Wolfgang Graf Berghe von Trips was an aristocrat, a tall blond German Count who was a lover of fast cars and of life itself. Familiarly known as 'Taffy', von Trips survived a succession of high-speed accidents until he crashed to his death at Monza in 1961. After having dabbled in racing for a number of years, Von Trips entered an old Porsche in some rallies. His success persuaded him to contact Porsche's racing director, Huschke von Hanstein, to ask for free parts to modify his machine.
Von Hanstein offered Von Trips a drive in the 1954 Mille Miglia as co-driver to Hampel. Against all odds, the pair were second in the 1500cc GT class and the first 1300cc car to finish. He later acquired a 1500cc engine for his Porsche Super and entered his first race at Nurburgring with the bill for the engine still unpaid. He won then settled the account. Soon he had won the German GT Championship.
In 1955 both Porsche and Mercedes-Benz smiled on Von Trips. He was reserve driver for Porsche at Le Mans and after some impressive performances in his 1300 cc Porsche he was offered a works Mercedes-Benz 300SL for the GT race at the Swedish Grand Prlx meeting. He led for 16 of the 20 laps before the brakes failed, thereby earning a place in the sports-racing car team of 300SLRs in the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod. Co-driving with Kling and Andre Simon he was third.
With Mercedes' withdrawal from motor racing at the end of 1955 it was back to Porsche for 1956. In a works Porsche 550RS he won the 1500cc class in the Sebring 12-hours, Nurburgring 1000-km and Le Mans 24-hours. This led to an invitation to race for Ferrari. He was second with Peter Collins in the Swedish Grand Prix sports-car race and was invited to pilot a Formula One Lancia-Ferrari D50 in the Italian Grand at Monza. In practice the steering broke at high speed, Von Trips being thrown clear of the rolling wreckage and emerging almost unhurt.
In 1957 Von Trips remained with Ferrari in both Formula One and sports cars. He was sixth in the Argentine Grand Prix, second in the Mille Miglia only 3 minutes behind Piero Taruffi and bitter in the Monaco Grand Prix when his engine blew-up with only 11 laps to go. After being absent due to a spinal injury, at the Nurburgring 1000-km, he was back in late August and went on to finish third in the Italian Grand Prix and third in the sports-car Venezuelan Grand Prix.
The Swiss Mountain Grand Prix
Driving for Porsche, he participated in three end-of-season European Hill-climb Championship events, winning the Swiss Mountain Grand Prix and at Mont Parnes and taking a second at Aosta-Gran San Barnardo. The format was similar in 1958. Best placing in Grand Prix racing was third in the French Grand Prix, while in sports cars he was second in the Buenos Aires 1000-km and third in the Targa Florio and Nurburgring 1000-km. He won the European Hill-climb Championship, his works Porsche winning at Mount Parnassus, Monte Bendone and Gaisberg. In the Rheims 12-hours for GT cars he shared a Ferrari Berlinetta with fellow German Wolfgang Seidel into third place. However, in September another accident temporarily put him out of racing: his Ferrari Dino 246 collided with Harry Schell's BRM P25 on the opening lap, crashed and Von Trips broke a leg.
Enzo Ferrari dropped Von Trips from his team the next year, leaving the German free to race for Porsche in sports-car and Formula Two racing. Best result was a second in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood, although it was galling when he broke down on the last lap of the Targa Florio when leading. 'Taffy' von Trips blotted his copybook at Monaco, where he gave the new Formula Two Porsche its debut and spun on the second lap, causing a pile-up involving the other two Formula Two cars in the race. In December he was back with Ferrari for the United States Grand Prix. After colliding with team-mate Tony Brooks on the first lap he recovered to finish seventh.
The commentary is in German, but the pictures tell the story. 14 spectators killed, and von Trip himself.
Continuing to drive for Ferrari in 1960, Von Trips found the front-engined Formula One machines inferior to the latest Coopers and Lotuses and had to be satisfied with minor placings, best being a fourth in Portugal. In Formula Two he won the Solitude Grand Prix and, making a 'guest appearance' for Porsche was second in the F2 German Grand Prix at Nurburgring. He was also second for Ferrari in the Buenos Aires 1000-km and Targa Florio sports-car races, but ran out of fuel at Le Mans. For 1961 Ferrari were ahead of their British rivals, providing Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther with cars capable of winning the World Championship.
Tragedy in Italy
Von Trips won the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, becoming the first German to win a grande epreuoe since 1939, and later won the British Grand Prix after a brilliant performance on the sodden Aintree track. Into the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Von Trips had a one-point lead in the championship. Entering the Parabolica on lap 2 Jim Clark moved to overtake Von Trips' Ferrari Dino 156 under braking. The two cars touched at 140 mph and spun. Clark's car halted safely, almost undamaged. Von Trips' hurtled up the banking into the spectator area, killing fourteen people before plunging back on to the track, overturning and killing its occupant.
Clark described the accident, saying: "Von Trips and I were racing along the straightaway and were nearing one of the banked curves, the one on the southern end. 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. Von Trips' 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 was on course to become the first German to win the Formula One World Championship. In 1961 von Trips established a go-kart race track in Kerpen, Germany. The track was later leased by Rolf Schumacher, whose sons, Michael and Ralf, made their first laps there. The belief that Wolfgang von Trips would not have been spared from his fate, when a plane he was scheduled to fly to the USA crashed over Scotland, is an urban myth. However, he seemed to be jinxed at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, given he had previously crashed out in the 1956 Italian Grand Prix and the 1958 Italian Grand Prix, being injured in both events.
Wolfgang von Trips driving the 1958 F1 Ferrari at Silverstone.