It’s a difficult task, to pin down the criteria that need to combine for a sporting figure to be deemed a "character," a figure whose personality helps to popularise their field of competition in a transformative way.
Ingredients such as daring in the face of danger and desire to rise to the challenge are prerequisites. A romantic backstory of overcoming the odds makes compelling viewing to all dreamers out there, while the facing down of a nemesis provides drama and justice to devotees.
But it’s not just the conquering of the seemingly impossible that makes a sporting "character," maybe most important of all is the ability to connect with an audience on an emotional level. To force the viewer to empathise with your test and triumph as if they were personally involved in the victory. So they win with you.
Is there a driver on today’s grid who matches up?
Maybe it’s the high-risk nature of Formula One down the years that created such a rich array of stand out figures – danger acting like a magnet for extreme personalities – but the top tier of motorsport does seem blessed in this respect.
From Juan Manuel "El Maestro" Fangio – a man who endured kidnap in Cuba as well winning races well into his 40s – to the suave style of Graham Hill, from the raw passion of Ayrton Senna to the guile of Gilles Villeneuve, the understated cool of Alain Prost to the flair of Jackie Stewart.
All lured new audiences to F1 with their on-track battles.
The 1976 season has been lauded as one of the greatest examples of characters attracting new followers to the sport, so much so that even a treatment from Hollywood would always somehow fail to replicate the drama of reality.
This was the year when Niki Lauda crashed in a ball of flames at the Nurburgring and not only escaped with his life but got back into his Ferrari a few weeks later, despite his burnt face bleeding into his crash helmet, to carry on his quest for the title.
In the final race of the season he lost out on the championship by one point to the widely-adored, self-confessed playboy James Hunt, the clash of characters produced a season climax that has arguably yet to be beaten.
“If you raced during the 70s, every year at least one guy got killed, sometimes two out of 18 drivers. So it was a very dangerous sport where you had to go right to the limit and the chances to get killed were very big … today no grand prix driver has to think about this because there is no more danger,” Lauda told CNN.
“There was a lot of fun I have to say because everybody there involved, racing drivers knew that life can be very short, so we did not want to miss anything, what we could do in this limited time. Everybody there was very happy crowd to race each other.”
The fatalities in Formula One were clearly unacceptable and one of the sport’s greatest feats has been to improve the safety of racing. However, as Niki attests to, the precarious nature of their future provoked a greater freedom to their behaviour.
Can the same be said in 2013? Has the new security seen a more mundane crowd take to the wheel? Sebastian Vettel is undoubtedly talented but his victory speeches, so laden with corporate mentions and sponsor thank-yous, are more Powerpoint presentation than spontaneous releases of passion.
Mark Webber has been wonderfully outspoken at times but never won enough to attract suitable attention, he is also now leaving the sport after his motivation for F1 seemingly deserted him. Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, Romain Grosjean are all friendly and genuine to a man but do they invoke the interest that a conflicted and flawed personality like Hunt did?
The baton to uphold the "character quota" in 2013 rests with three stand-out contenders:
1) Lewis Hamilton – The Englishman’s combination of aggressive driving with piques of petulance and tantrum throwing are a delight to anyone who feels a champion should view second place as first loser. Extra points are earned for having a celebrity girlfriend who contributes to regular emotional turmoil in the 2008 champion’s private life
2) Fernando Alonso – An undoubted star on the track, the pacey Spaniard mixes technical prowess with a brooding, ruthless side that makes him a fascinating watch. His unending thirst for his third title, his predilection for the odd Chinese war proverb and ever-changing facial hair gives you close to the full package
3) Kimi Raikkonen – The "Ice Man" paradoxically is one of the grid’s biggest personalities because he says so little. A great upholder of F1’s dying party spirit, the "Flying Finn" cares not a jot what the media, or anyone else for that matter, thinks of him. His interviews are unpredictable and monosyllabic (and greatly entertaining to boot), his driving is metronomic and very fast and his complete lack of emotional displays makes him cooler than a penguin on ice
In a vacuum of life-threatening danger, would it be too much to ask for the characters above to be fighting for the biggest prize?