Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Limit - Michael Cannell

With the end of the 2012 Formula 1 season, I have thrown my energies into further exploration of motorsport history.  As part of this process, I recently read a book which had been nestling on my Kindle for a little while.  I refer to The Limit, by Michael Cannell.

Ostensibly, this book, sub-titled Life and Death in Formula One's Most Dangerous Era, takes a look at the lives and careers of Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, culminating in the tragic conclusion to the 1961 season.  However, in a wider sense it serves as a chronicle of a whole epoch in the sport, and it also throws a light on the changing of the times in the aftermath of the Second World War.

There is a wealth of biographical detail about both Hill and von Trips, and some attempt along the way to gauge how aspects of their respective backgrounds may have impacted on the course of their racing careers. The chapters covering Hill's upbringing in particular I found enlightening, and some of my preconceived notions about him were dispelled.

There are some evocative and sobering passages dealing with Hill's attempts at the Carrera Panamericana, and an intriguing account of how he gradually attracted the attention of Ferrari.

The parts documenting the formative years of Wolfgang von Trips are valuable because there seems to be a dearth of in-depth material available about him, in the English language at least.  Again, the story does not conform to some of the blithe assumptions which I previously harboured.  Some effort is made to explain how he ascended to World championship contender status, from his links with Mercedes and Porsche, the ambivalent attitude of his family towards his racing activities, to some of the accidents which hampered his progress along the way.

We are also given shorter, but still affecting, portaits of some of the other characters in this drama, such as Alfonso de Portago, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins. One is left with the feeling that a uniquely diverse, complex and substantial band of men inhabited the Ferrari team, and motorsport generally, during those years.

The turbulent and tragic 1958 Grand Prix season is covered in depth, particularly the internal and political strife engulfing the Ferrari driving strength.  It appears that the scheming, intriguing and general volatility assumed some kind of peak around the middle of that year.  The portions revolving around the deaths of Luigi  Musso and Peter Collins, and their aftermath, are interesting to say the least.

Many of the anecdotes, including those concerning Enzo Ferrari, will be familiar to many, but it is good to have so many condensed into this tome, and for many the book will serve as a form of "refresher" pertaining to the goings-on of that era.

Perhaps understandably, the 1959 and 1960 seasons are largely glossed over, so that attention can be rightly devoted to the momentous 1961 championship struggle.  The impression given here is that there was more tension and gamesmanship between Hill and von Trips than is often assumed. Their relationship that year was a curious one, and it is a moot point whether any mild animosity which may have developed was precipitated by the actions of the Ferrari team itself.  The events surrounding the fateful Monza race are dealt with sensitively and without sensationalism.

One of the most striking aspects of this book for me is its depiction of the personality of Phil Hill.  He had always been a somewhat enigmatic figure to me, different in many ways from the archetypal Grand Prix driver of virtually any era, but The Limit paints a very complex picture, even when compared to that which I had always assumed to be the case. Belying his image with some as a "Ferrari man" through and through, Cannell implies that the Californian felt under-valued and under-appreciated in the team.

There is some well-pitched analysis of the differences in the relative psychological make-up of Hill and von Trips, and how this affected their attitudes to racing and its perils, their motivations to compete and their outlook on life in general.  Some racing books can indulge in this sort of thing to excess, but I think here the author got things just about right.

I found Cannell's writing style to be expressive and rich, but also accessible and enjoyable.  The atmosphere and ambience of the time, both on and off the racetrack, is powerfully and effectively conveyed. The book contains the odd, relatively harmless, historical inaccuracy, but this should not detract from the book's entertainment value. The one other mild irritant is a tendency for the socio-political importance of  motor racing, particularly in parts of Continental Europe, to be over-estimated.

I approached this book with an open mind, not knowing quite what to expect.  I was pleasantly surprised by its content and style, and by its ability to hold the interest and attention.  The fact that I got through it within a few short hours is testimony to this.  I came away feeling that I had genuinely learned things, which is one of the criteria with which I judge a book's merits.  Dedicated historians may not feel that it adds that much, but for anyone seeking a grasp of the flavour of the sport and the times, The Limit is well worth checking out.

In addition, I came away with a greatly enhanced respect and reverence for Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and all those who participated in top-level motorsport during that time....

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