The story of F1 is in a state of transition. Not only are the British teams rising to the front, but a dark cloud will begin to hang over the sport. For a sobering statistic: Out of the twenty-one starters in the 1958 French Grand Prix, five will be killed in racing cars in the next three years. This season alone will see two more deaths before the season’s end. And yet, the race always goes on.
To me, this raises a question. What drove these men to risk their lives purely to be fastest around a track? Simply, I still have no answer. But, I am beginning to see that they sought immortality. In a sense, they must have accepted death. And I guess this is a start to understanding greatness in the face of danger.
Luigi Musso. 1924-1958.
Musso was the son of an Italian diplomat. He had a wealthy upbringing. He gravitated toward racing and came up through the local sports car races. Eventually, he got the start as many wealthy drivers did at that time, they picked up a Maserati 250F – an affordable but competitive car. In 1954, he scored second at the Spanish Grand Prix and his career was off. A string of good results the next year got Enzo’s attention. By 1956, he was a member of the Scuderia Ferrari factory squad. He got his first win as part of a shared drive, when Fangio ordered him to hand over his car at the 1956 Argentine Grand Prix.
He struggled to keep pace with teamates Hawthorn and Collins in the 1957 season. When Eugenio Castelloti died in March of that year, Musso inherited the hopes of all of Italy and then burden that accompanies it. He was not successful in family matters. He end up leaving his wife and two children for a 24 year old bombshell. He also got involved in some terrible business deals. For example, he tried to import hundreds of Pontiacs, but never considered that they would not fit on Italian streets. Between business debt, child support, and alimony, Musso found himself on the cusp of financial ruin. Considering his situation, and the pressure of an entire nation, he had to do well. He simply could not fail. I am sure there was a determination deep inside him to not let anything stop him from being world champion.
After the Belgian Grand Prix, Musso sat in third place with Moss and Hawthorn poised to take off and leave him to far behind to catch up. It was now or never for Musso at the French Grand Prix. The pressure would prove fatal.
The 1958 French Grand Prix.
The flag dropped and the cars were off. American, Harry Schell got the jump off the line. But, Mike Hawthorn had a secret weapon, his Ferrari Dino 246s F1 suspension was redesigned for this race. By the end of the lap, the ‘golden boy’ Mike Hawthorn was in the lead. Luigi Musso was next in line. But, at the Reims circuit, it was all about slipstreaming.
As inevitable in any slipstreaming battle, a propely organized gaggle can overtake a lone runner. Eventually, Collins, Brooks, Behra, Moss, Fangio, and Schell engulfed Musso. Corner by corner, inch by inch, and apex by apex, Musso broke free of the crowd.
He was on Hawthorn’s trail. But, Mike was quick, too quick. On the 9th or 10th lap (depending on your source), Luigi Musso took a long corner flat out, well-beyond what was safe. Musso ran wide and clipped the curb. Clipping the curb flung his car into a series of somersaults. Musso was hurled into the air like a ragdoll. It is not clear if he was even alive by the time he was thrown from the car. Hawthorn would have seen him disappear in his mirror. Eventually, a medical helicopter landed. There was nothing to be done. Musso had died instantly in the wreck.
Shortly thereafter, Fangio announced his retirement from Grand Prix racing. Unlike some champions, he never attempted to return. It is not clear how heavily Musso’s tragic death weighed on him, but it could not have been far from his reasons for quitting at that moment. We will never know the precise reasons for his retirement. He remarked simply, that he was “lonely.”
So long, Juan-Manuel Fangio, it’s been good.
I also had to dig up my first mashup, because it was pretty Fangio-centric:
- Stirling Moss – 23
- Mike Hawthorn – 23
- Luigi Musso – 12 (deceased)
- Scuderia Ferrari – 28
- Vanwall – 22
- Cooper-Climax – 19