A genial and handsome young Englishman, Peter could have become the United Kingdom's first World Champion when he relinquished his Lancia-Ferrari to team leader Juan Manuel Fangio during the course of the 1956 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Already established as a world class racing driver of formidable ability, he believed there was still plenty of time for him to realise his great ambition. Tragically that was not the case as he lost his life in the German Grand Prix two years later.
Peter Collins was born in Kidderminster, Worcesteshire, England. His father was a prominent figure in the motor trade and Peter spent three years serving an apprenticeship at Ford in Dagenham.
Collins got his racing car, one of the new Cooper Mk IIs, in 1948, apparently a birthday present from his parents. Peter spent the latter half of the year practising on airfields. In fact his enthusiasm convinced his father’s friend Austen May to buy Stirling Moss’old Mk II, and the pair would make their debuts early in 1949 at the Goodwood Easter Meeting.
The Mk II wouldn’t last long, by June it had been sold to Bill Cox and replaced with a stretch-chassis Mk III. Early form was a bit variable, but that all changed in July with the very first 100 Mile Race at Silverstone. A huge increase in race length, it was obvious that even with enlarged fuel tanks the cars would still need at least one fuel stop. The Collins family had other ideas, and had Charlie Smith prepare a detuned Manx Norton engine to run on petrol-benzene, reckoning the greater efficiency of the fuel might avoid any stops. The car was fast anyway, and Collins battled with Don Parker for the lead. When Parker stopped for his first fuel stop (having not even fitted larger tanks), Collins romped to victory. Collins followed that with a win at the September Goodwood meeting, and more good results followed on both tracks and hills through 1950 (moving to a lightweight Cooper Mk IV mid-season) and 1951, with a JBS-Norton built by Alf Bottoms.
In 1951 Collins travelled across Europe, but it was an unhappy season. Bottoms was killed when he crashed into a marshal’s car that was parked beside the track in Luxembourg and another friend, Curly Dryden, died at Castle Combe after overturning his car.
Collins’ 500 career was almost over, having been spotted by the big teams. On the recommendation of Reg Parnell, John Wyer took on Collins for the Aston Martin sports car team. Partnering Pat Griffith, he took one of Feltham’s DB3s to victory in the 1952 Goodwood 9 Hours race by two laps and the 1953 TT on handicap. He also finished second at Le Mans in 1955 with Paul Frere and 1956 with Moss.
Collins by now had teamed up at HWM with Lance Macklin and Stirling Moss and together they took in most of the F2 races in Britain and on the continent and, when F2 was adopted as the World Championship category, he found himself a Grand Prix driver. However the HWM was under funded, underpowered, and fragile, rarely making it to the finish. Results were thin on the ground, his best Championship finish was a sixth place in the 1952 French Grand Prix though he fared better in minor races, finishing second at Les Sables d’Olonnes in 1952 and third at the Eifelrennen in 1953.
In sports cars, aside from his drives with Aston Martin Peter also drove for Mercedes and Ferrari. Late in 1955 he drove for Mercedes in the Targa Florio sharing with team regular Stirling Moss. It was a memorable one-off that clinched Stuttgart’s second World Championship that year and Collins probably would have signed for Mercedes in 1956 had the Germans continued racing. With Ferrari he won many races, ranging from the Giro di Sicilia, that chaotic race at Caracas and, in what proved to be his final season, the Buenos Aires 1000kms and Sebring 12hrs, sharing a 250 TR with Phil Hill.
In 1954 Tony Vandervell recruited Collins to drive the ‘Thinwall Special’ previously raced by Reg Parnell. This 4.5 litre, Ferrari-derived beast ran in the popular Formula Libre class, where Peter was a constant thorn in their side of BRM, consistently beating their high profile V16s. He was also among the first to drive the original Cooper-based ‘Vanwall Special’, in which he finished 7th at the Italian GP.
In 1955 he joined BRM them to race the V16 in Libre events and the stopgap Owen Maserati 250F in Grands Prix, while waiting for the 2.5 litre Type 25. His World Championship appearance with the 250F was unlucky but he did win the International Trophy in it. At Monza he made a one-off start in a works Maserati, qualifying 11th, but again failed to finish when the rear suspension failed.
The 25 finally arrived in the autumn but in his only race, the Oulton Park Gold Cup, Collins had to retire early on. The car suffered from terrible vibrations and these had shaken the oil-pressure gauge so violently that it appeared to Peter that there was no pressure. He was thus forced into a precautionary but sadly unnecessary retirement.
Ferrari came calling in 1956 and there he teamed up with the Maestro himself, Fangio, replacing his great friend, Mike Hawthorn, who moved to BRM as he wanted to spend more time near his home to support his mother after his father, Leslie Hawthorne, was killed in a road accident. Peter and Mike had become the closest of friends, indulging in outrageous pranks while at the same time deriving huge fun from their motor racing. They nicknamed each other "Mon Ami Mate" after a contemporary newspaper cartoon strip character.
