A review of Michael Cannell’s ‘The Limit’

I just finished reading Michael Cannell’s The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit.  I know the book has already been out for almost two years, but I still wanted to give it a quick review and let anyone who has not read it know that it is highly recommended, especially if, like me, you did not live through the early years of Formula One.

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 7.38.01 PMThe book follows Phil Hill, the only American-born champion in F1 history, and Wolfgang von Trips, a German count and winner of two Grands Prix, from their childhoods in California and the Rhineland to their final, deadly battle in the 1961 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.  They came from very different backgrounds, but ended up as teammates and rivals on the Ferrari team.

Cannell also introduces us to the other drivers in the Ferrari stable during the late 1950s and describes how, in the years leading up to 1961, the Scuderia had been devastated with the deaths of four drivers.  Peter Collins and Luigi Musso during Grands Prix, Alfonso de Portago in the 1957 Mille Miglia, and Mike Hawthorn in a road accident, only three months into his retirement (which was hastened by his having witnessed Collins’s death).  Hill and von Trips were the two men left standing.

In an interesting parallel to what is coming for the 2014 season, 1961 saw the introduction of a new set of regulations which drastically reduced the engine size limit.  Ferrari had gotten a head start in the development of their car while the other teams were challenging the new regulations.  The result was the Ferrari 156, known as the Sharknose (see photo below), which won five of the seven races it entered in 1961.

Von_Trips,_Clark_and_P._Hill_at_1961_Dutch_Grand_PrixWolfgang von Trips leading Jim Clark and Phil Hill at the 1961 Dutch Grand Prix.
Photo credit: Harry Pot via Wikimedia Commons

Cannell is an excellent storyteller, and the book has the pace of a novel.  This story has already been told in many different forums, but Cannell deftly weaves it all together and manages to build the suspense, despite everyone knowing the outcome already.  Unfortunately, he has to rely heavily on previously published quotes for much of the story – this is unavoidable, though, as the two protagonists (as well as much of the supporting cast) are dead.

It is very interesting to see the paths Hill and von Trips took to reach Formula One, and also to see how insecure and unsure both men felt at various times.  They certainly had reason to be, given the death and carnage that surrounded the sport.

Another strong part of The Limit is the description of the origins and development of Enzo Ferrari’s team.  He was a driven man (excuse the pun) who lived to build fast cars and cared for little else.  For those of us who grew up during the Michael Schumacher era, and for whom Enzo Ferrari is only a name, Cannell provides a fascinating depiction of the man behind the most successful team in F1 history which will surely leave you wanting to read more.

Cannell admits in the book that he is not a motor sports writer, but he has done an excellent job in The Limit capturing the essence of F1’s early years and the men who lived and died to help grow it into the sport it is today.  Those already well-versed in the era may not find a lot new in this book, but for anyone who has not read extensively on (or lived through) the first decade of the F1 World Championship, this book will provide an excellent introduction.  It is also recommended for anyone looking for entertaining sports writing in general, as Cannell delivers fascinating descriptions of the races and even better portraits of the men who took part in them.

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