RIP Niki Lauda

It was sad to hear about the passing of Niki Lauda last week. He died after contracting pneumonia after a lung transplant. He was 70 years old.

One of my favourite motor racing books is his autobiography titled To Hell and Back. This is what I wrote in one my reviews.

If someone had said to me at the end of 1973 when Jackie Stewart had just retired that Niki Lauda would be the next great champion of formula one, I would have laughed in his face. In my eyes it was obvious who the next great driver was. It was Ronnie Peterson. Had I tested those theories with a substantial cash wager I would have found myself out of pocket because Lauda won two world championships, retired, then made a comeback and won a third championship. The story of Lauda’s dreadful crash at the Nurburgring has been told many times, it’s even been made into the movie ‘Rush’ directed by Ron Howard. To Hell and Back is Niki’s story in his own words and a great story it is too. On his return to F1 at Monza after his terrible crash, Lauda drove out onto the track and was so scared he began to shake uncontrollably. Nevertheless, he carried on, overcame his fears and became a motorsport legend.

Things weren’t too great at Ferrari when he returned either. They had already replaced him with Carlos Reuteman, the Argentinian driver and Niki was understandably not amused. He returned to racing at the Italian Grand Prix that same year, 1976 and came home fourth, an incredible feat of endurance for a man who only months earlier had been given the last rites. At the championship decider, the Japanese Grand Prix, Lauda withdrew from the race in torrential rain after deciding the conditions were too dangerous to continue. James Hunt came third and therefore became the 1976 World Champion by a single point.

Lauda won the championship again in 1977 then left Ferrari. After two years with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham outfit he retired but was lured back to F1 again by Ron Dennis the boss of McLaren in 1982. Lauda won the championship for a third time in 1984 but this prompted a salary disagreement between the two men. Lauda claimed that he had only asked for a token £1 salary as a driver and the rest of his reported $3 million dollar salary was for his publicity value. Now he was world champion he reasoned, his salary should be upped considerably, after all his publicity value was the same if not more but now he was a world champion driver. Ron Dennis disagreed and Lauda took his financial issue straight to team sponsors Marlboro. They coughed up the extra cash but Alain Prost then became Ron Dennis’ favoured driver. Lauda retired at the end of 1985.

Lauda took a lot of risks in his early career, financial risks rather than racing ones. He took out a £30,000 bank loan to buy his way into the March team’s Formula 2 car. They were impressed and quickly elevated him to the F1 team. In 1973 he borrowed more money to buy his way into the BRM team. Lauda was good but the team were near to the end of their days, however when team mate Clay Reggazoni moved to Ferrari he told Enzo Ferrari how good Lauda was and Ferrari signed Lauda too and Lauda was happily able to repay his loans. Later in life he was able to start his own airline, Lauda Air which he sold in 1999 but then went on to start another airline.

In 2013 director Ron Howard made the Hunt/Lauda championship battle into the movie Rush.

Niki worked as a consultant to Ferrari and as team principal for the Jaguar F1 team and most recently he was a non executive director for the Mercedes F1 team. Until his lung transplant he was a familiar face in the Mercedes pit along with Toto Wolff, the Mercedes Team Boss and has been credited with luring Lewis Hamilton away from the Mclaren team.

Niki Lauda was one of the legends of Formula One and it was nice to see Niki remembered at Monaco this year by the F1 drivers and teams who all wore red caps in his memory.


Floating in Space is a novel about beer and cigarettes, pubs and pool tables, discotheques, loud music and cheesy chat up lines. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

7 Classic Covers from Autosport

The formula one season has ended for another year and I wanted to write something a little different about motor racing rather than just a rehash of the 2018 season. I started looking through my F1 books and memorabilia for some inspiration and after a search in the loft I came across my stash of old racing magazines.

My stash consists of one box of old racing magazines, mainly Autosport although not so very long ago it was considerably more than that but after some major hoarding therapy, which basically involved flipping through each issue, deciding what was interesting and what wasn’t and chucking out the latter, I managed to reduce my collection down to just one box.

I love my old Autosport magazines and it’s always fascinating to read about racing and how it was at the time and not looking back from the perspective of the present day. A great column in Autosport back in the eighties and nineties was ‘5th column’, a regular series of essays about the sport written by columnist Nigel Roebuck.

Autosport covers from the late eighties were always one powerful image and a headline. Later on they decided to use multiple images and various levels of text which didn’t have the same impact. Anyway, let’s take a look at some Autosport covers.

