The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, tells the tale of the rivalry between Wolfgang  Trips, a German prince and Phil Hill, an American mechanic come racing driver for the 1961 Formula 1 World Championship. Its author Michael Cannell, edited the House & Home section of the New York Times for several years and contributed to The New Yorker, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. Having read the book myself I felt it would be interesting to find out if there was more to this cinematographic novel than met readers’ eyes and Michael was able to spare a few moments to give a deeper insight into The Limit.


Christopher Sharp: What was the initial spark for writing this book? What made you think, ‘I can put this onto paper?’

Michael Cannell: ‘It’s a little bit unusual, I don’t have any kind of a car background. I’m not particularly interested in cars. I don’t own a car so I did not come to this book as a fan. What sparked my original interest were photographs from that era. I used to work at the New York Times and the New York correspondent who covered the races in that era was Robert Daley. One day, I happened to see a book of his photographs. It was the wonderfully grainy photographs that got me interested. Looking back on it I feel as if those photos express both the glamour and darkness of that era. You can read in those photographs that little moment in the late-50s early-60s before the ’60s became the psychedelic ’60s when the drivers were rock stars before anybody had invented the term rock star. As a result there was a certain glamour to them [such as] the photographs of them in the pits with their girlfriends for example. There was also a darkness to it, this was after all, a time where many of these drivers died and you can read the anxiety and the darkness of the time in those photographs’.

CS: I agree. I certainly get the impression from my copy that it’s definitely an era when the drivers were aware of the darkness but they pushed it to the back of their minds, living like medieval knights

MC: ‘They were like the Knights of the 1950s. These men really were like the knights of their era and many of them came from nobility like Von Trips and Francisco de Portago [who], like their ancestors, were thrown into battle with the most sophisticated weaponry of their time. From an American’s point of view, they were strangely accepting of the romance of this gladiatorial battle in which they would often be thrown to their deaths. There was also a nationalistic aspect to it. The grudges from previous wars were baked into these rivalries and as an American it was amazing to me as I came to learn about their world how much they really hated each other and how much this was about avenging ancient grudges’.

CS: Why specifically Von Trips/Hill and not Peterson/Andretti or Damon Hill/Jacques Villeneuve?

MC: ‘I gravitated to Hill and Von Trips because the two men were so clearly opposite personalities and my theory all along was that every great sports story is a paring of opposites. These men were friends and team-mates but they were opposites in every imaginable way. Where Phil Hill was often so scared [before a race] that he had to eat baby food because it was the only food he could keep down, Von Trips was a ‘bon-vivant’ and did not for a moment seem anxious about the danger compared to Hill who was a wreck. Von Trips was entirely oblivious/impervious to the dangers. Hill was very much an engineer, a mechanic before becoming a driver. Again very much the opposite, Von Trips didn’t know anything about the car and didn’t particularly care, but he was able to put his foot down. It was the paring of these two men as opposite sides of one coin’.

CS: The only danger Von Trips seemed to face was himself, given he had a form of what we would call diabetes and was known for having a very aggressive driving style; even being nicknamed ‘Von Crash’ at one point.

MC: ‘I think that’s part of what made him great, that while many other drivers were aggressive the way he was, he did have an ability to come back from crashes where other drivers might not have. He came back, and every time he was better, he was faster, he was more sophisticated about what he was doing. So that was the great ironic tragedy of his life, that he came back over and over again and was prepared to be the champion, he was ready to win’.

CS: As well as the masses of document-research and photographic research did you visit Monza or any other Grand Prix circuits or any Grand Prix to get an idea of the glamour, glory and gladiatorial aspect of the sport?

MC: ‘You would be surprised how little travelling I did, I wish I had done more. I should have gone to see Monza and the Ferrari sites at Maranello. My book editor was a little dubious about my travelling and it was going to be up to me, not the publisher to pay for it and I knew that I could burn through a lot of my own funds pretty quickly. Instead, what I did was to work with a very good reporter called Michael Dumiak who lives in Berlin who did a lot of the German Von Trips reporting that I could never have done. One of the few trips that I made was to California to visit Phil Hill’s widow, Elma, at the home in Santa Monica where he grew up. I also interviewed many people in Los Angeles so the only ‘on site’ reporting that I did was in Los Angeles where Phil Hill came out of’.

