Peter John Collins (06/11/31 – 03/08/58): When the altruism of an F1 pilot reached its highest pointWritten by Αναστάσιος Ίσαρης
Translated by Ioannis Binas
Many championships were judged either by luck and misfortune or by prearrangement, but only one was judged by the human will.
Peter was born on November 6, 1931, in Mustow Green, Worcestershire, Britain, by Pat and Elaine Collins.
His father owned a garage and traded engines, so little Peter was «infected» by the relevant virus from a very young age!
From the age of 16 already, he was expelled from school, because he was more fond of wandering around the cars of a nearby dealership, than paying attention to class.
He was a devoted apprentice at his father’s garage in order to learn more about engines and started racing in local events.
Like many of the postwar era, including Stirling Moss, his serious involvement started when, at the age of 17, he received as a birthday gift from his father a Cooper-Norton car with a 5500cc motorcycle engine (positioned, of course, behind the driver) and, at the end of 1950, competed in the newly formed Formula 3 category.
In 1952, he was incorporated in Aston Martin and at the sport category he managed to win the 9-hour Goodwood race.
On the next year, with the sportive Aston Martin DB3S, he shared the win with Pat Griffith, at the Tourist Trophy of Dundrod.
Since 1952, he was reading in F1 with the uncompetitive British HWM, replacing Stirling Moss, without any serious hopes for distinction.
In 1954, he was tempted to drive in a few races on behalf of Vanwall, as did in 1955, this time for Maserati.
With the latter, he won the International Trophy non-championship race.
In the same year, Stirling Moss, driving for Mercedes now, asked him to be his partner for the Targa Florio race (Sicily), which they eventually won.
Mercedes began giving him the good eye but retired from racing and the any flirting didn’t bear fruit.
In September of the same year, he tested with the BRM P25 but had a painful exit during Aintree’s qualifying.
His literally passionate and fearless driving style hadn’t gone unnoticed though, but he had to go the extra mile.
He was among the few that didn’t hesitate to race for an ‘alien’ team, contrary to the prevailing view of his time, when Chauvinism was apparent.
In the end, after the intervention of his brotherly friend, Hawthorn, to Enzo, he signed with Ferrari for 1956, since Hawthorn himself considered he had to remain in Britain to comfort his mother for his father’s, Leslie Hawthorn, death in a car accident and couldn’t race for Ferrari.
That «lucky» way, Peter’s destiny was sealed with the Italian team and his worth became apparent almost immediately.
The year of 1956 has remained in F1 history as the most representative of that decade for that era’s peculiarities as well as its unexpected result and, to my opinion, it’s worth seeing it in detail.
It was the year Mercedes didn’t compete in racing anymore and Lancia, facing financial problems, granted its drivers and single-seaters to Ferrari.
In Argentina, with the old Ferrari 555, he had an exit and retired, in a race where the team ordered Luigi Musso to give his car to J. M. Fangio, who had also retired with a fuel supply problem.
In spite of Maserati’s rightful objections, because he was pushed to start after a spin, Ferrari wasn’t penalized and the Argentinean shared the 8 points of the win.
Let it be noted that besides Ferrari, with 6 cars, Maserati was the only other contestant, with 10 cars.
In Monaco, having at his hands the «official» Lancia – Ferrari D50 for the first time and in spite of starting 9th, he found himself 2nd behind Stirling Moss, but, once again, the team ordered him to let the Argentinean pass.
When it was proven that it wasn’t enough, a new order followed, to hand his car over to Fangio, who initially had a spin, received Castellotti’s car, and then hit a wall, thus receiving Peter’s car too, to share with him the 6 points of 2nd place... quite a tangle.
At the wet Spa, Peter started 3rd and managed to stay 2nd behind Fangio, who had the pole and was leading.
On lap 24 though (out of 36) the Argentinean’s driving axle broke and he couldn’t return to the pits in order to continue with Peter’s car.
