Sunday, 30 December 2018

Alain Prost - Christopher Hilton

Continuing my odyssey through assorted racing driver biographies, I turned next to the late Christopher Hilton's book about Alain Prost. This edition was published before he did his final F1 season (1993) with Williams.

I found this to be a frank exploration of its subject, looking at the darker and less appealing sides of Prost, whilst also acknowledging his undoubted strengths. Also, there is lots of valuable and intriguing material about the nature of the sport, with some illuminating contributions from colleagues and associates.

After re-reading this book I was left with the conclusion that the sport itself did not (maybe still does not) lend itself to the most pleasant relationships and to the most admirable behaviour.  Then again, these people would not have got to this position without exhibiting certain characteristics to an abnormal degree.  Extreme scenarios are not always conducive to compromise or even moderation.

As for Prost,  I was reinforced in my esteem for his driving ability, perhaps even enhanced, although his performances seldom stirred the blood like those of Senna, Schumacher and others.  I retain some ambivalence about Prost the person.  Yes, he was a man of principle and honesty in many respects, but was also quite manipulative and a bit of a moaner at times.

This biography is an even-handed account, I would contend, and I do not think that the author could be accused either of favouritism or of any bias. I enjoyed the passages about Prost's karting exploits, and the assertion (an assertion arguably supported by the facts and statistics) that in reality he did not exactly set the world on fire in that field of endeavour.  The opening chapter is also well done and impactful.

In conclusion, there is some good insight about what made Prost tick as a racing driver and as a human being. He was clearly suited to the tactical and technical demands of the mid-1980s, but successfully adapted to the later "sprint" era - 1990 was one of his greatest seasons, putting Nigel Mansell into the shade that year. Although the period is not covered by this book, I felt that he rather "phoned in" his drives in 1993, equipped as he was with the best car. The problem was that his effortless style did not inspire, because people prefer to see the effort up-front.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Ayrton Senna - The Hard Edge of Genius - Christopher Hilton

I recently decided to revisit some "old" books, starting with racing driver biographies, and first on my list was this work about Ayrton Senna, written by the late Christopher Hilton.

The Hard Edge Of Genius was written in the early 1990s, and the edition which I have takes the story up to the point where Senna had just clinched his second world championship title.

There have been many books about Senna, but to me this one still stands up as one of the best. It is notable for its relative brevity, its breezy tone and style, and its genuine efforts to explain and understand a man who was already regarded as something of a phenomenon.

An intriguing dimension of going back to this biography was to acquire a snapshot of how Senna was perceived when he was arguably approaching the apogee of his career. The story was not yet complete of course, but the notion of the "flawed genius" was already largely in place. The Brazilian did seem to mellow in later years, but when this book was written that stage of his development could not be clearly foreseen. Indeed, there are some fascinating predictions as to how the Senna tale might develop or end.

Like other authors who have tackled this subject, Hilton makes a creditable attempt to grasp the essence of what made Senna tick, and like others he was confronted with a complex, somewhat elusive set of conclusions. Some of the factors which made Senna special were what made people hostile towards him circa 1990, although I think that later on people appreciated him more, partly because he was sometimes cast as the underdog (in 1992 and 1993 for example), and this helped to fill out and consolidate the mystique which existed even before Imola 1994.

Good use is made of quotations and observations from people who knew and worked with Senna. This is important, because the author is able to make some credible assertions about the Senna approach and persona based on actual events which occurred long before he even reached the glittering heights of Grand Prix racing.

Going through this work again I was reminded most of all what a remarkable, unusual and multi-faceted person Senna was.  These characteristics are what make him and his story much more compelling than those individuals with merely statistical claims to greatness.

This biography stands as a very worthy effort to analyse Senna and the "Senna effect".  Hilton himself, and others, wrote books later which encompassed the whole story, including his tragic demise, but this remains a praiseworthy effort in its own right.