Matters of moment, December 2016

Author

Joe Dunn

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You wait ages for one decent motor racing autobiography, and then three come along at once. Readers of this magazine will already know how highly we rate Damon Hill’s memoirs, Watching The Wheels, after we reviewed it in the last issue. This month marks the publication of two more first-hand accounts of life at the sharp end of the sport.

Johnny Herbert is in typically ebullient form in his autobiography, What Doesn’t Kill You. He is particularly good on the challenges drivers face when getting back in the car after a serious accident. His came on that fateful day in 1988 during a Formula 3000 race at Brands Hatch: even today, watching footage of the collision, it is hard to believe some of the drivers survived.  

“The legacy of the crash at Brands went far beyond the injuries I sustained on the day and the effect they had on me physically,” he writes, going on to explain how when he eventually got back behind the wheel things were profoundly and irreversibly different. Apart from the pain (he’d still been in a wheelchair when he signed his first Benetton contract), there was his feeling of “invincibility”. 

“It just evaporated after the crash and regardless of what I achieved afterwards it never came close to returning. Prior to Brands I always said I could beat anyone, anywhere on any track and in any conditions and I believed it.”

Herbert accepts that afterwards he was never the driver he was before the crash, which makes his subsequent achievements – winning three Formula 1 races as well as Le Mans 24 Hours – all the more remarkable and a testament to his mental and emotional strength. 

The psychology of racing features heavily in Ross Brawn’s new book, Total Competition, too. It isn’t strictly speaking an autobiography (it was written with Adam Parr), but it does offer a fascinating insight into the career of one of F1’s most compelling characters – as well as one of its most successful. Part self-help guide, part strategy and leadership manual, its publishers clearly hope it will appeal to people outside F1 and provide “lessons on how to achieve business goals”. 

Even so, with its tales of doing battle with Bernie Ecclestone and managing egos of the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher, there is enough insight to keep the fans enthralled too. 

These follow Brian Redman’s impressive Daring Drivers, Deadly Tracks, published a few months back. Written with a rare mix of objectivity and insight, it squarely faces the question of mortality in a deadlier era than today and why drivers accepted those risks. You can almost see this straight-talking Lancastrian shaking his head over his own exploits even as he defines the unquenchable urge that sent him to the next race. 

What is so striking about all these books is how lucid they are, and how far above the usual sporting memoirs they stand. Not, it seems, for motor sport personalities the banalities of your average Premier League footballer memoir, more concerned with score settling and the minutiae of long-forgotten games. Instead – and as a genre – they seem more worldly, perceptive and, yes, interesting. 

* * *

Not all good things come at once. The past few months have seen the retirement first of Felipe Massa, then Jenson Button and now Mark Webber. Just as some people measure their advancing age by the youthfulness of policemen, it is also possible to date yourself by the drivers you hold dear. Button, Webber and Massa (okay, mainly Webber) are my generation and to see them retire is a sobering thing – not least since you can’t help but measure your own meagre successes against their stellar achievements. 

But it is doubly sad to see three of the genuinely good guys leave the arena. In an age during which racing became increasingly remote from its fan base, those three retained an openness, good humour and a reluctance to play the PR game that is increasingly rare. 

I’ve interviewed both Massa and Button and remember the Brazilian as being polite and modest – but what I really recall is his overruling of a keen PR handler who had first tried to stop me from asking a question then to prevent him answering it. Yes, he had been caught speeding, he said with a mischievous smile, more than once.

Button was equally good humoured when I spoke to him on the set of a fashion shoot (with Lewis Hamilton), where he had been asked – among other things – to dress up in cricket whites and tennis garb. It was just a bit of fun, he said, clearly all too aware of the ridiculousness and refusing to toe the corporate line too stringently. 

But the last word should go to Webber. A colleague recalls meeting him on a promotional shoot for a shoe company, when he was required to bounce around in an undignified way on a space hopper. What was he doing, asked my incredulous colleague. “Living the dream,” deadpanned Webber. 

* * *

Webber, 40, has been brutally honest about the reasons behind his retirement. As we report on page 38, the spark had simply gone from racing. “I’m waking up a bit more often on race weekends thinking I might prefer to be somewhere else. That’s not good. When you are asking yourself why you are in the car, it is time to stop. I can’t do it half-heartedly because I’m in a team environment and that wouldn’t be fair.”

It was reminiscent of the reason given by Damon Hill, in 1999. “I have enjoyed racing in F1,” he said. “But there comes a time for everyone, and that time has come for me, when that enjoyment factor has decreased sufficiently for me to decide that it is affecting my performance. There is no single reason for my decision – there are many.”

Obviously it is a shame to see such a great sportsman hang up his racing gloves, but we wish him (and Jenson and Felipe) a long and fruitful retirement. After all, you can’t go on forever. Just ask Stirling Moss, who explained his retirement thus: “This afternoon I scared myself. I have always said that if I felt I was not up to it or that I was getting in the way of fellow competitors, then I would retire. I love racing, but now it is time to stop.” 

The great man was 81.