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Death or victory at the Grand Prix
With one race left, says Michael Cannell, American Phil Hill had a shot to be the Grand Prix champion of 1961
In 1961, speed car driver Phil Hill became the first American to become the Grand Prix champion.
In 1961, speed car driver Phil Hill became the first American to become the Grand Prix champion.
Bettmann/CORBIS
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HEY BEGAN ARRIVING a day in advance. The loyal Ferrari following — the tifosi — rolled up in caravans of Fiats and battered motorbikes to camp among the chestnut groves that spread more than 600 acres around the boomerang-shaped racetrack in Monza, Italy. By the glow of evening campfires they raised cups of grappa to the great drivers, the piloti who once thundered around the terrible banked turns of the Autodromo Nazionale. Most of them were gone now. Between 1957 and 1961, 20 Grand Prix drivers had died. Many more suffered terrible injuries. In the days before seat belts and roll bars, they were crushed, burned, and beheaded with unnerving regularity.

Inside the Autodromo, half a dozen teams and 32 drivers warmed up for the 267-mile Italian Grand Prix, the climactic race of the 1961 season. The spotlight was focused squarely on Ferrari teammates, drivers Phil Hill and Count Wolfgang von Trips. The next afternoon, on Sunday, Sept. 10, they would settle their long fight for the Grand Prix title, racing's highest laurel.

Von Trips held a four-point edge — points are awarded for first- through sixth-place finishes — and he had earned the advantageous pole position with the fastest practice laps. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, Von Trips was descended from German nobility, and he cut a glamorous figure even in Grand Prix circles. He had the comportment of a champion, though he had crashed so many times he was plagued with the nickname Count von Crash. Hill, a California mechanic and hot-rodder, was a solitary man, given to apprehension and self-doubts about racing. He had won at Monza a year earlier, and he had set several lap records. If Von Trips was the erratic star, Hill was his rock-steady complement. Like any great sports story, it was a pairing of opposites.

The two men had traded checkered flags all summer as the Grand Prix made its way through six European countries. Neither one was Italian, which suited Enzo Ferrari, the reclusive white-haired padrone of the Ferrari empire. Every time an Italian driver died, the government launched a meddlesome investigation and the Vatican made thunderous condemnations.

The location only heightened the suspense. The Italians called Monza the death circuit, in part because the banked turns catapulted errant cars like cannonballs. The sloped surface was coarse and pockmarked, and it exerted a centrifugal pull that the fragile Formula 1 cars were not designed to handle. More dangerous still, the long straights allowed drivers to touch 180 mph, and to slipstream inches apart. A series of tight curves, known as chicanes, had been installed to slow the cars, but it was still a track to be driven flat out.

ON A MILD and clear mid-September morning, the drivers went through their prerace routine wearing polo shirts and sunglasses. Hill asked a mechanic to splash a bucket of water on the back of his coveralls to keep him cool. Von Trips was as relaxed as ever, napping on a bench in the corner of the pits. He roused himself and ate a pear as the crew rolled his car into the pole position — the inside slot on the front row — marked with a white line on the gray asphalt. It was the only time that Von Trips had earned the top spot. "We may be teammates," he said of Hill as he adjusted his silver helmet, "but one has to fight. I love fighting."

Everything but the fight faded in the closing moments before the start. Mechanics darted about, shouting at one another in four languages. A heaving crowd of 50,000 packed the grandstands and bleachers, pressed against wire fences at the edge of the 6.2-mile course. It was their moment to see a Ferrari renaissance, to defeat the hated Brits and their Lotus cars. The drivers emerged from the pits in Dunlop coveralls and lowered themselves one by one into their cars.

Five, four, three, two, one. The Italian flag swung down and the cars leaped. Hill's car had "a stumble to it," he said, "but when the flag dropped I was gone."

Von Trips had a history of early faltering. It often took him a lap or so to shed his jitters and find his rhythm. True to form, he missed a few beats at the start and mired himself in a pack of six cars following Hill in tight formation, moving inches apart through the broad Curva Grande and the two sharp rights at the Curva di Lesmo. Von Trips was in fourth as the group charged down the long backstretch and around the big south curve to finish the first lap.

With Hill pulling away, Von Trips surely felt an urgency to maneuver his way up through the tightly bunched field. It was still early, but if he got trapped in traffic he might forfeit his chance for a top finish, and with it his edge over Hill. With teeth bared he passed the defending world champion Jack Brabham and Lotus's Jim Clark in two powerful blasts of acceleration.

On the second lap, Von Trips sped through a bend in the backstretch with Clark trailing behind and slightly to his left. The bend slowed them only slightly as they rolled into the fastest stretch, a straight where drivers could press the accelerator for nearly 30 full seconds. Moving at 150 mph, Von Trips watched for his chance to pass.

