There’s nothing more infuriating for an F1 fanatic then the seemingly interminable mid-season break. It somehow feels longer and more dragged out even than the off-season. At least then you have a year of racing behind you, and sometimes you’re glad of the break, ready to come back afresh in March…this though…oh this is tiresome. Roll on the end of August and my favourite race, Spa Francorchamps.
In the interim you may have noticed that we here in Great Britain have been hosting another rather significant major sporting event, and rather well too, if I may be so bold. I say “may have noticed” as all reports from this side of the pond indicate NBC didn’t do a terribly good job of showing it to you guys, but take my word for it, the whole event was spectacular, uplifting and joyous – so we’re clinging on to that proud to be British feeling right now – which leads me beautifully on to part 2 of the 10 British World Champs…
1976 – James Hunt
It’s really only fortune that starts me off with the most wonderfully British person of the lot, the truly charismatic enigma that was James Hunt. Having been brought up in a disciplinarian environment at home, Hunt developed a mischievous and rebellious streak from an early age. Already a smoker at the age of 10, Hunt originally and ironically wanted to become a doctor, before falling in love with racing driving a Mini (he really couldn’t be MORE British could he?). Moving up to F3, Hunt caught the attention of a certain Lord Hesketh who took him under his wing and offered him a break in his F1 team in 1973.
Known as a fast, aggressive but accident-prone racer, Hunt became known as “Hunt The Shunt” early on in his career – the enduring relationship with Hesketh and his team was really born of a shared love of a devil-may-care attitude and a lack of respect for the authorities. However, following a win at a non-championship race in ’74 and another win, coupled with fourth place in the championship in ’75 alerted the bosses at McLaren, who duly signed Hunt to replace Emerson Fittipaldi in 1976. In a dramatic and controversial year, Hunt took six wins and ultimately the world title. The year will be documented in the forthcoming film “Rush”, along with Hunt’s rivalry and close friendship with Niki Lauda – with a great will for the movie to be good, I hope the majority of you will go and see it!
Hunt’s career declined following ’76 and he retired in ’79 to take up co-commentary reins on the BBC. He sadly passed away after suffering a heart attack at the age of 45, moments after proposing to his girlfriend. A sad loss on many levels.
1992 – Nigel Mansell
There was a fairly long gap for us Brits before the success of the ever-divisive Nigel Mansell in 1992 driving the dominant Williams-Renault (Mansell secured nine wins and 14 pole positions in a 16-race year). Mansell was nothing if not brave – in his early career in Formula Ford, Mansell broke his neck in qualifying at Brands Hatch and was told by doctors that he’d be laid up for six months. Mansell proceeded to discharge himself from the hospital and continue racing, winning 33 of 42 races that season.
Mansell joined the F1 circus in 1980 with Lotus after setting a lap record for Colin Chapman’s team in a test drive. Blessed with ferocious speed, Mansell soon garnered huge support in his native Britain. After five somewhat barren years (through no fault of his own – sadly the Lotus he drove was never blessed with any semblance of reliability and Mansell had a VERY difficult relationship with Peter Warr who became the boss of the team following Colin Chapman’s untimely death) Mansell went on to join Frank Williams team to partner the speedy Finn, Keke Rosberg. Here he gained his famous “Red 5” nickname and proceeded to take his first win at the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch.
1986 saw him team up at Williams alongside Nelson Piquet who described Mansell immediately as an “uneducated blockhead” – not the smoothest way to begin a partnership – Mansell came very close to winning the championship that year before an exploding tire spectacularly ended his chances at the final GP of the season. Mansell joined Ferrari where he became much loved by the tifosi who gave him the nickname “Il Leone” before returning to Williams in 1991 and securing his title, finally, in the 1992 season.
Never the easiest man to love, “Our Nige,” if we go just with the positives, was fearless, fast and nothing if not spectacular.
1996 – Damon Hill
Right place, right time? Maximizing the use of a middling talent? Yes, perhaps both of those are perhaps fair, but then being British, we do love a gentleman, and Damon was and is certainly one of those.
The son of Graham and Bette Hill, Damon did not perhaps have the “silver spoon” route into motor sport many would suspect. Following his father’s death (see previous Great Brits column) Damon actually worked as a motorcycle courier and labourer to help fund his further education. His motor racing career was steady if unspectacular before Williams took him on as a test driver and then, unexpectedly, in a full race seat in 1993 alongside Alain Prost. He took his first win that year in Hungary after a great deal of bad luck had prevented him from winning earlier in the season in a very quick car which gave Prost the championship.
Senna joined Hill the next year in the fateful 1994 season. Following the horrendous occurrences at San Marino that year, Hill took over as team leader by default, entering the last race of the season just one point behind Michael Schumacher. An infamous, controversial collision occurred then, handing the title to Schumacher. Following a disappointing 1995 season, Williams discovered their dominant form once more in 1996 and Damon went on to win the title, becoming the only father/son combo to do so in the history of the sport.
2008 – Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton was always destined for great things behind the wheel of a racing car. Picked up by the McLaren team and funded by them through the junior formula after a ten year old Hamilton told McLaren boss Ron Dennis “I want to race for you one day” (if only it were that easy in life generally!), Hamilton has always had a raging talent, but has also more recently displayed a mental fragility that means he still only holds the single title. So far.
Coming from a mixed race background, Hamilton is considered F1’s first black driver, and has long been touted by the marketing men as the sport’s own Tiger Woods character. That kind of pressure, alongside the fact his career has been meticulously scrutinized from a very early age I’m sure has brought pressures the rest of us can only imagine. However Lewis also has the tendency not to help himself, and, like his hero Senna, seems to have the belief of a “God-given right” to be where, and who, he is, which winds up both fellow competitors and authorities in equal measure.
Hamilton nearly won the title, incredibly, in his rookie year in Formula One, and unsettled his far more experienced, double world champion, teammate Fernando Alonso in the process. It was no surprise when that first title came his way in 2008, the only surprise being that he hasn’t added to that. If he keeps his focus, brings the team back on side and eschews the celebrity lifestyle for sporting greatness he should, and likely will, win many more. Who’s to say that won’t start again this year?
2009 – Jenson Button
It always helps a driver to find themselves in a dominant car, but don’t underestimate the outright talent of Jenson Button. When he first came into F1 with the Williams team in the 2000 season, he had great expectations upon those young shoulders, having won his way through the junior series with some aplomb. He performed fairly well before joining Benetton/Renault and the beginning of a spiky relationship with team principle, Flavio Briatore. Unfortunately, around this time, Jenson began to get swallowed up by the trappings of money and fame and his extravagant lifestyle saw him dubbed as a “lazy playboy” by no one other than his boss, the aforementioned Briatore.
Following a difficult spell with the team, Button left and joined BAR/Honda where his career seemed to nosedive somewhat before the team was taken over by Ross Brawn in 2009 following Honda’s withdrawal from the sport. The dominant car that season, Button finally realized his obvious talent and, coupled with his always smooth driving style, drove the car to championship victory that season.
The next year he joined McLaren – or Lewis Hamilton’s team as some saw it – in a brave/foolhardy move, but gave the naysayers the opportunity to eat humble pie as in 2011 he became the first teammate over a season to beat Hamilton in the championship, fair and square. He has struggled more with the car this season, along with a resurgent Hamilton, but given the right set of circumstances, has the capability for another championship in him.
So that brings me to the end of the Great Brits – I cannot WAIT to be able to talk to you all about live racing again in the next column!
Keep sniffing the petrol,
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