Ferrari’s reputation is for sleek cars and elegant, sophisticated design. But it wasn’t always that way: through the 1950s, company patriarch Enzo Ferrari was concerned with one thing only: speed. “I don’t care if the door gaps are straight,” he said. “When the driver steps on the gas I want him to shit his pants.” It probably sounded even cooler in Italian.
Fetishization of speed had costs and benefits. Ferrari dominated F1 racing in the 1950s by simply outgunning their competitors with superior top-end speed. But that singleminded devotion blinded them to innovations in the racing world. Disc brakes and their greater stopping power were in use by other racing teams for years before Ferrari bothered to employ them. Ultimately, this lack of investment in the other, non-speed aspects of racing proved both shortsighted and dangerous.
Disc brakes were important for one simple reason: prior to the 1960s, auto racing was almost unfathomably dangerous. Deaths were common, and safety mechanisms so primitive that most drivers did not bother to wear seat belts—because a seat belt alone wasn’t going to save you. Even spectators were in danger, as they watched races protected by some open space and a chain link fence. At the 1955 Le Mans, a driver lost control and the car rocketed into the grandstands, sweeping through the crowd like a whirling guillotine, killing the driver and eighty-three spectators.
Even for a thrill-seeking lot like race drivers, the 1950s were a peak of recklessness. Partially this was the lack of safety precautions, which gave drivers a fatalistic outlook; the question was not if but when a crash would kill them. But Enzo Ferrari exacerbated that culture by goading drivers to be more aggresssive and take more chances—to drive closer to “the limit.” Ferrari’s tyrannical approach left a trail of victories and human wreckage in its wake: Ferrari drivers died during the 1953, 1955, and 1957 seasons; in the 1958 season two drivers died and a third quit (he later died drag racing a friend). Unsurprisingly, Ferrari was hated by many for instituting a reckless and lethal culture.
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In response to rising body counts, the 1961 F1 season started with changes to both rules and design. Maximum engine size was decreased, to reduce top speeds. This would have done much to negate Ferrari’s speed advantage, but for nearly the first time, the Ferrari team had devoted significant efforts in improving the non-engine parts of their car. The end result was the 156 F1, affectionately called the sharknose. The new design was to be the class of the F1 circuit, and with the engine mounted behind the driver, signaled the end of a long history of front-engine F1 cars.
The sharknose dominated, and the 1961 season was a battle of two Ferrari drivers. The first was Phil Hill, a cerebral driver who knew as much about the car as the mechanics and did not shy away from haranguing them about it. He was also a nervous wreck: pre-race vomiting was a ritual, and he had briefly retired a few years earlier when the stress of racing exacerbated his ulcer.
Hill made his racing bones in the Carrera Panamerican, a lethal Mexican cross-country race. The Carrera covered some 2,000 miles of unpaved and unimproved roads, cliff faces with no guard rail, winding through dusty and remote towns. The route had so many turns that memorizing them was impossible; the driver and navigator relied on reflexes to make their turns at top speed. Often the reflexes failed: rocketing off the road and into a ravine was probably the most common way to lose the race, and a close second was an unexpected encounter with livestock or live animals (a German team once hit a turkey vulture at 150mph, which nearly killed the navigator). Hill gave up on the Carrera after rolling his car into a gully only to discover that locals had removed signage heading into the turn just to watch the crashes. With the car destroyed, Hill and his navigator spent the next several hours flagging down other racers to warn them.
From the Carrera, Hill moved to the famous Le Mans, which he won in 1958 after driving through the night in a blinding rainstorm. He subsequently joined the Ferrari team, but his precision driving clashed with Enzo Ferrari’s preference for fast and risky. So Hill was kept off the F1 team for years, while driving primarily in endurance races, where his precision was seen as most beneficial.
Hill’s Ferrari teammate and primary rival in the 1961 season was the German, Count Wolfgang von Trips—actual name, actual German count. von Trips was Hill’s opposite as a driver: always riding the fine line between control and not, between traction and not, between staying on the course and not. He also suffered from undiagnosed diabetes and often raced while eating a sandwich so that his blood sugar did not drop too low.*
*There’s a story—almost assuredly apocryphal—about a driver at Le Mans who stuffed some chicken inside his suit for a mid-race snack. He later crashed and was airlifted to a hospital, where the doctors thought the chicken was his internal organs (what part of the chicken was he eating? and who were these doctors?). Because he didn’t speak French, the driver was unable to explain the situation, and finally just grabbed a piece of chicken and ate it. One of the doctors fainted.
The thing about von Trips—besides that he had an awesome name and was German royalty—is that his style made him simultaneously very good and very bad. If Hill’s approach was to take every turn at 90% of peak efficiency, von Trips was willing to suffer the occasional mistake or crash while trying to take every corner at top speed. Every turn was a gamble. Like a blackjack player, he was unbeatable when on a good run, but liable to eat shit right off the track on the first lap on a bad run. His reputation in 1961 was mostly for wiping out mid-race; he’d already been through multiple serious crashes and injuries.
The third driver in the hunt for the F1 title in 1961 was the legendary British racer Stirling Moss. Moss’s hunt for the title was hindered by two things: his own aggressiveness, and a mechanically unsound car. Knowing that Moss liked to get out to an early lead, some teams would assign a driver to tailgate him and force him to drive flat-out, hoping to make his delicate car break down. In 1957, this tactic was so effective that Moss, who won four races but didn’t finish many others, lost the title to a driver who’d won just once. Even in 1961, his car still caused him to drop out far too frequently, and though he won twice, he couldn’t keep pace with the Ferraris.
Heading into the penultimate race of the season, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, von Trips had a nearly insurmountable lead, with Hill in a distant second place. If von Trips finished in third place or higher, he would win the season title. On the first lap, von Trips rubbed tires with a fellow driver and went off the track and through a fence, killing himself and fourteen spectators.
Hill cruised to victory—in both the race and the season—and remains the only US-born driver to win an F1 crown. Fatalities in F1 racing continued to decrease as new safety measures were put in place, and no driver has died in a race since 1994.