That was taken advantage of by the Brit, who took his 1st win, 1 minute, 51 seconds and 3 tenhts in front of Paul Frere.
In Reims of France, starting 3rd, he immediately took charge, but on the completion of the 1st lap, he lost his position to Castellotti and Fangio.
After the latter’s compulsory visit to the pits due to a fuel leak, he had a fearsome fight with the other D50 of Castellotti and 1st place switched hands 2 times before he eventually managed to grab it and finish 0.3’’ in front.
At Silverstone, Collins started 4th and remained 3rd for the greatest part of the race, behind Moss and Fangio, but, facing a problem with oil pressure, he reached the pits and by Ferrari’s order, continued with Alfonso de Portago’s single-seater, eventually finishing 2nd, one lap behind the winner Fangio and with half the points of it.
At the Nurburgring, the Brit started from 2nd position and immediately took charge, for 1 lap though, as he was overtaken by Fangio.
The two single-seaters pulled away from their competitors, when, suddenly, Peter’s cockpit filled with smoke, forcing him to return to the pits at once.
It was discovered there that the fuel supply hose had ruptured, while he was walking with difficulty, dazed by the fumes he had inhaled.
As soon as he recovered a bit, he took Alfonso de Portago’s car and unleashed himself, chasing 3rd place, but he was overconfident and making one of his rare mistakes, exited the track and retired.
The last and most crucial race of the season was in Monza, where the 3 title contenders, Fangio, Behra and Collins, had 30, 22 and 22 points respectively.
Only 7 Lancia – Ferrari D50 competed in the race (there was an 8th but Von Trips had a serious accident in testing and didn’t start) as well as... 13 Maserati 250F!
Starting from 7th position, Peter reached 5th, while the two Ferraris ahead of him, those of Luigi Musso and Eugenio Castellotti, were fighting each other, wearing their tires.
When the cars ahead of him started facing retirements and problems, he found himself in 2nd position.
The great favorite, Fangio, in the middle of the 50 lap race, had to retire from a problem with the steering column.
The people of Ferrari stood frozen, watching the championship fade away for the Argentinean, and at the same time, Musso, who wasn’t heading for the championship, refused to give his single-seater to Fangio, because he wanted to win.
15 laps to the end, the unexpected happened.
Peter Collins enters the pits without any previous warning, jumps out of the car and signals Fangio to get in and continue his race, which is what happened indeed, in front of the team’s stunned personnel.
What exceeds the human logic, is that the Brit could have been the champion.
He only needed the win to equal the points of Fangio, but had claimed 2 second places over 1 for Fangio.
And in case he performed the fastest lap of the race too, that was awarded with 1 point, the matter would be perfectly clear.
We should keep in mind that only 5 of the total 7 races counted that year (there was an 8th in Indianapolis, but the European teams didn’t compete in it).
The fascinating development of the race justified those thoughts.
Five laps to the end, Stirling Moss, who was leading the race by a great margin, ran out of fuel and rolled with the engine switched off, unable to reach the pits to refuel.
Acting as a deus ex machina, his teammate, Luigi Piotti, gave the solution, retiring from the race and pushing Moss to the pits, using his own car (!), whilst Musso was passing into 1st, but with just 3 laps remaining, he faced a problem with steering at the sloping part, crashed into the wall and retired.
To sum up, the way the race developed, if Peter hadn’t given his car, he would be the winner, and, certainly, the champion.
Moss’ win was a fact for 5.7 seconds (together with the fastest lap at 2.45.5.) but the Argentinean’s 2nd place had secured him his 3rd world championship.
An important parameter must be mentioned here.
Enzo Ferrari knew very well that Maserati possessed a much better car that the one his team was racing with.
He also knew Fangio’s ‘weakness’ to always race for the team that possessed the better single-seater and tried with all his might to give the extra aid to the Argentinean so he would win the championship and wouldn’t move to his competitor next year (even if he wasn’t successful after all).