Inside the Ferrari, Peter quickly matured under Fangio’s guidance and in his debut season he won his first World Championship Grand Prix at Spa. This was followed up by another win at Reims. At the German GP, where he retired with a fuel leak before switching to De Portago’s Lancia-Ferrari which he proceeded to crash. As the season drew to a close he was still in with a shout for the Championship thanks in part to shared second places with Fangio at Monaco and Fon de Portago at Silverstone.
Then came the Italian Grand Prix. Looking at the points situation, both Behra and Collins had a mathematical chance of winning the Championship but they needed a win and the point for the fastest lap to take the title without Fangio scoring. It is often said that Moss was on his way to the title by taking the win and fastest lap, but his chances came to an end after the German GP.
At the start Musso and Castellotti got ahead and spent the early laps duelling frantically, destroying their tires in the process. This meant that both had to stop early for new rubber. Fangio, Moss, Collins and Schell had formed the second slipstreaming group and so this became the battle for the lead. Collins eventually pitted for tires and dropped back. De Portago suffered a tire failure on the banking and was lucky not to have a big accident. He did hit the wall but was able to drive the car to the pits to retire with a damaged suspension. Castellotti also suffered a tire failure and crashed heavily but without hurting himself.
Shortly before half distance Fangio pitted with a broken steering arm and switched cars with Castellotti. Moss was at the front and beginning to pull away from Schell. Behra has retired from third place and so that had fallen to Musso. The Italian moved to second when Schell stopped to refuel but it was expected that when Musso stopped he would hand over the car to Fangio. However Musso point-blank refused to give up his car in front of his home crowd and his pit stop came and went and Musso stayed in the car so when Schell retired he was back in second position.
Collins was in a position to win the World Championship but when he came in for a tire check with 15 laps to go he made the magnanimous decision to hand over his car to Fangio. It was a great sporting gesture, which created an even bigger affection with the Commendatore.
The race seemed to have settled down but with five laps to go Moss ran out of fuel. As he was coasting to a stop, his Maserati team mate Luigi Piotti slowed down and used his car to push Moss's 250F to the pits. Moss had lost the lead to Musso, but with three laps to go the Lancia-Ferrari driver suffered a broken steering arm as the car came off the final banking and he came to an unseemly stop opposite the pits. Moss was ahead again and he won the race by six seconds. Fangio finished second place and the World Championship went to the Argentine driver for the third consecutive year.
Ferrari re-signed Hawthorn in 1957, reuniting the two friends as teammates. However their ageing Lancia-Ferrari cars couldn’t keep up with the 250F Maserati now with Fangio. The Vanwalls were also starting to make an impression and the Ferrari drivers were left to pick up the pieces that Fangio and Moss left behind. He got married that year to an American girl, Louise King, and together they made a golden couple, living an enviable life-style based on a yacht in Monaco harbour.
Peter took victory in the local F1 events at Syracuse and Naples and although Musso and Hawthorn both outscored him in the World Championship these two wins made him the most successful Ferrari driver in a season that was best forgotten.
In 1958 Hawthorn re-established his position as team leader, out qualifying Collins on every occasion. Ferrari regained their form after they dropping their V8s in favour of the Dino V6. In April Hawthorn, Musso and Collins posting a series of wins at Goodwood, Syracuse and (in early May) Silverstone with the new car. Ferrari’s victorious start to the season was complemented by great sport scar wins in the early-season Buenos Aires 1000kms and Sebring 12hrs, both won by Collins and Phil Hill.
Although Hawthorn proved to be the faster qualifier in their Grand Prix season, in the races Mike and Peter were more evenly matched. But as the younger of the two suffered terrible reliability, not finishing three of the first four Championship races in which he competed, Hawthorn had developed into the Scuderia’s title candidate by mid-season. As the two lined up on the grid of the British GP, Hawthorn tied for the championship lead with Moss, Collins was sent out to set the pace in an effort to break the Vanwall – a tactic that worked out brilliantly when Moss blew his engine on lap 25. Peter’s Ferrari, now firmly in the lead, wasn’t expected to last the race, especially given his fraught reliability of late, but it did. Such was his pace that he finished 24 seconds ahead of Hawthorn, the pair taking a resounding one-two for Ferrari on Vanwall’s home ground.
Ferrari had already tragically lost Luigi Musso at Reims as the teams headed to Germany. Thanks to his win at Silverstone, Collins was back in the hunt for the title in third place.
In the race Collins was duelling for the lead with Hawthorne and Vanwall’s Tony Brooks on the 10th lap as they came up to the twisty Pflanzgarten section. For some reason Peter got slightly off-line which subsequently caused him to miss the following corner, he half-spun onto the grass and slid into the fencing. He was thrown out on impact and hit the only tree around head on. His helmet cracked and he fractured his skull. He never regained consciousness and died in hospital the same evening.
Peter Collins' death at the Nurburgring left the racing world shocked. For although he was indisputably one of the fastest men around, he was also regarded as being one of the safest.
Louise King appeared in the movie "A 7 year itch" among others. When she married Peter they lived in a house in the Modena area but after a while they left Italy to live on their yacht "Mipooka" in the harbour at Monte Carlo. All Monaco stared whenever they went out in their special bodied Ferrari 250 convertible. When Peter died, Louise sold the boat and returned to America.