“I have to say a massive thank you to my doctors and surgeons because without them I might not be here today. It’s a real honour to share the stage with them, because they saved my life.
“I set my targets quite high after my accident to get back racing, and without everyone at Carlin Motorsport I wouldn’t have been able to achieve my dream. Motor sport is a team sport. Their belief in me more than anything allowed me to achieve this.”
Billy Monger was a credit to himself, his family and his sport at the 2018 BBC Sports Personality of the Year. The 19-year-old showed composure and grace that belied his age while receiving the Helen Rollason award, which recognises outstanding achievement in the face of adversity. He has rightly garnered accolades for his attitude and strength of character since his awful accident at Donington Park in 2017.
‘If you don’t win the award after claiming your fifth world championship, the awards must be fixed’
But leaving sentiment to one side for a moment, it is instructive to look at his record as a driver. And if you do that, you come to a curious conclusion. Billy has got better. Comparing two seasons will never be an exact science, but let’s look at Monger’s first full season of F4 in 2016, when the car was new to him. He finished 12th overall with three podiums from 27 races, one pole and one fastest lap.
This year, post-accident and with a modified F3 car that allows hand control, he finished sixth overall with three podiums from 23 races, one pole and three fastest laps. It’s worth pointing out that an F3 car is a very different proposition to an F4 car, with 230bhp compared to 160bhp and a lot more aero. To go from mid-table to top third would be a good trajectory for any driver – regardless of any other consideration. You can’t help but feel that if there was one thing that über competitor Lewis Hamilton, who presented the award to Monger, would appreciate it would be Billy’s stats: he’s faster than he was, remarkably.
Hamilton, of course, is used to people focusing on anything but his race results. Even at the BBC awards the country’s media targeted an unfortunate slip of the tongue and Lewis’s unconventional dress sense rather than his brilliant season.
Lewis didn’t actually win the BBC’s unlovely acronym SPOTY – he came second. And that fact led to a small backlash among F1 and motor racing fans: if you don’t win the award after claiming your fifth world championship, the awards must be fixed. In more mature circles it led to some considered chin-stroking, with some musing about whether motor racing was truly valued in Britain.
The answer, I think, is yes. And the evidence for this is there in the lists of winners and runners-up of the award since its inception in 1954. In fact, if you study the list it reveals an intriguing snapshot of the ebb and flow of particular sports’ popularity over the past 70 years. Snooker, for example, has a purple patch of winners and runners-up during the 1980s, when the nation was gripped by the green baize battles between Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis (winner in 1988) and Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins (runner-up 1982); similarly figure skating peaks in the early 1980s with wins for Robin Cousins (1980) and Torvill and Dean (1984), when the entire nation seemed to be humming Bolero.
Stirling Moss is one of seven F1 drivers to have won the BBC award Photo: Getty
Some sports obviously have constant appeal. Athletics has won the award the most times – with a total of 18. But guess which sport is second with a winner in every decade apart from the 2000s? Yep, motor racing with seven wins for F1 drivers (Moss, Stewart, Mansell x 2, Damon Hill x 2, Hamilton) and one for motorcycling (Surtees). In third is tennis with six wins followed by cycling, football and boxing, all with five wins. Golf has only two winners and rugby a solitary one (Jonny Wilkinson in the World Cup-winning year of 2003).
What’s more, F1 also has more second places than other sports apart from athletics with a whopping eight: G Hill, Clark, Hunt, Button, Moss and Hamilton x 3. Add those to motorcycling (Rea, last year) and Barry Briggs in speedway in 1964 and 1966, and motor sport in all its guises is way out in front of every other discipline, bar athletics. (Incidentally, Jim Clark also claimed a third place at the 1963 awards, beaten to second by swimmer Robert McGregor, the ‘Falkirk Flyer’, and first by Dorothy Hyman, the Olympic sprinter).
So what does this tell us?
Well, apart from the fact that we don’t seem to have much time for rugby players, it indicates that far from Britain’s love affair with motor sport coming to an end the country has been, and remains in, a long and deep relationship with racing and with racing drivers.
I suspect that is not going to change any time soon, regardless of Lewis Hamilton’s sartorial choices and especially when the sport keeps producing competitors of the calibre of Billy Monger.