Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Stirling Moss - The Authorised Biography - Robert Edwards

In my experience, most biographies of racing drivers do not offer much in the way of searching insight into personalities, motivations and foibles. They tend to barely scratch the surface in this respect. A notable exception to these rules is Robert Edwards' authorised biography of Stirling Moss.

This book devotes unusual space and attention to examining Moss's family background, his time at school, the role of his parents and his upbringing. At various stages an effort is made to put Stirling's experiences and achievements in some kind of sociological context; again, not something one usually finds in a racing biography.  In some ways I suppose that he was a transitional figure, combining many "pre-war" values with the ethos of the more commercial age which was just beginning.

So often in books, the prowess and drive of high achievers almost appears to come out of nowhere, but Edwards lays plenty of pipework here, allowing us to gain an idea of how the subject's character took shape, and how his psyche and outlook evolved over time.

I would contend that many of the author's observations and conclusions about Moss would surprise the general observer, in that they tend to be less straightforwardly in line with the public perception. The popular image of racing drivers, especially from the era covered here, does not always tally with reality.  Behind the "heroic" facade, they all had their weaknesses, quirks and needs.

Another aspect of this biography which impressed me was that Edwards was not afraid to leave chronological "gaps" in the narrative, instead preferring to concentrate on context and an evocative and representative portrayal of the subject.  The author goes into great detail about the areas which he thinks are instructive and important, but he doesn't feel pressured to document every race of every season. In this way, one gets a more rounded and humanistic sense of Stirling's progress, as well as a richer perspective on events.

It is pleasing to see that as much attention is given to Stirling's exploits in sports cars and certain "niche" spheres as is allocated to his Grand Prix endeavours. The sport was not so "F1-centric" in the 1950s, and all of this also serves to convey the mastery and sheer versatility of Moss. 

Technical matters are also gone into, mostly as a way of illustrating which way the racing wind was blowing, and to place some of Stirling's career moves into greater historical context.  The passages concerning Maserati, Mercedes and Vanwall in particular are thoughtful and penetrating, again dispelling one or two "myths" along the way, and painting a more nuanced picture than is often painted.

A prominent feature of the latter stages of this biography is the concentration on the aftermath of the accident at Goodwood in 1962, and its physical and psychological effects on the driver. Like many areas of the book, it benefits from being "authorised", and is therefore based on good, sometimes rare source material. Again, this all goes well beyond the simplistic, cliched version which was moulded by the popular press.

I also enjoyed the chapters which looked at Stirling's life following his decision to retire from racing, and how he adapted to his new circumstances. The book is written in a pleasingly erudite but economical and accessible style.  If the test of a good biography is whether the reader emerges with an enhanced understanding of the subject, and actually learns a few things in the process, then I would suggest that this fine effort comes through with flying colours. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Beyond The Limit - Professor Sid Watkins

Following my blog post about Professor Sid Watkins' book Life At The Limit, I re-read the follow-up, Beyond The Limit.

This "sequel" basically takes up the story from when the first book was published in 1996.  It documents the continuing search for enhanced safety in Formula 1 following on from the dreadful events of 1994, and offers special emphasis on the millennium season of the year 2000.

As with Life At The Limit, there is no shortage of amusing anecdotes and insight, but I must admit that it slightly lacks the focus, impact and cohesion of that first book. This is primarily because the charming and absorbing tales from "the old days" and the formative times of Professor Watkins' role in F1 are not there.  Also, the more regimented and corporate tenor of more modern racing arguably makes for less good raw material when writing a book.

So, this is not quite as good or as entertaining as Life At The Limit, but it is still worth checking out.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Life at The Limit - Professor Sid Watkins

Life At The Limit is a book written in 1996 by the late Professor Sid Watkins, then Formula 1 doctor/medical supremo. It is not a biography as such, but more a chronicle of his involvement in the sport. This is one of those books which the reader will breeze through quickly, and emerge with a happy, satisfied and illuminated feeling.

Although there are compelling accounts of some famous individual incidents, I was if anything more intrigued by the passages which addressed the struggles which Professor Watkins and his colleagues encountered in raising standards of medical back-up and safety, starting in the 1970s. In those early days it seems that arrangements were distinctly haphazard, and it is sobering to discover the gaps which existed before Sid and company, began to get to grips with the deficiencies.  Standardization and uniform excellence were still some way off in the old days.

In documenting his work and his experiences, Professor Watkins also shines a torch on the way of life travelling with the Formula 1 circus, and also what a small world he moved in. There are lots of amusing anecdotes and stories, and the author's dry sense of humour is a delight. In among the seriousness, the pressures and the grave matters at issue, it was still possible to have fun and be irreverent.

