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All talk and no trousers
Sponsors want communication skills to match driving ability but if you can’t talk the talk, go ape
So, the last episode of Life on Mars has aired and that’s it, put away the Quattro. For many of us the series offered a view down the other end of a telescope, back to our freer, younger and far friskier days.
I grew up in the 1980s and did my utmost to cram a lot in. From winning the MBKC Junior Britain Championship, repeatedly fibbing to my parents about my whereabouts – for ‘Shakespeare study evenings at Manchester University’ read ‘Wahey, I’ve got tickets to see the Cramps/Killing Joke/The Cure/Siouxsie and the Banshees/New Order, Happy Mondays/etc’ – then on to university itself, before running a pub, moving to London and joining The Guardian newspaper.
Between then and now, I did a great many jobs – got fired from most of them – but learnt a lot on the way. Furthermore, I developed a personal motto, ‘fill your life with stories.’ This has and still serves me well, because at social gatherings I am often to be found nursing a glass and telling a ripping yarn - usually at my own expense.
This was inspired by meeting people whom I could only describe as chaps who ‘had lived a little’. Consequently, they were excellent raconteurs and could draw on rich - and often rather fruity – life experiences that some could only wonder at. What you put into life really does develop ‘character’ and it pains me to see talented young kart racers, bidding for long-term careers in professional motorsport, who do virtually nothing else but race.
Undoubtedly the monumental amount of seat time will, or should, create a fantastic driver – but professional motor racing is more than just a sport, it is a marketing opportunity. That’s why the brands associated with the upper echelons of motor racing look for ambassadors who can do much more than win races. They want fully- rounded personalities, who have what is commonly called ‘the gift of the gab.’
Virtually all the current generation of F1 drivers are masters at this. Weirdly, Kimi Raikkonen is rubbish at it and yet, when it comes to being a character, few can rival him. He has been photographed sleeping alfresco whilst cuddling an inflatable dolphin (I’m told such animals hold the same fascination in Finland as sheep do for the Welsh and people in the remoter parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria), and competed in power boat races under the name ‘James Hunt,’ while dressed as a gorilla.
Raikkonen always played down the suggestion that he had heroes, but famously acknowledged his admiration of Hunt. The 1976 World Champion was eccentric, charismatic and terrific fun. His critics accused him of not taking the sport, or his talent, seriously enough – but Hunt didn’t care. He lived life as fast off the track as he did on it, and what James could do that Kimi can’t, is talk. Hunt was as colourful with his opinions as he was with his taste in cheeky t-shirts and badges on his race suit.
You can see an echo of the former McLaren ace in Nyck De Vries. Although still very much a kid, the diminutive Dutch star has a fine line in wit. He has worked with Freeminds to create one-off racesuits that cleverly reference the event he’s competing in. At this year’s Winter Cup he sported a design complete with embroidered snowflakes and the word ‘Brrrrrr’ all over it.
With so much at stake these days, it is unsurprising that karting and motorsport paddocks are becoming sterile places and discourage free spirits. The increasing presence of the media in karting is ironically contributing to this. Most teenagers find it virtually impossible to describe in glorious technicolor the innermost workings of their minds, let alone or paint pictures with words. Consequently, asinine, oft-trotted out lines become the norm. It’s not their fault; talking about yourself, or vividly describing a race
in a manner that ordinary people in their living rooms – who have no idea about what it’s like to drive a proper kart flat-out – can understand, is not in the school curriculum. And they rarely get detailed advice from the people asking the questions.
Even top F1 drivers fall into this trap as they churn out turgid tributes to the team, everyone back at the factory and their fans, etc, etc after finish in any position from 1st to 10th, or even lower. Frighteningly, kids in karting think this is what we hacks actually want and start parroting similarly anodyne soundbites.
It is important to develop interests and skills away from karting because, ironically, they could still have a beneficial impact on your pursuit of a career as a professional racing driver.
When he had his own junior formula race team, Jackie Stewart insisted that all his drivers could play golf to an acceptable standard. This was so his young protégées could talk to marketing partners in an environment they could share as relative equals and form a relationship over the 18 holes.
A life wholly devoted to reaching the pinnacle of motorsport is to be admired – but it is also important to expand your horizons. Marketing Directors like working with individuals who can relate to their target audience, are clean-cut but also capable of generating headlines, that’s why they use sport as a marketing medium. I hate the phrase but it is true, people buy people. If you can develop an easy way with folk from all walks of life – and of course, keep winning – you’ll have it made.