In any way however, Enzo felt a tremendous relief and gratitude towards the British and having recently lost the 24year old Dino, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to support that he considered the same aged Collins as a surrogate.
J. M. Fangio had similar feelings and he characteristically said:
"I was moved almost to tears by the gesture... Peter was one of the finest and greatest gentlemen I ever met in my racing career."
Later on, with brutal honesty, he had said that in case things were the opposite, there would be no force on earth that would make him get out of his car and hand it over to somebody else.
On the other hand, Peter’s comments left the whole world stunned, even though the Gentleman racers spirit was all alive.
After the race, Collins reasoned that he just simply enjoyed driving a racing car on the limit and that, at 25 years of age, he wasn't ready to cope with the demands that go along with being a world champion.
«All I could think of out there was that if I won the race and the championship I would become an instant celebrity. I would have a position to live up to. People would make demands of me. I would be expected at all times to act like 'The Champion’.»
He would soon regret the chance he lost of being the first British F1 world champion.
The development of things for Peter wasn’t the same, as, always, the shine of a great act lasts only for a while.
Νext came the gradient wear of the relationships...
At the end of that year, he moved to Monaco to avoid the compulsory military service.
In January 1957, aged 25, he married the American actress Louise King, daughter of a distinguished diplomat, and after a few months of staying at Maranello, they moved to a yacht at the port of Monaco, with continuous partying, cosmic lifestyle and a generally relaxing and carefree life.
In 1957, as expected, Fangio moved to Maserati and his place at Ferrari was covered by the newly brought star, Mike Hawthorn, with whom they were already bonded with brotherly friendship.
The two Brits with Italian Luigi Musso, constituted Ferrari’s arsenal.
Ferrari’s single-seater, however, the 801, was heavier and less powerful than Maserati’s.
The two Brits agreed to share the money prizes of the races, irrespectively of who would win.
That deal led to a certain form of clash with Musso, whilst Enzo was rubbing his hands with satisfaction, as that rivalry immediately resulted in driving to the limit, especially at the sports cars category, which was the team’s principal financial source.
Peter excelled in the 1st race of the season, when, from 5th, he led the race, but was soon betrayed by his clutch (as the other 2 Ferraris) and retired.
He proved he was a genuine driving talent in Monaco,
when he managed to overtake Fangio for 2nd place, and, when on lap 4, Moss slipped and had an accident, Peter, in order to avoid him, got off the track and retired.
In France (Rouen), he finished 3rd from 5th,while,in Britain (Aintree), starting 8th,he reached up to 4th to retire on lap 54 out of 90, by a leak of the cooling system.
In the Nurburgring, Peter started 4th and immediately was in position of fighting with Hawthorn for the 1st position.
However, on lap 3 of 22, Fangio overtook them both, but, later, fell behind, after a slow pit stop for tires and refueling.
The lead was switching between the two Ferraris... but the great Argentinean had no match that day, managing to cover 48 seconds of difference in 22 laps with an epic march.
He managed to overtake both British on the penultimate lap and claim the win and the championship, having the best race of his career.
Collins finished 3rd, 1 position behind his team-mate.
At the race of Pescara, after Enzo’s prohibition, the official Ferrari didn’t participate for reasons of high risk, while, on the last race of the season that was held in Monza, starting from the 7th position and gradually ascending to 3rd, he retired from engine on lap 63.
That year saw him finish 9th overall, behind Musso (3rd) and Hawthorn (4th).
In the non championship races though, he had 2 wins in 4 entries, in Syracuse (Sicily) and Naples.
In 1958, they had at their disposal the new and much improved Ferrari Dino 246 and the improved performance first became apparent through the win in the 1000 kilometers of Buenos Aires, as well as from a 3rd place in Monaco... but Enzo’s patience with Collins and his supposedly relaxing life style had depleted.
He was convinced that he wasn’t trying hard enough to improve the sports cars, apparently affected by the adoption of the playboy life style.
Ahead of the F1 races, the season started hopefully with a win in the non championship race of the International Trophy.
