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Book Review: THE LIMIT: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit by Michael Cannell.

The Limit, Book CoverTHE LIMIT: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit by Michael Cannell. (Twelve Publishing, $25.99)       
Reviewer: Leo Levine, Guest Critic

McCluggage observation: Leo was there, the book’s author was not. The difference? One gets it; one does not.

When writing about people in a particular line of work, if your effort is to have any validity you should be familiar with – should understand – the milieu in which they function. When attempting to get into their psyche, it is practically mandatory that you spend time with them.

If you didn’t have the needed experience(s), there would seem to be little point in trying. This is one of the principal reasons biographies of persons no longer with us so often reflect the writer’s prejudices rather than reality.

In the case of The Limit, which concerns itself with Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips and their competition for the 1961 world driver’s championship, we have been given to understand the author has never been to a race. In addition, Hill’s family informs us that Cannell spoke with Phil only on the phone—and briefly—when the champion was in his declining years. That he never spoke with Von Trips is obvious, since the latter did not survive the Italian Grand Prix in which Hill won the title.

As a consequence, what we have here is something considerably less than adequate. To be charitable.

But if YOU don’t know that HE doesn’t know, then you might find the book vaguely entertaining if a preoccupation with death interests you.

More’s the pity, because this is little more than a pieced-together collection of quotes taken from a variety of sources, most of them magazine articles written by a variety of talents, with only a few of them having any first-hand knowledge of either the persons or the events. I had the privilege of knowing Hill for more than 50 years and Von Trips for about six. We were two of the five founders of the German Sports-Car Drivers Club,  I probably saw him drive in a dozen races and hillclimbs, including one or two in which I also participated. I was at the finish of the 1957 Mille Miglia when Trips gave the race to Piero Taruffi (but not in the manner described in the book),  spent time with him at the driver’s school he ran at the Nurburgring, and was at his funeral.

He was not the person depicted by Cannell, and neither was Hill, who is particularly ill-served and misjudged, about which more later.
The writing is spotty, and the lack of accuracy is dismaying. As a small sample:

• One does not “adjust the gas level in the carburetor.”

• The corner at the end of the Mulsanne Straight is one of 90 degrees, not 300.

• The Ferrari Formula One cars of 1961 had slightly less than half the 400 horsepower Cannell credits them with.

• The Mercedes win in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana was not the company’s first in the Western Hemisphere (try the Vanderbilt Cup of 1914 or Indianapolis in 1915, among others).

• A particular gem is “pistons shorter than the diameter of the cylinder bore.” Someone should tell him pistons are neither long nor short, strokes are.

But you get the idea.

The lack of professionalism is all too evident. These gaffes could have been avoided by having someone who understood racing review the manuscript.
A copy editor would have also been helpful. Sentences like “Monza decided fates” could have been excised. Since when does a racing circuit have an influence on fate? One thinks it was the other way around.

Although it was in one sense peripheral to the chase for the driver’s championship, by 1961 Hill was generally considered to be the world’s best long-distance driver, having won the Sebring 12 Hours three times and Le Mans three times in addition to various other major events, at a time when the classic sports-car events were more popular than those counting for the driver’s title.

Hill’s feel for his cars, and his ability to keep them in one piece, vis-à-vis Trips’ low mechanical IQ (and his nickname “von Krash”) was evidenced in a taped interview Phil did for a “Road and Track” magazine piece in the fall of 2004:

R/T:  Because of the fact that you were good mechanically, do you think this helped you keep cars in one piece in races, as opposed to, say, Von Trips, who probably didn’t know how an engine worked, and didn’t care…

Hill: He didn’t have to know… I had to, and it was beyond some lofty principle…It was just part of my basic nature that I had to know why it did certain things.

R/T: The first year you won at Le Mans [1958, with Olivier Gendebien] there was something wrong with one of the brakes, but you were aware of it and you could live with it.

Hill: Well, I experienced it in some of our bedding-in of the brakes.

R/T: Now if this had happened to Von Trips he probably would have blown the brakes.

Hill: He probably would have.

Two different people.

That a Ferrari driver would win the world driver’s championship in 1961 came as no surprise to anyone who followed the sport in that era. It was the first of four years of the 1.5-liter Formula, with the cars having a minimum allowable weight of 450 kilos (about 990 pounds) with oil and water but without fuel. The British teams started the season with their old four-cylinder Coventry-Climax engines that produced not much more than 150 horsepower, the Ferraris had 190 at the start of the season and probably 200 at the finish. The new Climax V8 that appeared in August was still 15 or 20 horses short of Ferrari, and the only thing the opposition had going for it was the superiority of British chassis design (Lotus, Cooper, Brabham, BRM), the great Stirling Moss in a Lotus, and the rising Dan Gurney in a BRM.

