“The Limit: Life and death in Formula 1’s most dangerous era” – review


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"The Limit" - Michael Cannell

The tragedy of the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, in which Wolfgang von Trips and 15 spectators lost their lives, is the subject of this new book by American author Michael Cannell.

Unfortunately, I didn’t receive a copy early enough to include it in F1 Fanatic’s season gift guide.

Cannell calls himself “an unlikely person to write a book about car racing” but adds, “I believe that dedicated reporters can write on any topic if willing to do the legwork”. He has done the legwork with this book, and it shows.

“The Limit” serves as twin biographies of Phil Hill and von Trips, the two Ferrari drivers who contested the 1961 world championship.

These were contrasting characters. Hill, restrained and thoughtful, mechanically sympathetic and occasionally gripped by fear at the prospect of racing. Von Trips, with his aristocratic background, was more of a playboy figure and somewhat accident-prone, though often very quick.

Of the two, Hill receives a fuller and slightly more sympathetic treatment. Cannell says after the fateful race: “The newspapers buried Hill, if they mentioned him at all. The insinuation was that von Trips was the rightful winner.”

We tend to see team patriarch Enzo Ferrari through Hill’s eyes – especially Hill’s disdainful view of Ferrari’s ostentatious mourning for several of his predecessors and, later, von Trips. “La Scala might have lost a star when Ferrari went into tears,” observes Hill.

Cannell paints a vivid picture of the times, relying on a mixture of contemporary accounts, recent memoirs and some new interviews.

The author has an eye for the kind of curious detail that conveys a point: after winning the 1961 championship Hill appeared on a television gameshow the following December which was “predicated on the obscurity of the guest’s achievement”. Whether F1’s profile has improved in America in the intervening 50 years will surely be a point of interest when the United States Grand Prix returns to the calendar this year.

That the intervening five decades has seen a revolution in attitudes towards safety in motor racing can hardly be overstated. After von Trips’ car cut its deadly swathe through the Monza crowd and hurled the lifeless body of its driver on the floor, the race continued.

Cannell’s book seems to draw particular inspiration from Robert Daley’s contemporary works The Cruel Sport and Cars at Speed, both of which have been republished in recent years and should be your first port of call if you’re looking for information on this time. If you enjoyed those, you’ll lap up “The Limit”.

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Buy The Limit: Life and Death in Formula One’s Most Dangerous Era (UK)

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Buy The Limit: Life and Death in Formula One’s Most Dangerous Era (USA)

Buy The Limit: Life and Death in Formula One’s Most Dangerous Era (USA, Kindle edition)

The Limit: Life and death in Formula 1’s most dangerous era
Published by Atlantic Books
ISBN: 9781848872226

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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20 comments on ““The Limit: Life and death in Formula 1’s most dangerous era” – review”

  1. This reminds me of the documentary that was on last year called I believe “Grand Prix: The Killer Years”. Well worth trying to find on Youtube or somewhere like that, and a counter-argument to the people who pop up every so often claiming that F1 has become “too safe”.

    1. @Dobin1000 I haven’t seen that documentary yet – I had it on iPlayer but it expired. But I read a lot of negative coverage about it at the time saying it was sensationalised and inaccurate. Did you not think so?

      1. At the very least it was quite powerful. I can’t remember if it was inaccurate at all.

      2. I am only 30 this year, so I haven’t got my own accounts of watching F1 much before the 90s that I can compare the way the programme presented certain incidents, but I didn’t perceive it as sensationalist at all. In fact it was fairly restrained when you consider how you could present a driver being incinerated in a magnesium bodied car while the race continued around them. I am no expert so I can’t really comment on ‘accuracy’…

        I can understand some people would dislike it because unsurprisingly Jackie Stewart is heavily featured and trots out his hoary old “30% chance of dying in every race” line.

        It has first hand accounts from drivers and mechanics involved in the sport at the time, and I guess some people might think it was sensationalised because they can’t believe some of the things that went on, such as Jackie Stewart’s account of his Spa crash.

        The programme ends with the live footage of the aftermath of Roger Williamson’s crash at Zaandvort in 1973 when David Purley tried to right his car as the race continued feet from the burning car while single yellow flag was waved and marshalls with no protective clothing couldn’t help. I don’t think it is sensationalising it because that is exactly what people watching the race on TV would have seen at the time.

        It is all just my personal opinion, and you might totally disagree, but I think it is definitely worth seeing.

        1. I don’t remember any glaring inaccuracies and thought it did a decent job of a difficult subject. The Roger Williamson footage is pretty shocking if you’re coming to the subject cold (I certainly found the footage of the Le Mans disaster chilling when I first saw it), which may well be why there were complaints. But the circumstances of Williamson’s death perfectly illustrated the programme’s key point – that drivers knew the risks and were prepared to take them, but were being needlessly killed for utterly trivial and preventable reasons. I also seem to recall a couple of complaints about using footage from Formula 2 or the Indy 500 without being clear that it wasn’t F1.

          Another good book on a similar subject is The Lost Generation by David Tremayne, which follows the careers of Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce – a trio of British drivers who should have made a significant impact on F1 in the 1970s and early 1980s.

          Brise died in the same plane crash as Graham Hill, at the outset of a very promising GP career, while Pryce died in a horrible freak accident at Kyalami. Williamson’s accident and David Purley’s heroics are covered in some detail, as well as some of the important context of the time.

