With the British Grand Prix now only a few days away this week’s Badgerometer quite rightly has a very British feel to it. But we’ve not been assessing the standard ‘best British drivers’ or ‘top British Grand Prix;’ like a Brit lost on a French road, refusing to ask for help, we’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent.
Yes with it being summer – that wonderful time of year when British people complain about the weather at home, go abroad and complain that they’re abroad, then come home to complain about the weather and the fact that they’re no longer abroad – we’ve been looking at Blighty’s finest grand prix exports. That is to say, F1’s best Brits abroad.
Eddie Irvine is very much an Irish-British racer: born in Norther Ireland, and thus classed a Brit for the duration of his F1 career, Irv referred to himself as Irish. And that’s all fine and definitely not something we want to get in to here. This is a Formula One site, not a place for complex Anglo-Irish ethno-political discussions.
Looking at Eddie as a British driver, it has to be said he was a success at an overseas team – namely Ferrari. Joining as a very definite number two to Michael Schumacher in 1996, his big chance came when the German broke his leg at the British Grand Prix of 1999. Eddie became team leader, adding wins in Austria, Germany and Malaysia to the one he took at the season opener in Australia, to come within touching distance of the world title.
Alas, it went to Mika Hakkinen. Eddie then departed the team for Jaguar, enduring three largely frustrating seasons at the British squad. His finest days undoubtedly came in an Italian car.
There’s been a lot of talk recently of Jenson Button joining Ferrari, which of course are all rumours, but that’s how it all started with Nigel Mansell in the late ’80’s. After a season out of contention in an under-powered Williams, Enzo Ferrari hand picked the Englishman to drive in 1989 – even gifting him an F40 to sweeten the deal – before the great man passed away. When the season started, the Italian marque had gambled heavily on the first ever electronic gearbox, which Mansell didn’t have any confidence in when the green light showed in Brazil. Yet, he won.
Instantly, Mansell was a hero in Italy. The tifosi, not used to a Brit being in their cars, instantly took to Mansell, and throughout the season he displayed outstanding brave driving to earn himself the nickname Il Leone – The Lion. Another win in Hungary, this time from a ridiculous 12th on the grid, sealed his place in the hearts of the Italian fans.
The first British driver to win a Formula One race did not do it in a British car – he did it in a Ferrari. Yorkshire-born Mike Hawthorn joined the Italian powerhouse for the 1953 season after running five races in Coopers the previous year and duly won the French Grand Prix for the Scuderia. He ended that year fourth, then took third in the standings the next year with a win in Spain along the way.
Barren years and ill health followed, with spells at Vanwall and Owen, but in ’57 he returned to Ferrari. A year later he was world champion, courtesy of another French triumph and second place finishes in Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Morocco and at his home grand prix in Great Britain.
Hawthorn soon announced his retirement from racing, having suffered with his health problems for the previous few years, but it was not illness that claimed his life: he died three months shy of his thirtieth birthday in a road accident near Guilford. Whilst his greatest success had come at foreign race teams Mike died aboard his British Racing Green Jaguar.
At qualifying for the 2011 Le Mans Masters, Sir Stirling Crauford Moss announced his retirement from competitive racing at the tender age of 81. Known for being arguably the greatest driver never to win the World Championship, let’s not forget his first taste of competitive success came in the seats of foreign machines.
In fact, although Moss drove – and won – plenty of races for such British names as Aston Martin, Lotus, Vanwall and Cooper, the races for the like of Maserati and Mercedes. His first Grand Prix win came from beating Mercedes team-mate Juan Manuel Fangio, and when the German team withdrew in 1955, he found a seat at Maserati for ’56. One of his most famous wins, being the only Brit to win the Mille Miglia, came in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. In fact, Mercedes named their final incarnation of the SLR roadster after Stirling Moss in his honour.
The man did once say, “Better to lose honourably in a British car than win in a foreign one”, but there’s no denying that without the foreign wins, there would be no Sir Stirling Moss.
In an era when Lotus, Tyrrell and Brabham dominated F1 John Surtees was a race-winner with two non-British teams, claiming a world title under the Italian flag and a maiden race victory for a Japanese-run team.
Having won a clutch of motorcycle world championships (for an Italian manufacturer, we might add) Surtees switched to Formula One in 1960, running four races for Lotus before switching to the Yeoman team for two seasons.
But it was his switch to Ferrari in 1963 that made Surtees’ name in F1. The Brit scored his first win for the Scuderia in that year’s German Grand Prix, ending the campaign fourth, before becoming world champion the following year. He would spent another season at Ferrari before switching to Cooper two races in to 1966.
But Surtees was working abroad again by 1967, switching to the very Japanese Honda Racing squad. He spent two seasons with the team, winning the Italian Grand Prix of 1967 and taking a further three podium finishes.
Multi-talented, very fast and right at home wherever there was a drive, John takes the honour of Best Brit Abroad.