Appreciation of a new book dedicated to Britain’s seven F1 world champions

Following the concept of its previous publication, Racers Apart, which researched heavily into the recollections and personal anecdotes of relatives, friends and colleagues to paint portraits of 29 racing and record breaking drivers, Motor Racing Publications continues the theme with this volume, priced at £19.95, written by the prolific Chris Hilton and MRP publisher John Blunsden.

Within its 320 pages they concentrate minutely on the lives of Britain’s Magnificent Seven the nation’s World Champions, Hawthorn, Hill, Clark, Surtees, Stewart, Hunt and Mansell. Between them, they won the coveted title a total of 11 times, winning 115 of the 532 Grands Prix staged over the past 43 years.

Uniquely, the book is divided into two sections as it takes its in-depth look at their careers. In the first, Hilton constructs a portrait of each driver up to and including the first time he won the championship. In the second, Blunsden provides personal insights into the world of Formula One and unveils the personalities behind the wheel. He speaks from the heart, having known each of them at the height of their fame. Fittingly, that great ‘unchampion’ Stirling Moss is also accorded his rightful place in the scheme of things, even though the crown itself eluded him.

The result is an excellent book, for both men produce fascinating insights into characters and situations. The portrait of Hawthorn is gripping. In public our first World Champion appeared a sunny, curly blondhaired ‘chap’, who liked a drink and a joke and lived life to the full with a cheerful smile and a puff on his pipe. Yet behind that facade lurked a troubled man, wracked by doubt over the Le Mans disaster, and doomed by a terminal kidney problem that doctors believed would have claimed him within a matter of years had he not lost control of his Jaguar on the Hog’s Back in January 1959.

Hawthorn was a moral man, and this comes out strongly as Hilton probes his life with the help of those who knew him best. Part of his tragedy was that he was in frequent pain, yet refused to divulge his illness even when the press of the day pilloried him because he had apparently avoided national service. At the time of his death he was planning to marry model Jean Howarth, now Mrs lnnes Ireland. He felt very strongly that racing drivers shouldn’t be married, and that conviction, allied to the death in 1958 of his close friend Peter Collins, had prompted him to retire once he had clinched his title. Hilton also suggests that his continual pain – and occasional blackouts – in those pre-transplant days also played a key role in the decision.

The portrait of Graham Hill is also commendably frank. ‘The man was hard and soft, public and private, rational and unreasonable, just like you and I.’ He also hits a nerve when he says. early in the chapter: ‘The other portrait is darker, and few care to speak about it on the record although many witnessed it; the temper, the insensitivity. One time he vented this on his wife Bette in front of the mechanics and a fist fight almost broke out because someone protested and was rewarded with a virulent torrent grouped around the f-word.

‘This darker portrait is inhibited by considerations for Bette .

How very true.

Apposite, too, is Derek Bell’s assessment of Hill, as ‘a Henry Cooper of Formula One . . .’ but it is hard to buy the ideal of Graham Hill as the forgotten champion, as family members are sometimes prompted to suggest.

All of the portraits tell stories, perhaps the best being that of lames Hunt because his passing is still so strongly felt. Said Hesketh team manager Bubbles Horsley of the man who often used to vomit with nerves before a race: ‘I think that James was very honourable, a very decent guy, a very nice human being, which is quite rare in this business.’ We also learn how Jody Scheckter quite possibly lost Hunt the chance of winning a Grand Prix in only his third attempt when he spun his McLaren and hit the pit wall at Silverstone in 1973. His rear wing sliced away the Hesketh team’s only tall airbox, obliging it to run with a smaller version. In the race Hunt finished fourth, only 3.4s adrift of victor Peter Revson, and that tall airbox had been worth another 15bhp on fast tracks. . .

Hilton’s style improves with age, and we have come a long way from the staccato, listen-to-this-or-else snappiness of some of his earlier books. His research ability remains awesome and totally rewarding, his sense of humour wry. Of Nigel Mansell, he says in his opening paragraph: ‘When everything has been raked over, dissected, analysed, when all the evidence has been assembled – and by now there is a library of it – a strange question won’t go away. Who is Nigel Mansell? Somehow you know the answer and somehow you don’t. It gets pungent because you’re sure you do.’

This is a benign book, and perhaps a little bit harder edge would have improved it. Hilton doesn’t like Mansell, but nevertheless his chapter on him is almost overly fair. Perhaps it is because of that fact, for he has not pulled punches in the past. Like Blunsden, his natural style is to take the most positive view of given situations. It is part of their gentlemanly natures.

In his section Blunsden has the perfect platform to reveal not only the writing ability honed over the years with publications such as Motoring News, Motor Racing and The Times, but his startling talent for observing, assessing and distilling information. Never has this better been showcased, than in his seven chapters of memories.

Champions! is a splendid tribute to Britain’s World Champions, and in telling their stories it paints a portrait of the social, economic and sporting changes within Grand Prix racing over the years. It stands as a detailed insight into how each used whatever circumstances they encountered to claw their way to the top of the pile. Each achieved his success – and coped with it – in vastly different styles, and this brings that out brilliantly.

It is not a moving book, and the cover is appalling, hiding Jimmy Clark behind Nigel Mansell’s rear wing, but these are minor carps. It’s engrossing and highly informative, one of those rare motor racing works which is terribly hard to put down.