CS: Have you encountered any criticism about the novel and if so, what would you change?

MC: ‘I got some technical details in the book wrong and in the automotive press I got some criticism. I tried very hard to get those technical details right. And as any good reporter would, I grieved at having made those mistakes. However, I don’t think that a book should be judged by whether the description of the carburettor was entirely correct or not. What would I change? Most importantly I think I would go to Italy. I think inevitably with any book you find some of the perfect sources after it comes out. And through family connections I did find out that Wolfgang Von Trip’s godson is still alive. So I would very much like to have spoken to him and one of many of Von Trip’s girlfriends in Germany which I think would’ve helped a lot’.

CS: In that case, do you think you might do a second version of The Limit as a result of this to try and silence these criticisms and fill gaps as Perry McCarthy did in his autobiography which he published three times? Do you think you might do this with The Limit?

MC: ‘I would love to do that. I don’t know if it makes sense from the publisher’s point of view but if I were given the opportunity, yes I would love to. Another possibility is there are some stories about some of the drivers that I would like to revisit and tell their individual stories more fully. I can imagine living in the era of digital book publishing and imagine going back and telling some of those stories as standalone stories that would perhaps be published on  as digital books. Drivers such as Eugenio Castellotti or Bernd Rosemeyer , the German driver who was Von Trip’s great hero and one of the great heroes of Germany in that period just before World War Two. Also, structurally it was a very hard book to write because there were so many digressions into these men and women’s lives’.

CS: What was your view of Formula 1 before you started The Limit?

MC: ‘I didn’t really view it. For Americans racing is really NASCAR and so if somebody had asked me to describe Formula 1 I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I could picture what the cars looked like but I didn’t know anything about it and I still don’t know. I know a lot about Formula 1 within the era of the prescribed years in The Limit. But, if somebody asked me, and people have, when I was on the book tour, my opinions about Formula 1 today I [would] really know very little about it nor am I particularly interested in it’.

CS: But do you think an interest might start? Do you think you might start to delve into the world of modern Formula 1 and develop a greater interest?

MC: ‘I don’t think so. I don’t think I’d watch a modern Formula 1 race. I’m just not a fan, I don’t. I think it’s good that I didn’t write this book as a fan, my interest was really only in people’.

CS: What do you think of Formula 1 drivers of the current era?

MC: ‘I can say very little for the reasons I’ve just explained. One thing I will say is that, you asked me earlier why I chose this rivalry to write about. Part of the reason is that Phil Hill and Von Trips raced in a period just before the sport became big on television and therefore just before the sport had a lot of money in it. It was just before the sport had a lot of big sponsorship and so it was a period in which the drivers raced because they loved the sport and not for the money; today is completely the opposite’.

CS: Finally, do you think that, just as there was in the case of Hunt/Lauda in Rush, that there is a film to be made based on The Limit?

MC: ‘Here’s the thing, Columbia Sony Studios bought the rights before I wrote the book and the actor Tobey Maguire had agreed and signed up to play Phil Hill. [Also], on the phone with me once he said that his best friend is Leonardo DiCaprio and his idea was that DiCaprio would play Von Trips. Similarly, when Ron Howard first started to make Rush the studio dropped the project, they didn’t renew the option. But happily for me the actor Patrick Dempsey bought the rights [to The Limit]. He’s working with the Sundance Channel, a cable channel here in the US associated with the Sundance Institute founded by Robert Redford and they are writing a script for a pilot with the intention of making it into a TV Series’.

CS: Are you planning to do another book tour regarding The Limit? Is there another one in the works?

MC: ‘I don’t have any plans for a book tour. But if in fact it ends up on the Sundance Channel there could be some promotional events. There’s also a Facebook Page where I’ve put up a load of photos for the book’.

CS: To end, a massive thank you to Michael Cannell for this interview. It seems the future is very bright not only for the book and author but also for the preservation of motorsport’s great stories as a whole.