In the 17th arrondissement in Paris there is a garage called Le Fair-Play. We’ll gloss over the fact it sells Volkswagens and concentrate for now on the concept. It is not a very French expression and, remarkably, was imported from English – because the French did have a word for sportsmanship.
Back in the 1960s there was an amusing musical comedy duo called Flanders and Swann. They sang clever songs including one called “The Song of Patriotic Prejudice”, which was amusingly rude about the other nations of the world and chorused with “The English, the English, the English are best. I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest”. It made people laugh, not because they took it seriously – but because they understood it was a satirical look at nationalism.
One of the verses was about sports.
“And all the world over each nation’s the same,” it went. “They’ve simply no notion of ‘Playing the game’. They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won, and they practice beforehand – which ruins the fun.”
The point – now long forgotten – was that, for the English, sport was not about winning, but rather about the pleasure of competition, and if your opponent played well and won, one was generous and applauded the achievement. It was born from the respect between competitors.
There have been two outstanding examples of sportsmanship in the history of F1, although these were long before the sport was played to Schumacher Rules, where shoving a rival off the road is deemed to be the norm. The first was at Monza in 1956, in the final race of the season. Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio (45) was the favourite to win his fourth world title. His challenger was his Ferrari team-mate 25-year-old Englishman Peter Collins, who was in a position to become his country’s first Formula 1 World Champion.
Fangio had an eight point advantage which meant that Collins had to win the race and set the fastest lap – without Fangio scoring. So it was really down to reliability.
As luck would have it, Fangio retired with steering problems. In those days, teams were still allowed to switch their drivers between cars and so Ferrari asked its third driver Luigi Musso to hand his car over to Fangio. He refused to do so, on the grounds that he didn’t wish to disappoint his home crowd. This meant that Collins was on track for the title as he closed in on race leader Stirling Moss.
But then, with 15 laps to go, Collins slowed and drove into the pits. He handed the car over to Fangio, thus giving up any chance he had of winning the world title. Fangio rejoined, but could not catch Moss.
Collins said that Fangio was too great a driver to be let down by machinery, and added that he was still young and would win a title soon enough. Alas, that did not happen. Two years later Peter Collins died in an accident at the Nürburgring.
Three weeks after Collins’s death, the Formula 1 teams gathered again for the Portuguese GP on the streets of Porto. The battle for the World Championship that year was between Moss in a Vanwall and Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari. It was wet on the day of the race and Moss and Hawthorn fought for the lead, until Hawthorn spun and ended up on a pavement, off the race track. The car stalled. When Moss came around on his next lap, he shouted to Hawthorn to try to bump-start the car, by letting it roll down the hill behind where the Ferrari had stopped. This worked, Hawthorn rejoined and finished second to Moss. After the race, the stewards decided to exclude Hawthorn because he had driven the wrong way on the race track. Moss heard the news, went to see the stewards, argued that Hawthorn had not been on the track and should not be disqualified. They reversed the decision and Hawthorn was given back his second place. Two races later Hawthorn won the title from Moss by just one point… thanks to Stirling’s sense of fair play.
Please think about donating to the Jill Saward Fund, which aims to continue the work of my sister Jill Saward (1965-2017), who campaigned to help rape victims and to reduce the number of rapes in the world.