Debonair, handsome and a favourite of Enzo Ferrari, Peter Collins had everything going for him at the start of the 1958 Grand Prix season, but success would ultimately end in tragedy
Life was good. A year earlier, he’d met American actress Louise King. They married a week after meeting and lived on a yacht in Monte Carlo. Collins also had a close friendship with his Ferrari teammate Mike Hawthorn. They even shared prize money.
That 1958 season began well for Collins, with sports car victories in Buenos Aires and at the Sebring 12 hours, driving the Ferrari 250 TR (Testa Rossa). As the season progressed, tension developed with Enzo Ferrari, who disapproved of his marriage and thought he was living a playboy lifestyle.
Collins was born in Kidderminster, England, in November 1931, the son of a garage owner. He first made his name in sports car racing and joined Ferrari in 1956
Yet a few months later, he scored a wonderful win at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, his third F1 victory for the Scuderia. Teammate and fellow countryman Mike Hawthorn came second, in a memorable Ferrari 1-2.
Two weeks later, in the German GP at the daunting and dangerous Nürburgring, Collins ran off the road while dicing for the lead, after entering the tricky Pflanzgarten section a touch too quickly and slightly off-line. In those days, high-speed mistakes meant either lucky escapes or tragedy. As another English driver and future Ferrari star Tony Brooks put it: ‘Sometimes we got away with it and sometimes we didn’t.’
Poor Collins didn’t. He was thrown from his somersaulting car – this was before drivers wore seat belts – and hit a tree. He was the second Ferrari F1 driver killed in just four weeks. A month earlier, teammate Luigi Musso died in a similar accident in the French GP.
The Englishman greatly impressed Enzo when he took the trouble to learn Italian after joining Ferrari and cheerfully adopted the Italian way of life
A few months later Hawthorn was also killed, although not on the track. Partly because of Collins’ death, he retired from racing at the end of the 1958 season, after securing the world title for Ferrari. He died in a road accident in England early in 1959.
Collins was born in Kidderminster, England, in November 1931, the son of a garage owner. He first made his name in sports car racing and joined Ferrari in 1956. That same year Enzo Ferrari’s son Alfredo (nicknamed Dino) died aged just 24 – the same age as Collins. The blond English driver showed great kindness to Dino, took the trouble to learn Italian after joining Ferrari, and cheerfully adopted the Italian way of life. Enzo and his wife Laura turned to Collins for solace, treating him almost as a surrogate son.
Collins' main rival was Juan Manuel Fangio, the greatest driver of the 1950s and already a three-time World Champion
His sportsmanship and driving skills were also endearing. During his first season for Ferrari, in 1956, he scored memorable wins at Spa in Belgium and in France. Going into the final round, the Italian GP at Monza, he had a chance of winning the World Championship. His main rival was Ferrari teammate Juan Manuel Fangio, the greatest driver of the 1950s and already a three-time World Champion. Fangio retired with steering problems before half distance, gifting Collins his big chance.
In those days, drivers were allowed to hand over their cars to teammates, particularly if they were senior. In a remarkable act of sportsmanship, Collins gave his car to Fangio. The great Argentinian duly finished second in the race to Stirling Moss’s Maserati, shared the points with Collins, and won his fourth world title.
‘I was moved almost to tears by the gesture,’ Fangio later said. At just 24 years old, Collins reckoned he’d have other opportunities. Less than two years later, he was dead.