“I would not have been proud of beating him through his bad luck” – Peter Collins
So said Peter Collins after he handed his car over to team-mate and championship-rival Juan Manuel Fangio at the title-deciding 1956 Italian Grand Prix, willingly giving up any claim he had on what would have been a maiden world championship win and instead gifting Fangio his fourth title.
It was a magnanimous gesture, of the highest order of sportsmanship and one that, sadly, would be completely out of place in the cut-throat world of modern-day Formula One.
You wouldn’t, for instance, expect Nico Rosberg, sitting 29 points ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the title standings, to hand back the 18-point advantage he gained over the Briton following their collision at Spa, even if the Belgian contretemps was Rosberg’s fault.
But the sport was different in Collins’ day, when the motor-racing community was far more tight-knit, with those involved in the sport bound together by the pioneering spirit they all shared in those fledgling years. It was less of a business then, more of a passionate endeavour, and the stakes, at least financially, were low.
Death, however, lurked around every bend as the ultimate price to be paid in the pursuit of victory, and its constant presence fostered a mutual respect and camaraderie between the drivers.
For instance, looking through old photographs it isn’t uncommon to come across a snapshot of two rivals thundering down the track side-by-side, each looking across at the other and exchanging grins, both clearly revelling in the simple joy of racing with their cars speeding down the tarmac just inches apart.
Such was the era that Fangio, Moss, Farina and Ascari competed in and after a year of typically hard but fair racing the Formula One circus rolled into historic Monza for the 1956 season-finale.
Three drivers were locked in the battle for the championship heading into the race with Fangio, Collins and Maserati’s Jean Behra all in with a chance of winning the title.
Reigning world champion Fangio, now leading the Ferrari team following Mercedes’ withdrawal, was the favourite having won three of the six races so far that year. He headed into the race, also run under the European Grand Prix banner, with 30 points to his name.
Peter Collins, Fangio’s Ferrari team-mate, and Behra were also still in the fight but -- with 22 points each -- had only an outside chance of winning the title. Victory was worth eight points in those days while the driver who set the fastest lap was also awarded a point.
All Fangio needed were two points no matter where Collins or Behra finished while his rivals would only be champion provided they won, banked the sole point on offer for the fastest lap and the Argentine great failed to score.
Fangio took pole, leading Ferrari team-mates Eugenio Castellotti and Luigi Musso, who lined up alongside their team-leader on the front row.
Next up were Behra and Moss in their Maseratis followed by Collins and the Marquis de Portago who completed Ferrari’s five-car line-up at Monza. Castellotti and Musso, starting on the front row, were eager to fight it out for the win in front of their home crowd.
But Fangio -- who needed just two points to clinch the title and was content with letting them do so -- cautioned them against pushing too hard and wearing out their tyres.
A lap around Monza in those days was ten kilometres long as drivers had to use a combination of the traditional ‘road course’ – the layout to which the track used today traces its roots – and an American-style banked oval.
So cars would have to first race around the road course before then driving around the banked oval the next time around to complete a lap, bringing them past the start-finish line twice in a single tour.
The oval in particular was extremely demanding on the tyres, subjecting them to excessive forces and loading them up significantly as the cars thundered around the banked sections.
Experienced as he was, triple champion Fangio offered to lead Castellotti and Mussoaround and set a reasonable pace during the initial stages of the race, so as not to punish the tyres, before then letting the two Italians loose for the final ten laps.
But Castellotti and Mussore fused his advice and the duo roared away at the start, duelling at a furious pace as they pulled away from the rest of the field. Sure enough, their tyres were unable to withstand the punishment and both came in for fresh rubber after just a handful of laps.
With the leading Ferraris in the pits, the following pack of cars consisting of Moss, Fangio, Collins, Behra and Harry Schell in the Vanwall took over at the front, the order among them constantly changing as they engaged in a high-speed slipstreaming battle typical of Monza.
Behind them, now back in the race, Castellotti’s tyre woes continued, the Italian suffering a tyre failure which pitched his Ferrari off the track and into retirement.
Musso on the other hand, who had also been forced to make an early pit stop, had been making steady progress and had soon caught up with the leading pack of cars.
As the race approached its halfway mark, Fangio lay third and was comfortably on course to win the title. But, despite his caution and conservative approach, the relentless pace set at the front was taking a toll the Old Master’s Ferrari as well and, with a little more than half the race still to run, Fangio was forced into the pits with a damaged steering.
He sat there, anxious, as his mechanics worked to repair his car and as the race wore on his championship chances looked increasingly bleak. Then Musso came in for a scheduled stop and the team ordered him to hand the car over to Fangio. But the Italian refused and roared back out of the pits to rejoin the race.
Musso and Collins were the only two Ferraris in the race at that point and with the home hero having declined to hand his car over to Fangio, the Argentine’s hopes of adding to his tally of three world titles looked tenuous, stranded as he was in the pits.
Behra was no longer in the fight but Collins, locked in a three-way battle for the win with Moss and Musso, was still very much in contention.
But then, the Englishman came in for a scheduled pit stop and seeing Fangio out of the race,and in a sign of the regard and respect Fangio’s rivals had for him, offered his seat to the champion. “When Collins came in he saw me stuck there, and without being asked he got out of his car and offered it to me to finish in,” Fangio said.
“That was a fantastic gesture. My anxiety and misery gave way to joy, so much so that I threw my arms around him and kissed him.”
Now back in the race thanks to Collins’ generosity and with both his title rivals out of the fight, Fangio was automatically world champion no matter what happened.
But he raced on and finished second, crossing the line a little under six seconds behind eventual victor Moss, sharing the points for second place with Collins.
“After that I finished second to Moss, but it was enough, thanks to Collins and his English sense of sportsmanship. I don’t know if I would have done the same,” he conceded. “Collins was a complete gentleman.”
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.’
“Driving would not be fun anymore. I wanted things to go on just as they were, so I handed my car over to Fangio. I would not have been proud of beating him through his bad luck. I am only 25 years old and have plenty of time to win the championship on my own.”
But it was not to be. Two years later, Collins would be tragically killed as he hunted down Tony Brooks’ Vanwallfor the lead at the fearsome Nurburgring. He had won three Grands Prix from 32 starts at the time of his death. But he never won the world championship.
Fangio: The Life Behind the Legend by Gerald Donaldson was used as reference material and a source of quotes for this article.
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Updated Date: Sep 07, 2014 19:01:48 IST