Sunday, December 02, 2007

Life stories

A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Bob Dylan's elliptical autobiography, Chronicles, on the recommendation of a friend who reckoned him to be one of the few rock stars whose story really merited a book . For those who are wondering, he's a better writer than he is singer, as anyone who is familiar with his work probably wouldn't be surprised to discover.

Suffice to say, said friend would not be seen dead reading the life-stories of such as Geri Halliwell. Quite what on earth he would have made of the fact that there are no fewer that 6 biographies of Lewis Hamilton hitting the bookstores this Christmas, I do not know. Probably an early portent of the apocalypse - or at least of a publishing industry threatening to eat itself from the inside. Don't get me wrong, I've been as impressed as anyone with the performances of the boy from Stevenage this year, but he is only 22. He's only done one year of Formula 1, and his life has been carefully managed by the Mclaren team since he was in his early teens. What chance is there that his is really a particularly interesting story? (By the by, if you really must buy a Hamilton biog, I would go with Lewis Hamilton: The Full Story. I haven't actually read it, but its' author, Mark Hughes is one of the best F1 writers in the business, and I have to admit to feeling a shade disappointed that he hadn't picked a more original subject matter for what I think is his first full length book.)

By contrast with the avalanche of Lewis Hamilton biographies, there is not, as far as I aware single book being published on the man who actually won the world championship this year - Kimi Raikkonen. It's understandable, as to put it mildly. Kimi is really not one of the more communicative people in the business, and putting together an account of his life story would probably be a rather difficult task. Certainly you couldn't rely on padding it out with quotes from the man himself.

It's a shame in a way, though, because I suspect the story of Kimi's rise to the top of the sport is actually the more interesting of the two. Much has been made of Lewis Hamilton's relatively ordinary background (compare and contrast with current English GP2 front runner Mike Conway, whose father has made a fortune in civil engineering, or best-placed British F3 runner, Stephen Jelley, whose family run a large house-building business) but the truth is, he was picked up very young by the most successful F1 team in the business, who have been instrumental in managing his career ever since. Had Mclaren not shown an interest in Lewis at the age of 13, one wonders whether he would even have got beyond karting.

Kimi Raikkonen, by contrast, had no such early assistance. His father was a construction worker and his mother a clerk in local government. By the standards of some I have dealt with in my working life, he wasn't poor, but it can safely be assumed that they were in no position to personally put up the £200k cost of his season in Formula Renault. From early on, he has been managed by the previously relatively unknown father and son duo of Steve and Dave Robertson (Steve was a middling F3 driver, some 20 years back, but to my knowledge, he hadn't previously been involved in driver management) who somehow managed to persuade Peter Sauber to give him a run in one of his cars at a time when he had only a Formula Renault title to his name, at the end of 2000. The Swiss veteran team owner was so impressed by what he saw, that he quickly offered to hire the inexperienced Finn to race for the team in 2001. There was brief concern that he was simply too inexperienced to be in F1, and he was granted only a probationary superlicence at the beginning of the year. These were concerns which largely vanished when he scored points on his debut in Australia.

On closer inspection, one of the interesting things about Kimi's ascent to Formula 1 was that he did it without ever really having access to the best equipment. In Finnish karting, he was narrowly beaten in his debut season by Toni Vilander (last seen pursuing a living in the FIA GT series). This might seem a surprise, given that that Vilander never went on to anything like the same level of success, but on closer inspection, it had an awful lot to do with the fact that Raikkonen was karting on the cheap - unable to service or replace his engines as frequently, and often trying to eke more races out of the tyres than his rivals. There is even a story (which I have been unable to verify) that he turned up to a European karting series event in the rain, couldn't afford treaded tyres, and beat everyone while running slicks!

Certainly, one thing that comes across is that while Hamilton was very carefully prepared and groomed for F1 from a very young age, Kimi Raikkonen is much more an independent operator - a man little used to taking others' advice, and with little desire to be managed. In this, he is much more of a racing driver in the traditional mould. Going back 30 years or so, racing drivers seemed much more their own men. They tended not to be accompanied by their parents to the races, and many saw no need to employ a team manager. After all, in the 1970s, racing was still dangerous to an extent that few parents would actively encourage their offspring into it in the manner of, for instance, your typical tennis father. These days, it feels like it's increasingly hard to tell apart Anthony Hamilton or John Button from Richard Williams or Damir Dokic - save that neither seem quite so, how shall I put it, bonkers.

The chances are, there isn't really enough material yet to merit a biography of either Lewis Hamilton or Kimi Raikkonen. On the other hand, a really well-researched book on how all the sport's current stars made their way to Formula 1, the contrasts between them, and how it helped to make them the kinds of drivers, and the kinds of people, that they are, would make a fascinating read. Mark, when you're done cashing in on the Hamilton phenomenon, maybe you'd like to think about it.

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Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

I'm sorry to report that the number of Hamilton (auto)biographies is now up to 10 (by Hamilton, Worrall, Hughes, Belton, Stafford, Rogers, Jones, van der Burgt, Noble and a pair of authors I can't remember off the top of my head). The first nine can be found on; I know of the latter's existence because I found it at £3.99 in a discount book store. Amazon doesn't have it in their biography lists, possibly because they classified it as "scribble paper". Most of the other tomes are probably going to end up there eventually.

It is also worth noting that my local library has seen fit to buy none of these tomes, indicating that it agrees with you that this group of books should probably not have been written.

A Raikkonen book would be interesting, as long as the writer acknowledged that the tome was a "work in progress". That said, your idea sounds brilliant for a book. Judging by the pre-F1 CVs I see in my Formula 1 Yearbooks, there's quite a variety of paths through the grid, and of course everyone perceives their path differently.

I would like to think that some author somewhere is pursuing this book idea right now, but the book trade has become too profit-driven for something requiring so much research to be undertaken by most authors. Profit-driven means risk-averse, and new ideas are always considered risks to those whose main object is money.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Alshain said...

Incidentally, there's a great Japanese anime series called Capeta about a boy from a poor family who enters karting trying to work his way up to F1 that I suspect partly draws inspiration from Kimi's karting days. One of the highlights of the series is a rain race fought on slicks. It's a series aimed at teenagers in Japan, so it's a great series to watch with your kids (if they're into that kind of thing) as it introduces lots of racing concepts, like racing lines, tyre wear, team orders, etc. The racing scenes are paced slowly and drawn out for dramatic effect (usually over several episodes), but I found them genuinely thrilling. They usually come down to differences in driving styles, and the animators don't cheat by making up close finishes out of meaningless shots of pedal mashing or gear shifts down the final stretch. You can see the races and the strategies of the teams evolve before your eyes, which is a lot more than I can see for any recent racing movie I've seen. There are a few mistakes in the fansub, though, like "poleshot"...

12:35 AM  
Blogger Alshain said...

Here's a link to a low quality streaming version of the episode featuring the rain battle...

12:46 AM  

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