“I would not have been proud of beating him thanks to bad luck.” The words are those of English driver Peter Collins, credited with making the most sporting gesture ever seen in Formula 1. 1956 Italian Grand Prix: having moved to Ferrari, Juan Manuel Fangio, after winning the previous round in Germany, arrived in Monza leading the championship on 30 points, eight more than second placed man and team-mate Peter Collins and France’s Jean Behra in the Maserati. The Argentinian therefore only needed to pick up two points to clinch his fourth world title. For Collins or Behra to have a chance of beating the reigning champion, they would have to win the race and pick up the point attributed for the fastest race lap.
With the top three times in qualifying, it was an all-Ferrari front row of Fangio, Eugenio Castellotti and Luigi Musso. Behind them came Piero Taruffi in the Vanwall and Behra and Stirling Moss in the Maseratis. On the third row were Collins, Luigi Villoresi in the Maserati and the fifth Ferrari of Spain’s Alfonso De Portago. The track layout used the high speed oval which was tackled after the drivers had completed the road course. The surface on the banking was abrasive and uneven which was tough on the cars and more significantly on tyre life.
Before the start, Fangio suggested to his two team-mates to let him ahead and he would have run at a conservative pace to save the cars, assuring Castellotti and Musso that in the closing stages he’d move aside and let them fight for the win, given that he only needed a few points to clinch the title. However, the two Italians didn’t go along with this, wanting to put on a show for the massive crowd packing the grandstands and to fight tooth and nail right from the start. As soon as the starter had lowered the Italian flag, used before the lights system was introduced to begin the race, Castellotti and Musso set off at a cracking pace that the others could not match, but after a handful of laps, their tyres went off and they had to pit for new ones. They rejoined in 13th and 15th places respectively.
Castellotti and Musso then set about catching those ahead at a furious pace, with Moss, Fangio, Collins, Behra and Harry Schell in the Vanwall at the front of the field. Within a dozen laps, Musso at least could see the leaders ahead of him. However, Castellotti had a tyre explode in the final part of the Parabolica corner leading onto the straight. His car hit the barriers on the left, crossed the track and finished in the guard rail on the other side. It was a very big impact and Castellotti was dazed but fine.
Just before half distance, Moss upped the pace and Collins passed Fangio, who was more than happy with third place, except that a few laps later, a steering arm on the Ferrari broke, forcing the Argentinian to pit. If he had to retire, the title would be in doubt and so, when Musso made his first stop, the team told him to hand over his car to Fangio, but Luigi refused and drove off again.
Thanks to the slipstreaming which is particularly effective at Monza, Collins took the lead ahead of Moss and Musso, which was just what Fangio did not need. On lap 32, the Englishman made a routine pit stop and spotted Fangio on the pit wall. Without being asked, he got out of his car and offered it to his team leader, thus giving up on any chance he had of taking the title. “The anxiety and sadness which was overwhelming me, gave way to happiness. I hugged and kissed him and then got into his car,” recalled Fangio.
With Behra out of the running and Collins who would have take the same points as Fangio, the Argentine had the championship in the bag and was free to push. Musso retired with a broken steering arm, so the win went to Moss ahead of Fangio and the consistent Ron Flockhart in the Connaught. After the race, Fangio once again hugged Collins as he celebrated his fourth world title, with the Englishman convinced his turn would come. But it was not to be as Collins lost his life in the 1958 German Grand Prix, having three Grand Prix wins to his name.