Around thirty years ago, I can recall sitting at a very swish dinner, held at The Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane, London, in the company of a number of motor industry luminaries. To my left was my good lady wife (of the time), who was almost as enthused as I was by the gentleman sitting on my right (now a Knight of the Realm, since 2000), Mr Stirling Moss.
To be fair, I had met the great man before, although, to be frank, despite trying very hard, even contemplating regressive therapy, as I was only a babe-in-arms, when my father (a member of the British ambassadorial service, in France) presented him with a race-winning trophy, I could not recall the occasion. However, my brother’s mother did manage to retain an autograph on a typed lunch menu, which I believe she still secretes somewhere safe to this very day.
Such was the appeal of the gentleman. He was charming company all those years ago, most especially to a 26 year old motoring writer, who was trying desperately hard not to be ‘star-struck’. He answered all of my questions, refusing resolutely even to raise an eyebrow at the most banal of them. He even agreed most graciously to another opportunity to assault his ears and memory, at a time suitable to me, at his high-tech London pad, for a further inquisition. Poor chap.
Stirling was a hero. A motor racing hero. Not just to me. Often referred to as ‘the greatest driver never to win the World Championship’, he contested as many as 62 races in a single year, driving no less than 84 different types of car in a professional career that spanned a decade, from 1951 to 1961, but was, in reality, a number of years on either side of that period.
Interestingly, Moss had his heroes, among whom were his team-mate and frequent nemesis, Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark and, on level pegging, Tazio Nuvolari and Michael Schumacher. In truth, I have no issue with any of his selection, with the notable exception of Schumacher (whom Moss also criticised roundly for his, at times, ‘bad boy’ behaviour). Even so, I do believe that he might be classed as ‘hero’ by countless Germans and schoolboys, who might now be around 16 or 17 years of age.
However, to me, Schumacher, while undoubtedly brave and indubitably ingenious as a driver, was on the cusp of the sea-change from being hero-worshipped to becoming a star-performer. He might qualify for one sterling (sorry!) drive during the 1994 Spanish GP, when, faced with a failing transmission, he drove the remainder of the race stuck in a most unsuitable fifth gear. He had led the race from the start. Yet, even after making a pit-stop, the German driver managed to depart the pit-lane in fifth gear and finished the race in second spot behind Damon Hill, for Williams, just one race after Senna‘s sad demise.
His years as a Group C (sportscar) driver for Mercedes-Benz had given him a distinct advantage over many of his contemporary racers and he was able to pick lines and adjust the throttle setting of his Benetton B194 to accommodate the difficulty. Yet, I suppose that there is another F1 driver, who might also qualify for potential hero status. He is the current Lotus team driver, Kimi Raikonnen, whose dry wit and apparent disregard for rules of almost any kind (not least in respect of wine, women and song), allied to his departure from F1 for two seasons, warrant closer attention.
In fact, while contracted to drive for Ferrari in 2009, much against the wishes of his management and the Ferrari team, he contested a number of stage rallies in Europe. Despite having made the Forbes Celebrity 100 List in 2009, where he was described as being second only to Tiger Woods, in a list of the world’s highest salaried athletes, he left the GP scene for two years to develop his fascination for world rallying. He also contested NASCAR and made his debut for the Kyle Busch Motorsports team in the Camping World truck racing series.
Kimi is not averse to enjoying a wee tipple and the ‘paps’ have managed to snap him stumbling most embarrassingly from a variety of dens of iniquity around the world, sometimes in the close embrace of an attractive young filly. His rallying skills (he is a Finn, after all) may not be as well honed as his circuit racing talents but, unlike the vast majority of today’s F1 drivers, although quite similarly to French-Canadian hero, Gilles Villeneuve, applying a dab of opposite-lock is not something that instils within him an ounce of fear or loathing.
To give Rainkonnen his due, he does come close to being a hero, albeit in a similar vein to Schumacher. Yet, from a field of top-class drivers, one of whom is set to turn his back on the sport in the not too distant future, the distinct lack of heroes is more than slightly dismaying.
Of course, being risk averse is something in which the vast majority of today’s racers are bathed lovingly by omnipresent management teams, psychologists and investors, very few of whom consider that the risks involved in driving a racing car are anything less than totally bankable. Therein lies the problem. Scared off by the poor name today’s bankers have around the world, taking risks (however toxic) is simply not a component of the remit. Besides, there is always the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association to rely on.