          1. I ‘enjoyed’ the documentary, even if just for the footage alone.

            It was a really sobering look into what breed racing drivers were in those days. I don’t think any of the current crop who came into the sport this century, are are the same breed/mentality as those who raced before them.

            The doc does demonise Colin Chapman a fair deal, as his cars were so flimsy/light, they were perceived to be dangerous. Not sure as to how true this really was, altho I can believe he was looking to harness every advantage he could get.

            Definitely worth the watch.

          2. The seventies were dreadful for british talent. Piers Courage (70), Roger Williamson (73), Tony Brise (75) and Tom Pryce (77). I think all of them could have been real stars, specially Brise and Pryce.

        2. Having only followed F1 from the early 2000’s and not looking to much into its history, I was absolutely horrified at the Magnesium car and nearly in tears watching Roger Williamson’s crash.

          It was all so preventable…

      3. It’s always on the Qantas entertainment channel if you are over in Oz any time soon and taking a flight. I’ve seen it a couple of times now. Not completely accurate but heart-rendering in parts nonetheless.

        1. that review misses the point entirely. it was a good illustrative documentary. i have read a fair amount about the period in question and thought that, for its intended audience (ie. not Grand Prix fanatics), it was a decent film. it was quite graphic, especially the Williamson footage at Zandvoort, but that was part of the point.

          documentaries have narratives too. i urge anyone who hasn’t seen the documentary to ignore that review until they have made up their own minds about it.

  2. It wasnt inaccurate but it certainly felt like an outsiders perspective on the sport. I felt a bit uncomfortable watching, it is however, undeniably dramatic if harrowing to watch. But having just read a book by the CMO of CART and also owning The Cruel Sport book im not averse to that side of the sport it just maybe tried to over dramatise something that if anything needed softer hands.

  3. Hill, restrained and thoughtful, mechanically sympathetic and occasionally gripped by fear at the prospect of racing.

    What’s in a name?

    I know he’s not related to Damon, but I remember that in the haydays of his career, Damon parked his car a few times for no apparent reason. Then he called it quits. Rumour had it that he simply got struck by fear…

    1. I wouldn’t class it as fear so much as always having in the back of his mind that there was more to life.

      He lost his father young and had not got to spend as much time with him as most other children probably would have because of F1, he started out racing bikes and F1 wasn’t his passion from childhood, and he was Senna’s team mate in 1994.

      After winning the Championship and then trying valiantly lower down the grid, I think he just decided he had other ambitions and things he would rather focus on, such as his family. Plus he came in later in life than most and was 36 when he became Champion – these days people would have been calling for him to step aside and leave the sport by then!

  4. We also have to remember that although we are now in an era where playing conkers is deemed hazardous by Health & Safety; motor racing came out of an era where millions of men had died “needlessly” in 2 world wars.

    That a few well off men died doing something they loved was hardly the concern of anyone.

    Of course that view went on too long and though older generations dislike Jackie Stewart he deserves huge credit for basically whistle blowing on the shoddy tracks and medical back up that was still prevalent well into the 1970’s.

    You only have to look at the needless deaths in Nascar, Indy & CART over the last 10 years to know that this attitude still exists. It exists because track owners want to make as much money as possible.

    I think its a fairly safe bet to say that if F1 hadnt gone to the extraordinary lengths it has to increase safety,then it would be banned by now. Group B rallying met that fate when it couldnt keep drivers or fans safe and CART was going down that line before it collapsed.

    In the CMO of CARTS book ( i forget its name). They were running on a Texas Speedway average speeds of 236mph by the early noughties. They ended up cancelling the race because the drivers were blacking out in practice as they came off the bends. SOmething to do with vertical G. Worth reading about if you like that techie stuff.

    They also lost drivers hitting poles on feencing and had several die from the horrible condition known as Basilar fracture where your head separates from the spine. All due to no run off areas and a concrete walls at the end of a fast straight.

    1. It’s not just the circuit owners. Whether it makes sense or not, alot of drivers in the past have been resistant to improved safety. Dale Earnhart was vehemently against the HANS device or any other similar device while he was alive yet the injury that killed him, a basal spinal fracture, would have never happened if he was wearing one. Also, drivers in F1 during the 60s & 70s were very resistant to full helmets and seatbelts due to discomfort and fire issues. Even the fans are resistant to some of the changes, like safety fencing, because it takes away from the excitement of the race. Even the teams were resistant to changes like getting rid fo the highly flammable magnesium tubs. Until recently, the only people who ever really forced safety in motorsport were the non-viewing public and the people in charge of the sport.

  5. Whether F1′s profile has improved in America in the intervening 50 years will surely be a point of interest when the United States Grand Prix returns to the calendar this year.

    – maybe even that peculiar Hamilton photoshoot helps improve its profile!

    Looks like an interesting addition to any dedicated F1 library. Thanks for the review @Keithcollantine, otherwise I would have probably missed hearing about this book.

  6. yes absolutely Spaulding . i was simplifying, the track owners were particularly dismissive but everyone was against it. Ive got some Motorsport mags from the sixties and the letters pages and editors comments are all a bit “stop rocking the boat Stewart.”

    I think Dale Earndharts collision was measured at 65mph. his harnesses were loose and he had a foolhardy attitude to safety.

    i remember a great one from COlin Chapman who proposed putting the driver ahead of the front wheels to aid weight balance.

  7. Sounds like a good read. May pick this up at some point in the future. I’ve got plenty to be reading at the moment!

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