This first one isn’t brilliant but the event, the Monaco Grand Prix of 1988 is quite a significant one in the relationship between the two top drivers of the day, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Senna was in the lead and had a big margin over Gerhard Berger who was holding up Alain Prost in the other McLaren. Senna had started to take it easy and concentrate on getting to the end of the race at a slightly reduced pace, saving fuel and stress on the car. Then Prost slipped past Berger and Senna started to speed up. The pit crew radioed him to slow down and that it was too late for Prost catch him but Senna, desperate to beat his team-mate was taking no chances. He upped the pace, going ever faster until he hit the barrier coming into the harbour. Prost went on past and won the race. Senna, overwhelmed with disappointment would not even return to the pits, instead going straight back to his Monaco apartment.

1988 was the year in which Enzo Ferrari passed away. Ferrari started out as a driver for the Alfa Romeo team before starting his own Scuderia Ferrari team in 1929. Ferrari’s team had support from Alfa and in fact raced and prepared Alfa Romeos for various drivers including the famous Tazio Nuvolari. In 1933 Alfa Romeo withdrew their support and Ferrari began to produce his own cars.

The prancing horse was the symbol of an Italian first world war fighter ace, Francesco Baracca, who claimed 34 kills in action. He himself was shot down and killed in 1918 but in 1923 Baracca’s parents visited a motor race won by the young Enzo Ferrari. They were impressed by Ferrari and asked him to use the prancing horse on his cars, thinking it might bring him luck. Ferrari added a yellow background, the colours of his home city of Modena and the symbol has been on Ferrari cars ever since.

The McLaren duo of Senna and Prost won all the F1 races in 1988 but one. The one they didn’t win was that year’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Prost retired from the race and Senna was leading until a coming together with back marker Jean-Louis Schlesser who was deputising in the Williams for the poorly Nigel Mansell who was suffering from a bout of chicken pox. Senna tried to lap Schlesser at one of the chicanes, Schlesser locked his brakes and appeared to be heading towards the gravel trap, however, he managed to regain control, something that Senna wasn’t expecting and when he took the normal line through the chicane the two came into contact and Senna was forced out of the race with broken suspension.

The Tifosi, the Italian race fans, were overjoyed when Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto came home first and second for Ferrari. Did the spirit of the recently departed Commendatore influence things? Who knows?

The story of Prost and Senna is probably the story we all remember from the eighties but they didn’t always have things their own way. Nigel Mansell nearly won the championship in 1986 and his rivalry with team-mate Piquet enabled Prost to take the title that year. Honda were not happy and Frank Williams’ refusal to give team orders to his drivers led to Honda taking their engines away from Williams and over to McLaren. Williams did take the championship in 1987 for Nelson Piquet but he left for Lotus for the 1988 season. Mansell wasn’t happy either in 1988 as the Williams team, left in the lurch by Honda, were forced to use engines from privateer John Judd. That was probably a major factor in Nigel switching to Ferrari for the 1989 season. Mansell was the last ever driver to be personally signed by the Commendatore himself, Enzo Ferrari. The cover shown here is from 1989 when Mansell took his Ferrari to victory in Hungary.

Alain Prost was not happy working with Ayrton Senna. Their relationship broke down completely and Prost decided to jump ship from McLaren and join Nigel Mansell at Ferrari. The partnership of Prost and Mansell started off well with Mansell announcing that the only person he could learn from on the grid was Alain Prost. That relationship soon soured when Mansell felt that Prost was getting preferential treatment at Ferrari. His love affair with Ferrari over, Mansell rejoined the Williams team where he went on to win his only world championship in 1992.

Prost was fired from Ferrari towards the end of a winless season in 1992 after he publicly criticised the Ferrari team. He returned to F1 in 1993 but announced his retirement at the end of the season after Williams announced their signing of Ayrton Senna for 1994.

 

In this edition of Autosport from 1989, the magazine chose a picture of Senna looking suitably gloomy as he waited on the FIA, the ruling body of motorsport, to rule on his appeal against his disqualification at the Japanese Grand Prix. Prost had been leading when Senna tried to overtake from a long way back. The two came together and Prost climbed out of his car. Senna however, was pushed away by the marshals and rejoined the race to eventually win. He was disqualified from the race and had to win at the final Grand Prix of the year in Australia to take the championship. The Australian race of 1989 was held in torrential rain and cut short. Prost declined to drive saying the conditions were too dangerous. Senna crashed into the back of Martin Brundle and the championship went to Prost. A year later in 1990, Senna drove Prost off the road to win his second championship. When he won for the third time in 1991, he admitted purposely colliding with Prost but felt he was not at fault because officials had changed pole position to the dirty side of the track. Had they not done so, he reasoned, the crash would not have happened.

