Does F1 lack the characters of the past?
The rivalry between Niki Lauda (left) and James Hunt (right) has been given the Hollywood treatment. (Getty Images)
September 19th, 2013
04:39 PM ET

Does F1 lack the characters of the past?

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?

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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.

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“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?

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Filed under:  Motorsport
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Dan

    Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Jean-Pierrer Jarier, Bruno Giacomelli, Eddie Irvine,

    September 21, 2013 at 8:06 am | Reply
  2. Terri R

    Not a bad article, though clearly biased against Vettel. I mean, I don't particularly like him. But the soon to be 4 time champion, and you don't even include him in the voting poll of who the biggest character is? He may not win the poll, but put your money where your mouth is and see what percentage he would get. I would be curious. Niki Lauda clearly is glorifying death, which is why he is also a bit of a child that never grew up. I think the problem is not the drivers' character, but rather the lack of audience access. So many secrets, cannot see the cars up close, etc. They don't have to be ridiculously the opposite direction, but their paranoia is too much. Look, we all know F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, money talks, the cars are the greatest. But give the fans more access to drivers and the paddock area. At least let them get closer, not during race time, but the days before, qualifying, practice, afterward, etc....

    September 24, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply
    • dadude

      brilliant idea...! would de-mystify the drivers n probably make them more down to earth and more careful/caring about how they drive....

      September 25, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  3. Dave M

    I agree with Nicky, it's all about tire management than racing, running to a pre- planned speed to make them last. There is no racing anymore. Vetel used to be a great kid now he is an arrogant corporate puppet.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:47 am | Reply
  4. Jonathan J

    Gone are the good days of Ayrton Senna vs. Alain Prost, James Hunt vs. Lada, Schumacher vs. Damon Hill vs. Jacque Villenueve...gone are those days of glory. F1 isn't fun anymore – we should kick out Bernie and Max!!! :)

    December 30, 2013 at 1:22 am | Reply
  5. Robert M

    In the late 1970s and early 1980s high level motor racing, F1 , Can Am. USAC and the World Sports car championship were still immensely dangerous, possibly more than then necessary because of the instability and excessive g force inuced by early ground effect cars. The silouette sports car racing of early 80s appeared lethal with the deaths of Bellof and Windelohok in 83-84 probably ending the sports tolerance for frequent death. Take a look at a 1979 Can Am race in 79 on youtube, a serious series contested by top American teams like Hall and Newman and with a number of past and future F1 drivers, Keke Rosberg, litteraly appeared to be prepared to die to get into and stay in F1 and if he challenged the series leader , Jacky Ickx, Ickx was prepared to force him off the road, often in very dangerous places. James Hunt was always immensely difficult to pass, and his blocking of Watson in 1976 in the Dutch GP and his refusal to allow Andretti space, even though Mario had got sufficient past to have the legal right of way, are like much of Hunts driving an indication of basic irresponsibility. One can not believe, the claim in the extra's in the official Rush/Howard produced DVD often started not only intoxicated but doped on illegal chemicals, but who knows.
    Up to the early 1980s most GP drivers were very rich men, often only employable as fighter pilots or in the family business and often only interested in a vigorous sex life. Even most of the British drivers in the 1950s and 60s were public school educated- the car garages that drivers like Jackie Stewart, Hawthorn or Collins ran employed 150 men and sold sports cars, which indicated great wealth in a nation ,that most didn't have a car. The carbon fibre chassis introduced by the early 1980s massively reduced the risk and the changes to the finace market in the mid 1980s by Reagan and Thatchers finance markets, amade huge money avaiilable as sponsorship and made most GP teams industriial enterprises with huge staff, where in the 1970s only Ferrari and to a degree LOtus were industrial teams capable of serious scientific and engineering development. Major industry like Mercedes, Matra or Honda was only sporadically involved before the mid 1980s because till then it was a rich amatuer sport in which people generally toa degree direcly or indirectly had to buy your way in.The modern sport, really is not related. A general guide is that if you assume that in the 1950s the average IQ of GP drivers was probably 130, and it declines 10 points every 20yrs.

    March 26, 2014 at 3:55 am | Reply

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