The 1958 German GP: Death at the Nürburgring.

Two weeks before the 1958 German Grand Prix, Peter Collins won the British GP.  It would be his final Grand Prix.  The German GP took place at the Nürburgring, a tortuous stretch of track woven around the mountain beneath the Castle Nürburg.  It has been called “the green hell.”  The title is well-deserved.  Still a mecca for auto-enthusiasts, its unforgiving nature has taken the life of scores of professionals and amateurs.  Depending on who is counting, there are at least 100 corners.  Each lap is a grueling 14 miles taking, for the ’58 GP cars, over nine minutes to complete a single lap.  The track is nearly impossible to  memorize, it requires a willingness to remember only the dangerous bits and to drive the rest on instinct alone.  But, as this race illustrates, the ‘ring punishes over-confidence in one’s abilities.

Mike Hawthorn stuck his Ferrari on pole with a time of 9:14.0; however, the light and agile British Vanwall‘s of Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss were not far behind.  As a side note, the F2 cars – due to the length of the track – were run at the same time at the F1 cars.  The F2 entry list is essentially a who’s who list of the next generation of F1 stars: Bruce McLaren, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, and Jack Brabham.

The Race is off.

Stirling Moss, true to form, took the early lead.  He led the first three laps around the monstrous ring before his magneto gave out.  As points were no longer awarded for shared drives, Moss was out of luck.  This left the Ferrari’s Hawthorn and Collins leading the race.  Tony Brooks, in a Vanwall, was a bit further back.

Eventually, Peter Collins was able to get ahead of Mike Hawthorn.  Tony Brooks was hard charging in third trying to catch the red Ferrari’s in front of him.  The Ferrari’s had the most power, but  they also had shortcomings.  The Ferrari Dino 246s F1 was heavier than the Vanwall, which made it slower in the twisties.  It also used drum brakes, a technology which was quickly becoming outdated in racing (in favor of disc brakes).  These drum brakes were particularly susceptible to brake fade.  If you are not familiar with brake fade, it is basically what it sounds like.  If drum brakes are used too heavily, they get hot.  Past a certain point, they are too hot to generate sufficient friction to slow the car.  The next thing you know, you are flying around into a corner only to have the brake pedal hit the floor with nothing left to give.

Tony Brooks and his British racing green Vanwall charged hard, lap after lap.  By the eight or ninth lap (depending on what report you read), Brooks caught the scarlet Ferrari’s.  An epic battle among three very capable drivers transpired among the piney forest of the Castle Nürburg.  The battle continued into the tenth lap of the 15 lap GP.

Lap: 10; Corner: Pflanzgarten.

The three cars were passing each other.  Collins had dropped into second place.  Then, they approached the treacherous complex known as Pflanzgarten.  Clockwise, from top left, you can see the blind corner before the complex, proper, just begging drivers to crest with maximum speed.  Moving to the right, you can see what follows that blind crest: a dog-leg left that breaks right, crests again and heads into the ultimately fateful corner in the distance.  Cars  become airborne over the last crest.  So, there is an art to tapping your brakes just at the right moment.  Flying over the final drop too quickly leaves insufficient time to make the final corner of the complex.

Whether from over-confidence, as traditionally accepted, or whether from brake fade, as suggested by Michael Cannel in his book “The Limit,” Peter Collins came over the crest too quickly.  He went wide around the hard right following the dip.  His left tires left the track, hooked on a ditch, and flung Peter Collins’ helpless body into a nearby (and since removed) tree.

The facts from here, become unclear, in part due to the lack of communication between various parts of the track.  However, Peter Collins suffered a devastating traumatic brain injury.  He was airlifted to the local hospital.  Rescue efforts were unsuccessful.  Word came back late that evening that Collins was dead.

Peter Collins had married the love of his life only 18 months earlier.  In those days, the wives first hint of disaster occurred when their husband did not appear in a reasonable time.  Her worst suspicions were confirmed when Mike Hawthorn pitted.  They knew each other; she looked at him but Hawthorn avoided eye contact.  He had seen the accident.  He knew, but could not manage to tell her.

Tony Brooks went on to win the race, but had little to celebrate as they awaited the eventual news of Collins’ death.  Champion just a fortnight earlier, Collins’ was dead.  He was the second, but not final, fatality of the 1958 Formula 1 season.

Driver’s Championship:

  •  Mike Hawthorn – 30
  • Stirling Moss – 24
  • Tony Brooks – 16

Constructor’s Championship:

  • Scuderia Ferrari – 37 (39)*
  • Vanwall – 33
  • Cooper-Climax – 29

*In those days, only a certain number of finishes counted toward the championship.  Although Ferrari had 39 total points for the season, only their best finishes counted.