The 1956 Italian GP: A Great Act of Sportsmanship.

For the first time in several seasons, the F1 World Championship came down to the wire.  And here, Peter Collins is the interesting story.  So, this post is really dedicated to exploring the fateful events at Monza in 1956, from Mr. Collins’ perspective.  [Sorry for the delay in this post.  Sometimes I go for too much in a post and certain perfectionistic tendencies slow me down to a crawl.]

Peter Collins: The Man.

Peter Collins, the racer, is inevitably described as “self-effacing.”  He had immense respect for Moss, and by syllogism, for “the old man” – Fangio.  Off the track, he was brash.  But, I don’t think you can hold it against him.  Here you have, by all accounts, a good looking Englishman who makes his living putting his life on the line racing on F1.  If you met this guy, and your context was the 1950s, he would be a young “the most interesting man in the world.”  And the ladies most certainly agreed.  Collins and Mike Hawthorn lived the high-life as they meandered around the globe finding the best night-spots in between races.

He eventually settled down and married.  He was engaged to a girl he had known for all of six days.  This did not sit well with the other old man – Enzo Ferrari.  Enzo Ferrari was strangely, almost disconcertingly, interested in the sexual exploits of his drivers.  Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.  But, probably more importantly, he did not want his drivers thinking about the future, as settling down is prone to make one do.  But, here’s the key bit, Peter had a bit of a father figure thing going on with Enzo Ferrari.  Collins was close with the family with Enzo’s son Dino passed.   So, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he would have wanted to please old Enzo even more than he wanted to win the championship for himself.  And, this will become important later.

Peter Collins, circa 1956.

So, at the first race of the season, Collins was not spectacularly successful, but he was heating up.  At the next Grand Prix, in luxurious Monaco, he had a stellar run.  Then, Fangio pulled rank and essentially booted Collins’ from his car when his own failed.  Collins’ lets his actions speak louder than words and wins the next two Grands Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and at Reims-Geux in France.  This put him ahead of Fangio in the championship 19 to 13, respectively.  Beating Fangio, this 24-year-old would have been on top of the world.  Five races out of eight were done at this point and the championship was within reach.

The sixth race was the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.  Fangio won, and Peter Collins was second.  However, Collins’ had pulled rank on Alfonso de Portago and taken over his car.  This was permissible under the rules but Collins’ had to split the points with de Portago.  So, this put the championship within reach for Collins.

Heading Into Monza.

Autodromo Nazionale Monza layout

Autodromo Nazionale Monza layout (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the uninitiated, Monza is sort of a big deal.  In the 1950’s, Monza was typically the last race of the season.  And, this year, it came down the closer.  Suffice it to say, the drivers would have been stoked.  But at the same time, each of them knew that racing this track was to tempt fate.

It doesn’t necessarily appear it at first glance, but Monza is the quintessential high speed track.  It’s oval banks were high-banked, as pictured below.  Even the tightest corners, those of Parabolica at the Lezmo’s were particularly fast and uniquely challenging corners.

Omar from “The Wire” told us, “every man’s got to have a code.”  The drivers shared one; rule number one was not to speak of the danger, although I believe there was an exception when one was being sardonic.  But, at this point, the danger of racing was evident to all involved.  There were no real helmets, let alone crash structures, roll bars, or seat belts.  If you look close at the driver’s eyes, you can see the fear.  Sure, it’s mixed with a crazy-eyed determination, but if you look close enough, you’ll see the fear.

The Race at Monza Begins.

English: The surviving banking at the Autodrom...

English: The surviving banking at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza as photographed in September 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As they did every Sunday then, and even now to some extent, the drivers put fear aside for the greater quest- that of being ultimately quickest.  To be ultimately quickest, is not to be fastest over nor a race.  Rather, to be ultimately quickest is to be winning driver over the course of an entire season.  These guys were heavy-weights and only one could be the champion.  A lot would have been on their minds in the minutes before the flag dropped on September 2, 1956.  As is the driver’s ritual, they push it all out.  Their mind focuses on the task at hand.  They prepare to react unconsciously, on mere instinct alone.

Collins’ Fateful Decision.

By the fifth lap, the track was already shredding apart the treads of those who pushed too hard; Castellotti and Musso were already out.  Indeed, at the halfway mark, Fangio’s hopes of another consecutive championship began to fade away as the other main character in this story, the Monza track itself, destroyed a key suspension component (broken  steering arm).  The great Fangio was out of the race at half-distance.

Now, a lot of the literature on this race will have you believe that Collins’ was doing well enough be positioned to win the 1956 Championship.  This is incorrect; allow me to set the record straight without undercutting the magnitude of Collins’ gesture.  He was several spots back.  At best, he had an outside chance to score enough points to win the 1956 Championship.  Rather, he was positioned to take second in the 1956 F1 Championship.  As it stood, Stirling Moss was almost guaranteed to win the championship.  So, in this version of events, Collins’ gesture was not about whether he himself won the championship; it was whether he would give up his car and give Fangio a shot at taking the championship for Ferrari instead of letting Moss win it in a Maserati.

Now, typically, Collins’ gave a humble and self-effacing account, that he simply did not want to be the center of attention, if he were in fact to win the championship.  But, as I previously discussed, Collins’ saw the imposing Enzo Ferrari as a father-figure.  I postulate that his desire to please Enzo Ferrari, his surrogate Father from Modena, motivated his decision to hand the car over to Fangio.  For clearly, Enzo would have wanted Ferrari to win the 1956 Championship at all costs.  And so, Collins’ made his fateful decision when he pitted to hand his car over to Fangio.  Fangio was not able to catch Stirling Moss.  Indeed, Moss won  the race by a solid 5.7 seconds.  However, Fangio was able to score enough points to carry the 1956 Championship over Moss and the Maserati crew.

Epilogue.

And so, another season came to and end.  Peter Collins had settled for third place instead of second in the 1956 Formula 1 Championship.  While he may have had an outside chance at beating Moss, it was just that, an outside chance.  Most contemporary accounts suggest that Collins, by giving up his car, handed the championship to Fangio.  This is only partially true as Collins’ was only on track for second place in the championship.  But, do not let this undercut the magnitude of Collins’ fateful decision.  This was the act of a true sportsman and consummate gentleman.

In current days, teammates such as Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber fight like dogs on the track and like children off the track.  In modernity, I doubt if we will ever see again see a gesture as genuine as Collins’.  And for this, he should be regarded as a true sportsman.  In my opinion, character should play into whether one is considered an “all time great.”

Unfortunately, Collins’ career was not a long one.  I rarely speak of of what happens after the point in time I am discussing.  But, sometimes the “future” (from my 1956 perspective) is too relevant not to mention.  Collins had an amazing 1956 season.  In 1957, he won no races.  1958 was a catastrophic year for driver safety.   Peter Collins’ was killed at the 1958 German Grand Prix.  In effect, Collins’ handed over his car at the very pinnacle of his career.  In my opinion, this places great weight on Collins’ sacrifice.

If you care for more information on the 1956 Italian GP, some footage follows below:

Video Clips of the 1956 Italian GP at Monza.

Color Footage from 1956 of the Race:

Black and White footage from a British Petroleum summary (I believe).

Italian Promotional footage for Pirelli tires, allegedly from 1956, though I have not been able to confirm this face, as Fangio looks a bit aged for ’56.  However, the source for the claim is from Pirelli themselves, so I let the fact slide, unconfirmed.