Ferrari has long had a reputation for sleek cars and elegant, sophisticated designs. But it wasn’t always that way: throughout the 1950s, company patriarch Enzo Ferrari had been concerned with one thing: speed. Elegance, sophistication, and style were secondary concerns to the man who said “I don’t care if the door gaps are straight. When the driver steps on the gas I want him to shit his pants.” I’m sure that sounded even cooler in the original Italian.
The fetishization of the engine at the expense of, well, everything else had both costs and benefits. Ferrari dominated F1 racing in the 1950s by simply outgunning their competitors with superlative speed. But the singleminded devotion also blinded them to the innovations being made by their opponents, who were developing new technologies and strategies to negate Ferrari’s advantage. Disc brakes, for example, were in use for years before Ferrari bothered to employ them. Ultimately, the lack of investment in the other necessities of racing proved both shortsighted and dangerous.
To understand why things like disc brakes mattered, you have to first understand that auto racing prior to the 1960s was almost unimaginably lethal. It was virtually a blood sport. Driver deaths were not uncommon, and so laughable were the safety mechanisms that most drivers didn’t bother to wear seat belts, because it’s not like the seat belt alone will save you. Even spectators were in danger, watching races protected by nothing but some open space and a chain link fence. At the 1955 Le Mans, a car lost control and rocketed into the grandstands, where the hood separated from the body and swept through the crowd like a whirling guillotine, killing the driver and 83 spectators.
Even for race drivers, the 50s were a particular peak for a culture of thrill-seeking and recklessness. Partially this was the lack of safety precautions—most drivers expected to die in a crash, and the only question was when, not if, their number would be called. But Enzo Ferrari helped exacerbate that culture by constantly goading his drivers to be more aggressive, take more chances to win, and to drive closer to “the limit” at all times, even during practice sessions. He left a trail of victories and human wreckage behind him: Ferrari F1 drivers died during the 1953, 1955, and 1957 seasons, and in the 1958 season two died and a third retired to avoid the same fate (he was subsequently killed drag racing a friend). Ferrari earned a lot of enemies for instituting this culture where drivers were continually forced to push the limit.
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With the body count rising, the 1961 F1 season began with changes to both rules and design. In an effort to reduce speed and increase safety, the maximum engine size was decreased. If instituted a few years earlier, this new rule would likely have negated Ferrari’s long-held speed advantage. But for almost the first time, and under the guidance of a new lead designer, the Ferrari team devoted significant efforts into non-engine design. The 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.
With the Sharknose in play, the 1961 season became a battle of two Ferrari drivers. The first was Phil Hill, widely regarded as one of the most cerebral drivers around, 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 over unpaved and unimproved roads, cliff faces with no guard rail, and through dusty and remote towns. The route had so many turns that rather than attempt to memorize them, the driver and navigator would simply lay on the gas and rely on reflexes to see them through. Often they did not: 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 testing the razor’s edge between control and…not. He suffered from undiagnosed diabetes, and often raced with a sandwich or other snack strapped to his person; without eating for several hours he would become so weak that he was barely able to engage the clutch.*
*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 promptly fainted.
The thing about von Trips—besides that he had an awesome name and was German royalty—is that his style made him simultaneously a very good and very bad driver. If Hill’s plan was to go through every turn at 90% of peak efficiency with little variation, von Trips was willing to suffer the occasional crash or slow turn in an effort to take every corner at 100%. He always pushed that limit, always made every turn a gamble. And like a blackjack player, he was unbeatable when he caught a good run. When he caught a bad run, he was liable to eat shit right off the track on the first lap. His reputation was mostly for wiping out mid-race, and by 1961 he’d already suffered 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 was unfortunately hindered by two things: his own aggressiveness, and an outdated, 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 drive 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.