Some insight is given into various motor racing personalities, both drivers and non-drivers. Professor Watkins' friendship with Ayrton Senna is of course covered, and it is hard not to be moved by the chapters which deal with the events at Imola in 1994, as well as the accounts of Zolder 1982, Monza 1978 and so forth.

Life At The Limit is in places, and up to a point, a journey through the corridors of motor racing power, although the Professor is necessarily guarded, cryptic or reticent on some points. The remit of this book was really to tell the story of his own involvement.

Above all,  the reader will be lost in admiration and respect for Sid and his colleagues, for what they accomplished in helping people and in raising standards around the world. This is an entertaining and enlightening account of those times.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

1982 - The Inside Story of the Sensational Grand Prix season - Christopher Hilton

I remember that during the 2012 Formula 1 season, relative neophytes were speculating that we were experiencing perhaps the most dramatic and unpredictable Grand Prix year ever.  Those people had evidently not been around in 1982. Christopher Hilton's book, published in 2007, captures the turbulence and tragedy of that extraordinary season.

For me, the 1982 campaign was in large part coloured, and tarnished, by the death of Gilles Villeneuve, who was one of my first heroes in life. I distinctly remember crying on the day of his accident, staring into space at the end of our driveway, on a warm spring evening.  However, as time has passed I have grown to recognize how that season did have some redeeming features.

The material about the drivers' strike in South Africa is fascinating, in that it suggests that the views of many of the drivers were ambivalent. They were caught between concerns of principle and solidarity and the imperatives of ambition and avarice.  There are some interesting theories about Niki Lauda's motives, too. The strike is also placed within the context of the wider, momentous power struggle which was ongoing within the sport at that time.  A healthy selection of quotes from drivers and other personnel helps to paint the picture.

The chapter dealing with the Belgian Grand Prix in May contains much harrowing but gripping testimony about the events of that tragic qualifying session at Zolder.  Similarly, the passages documenting the Canadian Grand Prix, the scene of Ricardo Paletti's fatal accident, are moving and affecting. It is good that the author went to the trouble of researching Paletti's background and racing career.

Reading the quotes and recollections in this book, it occurs to me that in the 1980s, Grand Prix drivers were more worldly men than they are today. Maybe I think in these terms because the drivers in those days were much older than me, whereas nowadays I am many years their senior. People such as Derek Warwick and John Watson impress with their honesty and roundedness. Making allowances, one would have to say that, thirty-odd years ago, the goldfish bowl was less overpowering, and the world was a different place.

"1982" also offers a persuasive reminder that technological progress has made things too "perfect" and "infallible" to be interesting and uncertain on an "organic" level. Variables and imponderables are banished, and much of the soul and raw excitement extracted.

The heterogeneous nature of the venues, the media coverage and so forth is another part of the backdrop to this work, No identikit tracks, podium ceremonies, pit and paddock complexes, and the like.

Hilton relates some great tales, such as the Toleman "half-tanks" ploys and the Derek Daly "short cut" at Dijon. More innocent times, but in keeping with many aspects of this book, I get the impression that the people involved have been made less guarded and equivocal, and more candid, in their recollections by the passage of time.

It seems to me that, in a Formula 1 sense at least, the 1980s had not truly arrived in 1982.  I tend to see this as happening in 1984, with the full flowering of the Ron Dennis/TAG/Lauda/Prost era at McLaren.  Things became more clinical and orderly, and rough edges were smoothed over. The years 1982 and 1983, by contrast,  still exuded elements of the Seventies. A transitional, confusing, but vibrant time.

Christopher Hilton's book, lavishly illustrated and well-researched, evokes those times vividly.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Working The Wheel - Martin Brundle and Maurice Hamilton - book review

Another item in my library of motorsport books is "Working The Wheel", by Martin Brundle and Maurice Hamilton, first published in 2004. This is a series of recollections and analyses of Formula 1 circuits and venues, based on the words of the former Grand Prix driver and Sportscar World Champion.

The text I think reflects Brundle's feisty but honest, no-nonsense racing persona. His views on some circuits are intriguing and hardly stereotypical, but his reasoning usually appears sound. He welcomes changes made to some tracks, which in other quarters have been decried.  He prefers a tricky or convoluted section of track to replace a flat-out section which represents little in the way of challenge to the driver, and with dangers ever-present.

A very practical and pragmatic philosophy emerges, although at the same time Martin underlines his respect for the traditions of motor racing and also his sense of history. He, for example, clearly relishes the atmosphere at places such as Monza.

