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Friday
Aug092013

Road Read: The Limit

By Christopher A. Sawyer

Many years ago, during the early days of my tenure at AutoWeek, I had the chance to speak to America’s first F1 World Champion, Phil Hill, about the potential for carnage at the first Silver State Challenge road race. I fully expected Hill to question the sanity of those who would build mega-horsepower cars in the hopes of being the first across the line in a race that promised to leave more then a couple dead beside the road. I was wrong. To paraphrase Hill, it was man’s God-given right to do with his life as he pleased, and if that meant participating in an event with a high probability of carnage, so be it.

It was a viewpoint I rediscovered years later when driving with American racing legend Dan Gurney. He believed that today’s racing drivers were cutthroat on the track because they had never faced death. Gurney didn’t advocate stripping out their seatbelts and placing the drivers on the leading edge of their cars, but he did suggest that the drivers of his era were more respectful of one another because they knew that contact with another competitor could mean one — or both — was going home in a box.

These vignettes came flooding back to me as I read Michael Cannel’s book The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit. A gripping story, it recounts the season that saw Phil Hill crowned World Champion, and his teammate and closest rival Wolfgang von Trips laid to rest. This was a time when post-war shock and euphoria finally had begun to wear off, and the world had yet to transition into the coming technical age. Loss of life was a given, a fact heightened by the savagery of World War II, and the fatalism that came with it and which had not subsided. Speed was an elixir, but the precision necessary to drink that drink again and again was an even headier brew.

Phil Hill grew up in California the child of a loveless, dysfunctional marriage that saw his parents battle incessantly in front of the children. Wolfgang von Trips, given the nickname “Taffy” by his peers, was a German count in a country divided by war whose parents wanted to their only son to take over the family’s farmland and live a quiet, productive life. Hill found refuge in working on cars. Unlike his family life, they were something he could study, understand and fix. Count von Crash, as vo Trips came to be known, spent time, like many young Germans, in the Hitler Youth, saw the ravages of war firsthand and, as a result, never lost the reckless streak he had in his early life. Hill was swift and precise. The handsome von Trips ran at or beyond the ragged edge.

Cannel follows these two from their youth through the early years of their careers, and into the 1961 Formula 1 season. And he does so while weaving a story not just of these two protagonists, but of the racing milieu of the time and its many participants. In many cases, you are no sooner introduced to one of these racers than you watch as they meet their fate. The body count would be shocking if the events weren’t so far in the past, and Cannel wasn’t so adept at placing these people, places and events in the context of a larger story. Most chilling is his depiction of the 1955 race at Le Mans. Just before the start of practice, Mercedes team manager Alfred Neubauer complained to French officials that racing on a two-lane road with MGs, Gordinis and other small-bore sports cars sprinkled among the more powerful Ferrari’s, Jaguars and Mercedes was a recipe for disaster. In doing so, he describes an incident eerily like the one that would catapult Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes into the crowd, only to be met with a smirk and assurances that nothing like that has ever happened.

Almost as large a character as Hill and von Trips is Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari. Though often canonized by the tifosi, Ferrari was a brutal bastard and a coward, a devoted father and a serial philanderer, a famous automaker and a recluse who refused to go the races and had his lieutenants (including his wife) spy on the team and report back their concerns. He used guile and intimidation, lies and charm, and any weapon in his arsenal to pit driver against driver in the pursuit of greatness for himself and his company. A sympathetic character he most certainly is not.

Yet always at the center are Hill and von Trips, teammates and rivals racing toward the same goal but for different reasons. When the German’s Ferrari touches wheels with a young Jim Clark on that fateful day in Monza, his fate is sealed and his martyrdom assured. Hill, on the other hand, wins racing’s greatest prize, yet never receives the accolades or recognition his achievement deserves. He is racing’s lost World Champion, a man overrun by forces beyond his control.

Motor racing historian Doug Nye, who is quoted in the book, wrote in his review of The Limit for the Telegraph that there were historical inaccuracies and — more importantly — the book read like a script for a Hollywood movie. I can’t comment on the alleged mistakes, but I can’t agree with Nye’s assessment of the book’s tone. It is more adventure novel than movie script; a compelling read that takes you to a time and place where honor and character were important, and heroes often had feet made of clay. Moreover, The Limit will appeal to the diehard race fan, as well as the person to whom racing is something to be avoided at all costs. It may even harbor within its pages the Formula 1 movie Ron Howard may regret he didn't make.

Title: The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit

Author: Michael Cannel

Publisher: Twelve/Hachette Book Group

Pages: 336

Price: $14.99 (paperback)

 

 

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