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Heroes of the National Sport
Britain’s 10 world champions
Mike Hawthorn, from Mexborough in Yorkshire, will forever have the distinction of being Britain’s first F1 world champion. Hawthorn was the dashing blond hero who started to put Britain on the motor sport map. His title came with a second place at Casablanca in 1958, behind the man he was fighting for the crown – Stirling Moss.
Originally Hawthorn was disqualified for pushing his car but, in an age of gentleman sportsmen, Moss intervened on his behalf. The promising Stuart Lewis-Evans died as a result of injuries sustained in the race and that, added to the earlier death of Hawthorn’s close friend and Ferrari team mate Peter Collins, persuaded Mike to hang up his helmet at just 29. Three months later he was dead after crashing his Jaguar on the Guildford by-pass.
Graham Hill, a suave Londoner who did not have a driving licence until he was past 20, started out as a mechanic. Words like ‘tenacious’ and ‘determined’ are oft used to describe him but you can’t win the world championship twice, the Indy 500 and Le Mans without talent. Hill had charm as well and really captured the public imagination.
He won his first world title with BRM in 1962 and added a second crown when he held Lotus together after Clark’s death in an F2 race at Hockenheim in ’68. By the time he broke his legs in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen – a race team mate Jochen Rindt won – he was past 40. He later devoted his energy to running his own team but tragically died in November ’75 along with promising young British driver Tony Brise when the light aircraft he was piloting crashed approaching Elstree aerodrome.
Jim Clark was one of the greatest drivers of his or any other era. From farming stock in the Scottish borders, Clark forged a tremendous partnership with Colin Chapman and narrowly lost out to Hill in ’62. He totally dominated the ’63 season in his Climax-engined Lotus 25 and also stunned the US fraternity when he almost won the Indy 500 at the first attempt in the rear-engined Lotus F1 derivative.
Unreliability saw Clark lose his crown to John Surtees in ’64 but he was back with a vengeance in ’65 to take his second title. He missed Monaco that year to win the Indy 500 on the same day. The smooth effortlessness of Clark’s driving was his trademark, but it was wholly at odds with the spectacular fashion in which he thrilled crowds with his handling of a Lotus Cortina. A quiet, reserved man who lived in tax exile in Paris, his death in an F2 accident at Hockenheim in ’68 was one of those moments that shocked the sport to the core.
John Surtees was born into a motor cycling family and by the time he switched to four wheels he was already a seven time world champion on two. Amazingly quick straight away, he elected against driving for Lotus and ultimately ended up at Ferrari, where he won the title for the Scuderia after rivals Clark and Hill hit trouble in the ’64 season finale in Mexico.
He survived a huge accident in a Lola T70 sportscar at Mosport in ’65 and returned to take a fine wet weather win at Spa in ’66 before he fell out with Ferrari. An earnest man with high standards, Surtees ran his own team in F1 for a time before leaving the sport. He returned recently to help son Henry, who tragically died in a freak F2 accident at Brands Hatch.
Jackie Stewart, with his long hair and shades, brought The Beatles era to F1. He was a great driver, as world titles in 1969, ’71 and ’73 attest, but never a reckless one. He was as quick as anyone but had no wish to die in a racing car, or to see others do so needlessly. Stewart was thus a fervent safety campaigner both during and after a career which saw him break his idol Jim Clark’s then record 25 GP wins. Jackie added two more before stopping at the end of the ’73 season.
An ambassador for blue chip companies such as Ford, Rolex and RBS, Stewart is still a part of the F1 scene and his astute observations always fascinating. He returned to F1 as a team owner with son Paul in the mid nineties and rates their one win as constructors as highly as anything he achieved in the cockpit. Always astute, he sold Stewart GP to Ford for a tidy sum after the Blue Oval had helped establish it.
James Hunt captured the public imagination as much if not more than Hill or Stewart. Formula 1 still did not enjoy the exposure it does today but Hunt’s battle for the 1976 world championship with Niki Lauda did much to set it on its way.
Hunt was the tall, blond, good-looking public schoolboy with the irresistible do-as-you-please attitude. He liked a beer, he smoked, he said what he thought and his driving was aggressive and exciting. But the exterior hid an extreme nervousness that would often see him sick before a race. In later years he formed a superb commentary duo with Murray Walker and it was a big shock and blow to F1 when he succumbed to a heart attack in 1993 at the age of 45.
It was 16 long years before Britain had its next champion. Nigel Mansell went heartbreakingly close in 1986 when an exploding tyre robbed him in the Adelaide season finale but took the sport’s top prize in the dominant active ride Williams FW14B in 1992.
Always good for drama, whether he was crashing out of the lead at a wet Monaco or pulling off spellbinding overtaking moves, Mansell never had a silver spoon and in many ways seemed to feel that his face didn’t quite fit. A charger if ever there was one.
Damon Hill, like his father, was regarded as a worker rather than a natural but, when strong testing performances saw him promoted to the Williams race team he made great use of the equipment at his disposal and ended up winning 21 races in four seasons with the team, as well as the ‘96 championship.
Despite that, he wasn’t retained and after a tough season with an Arrows Yamaha, he joined Jordan Grand Prix and scored the team’s first win, at Spa.
Lewis Hamilton, like Hill, had the immense good fortune to arrive in F1 driving the best car. His innate talent meant he became an instant star, refusing to play second fiddle to reigning double world champion team mate Fernando Alonso. But for ‘Spygate’ engulfing McLaren in the middle of ’07, Lewis could well have won the championship in his debut season. He did it in style the following year, beating Felipe Massa and Ferrari in a dramatic battle that went down to the last corner of the last lap of the last race.
Such was the effect of F1’s ’09 rule changes, however, that McLaren literally went from front to back before they started to solve aerodynamic issues. Honda had pulled out over the winter of ’08 but the door opened for Ross Brawn to take over the fielding of a car which had enjoyed a long design lead time and immediately proved to be the class of the field. It was the chance that the talented Jenson Button had been waiting for ever since he arrived in F1 with Williams nine years earlier.
Button, frustrated that so many put his ’09 title down to the car, proved the belief in his own ability by electing to leave Brawn GP and go straight into the lion’s den, taking on Hamilton at McLaren. So far, he’s done rather well…
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