1994 was a remarkable season in many ways. The Williams car which had been dominant for so many seasons was not handling well and a great deal of research and development was necessary for the car to be refined into a race winning motor car. Senna arrived at Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix in poor spirits. So far he had not scored a single point in the championship and murmured ruefully to the TV cameras, ‘for us the championship starts here, fourteen races instead of sixteen.’ Ratzenberger was killed in practice and Rubens Barrichello was lucky to escape from a horrifying crash without serious injury, all of which contributed to Senna’s darkening mood.

On lap 6 of the race Senna lost control of his car at Tamburello, one of the most challenging corners on the track. He hit the concrete wall there and part of the front suspension was flipped back towards Senna’s head. The impact pierced his helmet and dealt Senna a mortal blow. He died soon afterwards.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

 

Weekend of a Champion

As this weekend is the start of the Formula One season, I thought I’d have a look through my motor sporting DVDs and recordings to get myself in the mood for a new season of the sport.

The official season reviews are rather expensive although I do have a few that I’ve picked up in stores like HMV when they are in the sales. I scanned through the season review for 2007 and fascinating stuff it was.

Kimi Raikkonen won the championship by 1 point after the final race of the season and McLaren were excluded from the results and fined an incredible $100 million because of the great McLaren/Ferrari espionage scandal! An employee of Ferrari was accused of passing confidential technical info to a colleague at McLaren. Further problems arose between Hamilton and Alonso at McLaren when Alonso blocked Hamilton in the pit lane. Yes, it was all exciting stuff.

Another F1 DVD I have is the Senna movie made in 2010. It’s a documentary film made for the big screen and consists of archive TV footage transferred to film. There is no commentary as such and the film focusses on Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost although it is clearly slanted in Senna’s favour. It’s quite a fascinating film to watch and it was great to relive the epic battles of the 80’s with stars like Mansell, Prost and Senna.

Senna was killed in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. Senna’s Williams hit the concrete barrier at the Tamburello corner, the scene of numerous accidents in the past. I remember watching the crash, convinced Senna would be all right, after all, Piquet had crashed there years earlier and Gerhard Berger had also had a terrible crash in the same spot, his Ferrari bursting into flames. Both Piquet and Berger survived. For Senna though time had run out. His front wheel and suspension assembly had hit his head and fatally pierced his helmet. Senna was airlifted to hospital where he later died.

After I’d finished my F1 TV marathon I started searching about in my VHS video box and unearthed a forgotten gem: Weekend of a Champion, a documentary film by Roman Polanski about Jackie Stewart and the Monaco Grand Prix. I was surprised to find that the video was sharp and clear and I settled down to watch the events of the 1971 Monte Carlo event. It was so good to be taken back to my youth and see Jackie Stewart, my all time favourite driver as he once was, not an elder statesman of the sport as he is today but as a great Formula One star, cheered and hailed by the crowds at the trackside as he made his way down from his hotel to the pit lane. It was raining that weekend at Monte Carlo, much to the dismay of Stewart but the grandstands of the principality were packed with fans.

Jackie Stewart

My autographed picture of Jackie Stewart

Jackie pointed out to Polanski the relative skills of the Formula 3 drivers as they sped past, Stewart explaining ‘he had the wrong line’ or ‘he was in the wrong gear’ and so on. Later, Stewart explained his gear choices to new team-mate Francois Cevert. Cevert was eager to learn from the number 1 race driver of the day. He looked vital and fresh in the film. Sadly, Cevert was later killed in 1973, just as he was about to become the team’s number one driver as Stewart retired.

One particular scene stood out for me. Shot in Jackie’s hotel room, he is on the balcony talking to his wife Helen and director Polanksi. As they chat the camera comes back into the room and reveals Nina Rindt, the widow of the 1970 world champion Jochen Rindt, killed at Monza in practice for the Italian Grand Prix. She looks sad and ill at ease and later Helen explains that in the past she and Nina, Jackie and Jochen spent time together travelling the world as they competed in motor races. She had come to Monaco at Helen’s invitation, to spend time together and perhaps remember the happy times of the past. The Formula One of the 1970’s was no less glamorous than that of today, although perhaps tinged with a sadness for the many who lost their lives back then.

After a little bit of research I see that Roman Polanski restored the film some years ago and added a twenty minute interview with himself and Jackie Stewart. I must look out for that on DVD.

Today Sir Jackie Stewart is one of the elder statesmen of F1 racing. He speaks his mind as he always has done but I do get the feeling he is not universally popular with the fans of today. Quite a few times I have defended him in internet forums only to get into one of those annoying on-line arguments. Jackie pulls no punches and in the Senna video I mentioned earlier, Jackie took Ayrton to task for his on track actions although many of his meatier comments were not to be found on that video. I hope I will get a glance of Sir Jackie at the Australian Grand Prix this weekend although Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and co will take centre stage, and rightly so.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information!

