Glamour and danger of great track rivalries take top ranks on the grid in motor racing books

Sports books for Christmas

Scratching your head for a Christmas gift idea? Let The Sports Bookshelf guide you through the maze of possibilities to make the right choice. Here's our selection of motor sport books published this year: 

The Limit: Life and Death in Formula One's Most Dangerous Era, by Michael Cannell (Atlantic Books)

When Dan Wheldon, the English Indycar racing driver, was killed in a spectacular crash in Las Vegas in October, the story made headlines in British newspapers, mainly because fatalities are nowadays relatively rare in motor racing.  

The Limit looks at an era when such tragedies were almost expected. Focusing on 1961, it specifically examines the battle between Ferrari drivers Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips for the Formula One world championship, a battle quite literally fought to the death.

Hill and Von Trips had risen to the top of their profession from very different roots, the former a college drop-out from California who worked as a mechanic to finance his desire to race, the latter from a family with a castle just outside Cologne, a debonair socialite with a taste for nightclubs -- acutely different from Hill, an intense man plagued by stomach ulcers who preferred to spend his evenings in his hotel room, listening to Bartók and Shostakovich on a primitive tape recorder.

Hill was striving to become the first American to win the title, Von Trips the first for Germany.  Their rivalry came to a head at the Italian grand prix at Monza, a course featuring a notoriously dangerous high-speed banked oval on which the drivers would bunch together at speeds of up to 180mph, riding in the slipstream before deciding their moment to pull out and overtake.

Monza had a high count of casualties and while it was by no means the only circuit with a reputation for loss of life --  significant fatalities also occurred at the Nurburgring, Spa and Rheims -- it was Monza that would claim another victim in 1961, when Von Trips lost control of his car and collided with the British driver Jim Clark, spinning off the track and into the crowd, taking 15 spectators to the grave with him. Yet there was no abandoning the race, even as the bodies of the dead were being removed, and Hill went on to win to take the title.

The Limit, written by the American magazine journalist Michael Cannell, is both a gripping and grim account that captures a world of seductive glamour and ever-present danger. The Limit was how drivers described the perfect balance of speed and control that they would try to attain, knowing that to fall short ran the risk of failure but that to go beyond ‘the limit’ was to dice with death.

In the Name of Glory - 1976: The Greatest Ever Sporting Duel, by Tom Rubython (Myrtle Press)

A motor racing rivalry no less fierce but in which happily there were no casualties is the subject of the latest offering from the British author Tom Rubython, a writer and publisher from Northamptonshire whose previous work includes biographies of Ayrton Senna and James Hunt.

Rubython studies the intense and sometimes bitter battle between Hunt and defending champion Niki Lauda for the F1 drivers’ crown in 1976, one in which Ferrari's lawyers issued a series of writs challenging the legitimacy of Hunt‘s victories, on grounds ranging from the width of Hunt’s McLaren car to the composition of the fuel he was using.

It was also the year in which Lauda suffered his most horrific crash, at the Nurburgring, where he sustained severe burns to his head and neck that left him horribly scarred for life yet returned to the track after only six weeks, missing just two races.  Hunt, whose career had been in sharp decline 12 months previously, clawed back the lead Lauda had established by winning five races before his accident and took the title when Lauda -- much to Ferrari’s frustration -- decided that the soaking conditions at the final race of the season, in Japan, were too dangerous.

No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone, by Tom Bower (Faber & Faber)

Tom Bower, a biographer author with a long experience of controversial subjects that has seen Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohammed al Fayed, Conrad Black and Richard Branson come into his sights, saw in billionaire motor racing boss Bernie Ecclestone another with the same ruthless instincts.

This story follows Ecclestone from his days as a playground entrepreneur -- who would buy buns with the proceeds of his two morning paper rounds and sell them on to classmates at a profit -- to the head of Formula One who negotiated a deal with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to secure $280 million dollars of Russian government money to stage a grand prix in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Bower makes a brave attempt to dissect the increasingly complicated business manoeuvres that accompanied a rise to power that began with his purchase of the Brabham team in 1971 and by which he has been able to maintain his grip as president and chief executive of F1’s governing bodies.

He also exposes the shady machinations of New Labour that involved Tony Blair, Michael Levy, Peter Mandelson, Derry Irvine and Gordon Brown in helping Ecclestone and F1 maintain their sponsorship income from tobacco companies despite a ban on their involvement with sport.

Red Bull Racing F1 Car Manual, by Steve Rendle (J H Haynes & Co)

A clever book presented in the graphical style and hardback format of the legendary Haynes workshop manuals, Steve Rendle’s book provides an insight, as its sub-title indicates, into the ‘technology, engineering, maintenance and operation of the world championship-winning Red Bull Racing RB6’ but a lot more.

Its 180 pages cover a wide range of topics, not least the background to the Red Bull team.  Not a workshop manual in the conventional sense -- not that there are too many enthusiasts with an RB6 to tinker with, anyway -- it has been described as more a summary of contemporary F1 technology from the past three years.

Steve Rendle is a life-long motor racing enthusiast and a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers. He has worked for Haynes Publishing for 25 years, and has written over 50 Haynes car manuals and practical technical books.

Memories of Senna: Anecdotes and Insights from Those Who Knew Him, by Christopher Hilton (J H Haynes & Co)

Christopher Hilton, the former Daily Express journalist who wrote the first biography of Ayrton Senna and subsequently penned five more books on the great Brazilian driver, went back to 120 people who knew him, worked with him and competed against him with a single question: what is your strongest memory of Senna?

The result, told entirely in direct quotes, stands as an intimate, heartfelt portrait of the man, from his early days as a karter to his death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Senna -- three times F1 world champion -- had an aura that still provokes emotion even 17 years after his death. Memories of Senna is a re-release of a collection first published in 2003 but loses no impact for that, recalling Senna’s talent, religious faith, intellect and professionalism and his extraordinary ability to monitor his car‘s performance and behaviour even as he raced, long before the technological advances that allow such analysis to be carried out remotely by team technicians via computer screens.

Sadly, after a life in writing that yielded more than 60 books, Christopher Hilton died just over a year ago.  This volume serves in part as a tribute to his career as well as that of his subject.

More books by Michael Cannell
More books by Tom Rubython
More books by Tom Bower
More books by Steve Rendle
More books by Christopher Hilton

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