Fifty years ago, when “Taffy’ von Trips died during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1961, nobody had thought of stopping the race. Were people more callous back then? Venerable F1 commentator Richard Williams does not believe so, judging by the way human beings still do terrible things to other human beings. But today’s decision would be the right one for today’s world. And so, however shocking to contemporary sensibilities, was the one made half a century ago.
That’s why the BBC has called the 1960s The Killer Years.
The red car and the green one were doing about 150mph as they started to brake for the long right-hand corner. Jostling for position behind three other cars, they touched and veered off the road. While the green car spun harmlessly to a halt, the red machine somersaulted up the sloping bank on the outside of the track, striking the wire fencing before falling back in a heap of disintegration. Its driver, Wolfgang von Trips, had been thrown out and would die before reaching hospital. Fifteen spectators who had been pressing against the fence were also dead or dying. Cars swerved around the wreckage as marshals rushed to clear the debris.
The collision of Von Trips’s Ferrari and Jim Clark’s Lotus occurred 50 years ago this Saturday, a day when men and cars will again assemble for the same race at the same location, the Italian Grand Prix at the Monza autodrome, albeit in rather different conditions. Von Trips’s death, and that of the spectators, came during the years when mortal injury was an accepted part of motor sport. Up to a point, although no driver has been killed in a Formula One race since 1994, it still is.
Single deaths – such as that of young Henry Surtees at Brands Hatch a couple of years ago – happen on the track from time to time. It is impossible to imagine, however, that a race held in 2011 could continue after the deaths of 15 spectators. Or nine, which is how many were killed (five of them children) when Alfonso de Portago’s Ferrari left the road near the end of the 1957 Mille Miglia. Or 82, the death toll when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes was launched into a densely packed crowd during the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955, a race that ended on schedule with the winner – who had been involved in the accident – drinking champagne.
And yet, reporting the Monza race, the correspondent of Motor Sport magazine would not mention the tragedy until two thirds of the way through his long article, after the usual meticulous description of the latest modifications to the competing cars. “For those in the grandstands and pits and around the rest of the circuit the race went on,” he remarked, “details of the accident being unknown and unannounced by the organisers.”
A victory for Von Trips would have given him the world championship. Instead the race and the title were taken by his team-mate, Phil Hill, a sensitive man who, unlike Mike Hawthorn at Le Mans six years earlier, found it hard to celebrate his good fortune.
The story of the converging destinies of Von Trips and Hill is told in The Limit, by the American author Michael Cannell, to be published in November. A writer with no previous interest in motor sport, Cannell does a decent job, although relying heavily on previously published sources. Pre-eminent among those is the work of Robert Daley, then the New York Times correspondent and a friend of both drivers. In his classic book, The Cruel Sport, Daley wrote of the events of 10 September 1961: “Neither Hill nor anyone else ever expressed regret for the 15 customers who died with Trips, beyond noting that there would now be much agitation to abolish motor racing again. This reaction is normal. The personal tragedy of Trips overshadowed the destruction of other, unknown people.”
Tony Brooks finished fourth on that day at Monza. “We weren’t aware during the race of the seriousness of the accident,” he told me on Monday. “As drivers, we were still conditioned by the attitude from world war two that danger was part of life. Nobody was making us race, and we accepted the risk. When the race was over, what really upset us was that innocent bystanders had been killed.”
Nevertheless nobody had thought of stopping the race. Were people more callous back then? I do not believe so, judging by the way human beings still do terrible things to other human beings. But today’s decision would be the right one for today’s world. And so, however shocking to contemporary sensibilities, was the one made half a century ago.
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