F1: Looking back to 2017 and forward to 2018

F1 testing has been in the news lately and as usual that got me thinking about the new season. Firstly, I have to start by saying that I was under the impression, apparently erroneously, that Formula One racing was to be the exclusive property of Sky TV in 2018. Apparently the exclusive Sky deal begins in 2019 so terrestrial TV viewers like me still have another year in which to watch Formula One without paying for a Sky TV package. Formula One is not what it was, well, not for me certainly but it is still Formula One, the highest level of the sport and it is difficult to give up the habit of a lifetime and stop following the F1 teams and their worldwide races.

Let me start this post by looking quickly back at the 2017 season. Lewis Hamilton won the 2017 world championship taking his tally of championships up to four, joining Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel, two other four-time champions. Lewis may be a great F1 champion but his efforts in the field of social media have not been so successful. He released a video berating his nephew for dressing up as a princess and as a result released a storm of social media controversy. I’m not sure why because it was a completely innocent fun family video but one quite funny response was a Tweet showing a picture of Lewis in a tartan jacket twinned with a picture of Princess Diana in a similar jacket. All good fun you might have thought but it apparently led to Lewis deleting many of his social media accounts. Oh well, stick to the motor racing Lewis.

Lewis’ new teammate for 2017 was Valtery Bottas who had a reasonable season, scoring his maiden F1 win and first pole position but the main challenge to Lewis came from Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari who quickly won the opening round in Australia. Later, his campaign for the championship self destructed after not only car reliability issues but a major disaster when Vettel and team-mate Raikkonen collided with Verstappen’s Red Bull in Singapore. Vettel self destructed in more ways than one because in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku, cars were running behind the safety car and Vettel bumped into the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes. Thinking Lewis had given him a brake test he decided to drive alongside and bump wheels with the British driver in a decidedly unsporting gesture. As it happened, despite heavy criticism, he managed to escape a race ban.

The only other winners in 2017 were the Red Bull duo who scored a win in Azerbaijan for Daniel Ricciardo and wins in Malaysia and Mexico for boy wonder Verstappen.

2017 was the year in which McLaren lost patience with Honda and decided to end their fruitless partnership. In 2018 McLaren will be using the Renault engine and Honda will be working with the Torro Rosso team. Looking back at the success Honda and McLaren have had in the past, it’s hard to understand how this new partnership has failed but then again, I read an interesting article in the racing press last year about technology ‘cross fertilization’!

Let me explain. You’ve heard of Silicon Valley no doubt; it’s a place in the USA where computer and technology companies congregate. Companies working in a similar business and congregating in the same location is not a new idea. For instance, in the early 20th century movie makers set up shop in Hollywood, California, making it the centre of the movie making world. In the Formula One world a large majority of the current Formula One teams are located within 80 minutes drive of Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire and the area has been nicknamed ‘Motorsport Valley’. The result of this closeness means that the staff of these teams live nearby and when they seek pastures new, just like their F1 driving counterparts, they move to another nearby racing team. This results in a broadening of the general F1 knowledge base as ideas move from team to team with each exchange of staff. In an article on the BBC website, I read that now almost 3,500 companies associated with motorsport are based in Motorsport Valley, employing around 40,000 people. That represents around 80% of the world’s high-performance engineers.

Paddy Lowe left Mercedes for Williams last year and no doubt the technical knowledge he brought with him will mean a step forward for Williams with their new 2018 car. Anyway, here’s my point: the exception to this rule of course is Honda, who reside on the other side of the world in Japan. No ‘cross fertilisation’ there! Perhaps that fact has played a part in their lack of success.

Fernando Alonso was relegated to the sidelines in 2017 but he has broadened his wings by competing in the Indianapolis 500 and has made plans to race in the Daytona 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours this year. He has made it known he wants to emulate the feat of Graham Hill; the only man to win the so-called triple crown of motorsport: the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and the Le Mans 24 hour race. Of course, once he starts to be competitive in F1 again, perhaps those plans may go on the back burner. Still, part of his thinking must be to leave his mark on the motor sporting record books. If he cannot do this in F1 then of course he has to set his sights in another direction.

Talking of motor sporting record books, Lewis Hamilton, the current World Champion, has made major inroads on those records recently. In 2017 he became the man with the most pole positions, 72 at the time of writing, beating Michael Schumacher on 68 and Ayrton Senna with 65. Only two men have won more world championships; Fangio who won 5 and Schumacher who won 7. Schumacher also holds the record for the most F1 race wins with 91 victories and Lewis is now in second place with 62. Alonso has only 32 wins; still a great tally but he has a long way to go to get close to Lewis Hamilton. No wonder the triple crown looks so sweet.

So what does 2018 hold for racing fans?

