With the stench of team orders still hanging in the air, perhaps it’s a good time to look back on a time when orders were met with mutual consent, respect and sportsmanship.
Sportsmanship is said to be what makes a good sportsman great. It’s played a role in many great moments and created revered characters within all sports. It’s a remarkable concept as it’s not something that can be honed through years of practice and has nothing to do with talent or the demands of any particular sport; it says more about the person than their skill.
Ultimately, sportsmanship is born out of respect, and Juan Manuel Fangio’s success during the 1950s earned him a high level of that from his fellow competitors – something that was made evident during the 1956 championship decider in one of the most remarkable acts of gentlemanly sportsmanship Formula One has ever seen.
The final race of 1956 was shaping up to be something special in what was the sport’s seventh running of the world championship. The high-speed banking of Monza, surrounded by it’s passionate tifosi made the ideal setting, and of the two title protagonists, Fangio was the favourite to take a fourth title. To do so he would have to see off the challenge of his Ferrari team-mate – the 25-year-old British racer Peter Collins. While Fangio was looking for a fourth title, Collins would give it his all to win his first and become the first British driver to do so.
Fangio was cool and calm in a world where time is told in tenths and Collins was the typical British gentleman racer – dashing and debonair. Both would fight ruthlessly throughout 1956; Fangio would win three races of the seven leading up to the final round at Monza and Collins would take back to back wins in Belgium and France.
With an eight point disadvantage Collins would have to win the race (worth 8 points), set fastest lap (worth 1 point) and hope for Fangio not to score; a slim chance but a chance nonetheless. Whether it be through the high-speed sweeping curves of Spa, around the sunlit terraces of Monaco or high on the Monza banking, Juan Manuel Fangio was considered the best. Known as El Maestro to his peers he was already the most successful Formula One driver and on many occasions, considered to be unbeatable.
Mechanical failure seemed to be Collins’ only hope to beat El maestro and it must have seemed like fate when Fangio suffered a steering issue that sidelined him from the Grand Prix. What would happen then involved that modern-day elephant-in-the-room within Formula One circles; team orders.
As demonstrated recently, team orders are allowed and, if used, would affect the race result; a team would ask a driver to let his team-mate overtake without challenge (or ask them to hold station). In 1956 team orders went further; if a lead driver retired from the race it was expected that a team-mate would return to the pits and hand his car over to the retired driver, sharing any finishing position and the points that came with it – something that is unthinkable in today’s motor racing.
With Fangio out of the running thanks to his own damaged car, it was expected that when team-mate Luigi Musso pulled into the pits for a routine pit stop, he would hand over his Ferrari-run Lancia D50 to Fangio, who would return to the action and claim the world title.
Perhaps powered by the support of his home crowd and the desire to impress them, Musso refused to give his car to the team leader and continued to race. With Fangio unable to continue, the scene was set for Collins to become the champion of 1956.
Stirling Moss was leading the race with Collins second and pushing hard with the carrot of a world championship dangling in front of him. Collins – having seen his great team-mate and championship rival retire – entered the pits with 15 laps to go for a routine tyre check. To the surprise of the spectators and Fangio himself, Collins climbed from the cockpit and ushered Fangio into the freshly vacated seat – handing over his car and any chance of the title!
The odds may have been stacked against Peter Collins from the start – with Moss leading, the task was even harder – but Collins still had the chance to be remembered as Britain’s first world champion. Instead, his magnanimous sporting gesture resulted in Mike Hawthorn taking that title two years later and Collins would go down in history as perhaps the most generous driver of all time.
Fangio saw the chequered flag in Collins’ car, second behind Moss and with it claimed his third title in a row, the fourth of his career. Collins reasoned that he was still young and a world championship would come his way, while Fangio was too great a driver to be let down by his car’s failings. Fangio meanwhile, thanked Collins for his generous actions in the graceful way the champion had become renowned for and he too claimed that it was only a matter of time before Collins himself would be crowned champion.
Both drivers would prove to be wrong about Collins’ impending title triumph. His last race win at the British Grand Prix in 1958 saw Collins take the race lead from Stirling Moss, and stay in the number one spot for the entire race to finish ahead of his friend and teammate Mike Hawthorn, to complete one of his more famous victories. The following grand prix at Germany was to be his last. Chasing down the Vanwall of Tony Brooks – another British star – Collins’ car spun off the track and he was thrown clear of his Ferrari. Sustaining severe head injuries, he lost his life later in the day.
Peter Collins’ death shocked the entire racing fraternity; not only a gentleman of a racing driver, he was also considered to be one of the safest. And if giving up the championship to his team-mate wasn’t enough, fate decided to inflict more tragedy on the Englishman, cutting short a promising racing career and taking away a gallant life.
“In the end, it’s extra effort that separates a winner from second place. But winning takes a lot more than that, too. It starts with complete command of the fundamentals. Then it takes desire, determination, discipline, and self-sacrifice. And finally, it takes a great deal of love, fairness and respect for your fellow man. Put all these together, and even if you don’t win, how can you lose?” Peter Collins certainly illustrated these points quoted by the great athlete Jesse Owens and although 1956 yielded his best finishing position in the championship – a third place behind Fangio and Moss – Peter Collins should most certainly be considered one of Formula One’s true winners, and perhaps certain members of today’s Grand Prix paddock should take note.