German Grand Prix, August 3rd 1958
Tony Brooks won against the odds at the Nurburgring but while he rates this as his greatest race, today he remembers the victory more for its tragic circumstances
As I drove through the Eifel Mountains towards the Nurburgring for the first time and the rather forbidding castle suddenly came into view, shrouded in mist, dominating and casting a powerful spell over the whole circuit, I experienced a great sense of awe.
Nuvolari, Caracciola, Rosemeyer, Lang, Seaman and their legendary drives of the past flashed to mind from the pages of my old racing books which had first sparked off the desire to race. I knew that this was to be the.start of a love affair and that to try and master the ‘Ring would he an all-consuming passion, that even to do well here would give me a unique sense of satisfaction.
The year was 1956 and I was paired with Peter Collins in the Aston Martin team for the 1000Km Sports Car Race. Learning the 14.5-mile circuit, which resembled a roller coaster ride with its great dips and rises and 170 corners of every conceivable type, increased my sense of awe. Although Peter and I only finished fifth, the foundation was laid for Noel Cunningham Reid and myself to win the same race for Aston Martin the following year.
However, Grands Prix were the ultimate form of motor racing and it is with mixed feelings that I believe the 1958 German Grand Prix was my greatest race assessed in pure driving terms, but the pleasure of the win was totally lost when I learned of Peter Collins’ death a few hours after the race.
To understand properly the satisfaction of succeeding on the challenging Nurburgring, it is essential to appreciate that any mistake there, and on most of the road circuits of the time, could be and frequently was fatal. An average of more than three top drivers a year lost their lives through the 1950s.
To drive faster than anyone else knowing that one mistake could be your last is a great psychological challenge and a very different one to that facing the Formula One drivers of today, where the risk of serious injury or death is small, thanks mainly to the strength of the cars and the circuit design.
The great progress in safety was inevitable given changing attitudes and to be welcomed in principle if not in detail, but it should be recognised that F1 today is a very different sport to Grand Prix racing of the ’50s in the same way that mountaineering would be a totally different sport if the equivalent of a safety net were to be introduced.
Although the grid for the 1958 German Grand Prix included BRMs, Maseratis, Coopers, Lotuses and Porsches, it was clear after practice that the race was likely to develop into a battle between the Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins and Wolfgang von Trips and the Vanwalls of Stirling Moss and myself.
Mike had lapped in 9m14s, myself in 9m15s, then Stirling with 9m19.9s and the front row was completed by Peter Collins who had gone around in 9m21.9s. Fangio’s record fastest lap the previous year was 9m17.4s running on alcohol fuel (petrol in 1958) but there had been some small improvements to the circuit.
Stirling had signed with Vanwall as number one driver in 1957 and ’58, enjoying the sort of relationship that Prost and Senna established with their teams in later years and he had the choice of chassis and engines at any time. David Yorke, the Vanwall team manager, would contrive to limit my practice laps because whenever I went faster than Stirling he would, understandably, feel obliged as number one driver to try and beat my time which put avoidable racing miles on the cars. On this occasion I did not have the opportunity of practising with full petrol tanks which was to be a significant factor in the race.
I made a clean start and followed Stirling into the first corner, the South Curve, but by the time I had negotiated the next one, the North Curve at the back of the pits, I realised the handling of the car was terrible and bore no resemblance to the balance 1 had achieved in
Stirling had adopted his usual tactic of going like a bat out of hell from the drop of the flag to demoralise the opposition whereas I normally preferred to hold a watching brief, in touch with the leaders, and then decide on the best race strategy.
Several cars had overtaken me while I was trying to adjust to the dreadful handling and I had lost touch with the leaders. My job in the team, with the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ World Championships in mind, was to win races if Stirling was unable to do so, for whatever reason, and as he was in the lead setting a phenomenal pace I decided the best policy was to be patient, hanging on as best I could, hoping that my diagnosis was correct and that the handling would improve as the tanks emptied.
On the fourth lap Stirling retired and when I was informed of this by the Vanwall pit board I was 32 seconds behind Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins in their Ferraris, who were leading the race. The handling of the Vanwall was steadily improving and according to the Ferrari lap chart I took ten seconds out of their lead on lap five; 5.1 seconds on lap six; 5.3 seconds on lap seven and 6.9 seconds on lap eight. Over the four laps I had pulled back an average of 6.8 seconds per lap.
In his book Champion Year, Mike Hawthorn refers to “this uncanny repetition of last year”, even the overtaking spots were the same. It was the year when Fangio elected to start with a half full tank in his 250F Maserati and stop for petrol and new rear tyres on lap 12 of the 22 lap race (15 laps in 1958).
Before his pit stop Fangio was pulling away from Mike and Peter in their Ferraris at the rate of 4.6 seconds per lap. After it he was 45 seconds behind and proceeded to catch them over the next eight and a half laps at the rate of 5.5 seconds per lap to win what many consider to be the Grand Prix of all time.
The statistics are necessary to substantiate my belief that this was the greatest race of my life on the extremely difficult, unforgiving Nurburgring against two of the very best drivers of the time and I regret that I should have to use Fangio’s 1957 performance relative to Mike and Peter, who drove the old Lancia/Ferrari V8s in 1957, to support my belief, for he was the incomparable master in a Grand Prix car. I was driving a Vanwall not a Maserati.
At the end of lap nine Mike was in second place and I was close enough to got a tow in his slipstream on the two mile straight immediately before the pits. I then out braked him into the North turn behind the pits and closed on Peter on lap 10, only to have Mike sail past me again on the straight.
I then outbraked him into the South Turn just after the pits and did the same to Peter into the North Turn. I was conscious that the 250,000 spectators were really entering into the spirit of things and waving excitedly. I knew that ten-tenths motoring was now necessary in order to gain enough time round the back of the circuit to have sufficient lead into the straight to prevent Peter overtaking me, the Ferraris being faster than my Vanwall on the straight. I had been lapping in the 9m 10s bracket and we were now all three involved in what is now referred to as “tigering”, but with an important difference.
It was on this 11th lap that Peter strayed a fraction over the fine limit and had what subsequently proved to be a fatal crash at Pflatzgarten. As I entered the straight I immediately looked in my mirrors but there was no sign of Peter and Mike was too far behind to challenge me. I presumed Peter’s Ferrari had suffered mechanical trouble. My initial reaction was one of great disappointment as I was really “swinging” and my affair with the ‘Ring had reached a tremendous “high”.
Mike eventually retired with mechanical trouble and I completed the remaining laps uneventfully for the ultimately easy win, the first time the German Grand Prix had been won by an Englishman since Richard Seaman in his Mercedes 20 years earlier and the first for a British car/driver combination. I had consummated my affair with the ‘Ring but at an unacceptable cost.
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