A couple of things in this month’s Motor Sport got me thinking. The first was in Nigel Roebuck’s column: “Who was your personal hero?” he posed to drivers, in an attempt to find out more about the character of his interviewees. His underlying theme was that, these days, few drivers had personal heroes; instead they spent their formative years focussing purely on karting and the learning of their craft. As a consequence, they often lose sight of the bigger picture - and lack a knowledge of the history of the stage on which they perform.
It got me to ask myself the same question, though, and I couldn’t really find anyone in particular; certainly not one that inspired me beyond all others to acquire a lifelong interest in this sport. Probably just as well really, as with his passing, I would hate to think that I might not want to follow motor racing any more.
There are many candidates: stars of the motor-racing world while I was growing up and getting to know motor sport. I’m not sure that Jim Clark quite made it onto my list - he was killed when I was 11 - and unfortunately he wasn't at either of the Formula One races that I saw before that day in April 1968. But somehow he never really inspired me, not until later in life when I found out more about him. The problem for me as a “pre-teen” (not sure that was a term that had been invented then), was that Clark was too good. If other things were equal, then Clark would win; and where was the fun in that?
I was a big fan of the Lotus 72 when it appeared in 1970, and having seen Jochen Rindt triumph (somewhat fortuitously, I’ll admit) in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, I was devastated when he was killed at Monza later that year. I’d seen Rindt in Formula Two races at Crystal Palace, where he was of course king, and had read of his supremacy in the category. To my simple teenage mind, that he would win a world championship in such a marvellous car as the Lotus 72 was only right and proper.
Emerson Fittipaldi was another of my first heroes. Having seen him race through Formula Ford and Formula Three at Crystal Palace in 1969, to have him seal Jochen’s championship by winning at Watkins Glen in what was only his fourth Grand Prix - that was wonderful. And it was in a Lotus. There was always something special about Lotus. Much more so than Ferrari. And at least one could realistically aspire to owning a Lotus. And so I did, later. I'm still saving up for my first Ferrari.
Inevitably, then, many of the heroes of my youth were Lotus drivers: after Rindt and Fittipaldi came Peterson, Ickx, Andretti: winners every one of them. I never really took to Mansell though, nor Hunt before him - my Englishness did not extend to jingoism. Then there was Senna. Ah, yes, Senna. By the time Senna arrived in the UK, I had already started my journey in the world of commentary, which provided me with greater opportunities to get to know the man behind the helmet; to see my heroes as human beings, that one could actually talk to... I did speak with Ayrton, several times, and he remained a hero - albeit not one without flaws: maybe genius would be a better term.
And as I got involved in the sport, so the people that I got to know became my heroes. Drivers that weren’t such household names, but ones that I could have a beer with and respect. People whose skill and craft I could understand: Gerry Marshall, Barrie Williams, Tony Lanfranchi, Karl Jones, Patrick Watts. As my knowledge deepened, so my taste for the history developed, and I found out more about Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Tazio Nuvolari, Jean-Pierre Wimille. Somehow the term ‘hero’ seemed far more appropriate referring to drivers of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. Martin Brundle (also in this month’s Motor Sport) says “…the (Formula 1) cars (of today) are too … easy to drive…” To my mind, to be a hero, you have to overcome adversity, and somehow Schumacher, Alonso, Hamilton et al have all had it too easy. Like many of today’s celebrities, whatever their heights of achievement, they have not truly had to struggle.
And in that light, my own personal heroes shine less brightly. Motor racing is sometimes a small and insignificant world.
The other bit of Motor Sport this month that caught my eye was the letter from historic racer Malcolm Ricketts, in which he quotes the late John Dawson-Damer: “the better guys will always win, but the winners are those who can run their cars well, look good, sound good, enjoy themselves and be an entertainment to those who come to have a look. It is not racing, it is motor sport, and that is the difference.”
It’s an interesting thought, and I value it for its depth - for it is not obvious, and not, it seems to me, a view that many will agree with; today the perceived wisdom is that winning is everything and learning how to lose gracefully doesn’t seem to be a highly-prized virtue.
I believe it should not only be applied in the field of historic motor sport, but also to the contemporary scene. It goes at least part of the way to explaining why folk compete in an HRT or a Norma. There is something a bit special about the very activity of driving a car fast that starts the adrenaline - like going on a roller-coaster ride, you don’t necessarily have to win to get a rush from the activity. It’s the attitude of not giving up in an endurance race when you lose an hour repairing something and then go out and drive like crazy for the rest of the race in order to finish sixteenth. Or something like that. You don’t have to finish first in order to be a winner.