We are, I hope with some justification, quite proud that, for some reason or other, drivers seem happy not simply to talk to us but also to be frank about experiences which cannot be in the least bit comfortable to recall. You will have read Alain Prost on the subject of Ayrton Senna and, next month, Tony Brooks will explain why victory in what he regards as his greatest race was achieved at an unacceptable cost. Even so, try as we might, we could not persuade Emerson Fittipaldi to discuss his time as a Grand Prix team owner. This is not because Emerson is a difficult man; it was simply too painful an episode for someone with standards such as his to rake up now.
Yet Mark Hughes’ story of the Copersucar era reveals the team was not without success and those who worked for it adored the boss; you might therefore struggle to understand his reaction. If so you should read Matthew Franey’s examination of what separates the tiny club of superhumanly gifted F1 drivers from the merely prodigiously talented. Then you will realise how different these people are and why Emerson would never be happy at the head of a team that didn’t win races. You might think pride would stem from knowing he was the last person to achieve the now inconceivable feat of racing a Formula One car bearing his own name; but I doubt such retrospective consolation even registers on the personal satisfaction scale of the man who remains to this day the youngest ever to be crowned World Champion.
Until the Japanese Grand Prix, I was sure there was just one man in F1 today worthy of belonging to the club mentioned above. Now I have my doubts. Until then I’d seen Hakkinen’s performance in this season’s best car as patchy; but I saw something changed in him at Suzuka. Under the greatest pressure of his life, he appeared unburdened as he destroyed the field in general and his team-mate in particular. When Coulthard gave Mika the first race of the season, you could not split the abilities of McLaren’s drivers; now the gap seems night and day. It’s too early to say Hakkinen is one of the greats but in Japan he not only drove like one, for the first time, he looked like one too.
You may have read, either in WB’s pages last month, or in The Times or Daily Telegraph subsequently of the death, aged 89, of Margaret Jennings, one of just four women to hold a Brooklands 120mph badge. Back in 1992, while I was testing cars for Autocar, she rang to ask what car we’d recommend for a lady approaching her mid-eighties. She narrowed the field somewhat by admitting her reactions were no longer what they were so, sadly, she’d need something slow and gutless. Before we had the chance to say Nissan Micra, she enquired if we thought the 140mph VW Golf VR6 was any good.
Being gallant chaps and by now aware of the presence of greatness, testers were dispatched to her home in an array of fiery hatchbacks for her to sample. I was not among them but still dined out for weeks on the tales with which they returned. Apparently, she set off slowly, soon became seriously tricky to keep up with and eventually disappeared into the distance. And to this day they maintain it was only because she was lucky with the traffic-lights…