Here I am in Kidderminster in Worcestershire by the grave of a very successful British racing driver. He was still a young man when he was killed in the 1958 German Grand Prix a few weeks after winning the RAC British Grand Prix. It was a small churchyard and the headstone was easy to find as the colourful flowers by the headstone would beckon over any nosy person.
He was born not far from this grave and as his dad owned a garage he became interested in cars early on. He was thrown out of school aged 16 after spending too much time at a local fairground than in the classroom. He became an apprentice at his dad’s garage and began competing in local car races. He started his career as a 17-year-old in 1949, impressing the organisers of Formula 3 races.
He gained spectacular success in his short competing years from 1952 to 1958, racing for the top teams: Aston Martin, Vanwall, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari. He won Grand Prix races in Belgium, France and Naples. He admitted he wasn't technical and left the car to the mechanics. He drove and was so fiercely competitive he drove himself onto the wrong side of danger countless times. He’s known for ones of the kindest gestures in sport: while competing in the Italian Grand Prix he saw his team leader’s car had broken down. He pulled into the pits and handed his car to his mate who went on to win his fourth World Championship.
Aged 25 he moved to Monaco to continue his racing career (also avoiding compulsory military service in the British Army.) Aged 26 he met 18-year-old American actress Louise King and after one week they got married in Miami. They took up residence on a yacht in Monaco marina and enjoyed a luxurious. Ferrari were not happy with Peter's whirlwind romance nor his sun-kissed marina life (they heard life on the yacht was one continuous party.) They believed Louise was a negative influence and the champagne lifestyle was blunting Peter's competitive edge. To make a point they sacked their star after he deliberately damaged the clutch in his car (later they took him back.)
Racing drivers know any race may be their last. Peter’s life ended when he struck a tree and died of his injuries. Aged 26 he was competing in the 1958 German Grand Prix at Bonn. On the tenth lap he went wide on a right hand bend and the left wheels of his car hit a grass bank. The car flipped up, somersaulted and Peter was thrown into a tree. He was able to talk when help got to him but he deteriorated quickly in hospital and died that evening.
I soon found his headstone behind the church although its words were almost illegible due to strong sunlight. The inscription reads, “With a cheerful smile and wave of the hand he journeyed into the unknown land.” The church was locked though there's a stained glass window which reads: “In memory of Peter John Collins 1931-1958, God gave him courage and a cheerful heart". He left a 26-year-old widow who's still alive - did she leave the flowers? I waited for clouds to obscure the sky so the photographs of the headstone may not be so bleached but after a while patience expired. I did a salute and left.
I found him in strong sunshine round the back of the church...
Peter's widow actress Louise...