Formula 1 and sports car racing back in the 50’s and early 60’s, when drivers wore polo shirts and flimsy helmets, and before seat belts and other safety-related developments, is for a host of reasons a most appealing topic, but the more you think of it, the less satisfactory is the present result: this book.  There are striking or even puzzling aspects of this book as a book, and as a product with tie-ins as well.

For example, 1961 rings a bell, as we are, as I write, yet in the 50th anniversary of that year.  Yet the 50th anniversary of the Grand Prix of Italy at the Autodromo Nazionale at Monza on September 10, the ostensible climax and focus if not the subject of The Limit, was sloughed off, as the publication date was November 1.  And even this detail is odd, since—more than two years ago, according to the publicity releases at the time—the film rights for this volume were sold to Tobey Maguire and his production company.  So it seems that the book was written after its commercial exploitation was already packaged; which raises the question of how anyone can own facts or history, as there is not much here that was not previously known to the people who want to know.  The subject is a natural for enthusiasts but not for the general public, as the publishers understand, as is acknowledged in the volume itself, and by the film producers.

Again, we might say that the subtitle of this volume does not describe its contents at all adequately.  There is much here about sports-car racing as distinct from the Grand Prix circuit or circus, and much here as well about the 1940’s and 50’s.  There has to be.  There had to be, as this book is in effect a double biography of Phil Hill, the American racer, and Count Wolfgang von Trips, the German driver.  The two wound up facing off for the World Driving Championship in 1961, both from the same Ferrari team.  The confrontation did not last long, as poor Von Trips was killed in the second lap, taking 15 spectators with him when he went, with another 50 injured.  It was a black day for motor racing, not even the first at Monza, and not the last.

So the book is organized as one would expect: We begin, in the Prologue, with the tensions at Monza, and back up to the story of Phil Hill for four chapters.  Chapter Five is about Enzo Ferrari, Six about Von Trips, Seven about the 50’s and the personalities of the circus, Eight about the lives lost as 1958 plays out.  The last three chapters and the Epilogue describe the serial events of 1961—we don’t get to the rivalry until page 215—and it may be that the movie, if there is one, will follow this form.

Now, as it is, The Limit has something going for it.  There is the inherent drama of the subject itself, and there is the best thing about the book, which is the concentration on the neurotic personality of Phil Hill (1927-2008) and his many accomplishments in motor sports, business, and connoisseurship.  Even so, Hill’s engagement with racing went against his own nature, and if that held him back, it also holds back the story of his life.  Beating Von Trips was not much of a victory when the competitor was a corpse, and in America hardly anyone noticed or cared.  Nor was Hill’s subsequent racing as remarkable as it had been before the triumphal disaster, or disastrous triumph.  Nevertheless, a man who loved cars as much as he did (and real music as well) had much good in his soul, setting him apart from the vulgarities of the American mainstream, though not from the best that American life has to offer.

The asymmetry in the treatment of Von Trips could not have been overcome, even with all the research on the author’s part.  The German had a talent, but not the credentials of Hill.  Yet if he had lived and won, history would tell a very different story indeed—perhaps even a better one.

For the story of Hill versus Trips is not a story with the gravitas of Juan Manuel Fangio versus Alberto Ascari in the early 50’s, of Stirling Moss versus Fangio and Peter Collins in 1956, of Moss versus Mike Hawthorn in 1958, or of the clashes between Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, and John Surtees from 1959 to 1966, not to mention the careers of Jean Behra, Tony Brooks, Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, und so weiter.  The lack of drama in Cannell’s book is inherent in its displaced focus and in the character of Hill.

Cannell didn’t help himself with too many errors and omissions in the writing of this book.  Fangio was no five-time champion in 1954: He was as yet a two-time champion.  Von Trips did not back off for Piero Taruffi at the 1957 Mille Miglia: He merely allowed him the appearance of leading at the end, as all the cars had each started at different times.  Stirling Moss’s marriage in 1957 was to his first wife, not his second.  Where is a reference to the Race of Two Worlds in 1958?  Where did the 1960 season go?  Is it neglected because Phil Hill’s first Grand Prix victory was a mere parade at Monza, as the British teams boycotted the race?

And why is there so little illustration of what is arguably the most beautiful era in the history of motor racing?  All those sumptuous bodies sculpted by Sergio Scagli­etti, Elio Zagato, Pinin Farina, and the rest (Lollabrigida, Cardinale, etc.), and all the photographers (including Hill himself) who immortalized the images, are scanted in favor of a skimpy little picture of the members of the Grand Prix circuit in 1957, though the text itself correctly emphasizes elsewhere that Hill did not race in a Grand Prix until the French race at Reims in 1958.  And to compound the error, the photo shows Monaco in 1960.  These mistakes would have been more tolerable were there some effective investment in the representation of all those heavenly bodies.  After all, two cars of a type Hill won in—the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa—were recently auctioned for $14 and $16 million apiece.  A photo is rather less pricey.  The less you know about Cannell’s subject, the more you will enjoy The Limit.  Even so, you’ll have to obtain a separate coffee-table book—or wait for the once-vaunted movie—if you want to behold the absent images.


[The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, by Michael Cannell (New York: Twelve, Hatchette Book Group) 318 pp.; $25.99]