FORMULA 1: The Official History is a newly-released hardcover tome authored by award-winning motorsport journalist, Maurice Hamilton and published by Wellbeck Publishing.
It is distributed across South Africa by Jonathan Ball Publishers and retails for a worthy R555. 00
Illustrated with both monochromatic and colour imagery, it chronicles the complete history of the FIA Formula One World Championship from 1950 to the present day.
In reviewing it, I’ve deliberately opted to describe what’s contained in the exhilarating read through the tangent of death and its association with the sporting code over more than seven decades of its existence.
Through a tragic order from the 50s to as recent as 2015, Hamilton (no relation to Sir Lewis) mentions the deaths of drivers whilst competing and the list evidences F1 – in spite of its prestige – as being the one human pursuit through which an alarming count of competitors had lost their lives!
Although safety measures continue being implemented in the sport to an extent where an incredible 20 years lapsed from the death of Brazil’s Ayrton Senna on May 1, 1994 to that of French driver, Jules Bianchi in 2015 (after he had initially crashed and suffered a severe brain injury during the Japanese Grand Prix on October 5, 2014) – in the mid-20th century and up to the turn of the 21st, the randomness of drivers who lost their lives make for morbid reading.
During the fifties no less than five drivers – four during racing and another from a road car crash – namely, Alberto Ascari (in 1955, at Monza), Luigi Musso (on July 1958, in the French Grand Prix), Peter Collins (on August 1958, at the German Grand Prix), Stuart Lewis-Evans (October 1958, at the Ain Diab Circuit in Casablanca, Morocco) and Mike Hawthorn (in 1959, near Guildford, after losing control of his Jaguar road car.)
The following decade, the 60s, would prove to be just as deadly, with Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow (on 19 June 1960, at Spa-Francorchamps), Wolfgang von Trips (in 1961, at Monza) and Jim Clark (in 1968, at the Hockenheimring) succumbing from crashes. Von Trips’ crash proving to be the deadliest as 14 spectators his out-of-control Ferrari plunged into, also perishing!
The unfortunate pattern carried into the 70s with New Zealander, Bruce McLaren’s McLaren spinning into a marshal’s post on the Goodwood Motor Circuit and killing him instantly on June 2, 1970.
A few weeks later on June 21, Piers Courage’s De Tomaso overturned and caught fire during the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. He was only 28-years of age!
Germany-born Jochen Rindt perished pending racing at Monza in September of the same year – an untimely development since it was in the year he became World Champion, albeit, posthumous (the first and only driver to date, in F1’s history.)
Roger Williamson met a horrific end on July 29, 1973 during the Dutch Grand Prix – from asphyxiation after his March car overturned and caught fire.
In October of the same year, France’s Francois Cevert succumbed after his Tyrrell slammed into a barrier at Watkins Glen International, in New York. Swede, Ronnie Peterson died from leg injuries sustained during a crash in the Italian Grand Prix, in September of 1978.
The 80s had Ferrari’s French-Canadian driver, Gilles Villeneuve (the father of 1997 champion, Jacques) passing on, on May 8 from an accident which occurred during final practice of the Belgian Grand Prix. 23-year old Italian, Riccardo Paletti died from an accident at the Canadian race in June of 1982.
In recent memory, the most prominent of the drivers to lose their life is Brazilian hero, Ayrton Senna, who at 34-years succumbed from a crash when his Williams-Renault speared into a wall at 193 m-p-h during the San Marino Grand Prix, on May 1, 1994.
Just a day prior, Austrian, Roland Ratzenberger had slammed into a concrete wall of the same circuit at high speed and died. Before the Austrian’s crash, it had been twelve years since a driver had lost his life during grand prix.
Sometime before his death, Senna, a devout Catholic, had been quoted once saying: “Just because I believe in God, it doesn’t mean that I’m immune. It doesn’t mean that I’m immortal!”
According to his sister, Viviane, Senna had sought strength from the Bible on the morning of his death.
The Noughties saw F1 registering zero fatalities and twenty years passed after Senna’s death until a crash on October 5, 2014 at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, would later – nine months after, in July 17, 2015 – result in the death of young French driver, Jules Bianchi, from a severe brain injury.
3-time champion, Jackie Stewart, had worked out that more than 40 friends and colleagues of his had been killed during his time as a racing driver. In fact, what would had been Stewart’s last race at Watkins Glen in October 1973, was cut short by the fatal crash which claimed the life of his Tyrrell team-mate, Cevert.
A monochromatic photograph in the book depicts a scene from the 1958 British Grand Prix at Silverstone in which only straw bales protected the marshals and officials close to a track teeming with speeding racecars.
The sport has evolved to such a sophisticated level that it would be unthinkable in this era to stage a race sans drivers having no helmets and tracks being without safety barriers and other requisite measures in place.
In an effort to mitigate the ever present dangers drivers are exposed to, in 2018 a cockpit framework known as a halo was introduced by the FIA – which actually saved Sir Lewis Hamilton’s life when the rear wheel of rival, Max Verstappen’s Red Bull car rested agonizing inches from the 7-time champion’s helmet during racing of the 2021 Italian Grand Prix.
Yet Hamilton’s chronicle isn’t only about death, with the book also introducing readers to stars ranging from the Argentine, Juan Manuel Fangio (who is quoted through a turn of phrase going thus: “You must always strive to be the best, but you must never believe that you are”) to the sport’s most successful driver ever, namely, Sir Lewis Hamilton.