This week saw one of the motor manufacturers competing in F1 roll out some of its heritage – in this case Mercedes-Benz, which took two of its all-conquering W196s to Monza. In one car quite rightly Sir Stirling Moss was to be found. In the other was Lewis Hamilton.
Stories like this are popular fodder to graft a little of the sport’s old grandeur onto its modern day successor. Usually it is quite fun, such as when Michael Schumacher took the wheel of Bernie Ecclestone’s Ferrari 375 at Silverstone to mark 50 years since the Scuderia’s first Formula One victory:
It is also a chance for Formula One drivers to endear themselves to fans by showing how much they value the sport’s heritage and appreciate their role in continuing the legacy. After all, if you’re one of the 18 men qualified by talent, marketability or financial backing to sit in one of the most exclusive clubs on Earth then it is entirely right and proper to celebrate such good fortune, is it not?
Apparently not in Lewis’s case. He buried this particular story in his BBC column beneath selfies taken at the recent boxing match, stating: “Mercedes took two versions of the 1955 F1 car, the W196, the open-wheeler and the ‘streamliner’, and Stirling and I drove them on the old Monza banking, which they used for grands prix until 1959.”
Having comprehensively shot himself in one foot, Lewis then took aim at the other when he turned his apparently limited attention to the W196 itself. “I think that might be my favourite car of all time,” he enthused. “I just love the sound of it, with its old V12 engine – I’d love to have a road car that sounded like that.”
The problem is, of course, that the W196 was famously powered by a straight-eight engine with desmodronic valve gear. I know that there are question marks about Lewis’s technical feedback but spotting that this was not a V12 engine should have been a fairly straightforward task. I’m sure that one of the gentlemen of Mercedes’ fantastic technical team who tend these priceless cars would have explained it to him as well – although perhaps Lewis was preoccupied with his selfies at the time.
Modern day racing drivers tend to do this sort of thing very well – even if driving old cars isn’t their cup of tea. Schumi was famously terrified when he drove one of Ferrari’s turbocharged cars from the 1980s and swore blind he would never again allow himself to be strapped into a machine that seemed intent on causing him actual bodily harm.
He was not alone. David Coulthard found the pre-war Mercedes W125 rather too much for comfort and Mika Häkkinen really never liked driving the W196 because by comparison with his carbon fibre machine it lacked any sense of there being a functional set of brakes included in the design.
And yet they did it with grace, good humour and the sense that they perhaps gained a little understanding of their privileged place in the world to be paid fortunes for driving cars that are a thousand times safer on circuits that are 60% run-off area and fenced in with soft barriers. Sentiments that do not come across from Hamilton’s exposure to the living legends of Moss, the W196 and the astonishing Monza banking.
It was, as Lewis would no doubt say, an epic fail.