F1 cars will look pretty different this year with all cars required to use the halo device, a sort of extension of the roll bar that extends all around the cockpit. Some drivers like it, some don’t but if it saves lives everyone should be giving it the thumbs up. Here’s what it looks like from a driver’s perspective:

Robert Kubica is a name you might remember from a few years back. Robert was an F1 driver, tipped as a future world champion, who was badly injured in a rallying accident in 2011 in which his arm was partially severed. Happily, the arm was sewed back on but with reduced mobility. Since then, Kubica has inched his way back to fitness and has completed numerous tests in an F1 car and has been in the running for a place in the Williams F1 team. Williams have run their quest for their 2018 drivers something like a TV talent show and their deliberations have been constantly in the racing media. Who is in the running? Who will get the drive? Well, it turns out it isn’t Robert Kubica but perhaps if something goes wrong for the main drivers, he might get a chance to fill in because he has been announced as Williams 2018 reserve driver. Not quite sure if I understand that decision because Robert Kubica as well as his undeniable talent, brings a lot of press attention to any team he is in, which is just what the team sponsors need. Can he cope with a modern F1 car? Hopefully, yes. The other two drivers, Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin bring new talent and a great deal of financial backing to the team. Wonder what the main factor was in employing those two?

As I said earlier, 2018 will see a Renault engine in the back of a McLaren so hopefully Fernando Alonso will be up at the front of the grid again. If he isn’t, this season will be a disaster of epic proportions for McLaren who of course have dumped Honda because their engine wasn’t powerful enough. Toro Rosso will have the Honda strapped to the back of their cars so it will be interesting to see just how well they do in 2018.

One thing missing from the F1 grid this year will be grid girls. You know, the female promotional models who have been present on F1’s starting grids since -well, since forever really. New F1 owners Liberty Media say grid girls ‘do not resonate with our brand values’ so don’t expect to see pretty girls on the grid this year.

Will the racing be better or closer? The answer is anyone’s guess but Liberty Media also announced a revamp of its TV production this year. Apparently lower camera angles, improved on board footage and slightly later start times will improve the TV broadcasts. Liberty also have a much better appreciation of social media than predecessor Bernie Ecclestone which is why F1 video clips are much more prevalent on the internet today and why I can even link a few of them on this post.

So, F1 is improving the TV coverage and reaching out to internet users. Will the drivers and cars provide the excitement and competition we want? Well, to find out, make sure you tune in on the 25th March for the Australian Grand Prix season opener.


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. You can find the book at amazon by clicking here.

8 Great Books from my Formula One Collection

Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna is one of the all-time greats of formula one. He is an absolute legend of the sport and I have about 4 or so books about him. The biography by Christopher Hilton, Ayrton Senna, the Hard Edge of Genius, is a pretty good one. A long time ago I ran a shop in Manchester called Armchair Motorsports and although I didn’t make much money, I did do a hell of a lot of talking about F1. I had a number of serious motorsport memorabilia collectors as customers and if they were not on the phone asking me to find a copy of this or that book, they were in the shop gassing about motorsport. One customer wanted a book about Senna and I managed to get him a copy of Hilton’s book. He told me that the most remarkable thing about the book was the list at the back, itemising Ayrton’s race records. The list went like this – 1st, 1st, 1st, DNF, 1st, 1st 1st, DNF. All the way through his career until his formula one days. DNF means did not finish. Senna either won his races or failed to finish which meant either his car failed him, or he crashed. Most of the time he crashed and that gives us an indication of his way of thinking, which must have been win at all costs. It also explains why he was not the most popular of drivers.
I remember visiting Silverstone in the late 1980’s and Senna was profusely booed every time he passed our location. Of course, times change, and now Ayrton is venerated as one of the legends of the sport.
Richard William’s book, The Death of Ayrton Senna, narrates the dreadful events of formula one’s black weekend at Imola, back in 1994. Brazil itself was crushed by Senna’s death and I honestly feel that the reaction of Brazil to the tragedy was even greater than the UK’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana. A fascinating but ultimately sad book.

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Murray Walker
Murray is one of the great characters of F1 racing. Somebody once said of Murray that in his quieter moments ‘he sounds a little like a man with his trousers on fire!’ That certainly sums up his passionate and energetic commentary style. Formula one will never be quite the same without him. Murray has published a number of books about the sport including his autobiography and many titles like the one pictured here.