First established in 1961, partly to ensure that circuit safety standards were introduced and adhered to, although driver salary improvements were the main thrust, the GPDA has enjoyed something of a chequered history. It remained all but inoperative until fatalities or near fatalities occurred, the most recent of which was in the aftermath of Senna’s death at Imola, Italy, even though Roland Ratzenburger had been killed the previous day at the same venue.
One of its most outspoken members has always been Sir Jackie Stewart, although, much like Stirling Moss, neither of whose earnings ever peaked at quite the levels of later drivers, following their retirements from front-line motorsports, the constant search for publicity is what keeps their names at or near the banner headlines. Moss actually admitted to me that publicity has always been his greatest ally, because he never earned anything like enough to live in the manner to which he had become accustomed as a driver.
Yet, it was Stewart who insisted on a strategy of health and safety awareness that would equal the most stringent legislation in the world. His logic was understandable. He had lost too many close friends in the sport to otherwise avoidable crashes and inadequate safety standards. These days, when a racing driver rolls a car or crashes at unabated speed into an immovable barrier, he will more often than not walk away from the incident. Unfortunately, the untold horror stories still occur, such as for young Dan Wheldon, killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October.
Sadly, along with risk aversion comes billiard table smooth track surfaces. Formula One cars are designed with such intense ground-effects aerodynamics that they no longer slither and slide on the edge of adhesion. Instead, they are sucked so close to the circuit surface that the slightest disruption, such as a puddle, can cause them to swerve uncontrollably into retirement. It is suggested that an F1 car, driven at speed, could drive upside-down in a tunnel, so efficient are the ground effects. Unfortunately, while corner entry and exit speeds are now phenomenally high and make bends great spectating zones at most major league races, you might gain as much of a thrill watching slot-racing cars fitted with ‘Magnatraction’.
It does seem as though these issues are linked to whether drivers can be described as heroes or not. In the ‘good old days’, when Niki Lauda was being burnt alive and drivers fell from their pirouetting cars onto the racetrack, it does seem as though being a hero was de rigueur. The inherent dangers, of which the drivers were only too aware, even though, in the not so distant past, it was their poorly-remunerated task to overcome or deal with them, are what made ordinary men into objects of worship.
A very food friend of mine, Martin Donnelly, who used to race for Camel Team Lotus in 1990, ended a very promising F1 career, after being involved in a horrific 100g crash during practice for the Spanish GP, at Jerez. Thrown from his obliterated car like a rag doll, seat still attached, legs pointing in all the wrong directions, it is amazing that he survived at all. It was only after extensive reparative surgery and a long period of convalescence at Willi Dungl’s northern Austrian clinic that Martin was able to contemplate some kind of normality in his life.
He still undergoes regular surgery and wears special footwear to compensate for the different lengths of his legs. Martin is one of the nicest people that I know. Yet, describe him as a hero and he would deny the reference emphatically. I guess that is what most heroes do, because they are seldom heroes in their own words or by personal definitions.
Yet, most of us, as fans, still have our motor racing heroes. Quite a lot of them are deceased, which does seem to be a qualifying factor. Yet, some, like Moss, Andretti and even Stewart, survive. Older, wiser, no poorer but alive, they carry on a tradition in a sport that is undeniably dangerous but, these days, a whole lot safer than it ever used to be.
Grand Prix racing is cleaner, more clinical, more heavily policed, safer and even sanitised by comparison with its past. Today’s heroes might not fill the shoes of some of those derring-do exponents of the past century or so. However, a lot of F1 drivers are people up to whom the rest of us can look and they do develop great followings, even if some of them are just on Facebook or Twitter. Standards have changed. Yet, F1 remains a pinnacle sport, demanding exceptional levels of athleticism, competitiveness and admittedly smaller doses of joie de vivre.
While the majority of today’s top racers give the appearance of living like monks for much of the season, protecting their privacy with the eagerness of a Hollywood starlet, they deliver on twenty or so international occasions throughout the season, one of which will be at Austin, later this year. What emerges is a different type of heroism that today’s society finds altogether more palatable. My heroes are Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna and Stirling Moss. Who are your heroes?