Peter Collins’ death, sixty years’ ago today, at the Nürburgring Nordschleife came just two weeks after his superb drive to victory on home soil at the British Grand Prix.
The racing world was left in disbelief: not only was Collins one of the sport’s brightest and fastest drivers, he was also one of its safest.
Blessed with handsome looks and a charming nature, Collins graduated from racing 500cc cars, driving Coopers and then JBS-Nortons in 1951 in both hill-climb and circuit-racing disciplines.
As Formula 2 effectively became motorsport’s premier racing class in 1952, HWM owner John Heath signed the promising Collins to partner Stirling Moss and Lance Macklin in a three-car, all-British line-up that raced across the European scene over the next two years. Collins was fast, but the HWMs proved far too fragile and he was robbed of a number of good results. He did, however, manage second place at Les Sables d’Olonne in 1952 and third place at Eifelrennen the following year.
His potential was noticed by Aston Martin, who signed him into their sports car squad. Results immediately followed, with he and co-driver Pat Griffiths winning the 1952 BARC Goodwood 9 Hours and the Tourist Trophy in 1953 in a DB3. He was also twice a runner-up at the 24 Hours of Le Mans alongside Paul Frère in 1955 and Stirling Moss in 1956.
Hired by Tony Vandervell to pilot his Ferrari ‘Thinwall Special’, Collins won races at Snetterton and Goodwood in the well-attended Formula Libre events that were growing in popularity. A trio of Grand Prix outings in the Vanwall Special also took place, but the programme was still very much in its early days.
Rival outfit BRM, having noticed Collins’ competitiveness, signed him for a full season in 1955. Its own inhouse development was well behind schedule and so Collins raced the team’s Maserati 250F instead at Aintree and Monza, retiring from both Grands Prix. When the new BRM was ready in time for the Gold Cup at Oulton Park, he looked set to thrash the field until retiring with a loss of oil pressure.
Despite not having scored a points’ finish in four part-seasons of Formula 1 racing, Collins was signed by Scuderia Ferrari as teammate to the great Juan Manuel Fangio for the 1956 season. ‘The Maestro’ was delighted to have a new driver to mentor a new young talent, and Collins honed his racecraft under the Argentine’s wing.
He proved the perfect team member. After handing over his car to Fangio at Monaco where the pair shared second place, he took fine victories at Spa-Francorchamps and Reims. He shared second place with Alfonso de Portago at Silverstone after his own car failed, but failed to repeat the feat at the Nürburgring Nordschleife when he crashed the Spaniard’s car after his own had split a fuel pipe.
He came into the season finale at Monza with an outside shot at winning the Drivers’ Championship, but when Fangio was forced to retire his car he was asked to hand over his car. Collins obliged without hesitation, even though it meant his own title aspirations had evaporated. Team owner Enzo Ferrari was forever appreciative of the gesture as Fangio went on to win his fourth title.
Collins’ hopes of being a frontrunner in 1957 ended in disappointment as its D50 proved uncompetitive. A mid-season switch to the new 801 model brought better results, although a pair of third places at France and Germany – where Fangio unforgettably thrashed the field with a storming recovery drive – were his best results.
The 1958 season would tragically prove his last. It started promisingly when he and Phil Hill won the Buenos Aires 1000Km and Sebring 12 Hours sports cars races, and a win in the new Dino 246 at the International Trophy race at Silverstone boded well for a Ferrari revival. Third place at Monaco and a superb victory at Silverstone saw him arrive at the Nürburgring Nordschleife still in contention for the title in a four-way, all-British battle with teammate Mike Hawthorn and the Vanwall duo of Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss.
Brooks led the race as Collins and Hawthorn gave chase around the Nordschleife’s daunting 14 miles of crests, drops and blind corners where, a year earlier, 46-year-old Fangio had broken the lap record nine times in his pursuit of an incredible victory.
While Collins was considered a safe driver, this was in the era where a helmet offered barely any protection and the drivers eschewed seatbelts. It appears he made a simple – and ultimately fatal – misjudgment: he carried too much speed and mounted an earth bank on the outside of a right-hand bend. His car somersaulted at over 100mph and he was thrown from the cockpit, hitting a tree head-first.
He died of his head injuries before the medical helicopter could get to the hospital in Bonn, without regaining consciousness, at the age of just 26.
His teammate Hawthorn would go on to pip Moss to the title, becoming Britain’s first World Champion. Still grieving the death of his friend, Hawthorn immediately announced his retirement and would die less than six months later in a car accident.
Images via The Cahier Archive, Flickr, Hooniverse and Motor Sport