Marlboro Grand Prix Guide 1973
This is one of the oldest books in my F1 collection. In years gone by Marlboro, the cigarette manufacturers, contributed a lot to motor sport. They sponsored many teams and drivers including the McLaren team, and produced many books and annuals like this one. In the 1970’s they sponsored the Prix Rouge et Blanc, a prize given to the driver voted man of the race by attending journalists. Nowadays we are mostly free of the noxious fumes of cigarette smoke but the cigarette companies did make a substantial contribution to sport in days gone by. On the cover of the guide is Clay Reggazoni driving the Marlboro backed BRM and close behind is Emerson Fittipaldi in his black and gold John Player Special aka Lotus 72. Those were the days . .

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Niki Lauda
If someone had said to me at the end of 1973 when Jackie Stewart had just retired that Niki Lauda would be the next great champion of formula one, I would have laughed in his face. In my eyes it was obvious who the next great driver was. It was Ronnie Peterson. Had I tested those theories with a substantial cash wager I would have found myself out of pocket because Lauda won two world championships, retired, then made a comeback and won a third championship. The story of Lauda’s dreadful crash at the Nurburgring has been told many times, it’s even been made into the movie ‘Rush’ directed by Ron Howard. To Hell and Back is Niki’s story in his own words and a great story it is too. On his return to F1 at Monza after his terrible crash, Lauda drove out onto the track and was so scared he began to shake uncontrollably. Nevertheless, he carried on, overcame his fears and became a motorsport legend.

Graham Hill
Another of the legends of formula one, Graham Hill, must be one of the great characters of the sport A double world champion and father of future champion Damon Hill, Hill was killed in a light aircraft crash in 1975. He was the only driver ever to win the triple crown of motorsport –the Le Mans 24 hours, the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. The book below, written in his own tongue in cheek style is a great read. In the days when I ran my motorsport memorabilia shop as mentioned above, I came across a signed copy of Graham’s previous book ‘Life at the Limit.‘ I was sorely tempted to keep it for myself but I thought no, think about the business, be professional. I sold it to a collector for a fair old sum but every time I read something about Graham I think -what a fool, why didn’t I keep that book!

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Gilles Villeneuve
In some ways I’ve never really gone along with the hero-worship of Gilles Villeneuve. Then again, some people cannot understand why I think Ronnie Peterson is one of the F1 greats. Each man to his own, I suppose.
Villeneuve was killed in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982. The facts of Villeneuve’s accident are well known -he crashed into a slow-moving car- but his death is perhaps only really explained under close analysis. Villeneuve was on a slowing down lap, on his way back to the pits after a handful of fast qualifying laps but still, he kept the hammer down, his right foot pressed down to the floor when there was no real need for absolute speed. So why? Why was he going so fast?
One answer is simply that was the way he drove; fast. Foot down to the floor. Full stop. Another is that he was still estranged from team-mate Didier Pironi, who he thought had unfairly beaten him in the previous Grand Prix at San Marino in Italy. The two had diced together for the length of the race, team leader Villeneuve thought they were putting on a show, Pironi thought they were racing. When Pironi took the chequered flag it was an act of betrayal, or so Villeneuve thought and when they arrived at Zolder for what would be Villeneuve’s last Grand Prix, Villeneuve was still seething. And so perhaps that state of passion was a factor on his last lap.  Author Gerald Donaldson has produced a great motor sporting read and this is a book well worth looking out for.

Nigel Mansell
I’ve got the oldest book in my collection here so I may as well finish with the newest addition. Staying On Track is an autobiography by Nigel Mansell, who along with Prost and Senna was one of the three top drivers of the 1980’s. The Tifosi, the Italian Ferrari fans, named Nigel Il Leone (the Lion) when he signed up for the Scuderia In 1988, the last driver ever to be personally signed by the Commendatore himself, Enzo Ferrari. Nigel’s nickname was well-earned. He took no messing from anyone, Ayrton Senna in particular, and once famously went wheel to wheel with Ayrton down the long straight at the Spanish Grand Prix in 1991 and it was Mansell who came out the victor. I bought this book, which I must admit I haven’t yet read, on E-bay. It’s a signed edition and I look forward to reading it.

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Hope you enjoyed this post. If you want to read more why not try my book Floating in Space? It’s not a motor-sporting book but a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Touching The Glass

The 2014 formula one season is well under way and like me, many people must speculate about those who race these incredible machines at such high speeds. Measuring high speed lap times against car control and the desire to go ever faster is the juggling act performed by the Grand Prix drivers every time they step into their high-tech carbon fibre cockpits. The consequences of a mistake can range from an embarrassing spin in the gravel trap to a cruel death.

sennab copyeditbbThis year, 2014, marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest racing drivers of all time. Aryton was killed on the 1st of May 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy. Anyone who knows anything about motor sport can tell you that. The date lingers in the back of the collective mind of all racing fans, along with other tragedies of the sport, like the deaths of Gilles Villeneuve and Jim Clark to name but two. Clark’s death is unexplained to this day. His formula two Lotus left the track at an easy, straight section of road. The facts of Villeneuve’s accident are well known -he crashed into a slow moving car- but his death is perhaps only really explained under close analysis. Villeneuve was on a slowing down lap, on his way back to the pits after a handful of fast qualifying laps but still, he kept the hammer down, his right foot pressed down to the floor when there was no real need for absolute speed. So why? Why was he going so fast?