"Working The Wheel" is liberally peppered with anecdotes from Brundle's time as a racing driver, many of these stories related to contentious or murky episodes, and doubtless made easier to recount by the passage of time.  It is fascinating to hear his own personal perspective on some epochal incidents and iconic personalities, and his own, sometimes peripheral role in how things unfolded.

There is lots of "local colour", and vivid memories of the individual flavour and atmosphere of the circuits and their environs. Some might think that a disproportionate amount of space is given over to amusing (and occasionally hair-raising) stories about Brundle's travels to and from circuits, but these add to the entertainment value, and also help to provide an insight into the pressures and the existence.

Some of Martin's observations remind us of his own narrow escapes from disaster, and his hard-luck stories, and also of incidents which have either been forgotten, or did not receive much coverage at the time when they happened. Minor triumphs and tragedies which combine to form a rich tapestry, and a window on the personal battles and "little victories" which constitute such a part of the racer's experience.  I was also delighted that he included chapters about Le Mans, as well as a few "defunct" F1 venues, such as Detroit and Adelaide.

In general, the Formula 1 circus comes across as an intoxicating place, and the enthusiasm of the author(s) shines from every page. That said, this tome does shine a light on the hardships which go along with the glory and the riches. I'm still envious of the lifestyle, though.

"Working The Wheel" is a rattling good read.  Some readers might prefer to scan over the more technical passages detailing braking points, racing lines, gear changes and so forth, but the contents are by and large candid, highly entertaining and in places enlightening.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Jim Clark - Tribute to A Champion - Eric Dymock

Jim Clark is possibly the most gifted racing driver ever to emerge from British shores, yet his public profile was never as high as several of his contemporaries or near-contemporaries. Graham Hill was a charismatic extrovert who enjoyed the limelight and public affection, whilst Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart survived their racing careers to achieve a high media profile in the ensuing decades.

Clark's comparatively low level of recognition with the general public may be put down to his reserve and reticence, and these and other elements of his make-up are examined in Eric Dymock's book, first published in 1997. The common perceptions about him may have clouded a more complicated and nebulous picture. The book devotes much space to assessing Clark's character traits and psyche, in addition to his feats on the racetrack.

Much emphasis is placed on his upbringing in the Scottish Borders farming community, as well as his education, and all this provides a more rounded portrait of the man than is often projected by superficial and condensed television documentaries and internet "screenbites".  This once again reinforces my conviction that if you want to acquire a nuanced understanding of a subject, don't rely purely on "audio-visual" media;read books, too.

Dymock's book has a quirky flavour and structure to it which I found quite appealing, eschewing a dry chronological story, and occasionally going off on tangents to explore sub-texts. Don't expect an exhaustive documentation of race results and chassis numbers. There is some input from people who knew Clark well, and their observations merely serve to strengthen the enigma. 

What emerged for me was a sometimes melancholy tale, not a smooth and seamless fairytale. The contradictions inherent in motor racing come through;people were entranced by aspects of the sport, but also had to reconcile themselves to its more unsavoury realities, especially the dangers and risks. Also, the true nature of the sport in the Sixties was perhaps not as idyllic and wholesome as is sometimes made out.  Some of that era's most revered exponents were not as perfect and heroic as some might like to hope, and Dymock does not flinch from highlighting some of the flaws. 

An illuminating and intriguing read...

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

McLaren Memories - A Biography of Bruce McLaren - Eoin Young

This book had been nestling on my shelves, but had been awaiting my full attention. I am glad that I gave it a read. Biographies are always more satisfying, and linger longer in the memory, if the reader comes away with a significantly greater appreciation for the subject than beforehand. This was the case for me with this book about the life of the New Zealand racing driver Bruce McLaren.

The book is based on the recollections of the author, a long-time friend and associate of Bruce, but equally importantly it draws heavily on the driver's own words and writings. There is no in-depth analysis of his character, although indications of his innermost feelings and concerns emerge in the various quotes and reminiscences.

There is some valuable material about his childhood, and struggles against adversity, and those first steps to immersion in the spheres of engineering and racing. Insight is also gained concerning the burgeoning of his ambitions, once he arrived in Europe.

To me, the middle sections of the book were the most illuminating and enthralling, evoking as they did the atmosphere and flavour of racing in the late Fifties and Sixties. McLaren's laconic and dry humour is a delight. The schedule which the drivers and teams of those days coped with is, looking back, extraordinary, and one gains a sense of the improvisation which was vital, in organisation and logistics. The haphazard, frenetic and breathless state of things seemed also part of the fun and the stimulation.

Overall, McLaren Memories greatly augmented my knowledge and understanding of the man's achievements and abilities.  It is not a massively penetrating examination or appraisal of its subject's psyche and motivations, but it is an entertaining and endearing portrait of a popular and successful figure, who had a short but eventful life.