Vol. 42 No. 14 · 16 July 2020

Dear boy, I’d rather see you in your coffin

Jon Day

2441 words
To Hell and Back: An Autobiography 
by Niki Lauda.
Ebury, 314 pp., £16.99, February, 978 1 5291 0679 4
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A Race with Love and Death: The Story of Britain’s First Great Grand Prix Driver, Richard Seaman 
by Richard Williams.
Simon and Schuster, 388 pp., £20, March, 978 1 4711 7935 8
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Since​ 1961 more people have gone into space than have raced in Formula 1 Grand Prix. This doesn’t mean that it’s harder to become an F1 driver than an astronaut. But motorsport is incredibly expensive and the pool from which drivers are drawn is tiny. A modern F1 car costs around £10 million to manufacture. The most successful teams spend, on average, £220 million a year developing their vehicles, or £380 million if you include engines. ROKiT Williams Racing, the lowest-spending team of the last few years, had a budget of £106 million in 2019; its car was the slowest on the grid by far. Most drivers start young, racing in go-karts from the age of five or six and moving up through Formulas 4, 3 and 2 before, if they’re lucky, getting a seat in an F1 car. It can cost £50,000 a year to compete on the karting circuit and £500,000 to race a season in Formula 3. Toto Wolf, the charismatic team principal of Mercedes-AMG Petronas, has estimated the cost of a junior career to be between €7 and 8 million.

Some of this money comes from sponsors, but if you’re rich enough you can buy yourself in at the top as a ‘pay driver’. In 2017 the Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll paid $80 million to Williams to let his son Lance race for them. For the 2019 season Lawrence bought his own team. That Lance is not the slowest driver in the paddock – he came 12th in the drivers’ championship in 2017, 15th in 2019 – suggests that talent plays a much smaller role in F1 than it does in most other sports. It’s difficult to imagine a billionaire’s son parachuted into a Premiership football team getting anywhere near the ball.

Pay drivers are disliked by F1 fans, but they’ve always been an important part of the economics of a sport which, in order to remain entertaining, must strike a careful balance between rewarding engineering innovation and driver skill. Some of the best drivers of all time began their careers paying for their seats. Niki Lauda, a three-time world champion whose autobiography has been reissued following his death last year, funded his early career with £160,000 of bank loans. He bought his first car, a 1949 drophead Beetle, when he was 12. ‘I seemed to have an easier time raising cash than most youngsters of my age,’ he writes, somewhat guilelessly, and ‘didn’t lose any sleep over the situation’. It’s easy not to lose sleep over money when your family is one of the richest in Austria.

Lauda is now most famous for his antagonistic relationship with the English driver James Hunt, immortalised in Ron Howard’s movie Rush, and for his crash at the Nürburgring in the 1976 German Grand Prix, when he spun off the track on his second lap. The resulting fire burned his eyelids off and gave him the facial scars he would carry for the rest of his life (he didn’t want plastic surgery, preferring to wear a red cap on which he sold advertising space). A month after the crash he was racing again and went on to come second in that year’s drivers’ championship. In the 1970s, F1’s most dangerous decade, Lauda used to claim that he had a 20 per cent chance of dying in any given race. He sometimes came across as almost pathologically unsentimental. The Scottish driver Jim Clark, the only ‘real candidate for hero-worship’ he ever had, died in a crash in 1968, a week before Lauda’s first race. ‘What a shame,’ Lauda thought. ‘He’ll be missed.’ After Roger Williamson was burned to death at Zandvoort in 1973, while his friend and fellow driver David Purley tried desperately to beat out the flames as millions of TV viewers watched, Lauda was asked by the press why he hadn’t stopped to help. ‘I’m paid to race,’ he said, ‘not to stop.’

The ‘formula’ of F1 refers to the various rules governing the design of the cars laid down by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile and intended to even out differences between the teams, but everyone knows that the fastest and most reliable cars usually win over the course of a season. At the moment that means Mercedes, which has won the constructors’ champi0nship for the last six years in a row. The vast difference between the cars makes it difficult to get an objective measure of a driver’s ability. Often the most ferocious rivalries in F1 are between teammates, the only people with whom direct comparisons can be made.

