Why you should know about: Peter Collins

“Peter was one of the finest and greatest gentlemen I ever met in my racing career.” – Juan Manuel Fangio

In this series, Carboretta will lend colour to those motorsport figures that time forgot. Whilst fans bemoan the PR-driven racers of today, the past is littered with characters of genuine complexity.
In this, the third instalment, we take a closer look at Peter Collins, a sportsman of the purest kind, and a truly formidable racing driver.

Peter Collins is perhaps best known for his role as one half of motor racing’s most profound friendship. The legends of ‘Senna’ and ‘Prost’ are inseparable thanks to the intense hatred they harboured for one another, but ‘Collins’ and ‘Hawthorn’ are just as indelibly linked, albeit for the opposite reason. They were essentially brothers.

As is often the case with these historical convergences, one name is spoken of more frequently – or showered with more glory – than the other. Unlike Senna and Prost, there is no simplistic ‘Good Guy’, ‘Bad Guy’ pigeon-holing; only the fact that Hawthorn was World Champion and Collins was not.

Naturally, then, the former is more commonly celebrated.

Mike Hawthorn is rightly honoured for his achievements in becoming Britain’s maiden conqueror of the Grand Prix landscape. As a result, we know rather less about Collins. Perhaps, then, it is about time some light was shed on this suave –and incredibly gifted – gentleman.

Born in 1931 in Kidderminster to a garage owner and haulage merchant, Collins began racing during the 1949 season with a Formula 3 Cooper-Norton, and made a rapid impression. Before too long he was competing for Aston Martin’s sports car team, earning a significant victory in the 1952 Goodwood Nine Hours.

Results for Collins in the Aston DB3S continued to pour in over the subsequent few years; the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in ’53, and runner-up finishes at Le Mans in 1955 and 1956 with Paul Frere and Stirling Moss respectively.

This was all by-the-by, though, as Peter had long since earned his promotion to Formula 1, making his debut in 1952, for the Hersham and Walton Motors team. Stints with Vanwall and Maserati followed; but the Englishman’s Grand Prix career truly took off when he signed a Ferrari contract for 1956.

This is where Peter’s story becomes more than a collection of minor stats in a pub quiz.

As if by magic; once that Scuderia contract was signed, decent results began to flow generously in Collins’ direction. Second place behind Stirling Moss at the Monaco Grand Prix, and wins in Belgium and France brought him to the brink of a maiden world title.

It was his losing of this championship that ultimately defined Peter Collins.

Team-leader Fangio suffered a steering-arm breakage with barely half of the race completed. He was, along with Moss and Collins, vying for the world championship, and his fourth personal title.

Collins, in a profound act of sportsmanship, pulled into the pits and handed the Maestro his Lancia-Ferrari D50.

Fangio, bowled over by this gesture, duly recovered the necessary places to become World Champion.

Collins eventually registered third in the final points table, behind Fangio and Moss. Far more significantly, however, was that his standing rose immeasurably taller following this episode. As the Argentinian later admitted: “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.”

During these times, it is worth noting that Collins featured heavily in high profile sports car events, winning the 1955 Targa Florio in the Mercedes 300SLR with Stirling Moss, finished second in a Ferrari 860 Monza at the Mille Miglia and Swedish Sports Car GP in a Ferrari 290MM with Wolfgang von Trips in 1956.

Meanwhile in 1957, aboard a Ferrari 335S, he finished runner-up in the Nurburgring 1000Km (sharing with Olivier Gendebien) and won the Venezuelan Sports Car GP with Phil Hill.

Having taken up residency in Monaco, and married American actress Louise King, Collins was joined at Ferrari by Mike Hawthorn for the 1957 Grand Prix season.

The pair rapidly built a formidable alliance, becoming such firm friends that they agreed to share their prize money with one-another. This love-in also served to alienate team-mate Luigi Musso, an Italian, who regularly bore the brunt of the duo’s bombastic humour.

The prize-money arrangement was perhaps a tad wishful, as the Ferrari 801 was underpowered all season, Collins only managing to claim a sole third-place finish, at the German Grand Prix.

Of course, the improved 246 Dino engine made its not inconsiderable bow in 1958. Whilst results were slow initially, Collins did win the non-championship International Trophy.

This did little to ease the building tension within Maranello.

Things came to an inevitable head at Le Mans. Hawthorn and Collins were sharing a car, and after a strong stint early on from Mike, the Ferrari retired with a clutch problem, under Peter’s watch.

Enzo strongly suspected that the duo deliberately destroyed the clutch in order to avoid driving through the rain storm that was developing over the circuit. Whether it was true or not was a moot point – Collins was heavily punished.

The Englishman was once the Old Man’s favourite. A surrogate son after the death of young Dino. No longer. When Peter arrived at Reims for the French Grand Prix, he found himself entered only for the Formula 2 race.

It’s the sort of scenario that haunts the sleep of any racing driver, and would have been slightly amusing if it wasn’t for the seriousness of the occasion.

Enzo Ferrari had rapidly exorcised any goodwill towards Collins, and it was only the efforts of Hawthorn that ensured Collins was reinstated as a Formula 1 driver.

The cloud surrounding Ferrari continued until the following round at Silverstone; for although Hawthorn had scored a brilliant victory in France – Musso, in his enthusiasm, attempted to keep up with the inspired Briton. Tragically, he was killed on the 10th lap.

Having qualified only fourth, Collins made a lightning getaway, and blasted past race leader Moss into Becketts. Emphatic in his domination, Peter won the British Grand Prix, with Mike following him home in second.

I’m sure Mr Ferrari allowed himself a wry smile at this point. Thick as thieves the two Brits may have been, but they delivered when it mattered most.

It was this beautiful summer’s afternoon in Northamptonshire that made the subsequent events all the more dreadful.

The 1958 German Grand Prix was, by half distance, a dice between Collins, Hawthorn and the Vanwall driven by an inspired Tony Brooks.

The Racing Dentist, as Brooks was affectionately known, was being hounded by Collins in particular. The Ferrari driver, in his passionate pursuit, is thought to have marginally misjudged his braking point for Pflanzgarten.

Losing control as he entered the treacherous corner, Peter’s car somersaulted off into the trees. Having flown from his cockpit, there was no way that Collins could have survived. He passed away later that afternoon, from horrific head injuries.

The death shook Grand Prix racing deeply. Even in an age when death was commonplace, the passing of Peter Collins was appalling. A gentleman to his innermost core, and one of the greatest Britons to race in the fifties.

Peter’s dear friend Mike Hawthorn, having won the World Championship, promptly retired, shaken and heartbroken.

Perhaps the final words should be reserved for Tony Brooks: “I was very fond of him. Such a pleasant, friendly character.” So he was.

*Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Previous ‘Why you should know…’ instalments: 

Stefan Bellof

Achille Varzi

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