Review: The Limit by Michael Cannell

What Rush did for the glamorous world of Formula One in the 1970s, The Limit: Life and Death in Formula One’s Most Dangerous Era does for a time when motorsport wasn’t quite as glitzy, but was even more deadly.

The book focuses on the 1961 Formula One title, which was contested by the shy and nervous America Phil Hill, and the more dashing celebrity of Count Wolfgang Von Trips. Both had worked their way up through the motorsports ranks and in 1961 found themselves as team-mates in a Ferrari team fielding the dominant ‘Sharknose’ 156.


It led to a two-prancing-horse race, with the title to be decided at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix. For one driver, tragedy waited, and for the other a victory which didn’t quite deliver the rewards a modern motorsport fan would have expected.

Cannell isn’t a motorsport enthusiast, and there are some minor factual inaccuracies, but nothing which detracts too much from the truthful portrayal of death and destruction which was so big a part of that era. Von Trips had survived major illness and wartime duties as a teenager which included removing bodies from the wreckage after air raids, but incidents like the 1955 Le Mans crash which killed racer Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators must have seemed like things hadn’t changed in peacetime.

Indeed Von Trips and Hill made their way up through the vacated spots in the Ferrari team as more senior or favoured drivers lost their lives – in all 7 top drivers would perish in a Ferrari in the late 1950s and 1960s. What’s shocking is that the figure wasn’t surprising or uncommon – even when the talents lost included Alberto Ascari and Peter Collins.

Experts and enthusiasts of the era might want to go for a more detailed record of events, and there could certainly be a lot more detail on the cars and races themselves. But for a readable overview and an effective taste of what it was like to compete in a time when you had maybe 1:2 or 1:3 chance of reaching retirement, it makes a great introduction, especially alongside the Frankenheimer epic ‘Grand Prix’ featuring the machines and many of the drivers of the era.

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