Clean, hard racing is a treat for the watching public and also has an unseen benefit – the powerful bond it forges between drivers
It is perhaps inevitable that as motor sport fans we are drawn to the great racing rivalries. Not those between teams or marques, though they too are compelling, but the dramatic collisions of talent, ego and aspiration that force two drivers or riders into emotionally charged clashes on and off the track.
Formula 1’s most famous feud consumed Prost and Senna at the peak of their careers. Mansell and Piquet couldn’t bear one another. Hill and Schumacher pushed to and often beyond the limit in pursuit of their titles. On two wheels, Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene shared a mutual loathing, one surpassed only by that which boiled between Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi. All this angst makes undeniably compelling viewing and fed countless column inches, but it also portrays the uglier side of racing.
Look deeper and you’ll discover a less celebrated, but no less important side to motor sport. One that can gift fans the most inspirational, breathtaking moments, but the subtleties of which can go unnoticed by all but the protagonists directly involved. It is the thing that brings out the very best in drivers and perfectly encapsulates what makes motor sport unique.
It is the bond of trust.
This fraternal tie between otherwise competitive souls is ever present, but only when it manifests itself spectacularly does it get the consideration and attention it deserves: those flashes of brilliance that burn so brightly they remain seared into our memories. I’m sure you all have examples to recall. Mine is Mark Webber’s outside pass of Fernando Alonso in the heart of Eau Rouge during the 2011 Belgian Grand Prix. Exemplary skill and bravery completed the move, but absolute trust was the enabler.
Perhaps because the stakes are highest in open-wheel racing, a driver entrusting their wellbeing to a sworn rival will always be the most dramatic. But single-seater drivers by no means have exclusive rights to flat-out feats of fiduciary. Sometimes it manifests itself in unlikely categories. Just last month BTCC drivers Ash Sutton and Josh Cook put on one of the finest displays of on-limit, no-quarter, maximum-respect racing I’ve seen in a very long time. And this in a series renowned for unedifying crash-bang-wallop combat. The way they drove was a credit to their friendship, the BTCC and the sport as a whole.
Of course, as fans we get to enjoy these moments because they are at the very highest levels of national and international motor racing. What we don’t see is that it is happening every weekend at every level, right down to modest club racing. As such it’s the unseen magic of motor sport.
I’ve been very fortunate to race on and off for half my life, and at the highest level of historics for the last half-dozen seasons. In that time I’ve had many moments where that bond of trust has heightened my own experience to something so uniquely satisfying only another racing driver can truly understand. If that somehow sounds pretentious, then apologies – it’s not my intention. But I believe that like any extraordinary experience, complete empathy for what happens inside a racing car relies upon having been there.
When you’re a regular in a championship you have the luxury of repeated close-quarters observation of your fellow competitors. The stopwatch immediately sifts the quick from the slow, but it’s your racer’s radar that identifies the hotheads and headbangers, and locks on to those that afford rivals respect and the all-important room to race.
It’s perhaps a mark of historic motor sport’s rising profile and popularity that I’ve been fortunate to have elbows-out experience of racing against some of the best current and former professionals in the business. More often than not it has been in pre ’66 Touring Cars, which are always popular with the pros.
In 2013 I had a fantastic race with Andy Priaulx at the Silverstone Classic – he in a BMW 1800 TiSA, me in a Lotus Cortina – then in the same race the following year against Gordon Shedden, both of us in Cortinas. Each time I drove my heart out, because, well, it’s not every day a laptop jockey like me gets to battle with two of the best tin-top drivers of the modern era. But also because I instinctively felt they were a) fully in control, b) fully intent on winning and c) loving every minute of it. I’m not sure they had reciprocal confidence in me, at least initially, but I like to think door handle-to-door handle conduct speaks volumes.
My thoughts on the drivers’ bond of trust were confirmed at this year’s Goodwood Revival, where I found myself in a Mini Cooper S among one of the greatest grids of current and retired professional drivers yet seen in historic racing. Brag warning: I managed to qualify quickest of the Minis in 14th place, with next fastest Mini driver, Tom Blomqvist – a BMW Motorsport racer in the WEC and son of Stig – immediately alongside me.
I’d never met Tom before, so save the pre-race handshake I always proffer to the person parked next to me in the assembly area, we didn’t know each other from (Jonny) Adam. Yet all it took was for me to overtake him – yes, I fluffed my start! – and for him to repass for both of us to find trust in one another. At first with polite circumspection, then with finer margins and greater daring until it was clear two total strangers shared implicit trust, on one of the fastest and least forgiving circuits in the UK.
It’s a fantastic feeling to win. But to race your heart out against someone in whom you have absolute trust, and to know that they have the same faith in you, is a prize and a privilege that transcends the vainglorious pursuit of silverware.
In racing, trust is gold.
Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings