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Sins of the Father

FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE
17/01/2022

After two years of COVID the visitation of sins from those before on those who follow is becoming an automated, contract-tracing norm.

Yet, The Sins of The Father, is a concept of biblical age. Within the realm of motor racing, the blood-line passage from father to son has been light. In the early days because, as Nuvolari demonstrated via his keen desire to mess with the minds of his competitors by only ever buying one way tickets to races, those fine young men all too frequently never became fathers, let alone grandfathers. How many stories have been left untold because of the high-drama tragedy of a life brutally ended by a motor racing accident in those foundational years?

So as the 21st century turns 21 years old, allowing us to start pre-worrying about the mess humanity will make in the 22nd century, let us take a moment to reflect on those rare moments when father passed the racing baton swiftly to son. A marking of the ever forward progress of time that is now, thank the good Lord, visited upon heroic racing drivers with far greater abundance than at this time last century.

Our opening is Shakespearean in terms of tragedy, and drama. Alberto Ascari was drivers’ champion with Ferrari in 1952, and 53. A back-to-back marvel for Ferrari, that only the remarkable Michael Schumacher has subsequently equalled. Alberto's father, Antonio, was a top class racing driver, having purchased a Fiat racing car in 1919 which he used to fine effect by promptly winning his first race, a hill climb. A hill climb that also happened to be the first race of a young fellow named Enzo... more on him shortly.

Sadly Antonio was killed while leading the French Grand Prix on 26th July 1925, aged 36, when his son Alberto was only seven. Proceeding to his own fine racing career peaking with his 1952, and 53 championship wins, Alberto tragically died at the same age as his father, 36, and also on the 26th of the month, but this time in May. Testing a Ferrari at Monza, that he was not scheduled to test that day, in a borrowed white helmet, and not his usual light blue helmet, he suffered a massive crash exiting a fast left-hand corner, just as his father had back in 1925. Alberto left behind his grieving wife Mietta, and two children, Patricia, and Antonio. He had warned his children not to grow too close to him as he could die at any race. How sad that those words were uttered, and the gravest of risks was realised, as it was to be for so many racers in the decades that followed.

That young man, Enzo Ferrari, from Antonio's first hill climb was a complex man, yet only a modest race car driver. He rapidly became a far greater builder of racing empires. His son Alfredo, known to all as Dino, tragically died at just 24 years before he could step out from the shadow of his father's growing mythos to create his own life. Neither son nor father died behind the wheel, yet a blood-line legacy was not to be. In 1988 when Enzo breathed his last, his earthly connection to Dino was immortalised with Monza changing the circuit name from Autodromo Dino Ferrari, to Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari.

Graham Hill had the joy of fatherhood, before his tragic death aged 46 in a light aircraft accident. Thankfully his son, Damon, was not on that ill-fated flight. Damon's first race love was motorcycles, later progressing to cars and leading to a fine world championship title with Williams. The first father-son pairing to achieve such a remarkable feat. Graham being champion in 1962, and 1968, during a decade when many around him died behind the wheel, while Damon was champion in 1996, and continues to live a fine life having cheerfully turned 61 in September 2021.

Gilles Villeneuve was beloved by the tifosi and respected throughout the paddock. Starting with manic snowmobile racing in Canada, he moved to car racing with significant success. He was known for a dramatic style, and a feel for the wet that only true masters have. Tragically he died after falling out with Didier Pironi over a gentleman's agreement, aka unofficial team orders, from the previous race leaving him determined to out-qualify the Frenchman at the next. So it was that at Zolder, Gilles rear-ended a slowing car, perishing instantly as he was thrown from the track on 8th May 1982, aged just 32. A tragic career, and life, ended with six wins, 13 podiums and eight fastest laps.

Adding to the tragic story, Didier died in August 1987 in an off-shore power boat racing accident off the Isle of Wight that your scribe sadly witnessed first-hand. An explosion of foam, and white water on the distant horizon signalling the end of a great racer, with no bloodline to continue his legacy.

Yet both had genetic legacy living beyond their passing.

Gilles had a young son, Jacques, who would go on to do what his father never had the chance to achieve. An F1 drivers' world championship, once more with Williams, this time in 1997, the very next season after Damon had won. Jacques has also won the Indy 500, and the 1995 CART series, finished second at Le Mans in 2008, and won two races in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series. Jacques turned 50 last year, and continues to race.

On the other side of this tragedy, Didier's girlfriend, Catherine Goux, gave birth to twins that she named Didier and Gilles in honour of the fallen fathers. In 2014 Gilles Pironi joined Mercedes AMG Petronas as an engineer, and had the thrill of collecting the constructor's trophy on the podium of the 2020 British Grand Prix.

Sons of fathers. Two drivers' championships with Williams. And one after the other, after years of so many possible future fathers being killed behind the wheel with no bloodline to continue the march into the under discovered country that is our future. Is not Lady Luck a cruel teasing soul?

Yet as we ease further towards present day, motor racing fathers are starting to fair better.

Mario Andretti! My favourite Italian-American (his birth place, Montona, is now Motovun within Croatia) by a very long country mile. Sport, cheek, capability, championships... Heck, does anyone wonder why Nintendo called their seminal racing game "Mario Karts"? Mario also lays claim to one of my favourite F1 quotes of all time. When asked by a journalist when you knew if you were going fast enough to win or not, Andretti replied, "If you're not scared, you're not going fast enough." Simple genius! For me a quote right up there with the one from Bernie, when asked how many people worked within his F1 organisation, and the (yet to be knighted) Mr. Ecclestone replied, "Oh, about half of them." Genius!

