On This Day: German F1 driver Wolfgang von Trips dies in crash and kills 15 spectators at Italian Grand Prix

Julian Gavaghan

September 10: Formula One driver Wolfgang von Trips died in a horrific crash that killed 15 spectators at the Italian Grand Prix on this day in 1961.

The German racer, who was on course to win that year’s championship, clipped Briton Jim Clark’s Lotus, which catapulted his Ferrari into the crowd.

Von Trips, 33, the wealthy playboy son of a noble Rhineland family, was thrown from the airborne car and died after hitting the ground at the notorious Monza circuit.

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In the aftermath, Clark, who would also later die racing in 1968, revealed how the accident happened.

“Von Trips and I were racing along the straightaway and were nearing one of the banked curves, the one on the southern end,” he said.

“We were about 100 metres from the beginning of the curve.

“Von Trips was running close to the inside of the track. I was closely following him, keeping near the outside.

“At one point Von Trips shifted sideways so that my front wheels collided with his back wheels. It was the fatal moment.

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“Von Trips's car spun twice and went into the guardrail along the inside of the track. Then it bounced back, struck my own car and bounced down into the crowd.”

Von Trips had been leading the 1961 Formula One World Drivers Championship and needed only third place in Italy – the penultimate Grand Prix – to win the competition.

A British Pathé newsreel filmed Phil Hill, who became the only American to clinch the title after winning the race, receiving his trophy not knowing about his rival’s fate.

But, in an era when drivers were expected to dice with death while earning in their careers what Lewis Hamilton makes in a race, fatal crashes were fairly typical.

In the 1960s race organizer were not that interested in safety and that decade alone saw 14 F1 drivers die.
That began to change with the death of Clark, a highly charismatic star who was probably the best-loved racer of that era.

The death toll slowly began to fall, with 12 drivers dying in the 1970s and four in the 1980s.

No racer has died in a grand prix since Brazilian world champion Ayrton Senna lost his life after a crash at San Marino in 1994.

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Altogether, 49 F1 drivers have lost their lives in racecars.

Von Trips, who had twice been injured after crashing at previous Italian Grand Prix events, helped fellow German Michael Schumacher become an F1 legend.

A go-kart track he opened at Kerpen, near Cologne, was later leased by Rolf Schumacher, who taught his oldest boy and other son Ralf how to race there.

In 1992, Michael Schumacher, who also raced for Ferrari, became the first German to win a full-length grand prix since Von Trips’s 1961 victory in Britain.

He went on to win a record seven championships and is widely regarded as the best ever F1 driver.