Book review: Dick Seaman, victim of circumstance

A new biography, A Race with Love and Death provides the real background to Dick Seaman’s impossible political choice, says Gordon Cruickshank

Rudolf Uhlenhaut, Manfred von Brauchitsch Rudolf Caracciola, Richard Seaman

At home in Germany: Seaman (centre) with Mercedes team personnel

Daimler AG

It’s easy to view Dick Seaman only in terms of ‘did he or didn’t he?’ Did he fall for Nazi beguiling while driving for Mercedes, or was that half-mast wave to the Nürburgring crowds a visible refusal to kowtow to tyranny? We can never truly know, just as we will never know whether the young British driver might in other circumstances have retired with one of the great grand prix careers behind him.

But in his fine new book, Richard Williams offers a rich portrait of this impatient and privileged young man which helps to suggest how his mind coped with his conflict between patriotism and racing passion.

Drawing on unpublished memoirs and much lateral truffling, Williams presents immense research about the family, and especially Dick’s mother – not born grand but the daughter of a policeman, determined from a child to will herself into privileged circles. Perhaps it was inheriting that willpower that let young Dick manipulate his parents into funding his racing against their wishes: Lilian claimed she had handed him £30,000 – £3m today – “in easy stages”. Which, as Williams points out, was about the cost of becoming a lawyer or an MP, his parents’ hope.

From the archive

Within its elegant prose, Williams’s book is packed with detail, about Dick’s friends and colleagues, about his gilded life of dinners, dances and house parties, about finances, even down to the cost of insuring Dick’s lorry. More, he straddles two worlds, knowledgeably describing the racing while also placing the whole in its social and political context, such as Seaman’s difficult decision to remain with Mercedes being coloured by the often-forgotten factor that both countries tried to prolong friendly relations – Britain to avoid war, Germany to neutralise a threat.

Dick’s battles with his family over money and his German wife are vividly portrayed, alongside the careful planning and preparation that matched his controlled skill at the wheel.

Was Seaman merely the lucky, selfish child of money, turning a blind eye to evil? This excellent book suggests that careful, thorough, talented, ambitious Dick only displayed the same single-minded drive we admire from someone without advantages who makes it against the odds. After all, which of us would be able to refuse when a long-pursued prize was dangled in front of us?

A race with love and death
A Race with Love and Death Richard Williams Simon & Schuster, £20 ISBN: 978-1-471179-35-8

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