Tuesday 1 September 2015


Wolfgang von Trips, minutes before his demise 
"I wanted to win, but not at this price." - so remarked the 1961 Formula One champion Phil Hill. It was a dream victory to have secured his maiden world title in Formula One driving for Ferrari and to top it, in front of the several thousands of Tifosi at Monza, Italy. Hill won the title by leapfrogging his teammate by one point. Wolfgang von Trips, his colleague and the points leader coming into the race needed a third placed finish to secure the driver's title, a first for a German driver. His race ended on lap two, and a little later, his life ended too!


Growing up as a racer, Von Trips was not new to accidents. In fact, he survived so many accidents before maturity and consistency became an integral part of his driving. And these new attributes were on display when he was part of Ferrari's dream team of 1961. Phil Hill, Richie Ginther, Ricardo Rodriguez, Giancarlo Baghetti and Wolfgang von Trips won five of the seven races Ferrari took part in and the team and its drivers were clearly miles ahead from rest of the pack.

Coming into the penultimate race at Monza, Von Trips was leading the championship by four points over his American teammate Phil Hill. They were friends off the track, but on the race day they were fierce competitors as both wanted to be the first from their country to win a driver's title.

Von Trips was in the best position to claim the win as he qualified in the front row with the fastest time and all Hill could manage was fourth. Thousands of fans had gathered with a prospect of watching one of the Ferrari drivers winning the title.

The race started - Von Trips had the worst start and by the end of lap one he was placed sixth and ahead of him were - Phil Hill who led the race, followed by his other team mates Ginther and Rodriguez; then came Jim Clark, followed closely by Jack Brabham and Von Trips.

Von Trips relying on Ferrari's superior speed got past Clark and was chasing down Brabham. Clark with a lighter fuel load was not in a mood to give up that easy and his pace and car handling kept him within few metres of the German. As they duo approached the Parabolica curve, Von Trips slowed down a bit to position himself better to take the tricky right hander. Sensing an opportunity, Clark tried to overtake Von Trips from the left and at this instant, Von Trips moved slightly to the left to cover his position and next moment - bang!

The left rear of Von Trips made a severe high speed contact with Jim Clark's right front wheel and in the next few seconds, it was a catastrophe. The Ferrari took the aerial route, found itself inverted and with no seat belts, Von Trips was thrown off the car and he fell down with a great impact. The car with a high momentum went on to strike the fence where spectators were placed, hit some of them before flipping back on the track.

Von Trips died on the spot and so too eleven spectators. Three more died the next day and one after five days.


"Trips was head of me, driving on the centre of the track. Suddenly he slowed down. Since my Lotus was faster than the Ferrari, I tried to overtake him. In the same instant the Ferrari surprisingly pulled to the left, and a collision became unavoidable..." - this was Jim Clark's take on that dreadful incident.
Recollecting the incident after 50 years, the second placed driver that day Dan Gurney gave an account on what happened and what was the attitude back then in an interview with Daily Mail: "'I had a very good seat for watching what happened. I was probably running in about 10th place in my Porsche. There was a great group of drivers, some of whom were braver and less experienced than they should have been so the chance of something like that happening was pretty great." 

Phil Hill knew there was a huge accident, but the race continued. He completed the race in a little over two hours before he enquired his manager about what had happened.

"And Trips? Is he dead?"

"Come on,” said the manager. "They want you for the awards ceremony."

In today's world, it is unimaginable to think of such a response. But the times were different and as Dan Gurney points out - "We were born at a different time and basically were raised during the time of World War Two with many of us involved, or very close to being involved in it. It seemed to be the general outlook, people didn't complain about things and they had a World War Two attitude."

Robert Daley, who was a journalist that day recalled - "The emotions are still right on the surface. I was the same age as these guys and they were dying all around me."

In his book 'The Limit', the author Michael Cannell covers Phil Hill's triumph and the 1961 Formula One season - " I always felt like this was a proxy war. The British, Italians, Germans - they were still in some way fighting World War II. They were putting their handsome young men in the most sophisticated machinery and sending them out to their deaths."


Wolfgang von Trips belonged to one of the respected families in Germany. The Von Trips family lived in Castle Hemmerbach since 1751, and Von trips grew up in this grand building, with his ears attuned to the sounds of the Silver Arrows at the Nürburgring, which was very close to the castle grounds.

In 1961, a month prior to his unexpected demise, a fan club was formed in his honour and continuing the name of this great German post WW II, the members constructed a go kart facility in Horrem. With time, the virus of karting spread across Germany and with constant support from the Von Trips family, came a new facility in Kerpen-Mannheim.

Michael Schumacher's dad Rolf got involved and leased the facility for some time and that is where the Schumacher brothers first got the taste of racing. Other German drivers like Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Nick Heidfeld and the four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel are all the products of this facility. Michael Schumacher re-started the passion and went on to complete the unfinished job of Von Trips in becoming the first German driver champion of F1 and the trend continues......


Wolfgang Von Trips on the brink of becoming the first German to win the championship was eager to get the 1961 Italian Grand Prix off his back. He was visibly nervous and he disclosed his feeling to Robert Daley and his wife over tea on the eve of the Grand Prix - "Every driver has a place deep inside him where he's afraid of death." He went on to add - "This could all end tomorrow, you never know." 

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