Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Peter Collins at Nurburgring: Driver Error or Brake Failure?

Three Brits took a commanding lead at the German Grand Prix of 1958: Peter Collins, Tony Brooks and Mike Hawthorne. They flew in that order through a series switchbacks leading to a straightaway where Hawthorne used his Ferrari’s strength to pass Brooks, only to be repassed when they came to the same turn. On the next lap Brooks used the turn again to pass Collins and take the lead. “I knew that I had to get sufficiently far ahead of Peter and Mike on that eleventh lap to prevent them from catching me on the straight, where the Ferraris were considerably faster than the Vanwall,” Brooks said.

The red cars fought to keep up with Brooks as they ground into a tricky serpentine stretch known as the Pflantzgarten. All three drivers crested a rise in third gear. They dabbed the breaks and shifted to second as the cars caught air on their way down the far side. After a dip they accelerated up a short, step hill leading to a right hand turn. From his position at the back Hawthorne could see that Collins was entering the bend too fast and too wide. Collins tried to bring to swing in back in line but too late. The rear wheel hit a low embankment on the left side of the road. Hawthorne braced himself for collision: he expected Collins to bounce off the embankment and spin across the road. But he didn’t. Instead the car flipped in the air and landed upside down in a cloud of dust. As Hawthorne passed by he could see that Collins had been thrown out.

Brooks expected Collins to challenge him on the straightaway after the Pflanzgarten. “I had no idea what had happened and I was expecting Peter to come alongside on the straight,” he said. “When I got there I had a good luck in the mirrors and was rather surprised not to see him. I realized that I had achieved my objective of getting away from the Ferraris, but I didn’t know how.”

Peter Brooks won, but nobody celebrated. Ten or so drivers gathered in a hotel room at the Sporthotel to await word on Collins. There was subdued talk and bursts of anxious laughter. Denise McCLuggage cut Jo Bonnier’s hair.
The discussion naturally turned to the cause of the crash. It was baffling: The Pflanzgarten was not a particularly dangerous spot and Collins was known as a safe driver. Had the pressure to redeem himself caused Collins to ignore the Limit in his pursuit of Brooks, or was it a simple mechanical failure.

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