The regulations cover everything from engine size to aerodynamic shape, and part of the game is to work out how much you can get away with while still obeying them. Some innovations are modest. Before it was banned in 2012, teams used helium rather than compressed air to power the guns used to remove wheel nuts during pit stops. The helium’s lower density made the guns spin faster, allowing them to get the nuts off fractionally quicker. The incremental gains add up. When the F1 championship began in the 1950s the average pit stop took 67 seconds. Nowadays a decent one takes around two seconds.

Other innovations have more immediate effects. When Lauda was driving for Brabham the designer Gordon Murray invented a ‘vacuum-cleaner car’ which used an engine cooling fan to suck air from beneath the chassis, pulling it down onto the track and allowing it to corner at much higher speeds. After Lauda drove it to victory in the Swedish Grand Prix it was promptly banned by the FIA. This heralded the beginning of the ‘wing-car era’, during which F1 was dominated by cars that used their aerodynamic profile to generate ‘ground effect’ to pin them to the road. So efficient were some of these cars at transferring force onto the track that they could, in theory, have been driven on a ceiling. But they were uncomfortable to drive, and further relegated driver skill. ‘Comfort became a thing of the past,’ Lauda writes. ‘We only had one task to perform – to hold on desperately like bronco-busters in a rodeo.’ In 1982 the formula was changed, and the wing-car era came to an abrupt halt.

The uneasy relationship between money and driver ability that characterised Lauda’s experience of F1 has been there since the early days of motorsport, as Richard Williams shows in his capacious new biography of Richard Seaman, a largely forgotten English driver of the interwar years. During the 1920s and 1930s many drivers were gentleman enthusiasts who owned their own cars and raced them independently. Prize purses were small – dwarfed by the costs of keeping a car on the road – and sponsorship negligible, so most raced for the thrill of it. Seaman spent £30,000 of his parents’ money – the equivalent of £2 million today – to establish himself as a driver. His father was unimpressed with his son’s choice of career. ‘Motor racing is neither here nor there,’ he said when Seaman told him what he wanted to do. ‘It is just a little sport and amusement, and leads to nothing.’ His snobbish mother was more indulgent, and at Cambridge he began to race the Riley nine-speed he had acquired for his 18th birthday. In his first race, a hill climb, he came second of two entrants, twenty seconds behind the winner. Pretty soon he was asking his parents for money to upgrade the Riley to something sportier.

On the Continent Grand Prix races were well established, as were the professional teams that dominated them: Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz and Scuderia Ferrari. But the races were often chaotic and extremely dangerous, even to watch. Amateur drivers in underpowered vehicles competed alongside the more technically advanced teams. Cars were fuelled with fearsome mixtures containing high levels of volatile ethyl and methyl alcohol. Drivers wore cloth caps rather than helmets, and seatbelts were unheard of. Seemingly every race Seaman competed in was visited by a horrific accident: halfway through the RAC tourist trophy race in Ards in Northern Ireland in 1936, a Riley crashed into the crowd, killing eight people and injuring fifteen. It was the worst disaster in British racing history, and the course was never used again. During a race on the Pescara circuit in Italy in 1937, a driver crashed into a marker stone and collided with another car before spinning off into the crowd. Four spectators were killed at the scene, others had their legs severed and five died later from their injuries. ‘The race continued,’ Williams reports, ‘as races always did.’ After the 1955 Le Mans disaster, in which 83 people were killed by flying debris, crowd safety was vastly improved, but in Seaman’s day spectators died almost as often as drivers.

Seaman, like Lauda, began his career as a pay driver. For his first few seasons he raced mainly in ‘voiturette’ races – for small, light cars with small engines. His peers on the circuit were rich young aristocrats: hobbyist drivers who moonlighted as jazz musicians or aeronautical entrepreneurs. Among his friends were Rupert Edward Lee ‘Buddy’ Featherstonhaugh, who became the second British driver to win a Grand Prix race, Arthur Conan Doyle’s son Denis, and Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh of Siam, who raced as ‘B. Bira’ in a car painted ‘bright peacock blue, its hue selected … to match a piece of fabric cut one night from the gown of a girl with whom he was dining at the Savoy’.

