich history. The deed did not go unnoticed by team founder Enzo Ferrari, who always had a soft spot for Collins from that point on.
The 1957 yielded few major results – wins in the non-championship Syracuse and Naples Grands Prix aside – but the 1958 season began promisingly. Perhaps it would finally be his year.
A win at the International Trophy race promised much, and he took points with third at the Monaco Grand Prix, before claiming victory on home soil at the British Grand Prix.
That result had boosted him to third in the standings behind Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss as the fielded headed to the Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix. With Tony Brooks’ Vanwall leading the race and with Collins in hot pursuit, he made a rare and costly driving error that would ultimately prove fatal.
He clipped a bank on the circuit’s edge at over 100mph and was pitched into a somersault over a hedge and into a field. Collins was hurled out of the stricken Ferrari, but suffered terrible head injuries to which he would succumb – without ever regaining consciousness – just a few hours later in hospital. He was just 26 years old.
[Images via Flickr, Hooniverse and The Cahier Archive]