Four hundred feet before the next turn the German swerved left to make his move. In his haste to catch Hill, he was unaware that Clark had stayed close. He may have assumed that Clark was slipstreaming directly behind him. In any case, Von Trips "shifted sideways," Clark later said, "so that my front wheels collided with his back wheels. It was the fatal moment."

VON TRIPS COMMITTED a tiny miscalculation, a miscue of no more than an inch, but at 150 mph it was enough to sling him onto a grassy shoulder to the left. His wheels plowed the soft earth, as the car rode up a 5-foot slope where spectators stood two deep behind a chest-high chicken-wire fence. In an instant of explosive violence, the Ferrari slashed along the fence for about 10 feet, shredding spectators like a big red razor, then bounced end-over-end back onto the track. The mauled car came to rest right side up with its wheels collapsed inward.

Five spectators standing along the fence died instantly, their skulls crushed by the threshing car. The survivors screamed in reaction to the death all around them. Bodies lay in scattered clumps. Ten more would die later. More than 50 were injured.

Meanwhile, Clark's Lotus spun and struck the embankment several times before coming to a rest in the grassy stretch beside the road. The car was crushed, but Clark squirmed out unscathed.

The man who was supposed to be the Grand Prix champion lay facedown on the track in bloodied coveralls, alone and motionless. His car had rolled on top of him, then, on the next bounce, flung him like a rag doll. His distinctive silver helmet had not saved him, nor had the flimsy roll bar.

Clark jumped from his car and helped a race marshal drag Von Trips's car to the shoulder. He glanced at Von Trips, but could not bring himself to check on him. "I didn't really want to go over to where he lay," Clark said. With his helmet tucked under his arm, Clark went back to the pits, where he all but collapsed.

Von Trips had died of skull fractures by the time an ambulance arrived. In a few savage seconds, no more than a few heartbeats, all his charm and promise, all the hope he offered to his troubled homeland, came to a violent end.

A paramedic spread a sheet over the body. A bloodied forearm dangled from the shroud as Von Trips was carried to the ambulance on a stretcher. It was the public's last glimpse of him. All over Germany people froze over their coffee or pilsner, as the radio sportscaster waited for a messenger from the Ferrari pit to explain why the count had not come around on the last lap.

Meanwhile, the race flowed on with Hill leading Moss by 18 seconds. Drivers wove through the smoke and debris, slowed by a marshal waving a flag of caution while the bloodied bodies were laid out on the roadside covered in tent canvas and newspapers. No announcement was made to the crowd.

Hill passed the scene 41 more times that afternoon. On each lap he glimpsed the crumpled remains of the car, but he was uncertain whose it was until he saw Von Trips's name removed from the scoreboard.

After Von Trips crashed, three other Ferraris dropped out. Watching on television in Modena, Enzo Ferrari said, 'Abbiamo perduto.' We have lost. It was a curious reaction given that Hill was driving a nearly perfect race, a masterpiece of precision and pacing. Less than two hours after Von Trips crashed, Hill whipped by the checkered flag in first place, the only one of five Ferraris to finish.

The win gave Hill nine points, clinching the championship. He had overcome waves of obstacles — Ferrari's partisanship, a late-summer deficit in points, an 11th-hour engine failure — to become the first American to win racing's greatest prize. Among other things, the win resolved the tug-of-war between anguish and ambition that had gripped him for more than a decade. It affirmed a pursuit that he had so often doubted.

Hill had arrived at the triumphant moment that had drawn him since childhood like a distant light. The realization that he had prevailed — the wondrous reality of it — came over him that day as "a warming relief, a soaring feeling."

Hill walked to the victory podium in a throng of pushing, swaying well-wishers. Sweat matted his hair and goggles dangled from his neck. He sipped from a bottle of mineral water and asked about Von Trips. "I suspected the worst, but it was not until after champagne and congratulations on the victory stand that I was told," he said later.
 

Sports Illustrated reported that Hill sobbed and dashed away as the flashbulbs popped. But he was too inured for that. Hill may have sagged. He may have paled beneath his sooty cheeks. But his face betrayed nothing but stony acceptance. "At the risk of seeming to be callous I can only say that my emotional defenses are pretty strong," he later wrote.

Von Trips claimed all the morning headlines. The newspapers buried Hill's triumph, if they mentioned it at all. The insinuation was that Von Trips was the rightful winner. Hill was merely an understudy, despite two first-place finishes, two seconds, and two thirds. The New York Times printed an account of Von Trips' death on its front page. Mention of the new champion waited until after the story jumped to page 33. "He knows that his victory has been so submerged in the press under the death toll," the reporter wrote, "that few people even realize he is champion."



©2011 by Michael Cannell, reprinted courtesy of Twelve. Excerpted from The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit.

 

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