One answer is simply that was the way he drove; fast. Foot down to the floor. Full stop. Another was that he was still estranged from team mate Didier Pironi, who he thought had unfairly beaten him in the previous Grand Prix at San Marino in Italy. The two had diced together for the length of the race, team leader Villeneuve thought they were putting on a show, Pironi thought they were racing. When Pironi took the chequered flag it was an act of betrayal, or so Villeneuve thought and when they arrived at Zolder for what would be Villeneuve’s last Grand Prix, Villeneuve was still seething. And so perhaps that state of passion was a factor on his last lap.

For Ayrton Senna in 1994 that intense rivalry with a fellow driver seemed to be a thing of the past. Together, Senna, Alain Prost, and Nigel Mansell dominated most of the eighties and early nineties in formula one racing. Mansell had left the stage for Indycar racing in the United States and Prost had retired leaving Senna to take his vacant seat at Williams, or perhaps he retired because Senna had been offered a seat at Williams –it depends on which story you believe. Certainly after the intense animosity that developed between the two at McLaren you can hardly blame Prost for not wanting to work in that same situation again.

So now, the Young Pretender had become the Elder Statesman of Grand Prix motor racing and his two closest competitors had gone. Perhaps he even hoped that he could relax, let up the pace a little bit, just as Prost had thought in 1988 before Senna began to push him harder. But a new phase had begun for Aryton Senna, a new Young Pretender had appeared to challenge him in the shape of Michael Schumacher. Schumacher had won the first two Grands Prix of the year and Senna came to Imola without a single point. “For us the championship starts here” he told the TV cameras, “fourteen races instead of sixteen.” Further pressure mounted on Senna when fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello was injured in a crash and then Roland Ratzenberger was killed, the first fatality at a Grand Prix meeting since that of Riccardo Paletti 12 years before.

Many sources have said that after these twin disasters Ayrton did not want to race in the Grand Prix. It is hard to believe, Senna -not wanting to race? The man for whom racing was everything? Could it be that he was finally becoming more like his once deadly rival Alain Prost? Prost had always put his own life before winning motor races and as a consequence had driven a dismal race at the rain soaked 1988 British Grand Prix and completed only a token lap at the similarly affected 1990 Australian Grand Prix. Events may have pushed Ayrton’s thinking from the neutrality and detachment of the past towards a greater concern, a concern beyond the continual winning of races.
Whatever his inner feelings he started the San Marino Grand Prix in his usual fashion, leading into the first corner from pole position. Behind him though, JJ Lehto stalled his Benneton and was hit from behind by Pedro Lamy. Lesser events had stopped races in the past but on this occasion the organisers sent out the new safety car and the grid cruised round after it in formation for five laps while the crash debris was removed.

At the end of the fifth cruising lap the safety car pulled off, the lights turned to green and Senna, Schumacher and the rest floored their throttles. The Williams was not handling well and it felt nervous through Tamburello, that evocatively named but most dangerous of corners. Still, Senna kept ahead of Schumacher, he kept the hammer down. On lap six the Williams entered deep into Tamburello and Schumacher saw the spray of sparks as the car bottomed out and side stepped slightly. Senna caught and corrected the Williams and throttled onwards for the charge down to Tosa, the next bend. Both Senna and team mate Damon Hill knew their cars were nervous and to a certain extent unsuited to the bumpy surface at Imola. Someone like Alain Prost might have eased off slightly, settled for second or third, collected some points, and used the rest of the San Marino Grand Prix as part of a learning curve, collecting mental and electronic data to develop the car into another Williams race winner. For Ayrton Senna, a third defeat by Michael Schumacher was not acceptable. Putting points on the scoreboard held no interest for him either, except for the ten points that came for a win.

The next time round Ayrton entered Tamburello at 192 mph. We know his exact speed from his car’s electronic management system, which records such data. Tremors went through the car as it bottomed out again on the undulating track surface. This time Senna couldn’t catch the Williams, or perhaps something failed on the car. Later on the steering column was found to be fractured. Did it fail before the crash or was it damaged in the impact?. Some have speculated that his tyres were not up to pressure after many laps circling the track at low speed. We will never know. Whatever happened, the car went straight on towards the tyre barrier masking the concrete wall that lay behind. Senna’s last act was to slow the car down to 131 mph, but it was not enough.