I meander. Mario thankfully retired from F1, and has a son Michael who then raced in various disciplines before arriving in F1, and going "... not too badly..." Rather a let-down compared to his father's titles, yet both getting out alive is to be commended. Mario raced in F1 from the late 1960's through to the early 1980's, and along with 18 poles, and 12 wins, collected the drivers' championship in 1978.

Nelson Piquet! What a racer. What a fine potential bloodline of continued legacy with NP Junior... until that moment. What was either thinking when that appeared a good move? So sad on the racing front, yet such a delight that neither died behind the wheel. Senior won drivers' championships in 1981, 83, and 87. A decade that witnessed significant safety progress over the 60's, and 70's when Graham Hill and Gilles had raced.

John Surtees, the only human in history to win both the F1 and motorcycle world championships. John was 300cc Champion in 1958, 59, and 1960, while also competing in 500cc to be champion in 1956, 58, 59, and 1960. He then became F1 drivers' champion in 1964, while managing third at Le Mans with Ferrari in 1964, with Lorenzo Bandini as his driving partner.

Clearly winning on both two wheels, and four has crossed the minds of a few people in recent times, though Miss Physics and reality tag-teamed to clearly underline to them that it is a far more difficult feat than one might think. John might indeed remain the only person to achieve this stunning feat.

He had a wonderful son, Henry, who had claimed a single pole in his first F2 season. Tragically Henry died, aged just 18, on 19 July 2009. A wheel from the crashing car of Jack Clarke struck his helmet. He made it to hospital but was subsequently pronounced dead. His parents donated his organs, thereby saving five other lives. He was buried in St. Peter and Paul's Church in Lingfield, Surrey. His legacy is the remarkable head protection improvement to open wheel racing series around the planet. Death visiting him before his remarkable father, via a racing accident, is tragic beyond words. His dear father was laid to rest next to him in March 2017, aged 83.

Schumacher. Not yet laid to rest, but resting in tragic circumstances none the less. The Hamilton story is still a work in progress. Until that story is complete, the Schumacher one is the unique stuff of legend. Michael is one of history's great racers. Some would argue at times too much of a go-for-the-throat racer, yet remarkable he remains. Tragically injured, yet not yet late of this world, Michael might as well be beyond the veil for all but family now. His son Mick, named after his great friend Mick Doohan the Australian 500CC multiple world champion, has finally entered F1, after a solid, as opposed to a star-searing journeyman time in other formulae.

Will Mick Schumacher continue where Michael left off? Will Lewis sire a son or daughter that follows in his remarkable racing boots? Will Baby Button one day raise the winner's cup?

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by ffracer, 04/03/2022 15:44

"Great read, thank for sharing all this nostalgia."

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2. Posted by Max Noble, 31/01/2022 13:20

"@Roli - glad you found the rest of the article!"

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3. Posted by Roli, 31/01/2022 12:22

"Oops,, never saw the next paage, apologies to the Rosbergs..."

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4. Posted by Roli, 31/01/2022 12:21

"What about Keke and Nico Rosberg ?"

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5. Posted by Greg, 23/01/2022 16:16

"@ max noble. It's the vino rosso that makes my mind slip :-)"

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6. Posted by Max Noble, 23/01/2022 0:07

"@Kenji, and @Greg - glad it revived some good memories. Glad you corrected “Mario Park” as I was concerned my mind was slipping more than usual this morning! …Yes indeed remarkable racers back in those days… "

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7. Posted by kenji, 23/01/2022 0:02

"@ Greg...Yes I do recall the Geoghegan bros. A formidable duo when at their best. The other track I have fond memories of was Eastern Creek. Did two lots of ten laps in a race trim 911. Excellent fun and quite a challenge."

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8. Posted by Greg, 22/01/2022 18:37

"@kenji should read Amaroo Park :-)"

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9. Posted by Greg, 22/01/2022 15:17

"@Kanji. I also liked the old Creek corner at the farm. Mario park was alao a nice tight circuit. Don't know if you remeber the days of Catalina park and the Geoghegan brothers (Ian and Leo) and others racing there."

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10. Posted by kenji, 22/01/2022 12:17

"@ Max....Nice work. Caused me to pause and recall many of those who I saw racing during those deadly days. Lots of them raced here in the off season in the Tasman series. My favourite was always the once great Warwick Farm races where the prime grandstand seating gave you pretty much the entire course to watch. They were 'cojones out' races and something rather special. Thanks for the memories...."

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11. Posted by Max Noble, 21/01/2022 3:31

"@Spindoctor - glad you enjoyed the read! …and it is all a matter of the company one keeps…! Esteemed editor Balfe, and the “human data bank” Matt Coch both make this humble scribe look like a pony-loving kindergarten kid…! :-)"

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12. Posted by Max Noble, 21/01/2022 3:29

"@Motorsport-fan: 100% agree, but the thread of this story was the passing of the baton from motor racing father to motor racing son. Hence, while Lewis has enjoyed massive support in 10,000 ways from his determined father it was not a story for article… but I cannot wait to see if I’ll have the honour of writing about the racing career of Lewis junior in 20 year’s time!"

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13. Posted by Spindoctor, 20/01/2022 15:08

"Another informative & enjoyable piece.
I tend to forget who won what, did what to whom on what lap etc almost immediately after the flag falls, whistle blows obese singer sings... Consequently, I claim the title of "World's Most inept Sports Fan".
Your pieces are invaluable in filling-in all those gaps in my knowledge and of course on many occasions sparking lively, but civilised debates.

Thanks for including the story of Henry Surtees. As an admirer of his father John on both 2 & 4 wheels, I found it sad & poignant."

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14. Posted by Motorsport-fan, 20/01/2022 15:03

"That final sentence "I couldn't have done it without you Dad" never more true than Anthony and Lewis Hamilton."

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15. Posted by Greg, 20/01/2022 14:16

"@Max Noble. Hence the old nickname of Wombat"

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