With Lewis Hamilton on the verge of a fifth world championship it seems strange to think that only a year ago rumour was rife that he was contemplating retirement from Formula 1. The reasons behind this speculation were myriad – mostly to do with his passion for the supposedly un-motor racing worlds of music and fashion – but the consequence was potentially singular: it would have meant that with Jolyon Palmer having been ditched by Renault in 2017 and Jenson Button having retired the previous year, the top tier of racing wouldn’t have had a full-time British presence for the first time since the early 1950s.
What a difference a year makes. Hamilton, 33, now appears to have his sights firmly set on cementing his legacy and remaining with the sport for as long as he is winning – which, given his golden relationship with Mercedes, could be for many years to come. And he will be joined from next year by not one but two young Brit chargers in Lando Norris and George Russell (and potentially Anglo-Thai driver Alexander Albon too, should he tie up a deal with Toro Rosso).
Norris, 18, will make his F1 debut for McLaren having just signed a multi-year agreement. He is already the youngest ever European F3 winner and is on course to finish third in the current F2 championship. Mercedes’ junior Russell will also make the step up to race for Williams until at least 2020. He is currently on course to win the F2 title in Abu Dhabi later this month.
Their journey to the pinnacle of motor sport is welcome and will be a bonanza for British fans, but it also confirms this country’s strength in depth at all levels of motor sport. The pair, who both started out in karting, have climbed the domestic racing ladder, learning their trade and honing their craft, while being supported by dozens of unnamed and unknown mentors along the way.
For that, credit must go in part to the Motor Sports Association, this country’s governing body. It may not be fashionable to praise the sometimes rather humourless ‘rule makers’ but – as Norris and Russell prove – it has kept alive grass-roots racing at a time when the sport is struggling like never before to attract young competitors.
Clearly there is still more work to do though: the number of MSA licence holders has dropped by a reported 10 per cent over the past decade, while entries in grass-roots series are down by 15 per cent.
Under the management of David Richards, the newly installed chairman, that work appears to have started: last month he announced that the governing body would be taking over the management and promotion of the British Karting Championship – still the key entry point for future competitors. The hope is that under centralised MSA control, karting will grow in significance and prestige attracting more youngsters to the sport. This is a good move.
The organisation should also embrace the current movement to include more women in motor sport. The W Series, the all-female racing series announced last month, might divide opinion with its methods, but the goal of encouraging more women and girls into the sport should be shared by all.
The MSA has done admirable work in this area – especially via Susie Wolff’s Dare to be Different initiative – but it needs to build on the momentum. And it needs to practise what it preaches, too: like many establishment bodies with roots in another era, it runs the risk of being seen as male, pale and stale without a more diverse public face. Out of 15 directors who currently sit on the MSA board, for instance, only one is a woman – an imbalance Richards says he is keen to address.
Youth – whether male or female – is the lifeblood of our sport and participation should be encouraged and enthusiasm fired at every level. This magazine hopes that Norris and Russell are harbingers of things to come.
TO ITALY AND the small, picturesque town of Gubbia IN Umbria. It was here – so legend has it – that St Francis of Assisi tamed a wolf that was terrorising the town and in doing so proved the power of God over all things. I am not one to vouch for the veracity or otherwise of the story, but what I can tell you is that 800 years later the town boasts some of the best mountain roads in Europe.
I know this because I visited on the weekend of the FIA Hillclimb Masters – an event where national champions meet to thrash it out up a stretch of mountain road that wriggles upwards for two miles from the town centre. More than 170 cars descended on the town from across the continent – including entries from the UK.
I was there as a guest of Pirelli, which supplies the tyres to a number of teams, including that of Simone Faggioli. The Italian has a remarkable record having won the European Hillclimb Championship 10 times and earlier this year was at the wheel of the Norma that finished second to Romain Dumas’ all-electric VW at Pikes Peak.
Dumas naturally claimed the plaudits and headlines, but Faggioli deserved wider recognition: he is a true great of his discipline.
AND FINALLY: THANK YOU to Riccardo Turcato who rose to the challenge laid down last month to name a driver who both started and finished their career with the same team: Piercarlo Ghinzani managed the feat with Osella during the 1980s.
A Motor Sport magazine key fob is in the post.