Of how we build our heroes. . .
Is it possible to grow up without heroes? Perhaps it is. Maybe there are people in the world who are so self-assured that they never look to others for inspiration. I certainly wasn't one of them. My childhood idols ranged from an assorted bunch of fictional characters like Atticus Finch, Anne Shirley and Peter Parker, to writers like James Herriot and musicians like David Bowie. All of whom occupied small, yet very significant, nooks in my life. Even if you couldn't detect their presence, they certainly were there. I suppose the more obvious influences happened to be a certain scarlet-clad seven-time world champion. An incredibly courageous F1 driver from the '70s whose characteristic red baseball cap can still be seen bobbing around in the paddock. And that charming gentleman often acknowledged to be the greatest driver in the world never to win an F1 title. Well, fictional or otherwise, I admired all these people for different reasons. I idolised them when I was little. Looked at them slightly more critically when I grew up. And gradually started to see them for who they were. Brilliant individuals in their own right. But also human. Which meant that, like you and me, they were flawed. And, like you and me, they made mistakes.
So it was that over the years I grew to accept the victory leaps, with the stripping of points and the loss of face (and titles). To accept the seven world championships along with the suddenly stalled car at Rascasse Corner and the punishment that followed. I neither condoned nor approved of such behaviour. But I suppose I learned to slowly accept the humanity of everyone I idolised, rather than any sort of alleged divinity that I might have attributed to them. And I learned to understand that being a hero is neither easy, nor realistic.
I remember when my understanding of what courage really is evolved a little. Growing up watching motorsport, I'd always assumed that courage meant never admitting you were afraid. Never showing the world any sign of weakness. And being 100 per cent committed through any sort of circumstance on the racetrack
irrespective of the consequences. But then I found a copy of Formula One: Unseen Archives by Tim Hill and first read of
Niki Lauda's accident at Nordschleife in 1976. I was at first only too willing to attribute to Lauda superhuman qualities when I learned of how, just six weeks after the accident that nearly killed him, he got back into the cockpit of an F1 car and drove to a fourth-place finish at Monza. To me it was something mere mortals were not capable of. But then came the very last race of the season
File photo of Niki Lauda in Ferrari
...There was torrential rain in Japan, and Lauda decided to pull out of the race. Which meant that his title rival, McLaren's James Hunt, won the championship by a single point. The consequences? Some accused Lauda of cowardice. And Ferrari was very angry with him for denying them their second world championship in a row. Lauda's stance was simple though. He wasn't willing to risk his life for a title. Of course, that didn't stop him from coming back and taking two more world titles in 1977 and 1984. But at that moment in Suzuka in 1976, Niki Lauda proved that you could be just as courageous by deciding not to race... by deciding to forego a championship. He showed the world that he was human. It wasn't an easy decision to make.
Why, you ask? Because racers aren't programmed to throw away titles. They're programmed to win them. They are trained to strive for perfection. To be faster than every other person on the same starting grid as them. And, more often than not, they are trained to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. It is what they live for. Sometimes this willingness to do just about anything leads them to play dirty on the racetrack and push fellow racers to the extreme. At other times, it takes on the form of outright flaunting of the rules that might endanger a fellow racer. Sometimes it even involves searching for loopholes in the rulebook and appealing against decisions made by race stewards. On occasion it involves psychological warfare that desire to get under a fellow racer's skin and inside his head. Most of the time it causes a shift from the clean black and white of the chequered flag, and instead plunges racing into murky grey shadows. Oh these shadows aren't seen every day, but when they do surface motorsport takes on a dark and sinister side.
In life, for every action there are consequences. Rewards and punishments are doled out in equal measure, championship outcomes change and history diverts from the path it was meant to take to the path it does. Some people rejoice. Others are disappointed. Still more are disillusioned.
The truth, though, is that the only illusion is the one we create that our heroes are invincible and infallible. They aren't. Sometimes, through the glitter of medals and trophies, through the foggy, giddy spray of champagne, we see the cracks. And we see the pedestals that we'd created for them to stand on crumble away beneath their feet. They touch the earth once again. They stand on the same soil as us. And, more often than not, once they've served their time, they go back to doing what it is they do best. There's no guarantee that they won't slip up again. But they will have learned their lessons and the generations that follow will try and keep those lessons in mind. And the show will go on. Things will go back to being black and white until the next patch of grey surfaces.
Thus we create our heroes. Thus we tear them down. Thus the circle of life continues.