Monday, April 03, 2006

"Piers Courage: Last of the Gentlemen Racers" by Adam Cooper - Book Review

Piers Courage: Last of the Gentlemen Racers - Adam Cooper

A quick perusal of the sports section of my local Waterstones is enough to confirm that there are an awful lot of racing driver biographies on the market these days. More than a few of them leave you wondering quite why they exist at all - What has Jenson Button ever really done to merit the printing of his life story? Or Rubens Barrichello? It seems that pretty much every half way successful racing driver these days (including some whose successes do not include such achievements as, say, actually winning a Grand Prix) has a biography or ghosted autobiography out, and an awful lot of them are glossy A4 books, plastered with photographs which read more like extended PR/puff pieces than considered biographies.

So what makes this image-heavy. glossy A4 biography of a man who never actually won a really big motor race a more interesting proposition? Firstly, it is well researched and well written. Adam Cooper may not have been around to witness Piers Courage's career, being just 5 years old when Courage was killed, but he's spoken to almost everyone of consequence who knew him to help build up a detailed story of his life and career.

Secondly, its a story worth telling. This tale of the racing exploits of the young heir to the Courage brewery fortune is an awful lot more interesting than the usual "karting/FFord/F3/F1" story of your average modern racing driver. Courage was never really found success in F1, and this is not the story of a true great killed before his time. Cooper concedes in the introduction that he was no match for Rindt or Stewart, and reading between the lines, one suspects that, even in a competitive car, he wouldn't consistently have matched Jack Brabham or Graham Hill either. In a way though, the very fact that he was not one of the true greats of the sport is what enables Cooper to capture the mood - the ambiance, of Grand Prix racing at the end of the 1960s.

It was a world very different from the ultra high technology, professionally managed, corporately controlled environment that is modern Grand Prix racing. Equally, it is a sport considerably changed from that described in Robert Edwards' book on Stirling Moss (which I reviewed here), a world where the gentleman hobbyist is already fast becoming the exception rather than the rule. Cooper takes the reader back to a time when motorsport was dominated not by the major car manufacturers (as it once was and once again would be) but by relatively small specialist teams, many of them operating out of little more than lock-up garages. A time when crashed chassis were not inevitably written off, but could be fettled back into shape by people like 'Tom the Weld', one of a number of recurring characters in the book. When teams were run not by large numbers of dedicated professionals, but by small bands of enthusiasts, many of whom may not even have been getting paid for the privilege.

The book traces Courage's story, from Eton schooldays, through his first fumbling steps into the world of motorsport, first in a Morris Traveller(!), then a Lotus 7, through Formula 3 and Formula 2, all the way to Formula 1. But though Piers may be the central character of the story, it is in fact as much the tale of a group of young racing enthusiasts all barely out of school, and eager to be involved in any way they can.

There are some magnificent little anecdotes in this book. Many of them concern the comings and going at the Harrow flat where numerous of Courage's friends and fellow drivers lived when not out on the road. At one point, one of the boys' mothers turned up and was horrified to find her son sharing his bed with a Hewland gearbox - "I wouldn't have minded if it was a woman" she is said to have said. On another occasion, we hear of a man who makes a living building 'replicas' of Lotus' new F3 car at a fraction of the price of the real thing. How does he do it? well he got a friend to smuggle the relevant bits out of the works down the road so he could measure them up, or, sometimes, simply steal them.

Amongst this crowd of privileged old Etonians lurks a more driven man, initially a saloon car racer, before moving briefly into F3 as a driver and subsequently discovering his metier as a team owner - with Courage at the wheel. His name? Francis Williams. Williams' exploits almost certainly deserve a book in their own right. He is forever wheeling and dealing, always trying to find the cash to fund his ambitions. On one occasion he is selling coke cans in the pits at Monza, after buying a crate in bulk in town. On another, he is said to be charging entry to the Harrow flat and running his own makeshift porn cinema (perhaps the origin of his nickname, Wanker Williams). Later he moves on to greater things, acting as the UK importer for Brabham and importing and exporting Porsche 911s from mainland Europe. Eventually he would establish his own Formula 1 team, running the private Brabham in which Courage scored two podium finishes, and the De Tomaso in which he would crash to his death at Zandvoort in 1970.

If the oil, grease and improvisation of late 1960s motorsport isn't enought to hold your attention, there's also a glimpse into an altogether different world of high fashion and the English aristocracy, related to Cooper by Lady Sarah Aspinall, then known as Sally Courage. The daughter of pre-war racing driver Earl Howe married Courage in a blaze of publicity in 1960s and worked as a model for Mary Quant - and yes, there are a lot of photographs in this book.

Quibbles? There is perhaps a little too much nonsense about the Eton school spirit for your left-leaning correspondent (though perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised, as Adam Cooper, too is a former public school boy). The suggestion that Courage had little help from his tremendously wealthy family is also somewhat disingenuous - they may not have paid directly for his racing, beyond buying his first car, the Lotus 7, but it was almost certainly their largesse which enabled him to survive (seemingly in some luxury too) effectively without any income of his own for several years, while he climbed the greasy pole to F1. There is also an inaccuracy regarding the reasons that Johnny Servoz-Gavin retired from motor racing after the Monaco Grand Prix in 1970. In the book, it is twice implied that he simply became scared of the risks involved in F1 and decided that he wanted no more part in it. In reality, the story was more complicated than that. Servoz-Gavin suffered injuries to his eye in an accident during the winter of 1969, and found that they had not healed as well as he thought they had. The result was that his peripheral vision was severely affected on one side, and he no longer felt safe driving at the limit (hence his failure to qualify at Monaco in 1970, the same circuit where he had started on the front row in only his second race two years earlier.)

What does this book have to say of Piers Courage, the man? In a way, not a great deal. You certainly won't find any deep, incisive analysis of what drove Courage, what his motivation was. This is fair enough though. While many of the world's most successful drivers have appeared to be psychologically complex, troubled even (Lauda, Senna, Damon Hill, Mansell) or had chaotic, turbulent private lives (Gilles Villeneuve, Prost, and yes, Lauda again), Courage appears to have been a straightforward, well liked chap. Perhaps a fine illustration of longtime motorsports man John Hogan's remark that "usually you'd far rather be stuck on a plane for hours with a team's number 2 than its number 1". Certainly none of the many people who knew him who were interviewed for this book appear to have a bad word to say about him. Maybe it is that old reluctance to speak ill of the dead or maybe it is just that, to borrow what Clive James said of Elio De Angelis "Unable to help being rich, talented and good looking, he did his best to make up for it by being a thoroughly decent man".


Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

It means that there is a great demand for these people. If their life stories are printed then they are read by someone

7:10 AM  

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