In the 24 hours of Le Mans however, Ferrari’s engineers insisted that Peter intentionally overheated the Ferrari’s clutch to avoid racing (with Hawthorn as a team-mate) under heavy rain conditions.
They managed to «cool down» the clutch, but it was already late... Collins had already left and he was sighted in Britain drinking beers in a pub prior to the end of the race.
Enzo, furious, immediately downgraded him to the F2.
Nevertheless, he didn’t miss any F1 race of that season, as the intervention of his friend, Hawthorn, was immediate and catalytic.
In the race of Reims, Mike threatened not to race if Peter wouldn’t race too and Enzo, who was really fond of him, succumbed.
After the race that Hawthorn won, however, and in spite of Peter’s misfortune, that on lap 5, something «forgotten by his engineers» stuck under the brake pedal, resulting in him exiting the track to eventually finish 5th, Enzo, clearly affected by Musso’s death... fired him again.
Hawthorn reacted immediately for yet another time... he flew to Modena and, furious, broke the 2 doors that were stopping him from reaching Commendatore to state at him that if he wouldn’t hire Peter back, he would never race for Ferrari again.
Enzo, unwilling to lose his aspiring champion, succumbed once again.
In the next race, at Silverstone, Collins literally had the race of his life... following the team’s directions, from the 6th position, with a dynamic start, he found himself 1st at once... followed by pole man and big favorite, Stirling Moss, with the Vanwall VW57.
His purpose was to aid Hawthorn by exhausting Moss, who possessed a superior single-seater.
After the latter’s retirement however, Ferrari, watching Peter’s unreal performance, and since Hawthorn was comfortably 2nd,didnt intervene, and, that way, the fired driver achieved a fantastic win, driving for 45 (out of 75) laps at maximum limit, proving he was made of a very strong alloy that neglected all the danger this kind of driving was harnessing.
The difference from his team-mate was 24 seconds and he reached the 3rd place of the general standings.
An amazed Rob Walker (Stirling Moss’s manager) hugged him after the race and said to him that he found his drive frightening and he should never drive like that again.
That was his 3rd and last win in F1.
15 days later, it was time for the race of Nurburgring, with Collins starting 4th.
On the 1st lap, he overtook the later victor, Tony Brooks, with the Vanwall, and on the 4th one, taking advantage of the leaders, Moss, retirement, he overtook Hawthorn and reached 1st place.
The situation remained unchanged until lap 11 (out of 15), when Brooke retook the lead.
This is where Peter tried to follow him, and in the cluster of Pflanzgarten corners, the Ferrari slightly opened its course and as a result, its outer wheel hit a pothole on the track, the single-seater turned upside down and ejected its driver.
The British had the terrible misfortune of hitting with the head on the only tree that was near the spot, while all the rest forest trees were starting further back.
His helmet cracked from the impact... unfortunately just like his skull.
He was found unconscious and was transferred to the hospital, from where, without regaining consciousness at any time, the following night, he departed for the circuits of heaven.
It was August 3 and he was just 26 years old.
It was a tragic irony that Ferrari’s other pilot, Luigi Musso, was lost in a similar way, 1 month ago.
Mike Hawthorn, crushed by his dear friend’s loss, as soon as he conquered that year’s championship (with 2 races remaining after Nurburgring), he retired from F1.
As for Peter Collins... the years might have passed and his incredible altruistic action of 1956 might have faded away, compared to Fangio’s glory, but for those who knew him, he remained in their memories as a blond haired with masculine beauty (perhaps, the most handsome pilot of his time), laughing and lively young man that loved good living and racing.
He was always driving with his heart and not his mind, each time as if it was his final race; as if there was no tomorrow, which, eventually, there wasn’t.
November 6, 1931 – August 3, 1958
Active years in Formula 1: 1952 – 1958
Teams: HWM, Vanwall, Maserati, Ferrari
Races: 35 (32 starts)