(Ferrari, despite Cannell’s praises, was the last to use disc brakes, and the last to put the engines behind the drivers. But Ferrari had the horses, and in those days, despite the book’s singing the praises of Ferrari’s technical sophistication, that was to come much later. At this juncture Maranello was an Italian smithy with bells and whistles, a marvelous 12-cylinder engine for its sports cars, and the good luck to have some of the world’s great designers located not far away.

Cannell’s estimate of the end of Hill’s career is also far off. “Hill never regained his form,” says Cannell. The team had a bad year in 1962, Phil took much of Ferrari’s criticism, and left for the new Italian ATS team in 1963. That was worse. And then he put up with John Cooper’s abuse while driving a second-rate car in 1964.

Back to that 2004 interview tape:

R/T: Was there any race that gave you a great deal of satisfaction?

Hill (with no delay in responding): Yes. The best race I ever did, in my opinion, was at Longford, Tasmania, in 1965, where I finished third. I was the other half of Bruce McLaren’s team and he took my engine the night before the race because I was going to win with it, and he did [instead]…He took the good engine, and I was in second a good part of the race, had a race-long battle with Jimmy Clark…we traded off many times. Tasmania was good.

That was the year Clark was almost untouchable as he won his second driving championship.

Hill was back home then, spent a lot of 1965 with Ford’s (at the time) faltering sports car team, then joined Jim Hall and Chaparral for the next two seasons. The Chaparrals were by far the most advanced racing machines the world had seen up to that point, and despite the cars’ ongoing teething problems, Hill managed to win the 1,000 Kilometers of the Nurburgring driving one in 1966 (with Joakim Bonnier), and win the BOAC 500-miler in Britain (with Mike Spence) in 1967.

That was his last race.

R/T: When and how did you realize you were finished?

Hill: I had come from Brands (where he and Spence won)…when Jim [Hall] started getting into a little bit of trouble with the cars for the season to come…He didn’t know if there was to be a second car or not. All that stuff. So I just made up my own mind that I didn’t want to ever go down in the quality of what I’d been driving… By Christmas of ’67 it became pretty clear to me there was a possibility I wouldn’t be racing and I welcomed it, because it was getting to be a big dilemma to keep on. I didn’t like it. You know motorracing is something that if you don’t like it, you’d better get out.

And so he did, without even announcing the fact. It was several months later that a journalist discovered Hill was retired through a casual conversation.

He didn’t lose his form, he just lost his interest.

And finally, that business about Von Trips backing off at the end to let Piero Taruffi cross the line first at the 1957 Mile Miglia: Since Trips started three minutes ahead of Taruffi he would have had to finish at least three minutes in front to win. The elapsed times for the 1,000 miles were 10: 27.47 for Taruffi and 10:30.48 for Trips, which put the latter a second behind in the finish-line photos.

The real drama took place about an hour earlier, with no witnesses except the drivers. Taruffi was about seven minutes ahead of Trips at the Bologna control, but his car’s transmission was having problems and he had to slow down. The technically-oriented possessor of an engineering degree was nursing his Ferrari toward the finish when Trips caught him about 100 miles out. Trips knew that Taruffi, in his 50’s, would retire if he won and when Taruffi gave him The Look, he tucked in behind for the run to the finish. It was Taruffi’s 13th Mille Miglia.

In the garage that served as the parc ferme, Trips leaned against a concrete pillar, tired and dirty but somehow satisfied, looked at me and said: “I knew this was his last one, and I’ve got a lot of years left.”

He was only half right.

You should have been there, Michael. It was something to write about.


About my guest contributor, Leo Levine:

Leo Levine at Pebble Beach.Leo Levine, like many of his generation, compiled his car guy credentials in Europe, primarily while on the staff of Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper. He was a sports reporter and later Stuttgart Bureau chief. His sports car racing career included factory rides for Porsche at the Nurburgring 1000Ks and NSU in Argentina. And notably at the ‘Ring a class victory in a six-hour BMW drive with motorcycle side-car champion Walter Schneider. Back in the US by 1963 he joined the New York Herald Tribune sports page to cover skiing and motorsports until that glorious paper folded in 1966. That gave him time to finish the first of his books on Ford’s dramatic racing history: Ford: The Dust and the Glory. Then Mercedes Benz lured him to “the dark side” where he became director of public relations until 1991 when he retired early to accept several executive positions in the golf world. He continued writing for automotive magazines (Road & Track) and added another volume to his history of Ford’s racing experiences (2001.)   


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