I have never met Ayrton Senna. The last time I had seen him, in person, was at the Silverstone tyre tests of 1991 and even then he was a blur of yellow in the red and white of his McLaren. To understand someone we have never known is not an easy task. Sometimes we can only do so by looking into ourselves and searching for similar experiences. A long time ago, I must have been eight or nine, my Mother took me to visit my Grandmother. Sitting alone in the lounge while the two women gossiped in the kitchen, I became fascinated by my Grandmother’s new fireplace. It was a coal fire and the fire glowed dormantly behind a glass door. A real fire was not new to me, indeed we had one at home but the glass door seemed to attract me, so much so that I reached forward and held my hand a fraction of an inch from the glass. On an impulse I reached out further and put my hand on the glass. As you can imagine, I recoiled in agony having burnt my hand.

That moment, in 1994, as I watched my television images in disbelief, I came to think of that small boy, reaching out towards the glass door that enclosed a coal fire almost as one with Ayrton Senna, reaching towards the barriers of absolute speed, touching the zenith of his car control and going ever so slightly over his limits. He had done it before and had come back from the brink. Indeed it may have even been vital to him to occasionally push and go over his limits just to fix in his own mind where those limits lay. Ayrton was a man who could learn from his mistakes and could go on to better and faster things, but on that tragic day fate stepped in and stopped the process. A suspension arm crushed in the impact sprang back and hit Ayrton, piercing his most vulnerable point, the visor of his helmet.

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Senna at the German GP 1988. Photo by the author.

Prost and Stewart, two of the all time greats of motor sport were men who came closer than anyone to touching the glass -without ever being burned. Perhaps that was their secret. Stewart was a man in absolute control of his skills as a racing driver, both on and off the track. After three world championships and twenty-seven grand prix wins Stewart was able to say goodbye to it all without ever looking back. What other driver can boast of doing that? Schumacher retired again after a disappointing comeback only for tragedy to strike while skiing. The careers of both Nelson Piquet and Gerhard Berger fizzled out inconsistently at Benneton. Mansell called it a day after joining McLaren and then realising that their epic run of success had run out of steam. Alain Prost retired after cantering to his fourth championship. It was clear that in Prost’s final year he was no longer willing to push hard. The motivation of his youth had evaporated with the grand prix seasons and with the relentless high-speed sprints of formula one. The day had arrived, as it will no doubt one day arrive for Hamilton, Alonso, and Vettel, when he was no longer trying to touch the glass.


If you enjoyed this post why not try my book Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

The French Grand Prix

The European grand prix season is well underway and it would have been rather nice to have combined my visit to France with a trip to the French F1 event, of course that’s clearly impossible as despite being the most historic race of all -there is no French Grand Prix.

Why ever not you may ask? The answer is this : the formula one season is a tv event first and foremost. It is the tv companies of the world that pay money into Bernie  Ecclestone’s F1  franchise and a race in France doesn’t fit into his the global tv vision of F1.

What does fit in then?  The Abu Dhabi grand prix,  with its multi million dollar circuit that is used only a handful of times  per year? Where there is no local motor sporting infrastructure, no local race teams and no local race drivers, in fact no local interest at all! There is interest though in publicising this small Arab nation to the western world through the power of tv and the same holds for Bahrain, another new race in the F1 firmament where the primary focus is Bahrain, not F1. Similar events now crowd the F1 calendar, China, Korea, Russia,  and Singapore.  Speciality non events far from the hub of traditional formula one racing like Spa Francorchamps, Monza, Zandvort, Silverstone, and the Nurburgring.

Recently Bernie Ecclestone was asked about the return of the French race. No, he said we will be having a race in Azerbaijan next year!  What? Can this man be serious? Clearly he is.

Ecclestone, who is currently facing bribery charges in a Munich court can clearly see the cash register jingling on the F1 till.  Still, when you consider he has been accused of slipping someone a forty four million dollar bribe, well,  the potential profits in that deal must presumably be in excess of, well, forty four million dollars!

The time has come for formula one racing to hand the managerial reins over to someone who is more interested in the sport than the million dollar pay check. OK, the sport has to make money, who would argue with that?  After all, the costs of todays race machinery, cars, engines, race tracks, drivers and logistics, are fantastic and teams like Marussia are desperate for points in order to tap into the incoming TV revenue to stay afloat.Even though, we do need some semblance of a sporting ethos in our sport. It is still a sport not just a million dollar business, isn’t it?

My advice as a long time race fan; ditch Bernie, ditch the exotic locations and go back to basics. recruit a CEO like Jackie Stewart, a highly respected F1 elder statesman who loves the sport and from that one standpoint will be on a level field with formula one fans the world over.