Before World War 2 few British drivers were thought worthy of inclusion in the top Grand Prix
teams - in fact, only Dick Seaman had made it as a full works driver. However, out of the post-war boom in motor racing grew a small but talented band of British drivers who showed that they were the equals of the Continental aces.
In this group were drivers like Mike Hawthorn
, Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks and Stuart Lewis-Evans. Most of them pretended to be high-living playboys, using motor racing as a well paid means of seeing the world at someone else's expense, but behind the wheel they were as dedicated as their Continental counterparts, and all of them gained places in factory Formula One cars, which were all highly advanced.
Peter Collins was born at Kidderminster in 1931, the son of a garage proprietor, so it was inevitable that he should graduate to four wheels very early in life. In fact, at the tender age of 17, he was behind the wheel of a Cooper-Norton 500, the car that, in the pre war years, started many young men on their motor-racing careers.
He soon showed the natural talent that all top drivers of the time seemed to possess and he began winning almost immediately. He spent three years in the cut and thrust of Formula 500 racing, a good deal of it on the Continent where he gained valuable experience.
In 1951, John Heath and George Abecassis invited Collins, still only 20, to join their HWM Formula Two team, alongside Stirling Moss and Lance Macklin. The cars were not very successful but Collins showed that he was a fast and consistent driver. Subsequently he was signed by John Wyer for the 1952 Aston Martin sports-car team.
The Thinwall Special
He won the Goodwood 9-hour race with co-driver Pat Griffith and the following year won the TT at Dundrod, again with Griffith. Tony Vandervell was beginning his bid to enter Grand Prix
racing in 1954 and, while his Vanwall was being developed, he bought a 4½-litre Formula One Ferrari which he christened the Thinwall Special,
after a type of bearing his company produced. Collins was signed to drive this car, further enhancing his reputation with some brave performances in Formula Libre races against the V16 BRM
, very often beating the British car.
Collins was asked to drive the 2.2-litre Vanwall in the Italian Grand Prix
of 1954, where he finished a good seventh behind the works Mercedes, and Ferraris. Collins made it as a full time Formula One driver in 1955, when he was signed by the Owen Organisation to drive their 250F Maserati at the beginning of the season and then the new 2½-litre BRM
. But the BRM
wasn't ready until August and, although it was very fast, it had many problems.
Peter Collins (right), pictured with Juan Manuel Fangio.
Helping Fangio Win The World Championship
So, for 1956, Collins joined the Ferrari team to race the modified Lancia cars which had been handed to Ferrari when the Lancia team withdrew from racing. The car proved very much to Collins' liking and in 1956 he won both the French and Belgian Grands Prix as well as sharing the second place car at both Monaco and Monza with his team leader Fangio. In fact Collins' generous act of handing his car over to Fangio at Monza assured Fangio of the World Championship and earned for Collins the undying worship of the Italian motor racing fans. Collins took third place in the World Championship that year.
Mon ami mate
As well as his other placings in 1956, Collins finished third in the non-Championship Syracuse GP and won both the punishing Tour of Sicily and Supercorte-maggiore 1OOO km races in Ferrari sports cars and finished a fine second in the Mille Miglia. 1956 established Collins as one of the top five drivers in the world and, for 1957, he decided to remain with Ferrari, being joined in the team by his friend Mike Hawthorn
. The two were inseparable, referring to each other as 'Mon ami mate'.
Unfortunately, the Lancia-Ferrari was outclassed in 1957 and Collins had to watch Fangio and Moss do most of the winning in the Maserati and Vanwall respectively, but he did finish third in the French GP and won the non-Championship Syracuse and Naples Grands Prix. In sports car racing, he won the Venezuelan 1000 kms and finished second in the Swedish GP and Nurburgring
1000 km. With new cars for 1958, Ferrari were once again competitive and Collins remained with them, as did Hawthorn. The season started well with sports car victories at Buenos Aires and Sebring with Phil Hill
as his co-driver, and he followed it up with a win in the International Trophy at Silverstone in the Formula One car.
Then there was a third place in the Monaco Grand Prix
and soon after he fulfilled a long-cherished ambition by winning the British Grand Prix
at Silverstone, followed home by team-mate Hawthorn. In his next race at the German Grand Prix
, on the difficult Nurburgring
, Collins was chasing the leading Vanwall of Tony Brooks when, in attempting to pass the British car, his Ferrari slid into a grass bank and catapulted the driver into the woods bordering the track. Although he was flown to hospital by helicopter, the popular young driver was already dead.
Hawthorn was so badly upset by the death of his close friend, that he retired from driving despite winning the Driver's Championship that year, only to die himself the following year in an automobile
accident on the A3 bypass near Guildford.