For various reasons, 1958 was a watershed moment in the history of Formula 1. It was a black year with many incidents and tragedies, down to the fact the cars were getting faster all the time and therefore even more dangerous. But it was also a year of important farewells and revolution. New talent was emerging and it was decided that it was no longer enough to let the endurance racing sports car world championship for makes decide which constructor was best, so that the International Cup for F1 Manufacturers was established.
The French Grand Prix was the sixth round of the season, although effectively the fifth as no European teams or drivers bothered with the Indianapolis 500. Ferrari arrived with its 6 cylinder 246 Dino, with revised suspension and Mike Hawthorn and Luigi Musso dominated qualifying. The Englishman took pole on the 8.3 kilometre Reims circuit in 2’21”7, seven tenths better than his team-mate. In the third Ferrari, Peter Collins started on the second row, while mechanical woes in practice meant Wolfgang Von Trips started last. Championship leader Stirling Moss was down in sixth in the Vanwall and reigning champion Juan Manuel Fangio was eighth in the Maserati.
Hawthorn made a hesitant start and Harry Schell led in the BRM but the Ferrari man was back in front by turn 2, Gueux, on the opening lap and then pulled away. Musso, Collins, Moss, Tony Brooks in the other Vanwall and Fangio lost time behind Schell and treated spectators to a run of passing moves down the long straight. The first to drop back from the leaders was Collins, who went through an escape road after a stone got stuck under his brake pedal.
Musso pulled out enough of a lead so others couldn’t slipstream him and set off in pursuit of Hawthorn. The Italian caught his team-mate when on lap 9, the leader could clearly see the number 2 car in his Ferrari’s mirrors. At the Thillois corner Musso was than 100 metres off Hawthorn. The pair crossed the line heading to the Bretelle Sud and the high speed Gueux corner. Musso kicked up a cloud of dust and the Italian trided to take the corner flat to get a slingshot and try and pass Hawthorn on the following straight, but he ended up rolling it into the ditch on the outside of the turn.
The lad from Rome was thrown clear and his usual yellow helmet was not enough to prevent serious head injuries. He was helicoptered to hospital, but died a few hours later. His death marked the end of the line for the crop of amazingly talented Italian drivers that had dominated the first Formula 1 decade.
The race continued: Hawthorn led from Brooks, Moss, Fangio and Behra in the Maserati. Behind them, Von Trips had gone from last to sixth with Collins behind him. A few laps later, Brooks was out with a broken gearbox on the Vanwall. That left Moss and Behra to fight for second, as Fangio had dropped back and was passed by Von Trips and Collins.
With 9 laps to go, the fuel pump on Behra’s Maserati let go so the order was, Hawthorn from Moss, Von Trips, Collins and Fangio. But there was another surprise in store on the final lap. Mike was heading for the win, lapping various drivers, including the 34 Maserati just before the final Thillois corner. However, when the Englishman realised it was Fangio, he didn’t want to humiliate the Argentinian and let him pass again so that he was not lapped. Fangio appreciated the gesture because on the final lap, Collins had crashed and was going slowly. The reigning champion passed him and finished fourth.
As he stopped in the pits and got out of his car, he told the mechanics: “It’s over!” Fangio, a five times world champion, hung up his helmet for good, bringing an era to a close.