Dad’s brush with F1 fame

My father was a newspaper photographer for many years when we lived in Scotland.

One day he was assigned to cover the demonstration of the new Aston Martin at a track near Glasgow.

The driver that would take them around that day? F1 star Peter Collins…

Collins, his friend Mike Hawthorn, Tony Brooks, and the late Stirling Moss were the heroes of British motor racing in the 1950s, graduates of a world in which former RAF pilots and army mechanics built racing cars from spare parts and organized races on abandoned airfields that had only recently been home to Lancasters and Hurricanes.

Peter Collins (right) and Mike Hawthorn (in his trademark bow tie).

He signed with Ferrari for the 1956 F1 season and got a second place behind Moss at Monaco, and wins at the Belgian and French Grands Prix.

At the Italian Grand Prix, he was on the verge of becoming Britain’s first F1 World Champion. But his championship-leading team leader Juan Manuel Fangio, already a three-time world champion, had car troubles, putting his ’56 title run in dire jeopardy. Collins willingly handed his own car to Fangio allowing him to take the title — but, in doing so, he gave up the title himself.

It was the kind of sportsmanship that has long since been relegated to the history books — such a gesture wouldn’t happen nowadays.

“I would not have been proud of beating him through his bad luck,” said Collins later.

Back at the track near Glasgow, Dad and his writer colleague waited their turn for Collins to demonstrate the Aston.

While I’m not sure of which Aston Martin it was, it’s likely to have been the DB2/4 (pictured above) as it had a lengthened chassis that allowed Aston to add two (small) rear seats.

It was into one of those small seats that Dad shoe-horned himself and his cameras — and cameras were pretty big in those days.

I’ve been driven around Georgia’s Roebling Road Raceway in the back of a fairly powerful Mustang. Even with a smaller modern camera, getting a good shot while you’re being thrown around the back seat is difficult.

With a 4X5 Graflex, or even with the Rolleiflex he used in later years, it would have been impossible for Dad to get a steady shot. So there are no photographic records of the event that I know of.

The day’s most vivid memory seemed to be of Collins himself. As he demonstrated the car, Collins gave a running commentary to journalists. Dad said every time he spoke spittle flew everywhere… funny what you remember. Every time he told this story, he had a good chuckle.

Like many other racing drivers of the era, the constant danger that was motor racing in the ’50s eventually caught up with Collins.

He and Hawthorn were chasing Tony Brooks’ Vanwall at the 1958 German Grand Prix when Collins lost control of his car and spun off the track. Cars had no seat belts in those days and Collins was thrown clear of the Ferrari. Helmets were also not up to modern standards, and his didn’t help much when he reportedly hit a tree head first. He died later that afternoon in hospital of critical head injuries.

Collins raced in 35 world championship Grands Prix between 1952 and 1958. He won 3 races and achieved 9 podiums.

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