After racing independently and then driving for a season in a syndicate started by his friend Whitney Straight, Seaman bought a new car and started his own team in the mews garage behind his parents’ house in Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge. His mechanic, Giulio Ramponi, who had worked as a test driver for Alfa Romeo, recommended he buy a nine-year-old Delage that might have unrealised potential. Over the winter they modified the car – adding a new gearbox, removing weight from the chassis, and improving the brakes and handling. All this was expensive. ‘In a very short space of time,’ his mother wrote in a memoir, ‘the £1000 apportioned to rebuild the Delage was exhausted, and Dick stood before me, with further requests for money to pay the mechanics’ wages alone each week, to say nothing of the sheaves of bills from motor engineers apparently from all over England.’ She paid up without too much fuss. The refurbished Delage proved to be both fast and reliable: in it Seaman won six of the nine races he contested in 1936.

Seaman always aimed to race for a proper Grand Prix team, and at the end of the 1936 season he was approached by Mercedes-Benz to take part in a trial for new drivers on the Nürburgring. For their first drive candidates were sent out in 2.3 litre Mercedes road cars. Alfred Neubauer, the team manager, told them to take it slowly, but on his first lap a 21-year-old called Herman Schmitz crashed and was killed. Another driver, who had turned up wearing his SS uniform, came off the track at a difficult corner ‘and disappeared from the scene altogether, leaving behind only a torn black sleeve’. But Seaman impressed Neubauer enough to be offered a place on the team. This was the beginning of the final, most troubling stage of his career. In the years leading up to the Second World War motorsport had became heavily politicised. Just after the Nazis came to power in 1933 Hitler opened the Berlin motor show with a speech in which he announced tax cuts for car owners, an ambitious plan to build autobahns across the country, and to develop what would become the people’s car – the Volkswagen. Motorsport was a key battleground in Hitler’s propaganda war, as well as a way for the Nazi government to develop and test new technology – the government-funded Mercedes-Benz made aircraft engines as well as cars.

Seaman’s first race for Mercedes was on the Mellaha Lake circuit in Libya – a sweeping, modernist ribbon which had just been rebuilt to be the fastest track in the world. The car he drove, the futuristic-looking W125, was fantastically powerful. This was a different kind of racing: so hard on the rubber that drivers had to change tyres six times during the race, so physically demanding and hot in the cockpit that they lost four and a half pounds in sweat as they drove. But for most of his short career Seaman was a reserve driver for Mercedes and was often overlooked. His teammates – Hermann Lang, a working-class former mechanic; Rudolf Caracciola, a serial championship winner; the aristocratic Manfred von Brauchitsch – were all more successful, but he did win a few races, culminating in first place in the German Grand Prix of 1938. A photograph of him giving a half-hearted Nazi salute from the podium did nothing for his subsequent reputation.

At a party earlier that year he had met Erika Popp, the daughter of a director of BMW. When they decided to get married his mother disinherited him. Her final words to him were: ‘Dear boy, I would rather see you lying in your coffin than that you should contract this disastrous marriage.’ Seaman was killed six months later, in a crash at the Spa-Francorchamps racetrack in Belgium on the morning of Sunday, 25 June 1939, two months before war broke out. He had been leading the race when he lost control in the rain, crashed into some trees, and was burned so badly he died in hospital a few hours later. He was buried in Putney Vale cemetery. Hitler sent a handwritten note and an enormous bouquet to his funeral.

Williams argues that, had he not died in 1939, Seaman might have become one of the racing greats, and that his reputation has been tarnished by his association with a regime he was at worst ambivalent about, at best indifferent to. Both claims are untestable. But his achievements on the track were modest and, though he sometimes appeared to be uncomfortable about racing for a German team, he seems to have had few qualms about the Nazis themselves. ‘He won’t have any slackers about,’ he said of Hitler in a letter to his mother when he first moved to Germany, ‘Everybody has got to work. Consequently he has remade and reorganised the country, and that is why they believe in him and rally round him.’ Admiration for fascism wasn’t rare among the English upper classes in the 1930s, and Seaman wasn’t a party member. But he was politically oblivious and largely indifferent to the lives of others: a careless person who spent money in careless ways. Perhaps you have to be to do well on the track.

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