► Why do modern-era F1 drivers lack charisma?
► 'Too many Owens, not enough Beckhams'
► From CAR magazine, January 2004
Had a lunch with a well known Formula commentator the other day and we agreed that Michael Schumacher should retire immediately. As we tucked into our lamb shank (him) and fish cakes (me), we were also lamenting just how dreary the current crop of F1 drivers are. This, we laded, was a reason why F1 is losing its sparkle and its spectators. Too many Michael Owens. Not enough David Beckhams.
First to Schumacher. Best driver ever? Of course. Six titles say so. More competition than Clark or Fangio ever had. But as charismatic as a wooden soldier in a silly red suit. Can't even dress properly, off duty, in his Tommy Hilfiger freebies.
The public is bored with him, even the Germans. What more can he win? He needs to get out while on top, just as the equally intelligent and era-dominating Jackie Stewart did 30 years before. No point soldiering on, being beaten by the young guns. Shouldn't risk hurting himself, God forbid. So thanks, well done, and goodbye.
The others? Only ones with any flair, any pizzazz, any human interest, any style, any public following beyond the Autosport anoraks, are Montoya, Alonso and Button. And maybe, in time, Trulli and Webber.
Montoya is Latin and that always helps. A bit wild, spirited, dodgy temperament (look how he lost it at Indy) but the fastest man on the track when he's in the mood. Yet, somehow, you suspect he'll never be world champion. Alonso, or so my commentator mate reckons, has got a better chance of putting number one on his car. Ferrari would like him, eventually, to replace Schumacher. Charismatic, very fast, Spanish (there's never been a Spanish world champion), young. Ticks all Bernie's boxes.
Button, too, is bankable. He starts with one big advantage. His name. Jenson Button sounds like a racing driver. Like Stirling Moss. I once asked Moss to quantify how important name was to his success. 'Put it this way, my mother wanted to call me Hamish. And Hamish Moss is not a fast name.' Hamish Moss sounds like Ralph Firman or Justin Wilson. It is not the name of a speed king. Fernando Alonso passes the name test. So does Juan Pablo Montoya. (His name's almost as good as Clay Regazzoni or Lorenzo Bandini — surely the best fast name ever.)
Kimi Raikkonen sounds intriguing and apparently he has a following among young girls who see him as a boy band member lookalike, never mind the zits. For the rest of us, though, Kimi has the appeal of a block of ice. People do not turn on their TVs to watch Kimi compete, Kimi talk, Kimi strut, Kimi do his stuff. Unless they're Finnish. And there are not many of them.
Mark Webber is good, as Anglo names go. Fast and charismatic, too.
Look right back, and there were some fantastic English racing driver names — and characters. Especially back in the '20s when the Bentley boys were popping Clicquot, pulling girls and beating those damned foreigners. Woolf Barnato, Captain Dudley Benjafield, Berne Kensington-Moir and, my own favourite racing driver name, Scrap Thistlethwaite. You want to meet and worship racing drivers with names like that.
And what characters those old Bentley boys were! Barnato was a champion boxer, scratch golfer, bred race horses, raced powerboats and kept wicket for Surrey. He also found time to be chairman of Bentley. And hosted some of the best parties in the south of England.
Another Bentley boy, Glen Kidston, who won Le Mans with Barnato in 1930, survived a submarine sinking and a plane crash, smashing his way through the burning fuselage with his bare hands. He died when his Tiger Moth broke up in mid air after breaking the London-Cape Town flying record. As deaths go, it's better than cancer.
Of the other F1 drivers: Rubens? A great number two and Ferrari knows it. Ralf? His name is Ralf. He dresses like his brother. Trulli? Almost too nice for his own good, or so my mate says. All the other qualities of a star, though.
Formula 1 needs a Tiger Woods (what a name!), a Michael Jordan, a John McEnroe, to lift it, to promote it, to invigorate it, to compete with the other sports fighting for the TV 'on' button.
Or, put another way, we need another Senna. There never was a racing driver who so neatly and simply summed up the appeal of this marvellous, treacherous, stupid, glamorous, sexy, captivatingly simple sport.
Had a great name, too.