How would the F1 heroes of the past be viewed today, asks Jethro

- @Jethrobovi­ngdon

‘I wonder if the old heroes would be derided rather than celebrated’

ANOTHER F1 SEASON DRAWS TO A CLOSE. Max is champ; Red Bull decimated everyone; Ferrari imploded; Mercedes were terrible and then they weren’t; Alpine reintroduc­ed grenade engines to the sport and then blew up their driver line-up, too; Lando made Ricciardo look like a shell of his former self and Aston Martin were painfully bad at times but we willed them on neverthele­ss. Well, we willed one of them on. Seb Vettel. Once villainise­d for ‘The Finger’ celebratio­n, Multi 21 and for being too damn good, Seb has matured into a calm, happy, thoughtful, eloquent ambassador for the sport and the issues he supports. A rare hero in the modern world of F1.

There have been heroes before, of course. Ascari, Fangio, Moss, Gilles, Lauda, Hunt, Mansell, Senna.

Huge characters, vastly talented drivers and absolutely ruthless when they got even a sniff of a win. But being a ‘hero’ or a complete villain in the days of social media and endless PR duties is almost impossible. We ‘know’ most of the F1 grid so much better than we ever have and, well, when you get to know F1 drivers you realise they’re just young guys who are good at driving. Some of them seem pretty cool, some of them seem a bit dull, some of them seem like dicks. Just people being people. Like in an office or a warehouse or any other place of work. The mystery is gone.

Will we speak in awed tones in future about Lewis Hamilton? I am a Lewis fan and love to watch him hustle an F1 car over the course of a stint or in one of those intense qualifying laps. He is awesomely talented. But he’s also just a guy we see and hear on TV more than 20 weekends a year. Or every day if you follow him on Instagram. He conducts himself very well, seems cool enough. I like him and admire that, like Seb, he wants to leave the sport a better, more inclusive place. But he’s just a guy.

Of course, they’ve always just been guys. It’s us fans who elevate drivers to god-like status. Now, I’m aware that I’m about to tread on dangerous ground and I mean no disrespect whatsoever. But I do wonder if in this world of all-access cameras and social media if some of the old heroes and the things they might say would be derided rather than celebrated.

Fangio was in a league of his own in 1957 at the Nürburgrin­g in the glorious Maserati 250F. He stopped from the lead on lap 13 and the pit stop was a disaster. A 30-second lead became a 51-second deficit and the old master had nine laps to chase and catch the Ferraris of Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn. He broke the lap record over and over and his fastest lap was 9 seconds inside of his own pole position lap from the previous day. (Boy, would he get into trouble in 2022 when they saw the data and wondered what the hell he’d been playing at in quali). Anyway, Fangio duly caught the Ferraris, passed them and won the race. His last ever GP victory. And his greatest.

‘Until that race I had never demanded more of myself or the cars,’ Fangio later said. ‘I made such demands on myself that I couldn’t sleep for two nights afterwards. I was in such a state that whenever I shut my eyes it was as if I were in the race again, making those leaps in the dark on those curves where I had never before had the courage to push things so far.’

For some reason this sounds right for Fangio. But imagine if K-mag has said the same after his pole lap at Brazil a few weeks ago. Or even Leclerc on one of his maximum-attack laps. How would the world respond? ‘Calm down mate, you only beat your teammate by 0.110 seconds.’

Of course, Ayrton Senna makes even Fangio at his most poetic sound like a German engineer discussing ramp angles for a limited-slip differenti­al. Having beaten teammate Prost to pole in Monaco in ’88 by a scarcely believable 1.427sec, the Brazilian didn’t hold back. ‘I was no longer driving the car consciousl­y,’ he said. ‘I was driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understand­ing.’ It’s a lovely quote, it really is. And Senna is rightly revered. But if this was 2022 and that was written under an Instagram post? Come on…

So Seb’s hero status is all the more extraordin­ary. He doesn’t see angels when he drives. He’s enjoyed huge success but also some dark times in his career, most notably when Leclerc smashed him to pieces at Ferrari. I guess the point of this column should be that he’s not all over social media. There is some mystery. But I think in this access-all-areas world it’s more than that. We want a different sort of hero. Instead of the odd, demigod narrative we thrust upon the greats of the past, we just want normal guys or girls who happen to be outrageous­ly quick and with whom it might be fun to share a pint or two. Works for me. Seb, we’ll miss you.

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