The Limit is centred around the 1961 Formula One World Championship, which saw American driver Phil Hill and the German Count Wolfgang von Trips locked in a battle as team-mates driving the dominant “Sharknose” Ferrari 156. For one it would result in tragedy, and for the other a victory not to be repeated.
The book is best at comparing the background and early careers of both drivers. Hill was raised in California and was a sensitive driver of a nervous disposition which contrasted with his passion for speed and his racecraft behind the wheel. He’s portrayed as a worrier who never felt he was quite good enough as a racer, despite winning the first ever event of his career and going on to build his reputation by driving sports cars in challenging events including the Carrera Panamerica, Mille Miglia and Le Mans 24 Hours. In fact, even after he became a works Ferrari driver, it took a risky ultimatum and drive in an F1 Maserati to prove he was capable of driving at the highest level.
Meanwhile Von Trips may have been born into the German aristocracy, but his family had relatively little money to support their moated manor house and land. Having survived a number of illnesses including meningitis and reportedly polio, he then endured military training and air-raid rescue as a teenager, seeing the horrors of bombing raids and combing the wreckage for bodies. With a reputation for clumsiness and getting himself into scrapes, such as breaking an ankle in Alpine training, or setting himself on fire whilst driving a go-kart, he was more symbolic of the rich and carefree European racing ancestry.
With the Kindle edition available for just 99p it was a particularly poignant read in the week that actor James Garner passed away, the star of the Frankenheimer F1 epic ‘Grand Prix’, which also saw the 2014 F1 Mercedes team rivalry of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton continue with Rosberg becoming the first German driver to win in a German F1 car since Rudolf Caracciola in the 1930s.
Cannell freely admits he isn’t an expert on cars or motorsport, and is better on portraying the various personalities, of which there are many. The chances for a driver to survive a racing career were slim, between 1-in-2 and 1-in-3, and both Hill and Von Trips were elevated to leading the Ferrari F1 team following the deaths of other drivers. The post-war racing world saw a shocking number of accidents, injuries and deaths including amateur and semi-professional racers and the biggest stars of the age. That included the infamous Le Mans accident which claimed the life of Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators with more than 100 injured, and the accidents and fatalities which ended the Carrera Panamerica and Mille Miglia as competitive road races.
Above all of it were the team bosses, and in this case, Enzo Ferrari, who was widely reported to not only avoid close relationships with drivers following the deaths of Giuseppe Campari and Alberto Ascari, but to build the psychological pressure and rivalries within the team. Whether or not this contributed, in the late 1950s and early 1960s a total of 7 drivers died in Ferrari’s including Ascari, Eugenio Castellotti, Alfonso de Portago, Luigi Musso, Peter Collins and Lorenzo Bandini. Indeed, Sharknose designer Carlo Chiti joined Ferrari following the death of the previous designer testing a car.
The book is a reasonable length, but the focus all builds towards the 1961 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, which saw the rivalry between Hill and Von Trips come to a head. The postscript is a bit of an anticlimax, and Cannell certainly could have gone into more automotive detail and covered various races and events in a lot more detail for the more dedicated petrol head.
Overall, The Limit feels similar to the recent Lauda/Hunt film Rush, in that it has enough to be interesting to every motorsport fan, but the pace and focus seems designed to reach a wider audience. There are a number of factual errors when it comes to automotive details, which is a little frustrating, but for a readable introduction to the era and personalities involved, it’s easy to recommend. Click here to buy The Limit: Life and Death in Formula One’s Most Dangerous Era by Michael Cannell via Amazon.