Welcome to Formula One in the early 1960s. I bet you’re expecting free-wheeling danger-loving manly men competing for the World Championship, the Steve McQueen cool that everyone expects of drivers in the sport’s most dangerous era—especially from a team as prestigious as Ferrari. So, what if I told you that the battle for first came down to a neurotic skilled at worrying himself sick and a German count with a degree in agriculture?
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. This month, we’re looking at The Limit: Life and Death on the Grand Prix Circuit by Michael Cannell, a deep look at the 1961 Formula One season through the lens of competing Ferrari teammates Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips.)
The Limit starts at the very beginning. Despite this book being about F1 in 1961, the book begins far removed from the period in question: instead, we dive into a dysfunctional family dinner in the Hill household. Wait, what?
Cannell made a smart choice. This novel essentially comes down to a battle between two men. But, in order for us to have a full picture of both of our protagonists, he begins with their pasts, their upbringings
See, Phil Hill was born into what we’d call today a dysfunctional family. Just about any time his parents were in the same room of their Santa Monica home, they were fighting. He was one of those unfortunate kiddos who just aren’t particularly physically talented in the sporting realm, and he was sick as often as he was healthy.
It was only in the family garage that Hill could find some solace in something he was, y’know, good at. Wrenching and driving, they were his coping mechanisms and his greatest hobbies—enough so that he started working races at a midget track and progressed up the ranks to “driver” soon enough.
Wolfgang von Trips, on the other hand, had his own particularly rough upbringing. His line of the family was spurned by the rest of the feudal tree, which was von Trips’ father Eduard inheriting the ancient family ‘castle’ of Burg Hemmersbach and an agricultural bent that promised a career in potato farming. Von Trips had his first taste of speed in the Eifel mountains, where he and his family would go hunting—it was there that they stumbled on the Nürburgring and famous German heroes like Bernd Rosemeyer.
But von Trips’ automotive dreams would have to wait until after World War II. Still young at the time, he was drafted to search through air raid debris in demolished towns, where he became accustomed to a near permanent aura of death. His family’s stronghold served as a home away from home for the Allied soldiers, and the charismatic von Trips made friends with them in order to try out their jeeps and motorcycles. Off he went to agricultural school, where he saved up as much money as he could to buy a motorcycle of his own.
And so the paths of fate were set. Hill, a man so anxious about the dangers that racing supplied that he worried himself into pre-race vomiting spells and career-halting stomach ulcers, competed in the Carerra Panamericana and meandered his way over to Europe to race the sports cars he loved. Von Trips, supplied with all the charm Hill lacked but a health condition that saw him get so faint behind the wheel that he’d have to stock up on sugar cubes and sandwiches just to stay conscious, signed on with Porsche for the Mille Miglia.
In the midst of it all is the presence of Enzo Ferrari. It’s hard to call him much else—he’s something of a godlike figure presiding over the machinations of the two driver’s career paths. Cannell portrays him as something of a puppet master, adept at pulling strings from behind the scenes and wrapping his drivers around his little finger. Part of what made him such a controversially successful figure back then were his mind games. Keep your drivers constantly on edge, pit them against each other—the secret to success is knowing that there’s a line of people waiting to take your seat should you prove you’re not up to snuff, so you’d best prove you’re worthy of the Scuderia.
In Hill’s case, that meant avoiding promoting him to Formula One for as long as possible. Ferrari kept him constantly in sports car racing. It felt like an insult to his skill level and performance. No matter how well he did, Hill just couldn’t get a leg up.
And for von Trips, that meant a rollercoaster ride of promotions and demotions. The man had earned himself the nickname Count von Crash, given his penchant for spectacular wipeouts—often on the first lap of the race. It was a process of demoralization that kept drivers constantly on their toes.
Interspersed in the rest of the story are brief stories of death, almost as if to prime us for the crux of the novel. Men like Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn are given plenty of time on the page to show us how drivers got along with them, only to suffer in the wake of their loss. This was an era when drivers were more likely to be killed in a race than they were to win one. It’s an interesting study on the psychology of the driver back then, the lengths they went to just to mentally feel capable of getting back behind the wheel.
Despite this book claiming to be about the 1961 season, less than half of it is dedicated to that year. In my mind, the description of the season itself felt a bit rushed in the scope of things, but I think the buildup of the novel is crucial for those last two chapters to really strike home. By the time Hill and von Trips are finally teammates competing on equal terms in the sharknose Ferraris, we’ve experienced their successes, disappointments, and pains right along with them. It’s hard to decide which of the two to root for—you almost want them to both come home with a championship.
The final chapter, Pista Magica, is incredible. We’ve seen Hill and von Trips going head-to-head, the tension has been appropriately built for this moment, the one that could define careers. Von Trips’ fatal crash is described with a crushing, distanced detail. There’s a sense that we’re watching it happen. It’s a painful moment—as painful as Cannell describes Hill’s career in the wake of the accident, where he was left trying to defend his right to a championship that he claimed the day his teammate and closest competitor died.
It’s a damn good book, one I’d highly recommend picking up. Cannell does a masterful job of laying out the lives of two men in tandem, making us care about both of these drivers without playing favorites. It’s a realistic look into the harshness of the racing scene back then, full of politics, intrigue, and raging social scenes—and it’s a must-read for anyone looking to get a feel for how things were back in the day.
That’s all I’ve got for now. It’s time to pass the torch off to the rest of y’all to see what you had to say!
This book is significant for me because 1961 is the year that I first started to follow motor sports, including F1. Outside of a few car magazines, coverage of racing was usually spotty, so this book had more information about the 1961 F1 season than I read in 1961.
For the vast majority of Jalopnik fans, who weren’t around in 1961, this book is a good introduction not only to the momentous 1961 F1 season, but also to F1 and other sports car racing in the decade prior to it. Colorful drivers, speed, danger, and interesting machinery still exist today but, while racing cars and drivers today are better in almost every objective way today, everything in that era seems to be more vivid (even beyond the effect of the rose-colored glasses we often use when looking back).
The appalling death toll among drivers at the time is an important part of the story, but not all of it. Much of the book focuses on Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, as expected, but I particularly enjoyed the discussion of other drivers and of the period leading up to the 1961 F1 season. Most of the F1 drivers of the period probably would not have been able to race F1 today, too big, too, old, not good company men, etc. It is useless to compare the drivers of different eras, but I would say that the drivers in the 1961 F1 season were certainly more interesting than today’s drivers. Von Trips was a diabetic German count who had studied agriculture, Phil Hill was a mechanic from Santa Monica with an interest in classic cars and player pianos. Hamilton and Vettel are skilled drivers who compare favorably with anyone who ever climbed into a racing car, but not as interesting as their predecessors from six decades ago.
This is a book’s strongest point is what it tells us about the people involved in racing back then. The race tracks, politics, machinery, etc., were interesting, the people were fascinating.
And that’s all we have for this month’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on November 4, 2018. We’re going to be reading Cannonball!: World’s Greatest Outlaw Road Race by Brock Yates. And don’t forget to drop those hot takes (and recommendations) in the comments or at ewerth [at] jalopnik [dot] com!