A Race With Love and Death by Richard Williams


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Between the wars, motor racing came of age. From a pastime of the wealthy, national prestige came to the fore with the arrival of the Nazi backed Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz teams. The two teams would dominate Grand Prix racing before the return of war. For any driver with dreams of winning, these seats were the only ones to aspire too. In 1937 an Englishman got the call from Mercedes. Dick Seaman was from the Upper Class, wonderfully spoilt by his mother and with talent to spare. His legacy would be to be remembered for giving a Nazi salute after winning the 1938 German Grand Prix. Thankfully Richard Williams has turned his not inconsiderable powers to look at this mostly forgotten man and his remarkable journey to the top step of the podium.

Born to older parents, Dick received the finest of educations. Dreaming of cars from an early age, going up to Cambridge would find him contemporaries with the Cambridge 5, but with equally motor racing obsessives like Whitney Straight. They would pool their allowances into cars and weekend trips to hill climbs, Brooklands and the continent where road racing was allowed. It is a life of quite stunning privilege that is matched by his friends. There are moments in Seaman’s life that could quite possibly fit something conjured by Evelyn Waugh and you can even see Dick in the background of Waugh’s Brooklands scene in Vile Bodies if you squint hard enough. But you have to squint as Dick was not a fan of Brooklands’ harsh concrete.

Dick’s mother, the wonderful Lilian Beatie-Seaman (described in Nye and Godard’s superb Dick and George as “a woman of the stiffest corset”) is the other main character of Williams’ biography. Through her, we see the way the world was seen by those of her class in the intra-war years and the pain that this attitude caused her through the most dangerous of pastimes. Her memories and letters to her increasingly expensive son show the viewpoint of the ruling class in a Britain that is on the slide. In her son who is very modern in his outlook for the next move to the next fastest seat, she can only see how she and her husband’s expectations that he would go into law and the Commons would never going to be fulfilled. When the telegram arrives from Stuttgart, everything changes and Lilian, at last, will not have to write as many cheques as she did.

Dick (centre with hands in pockets) with his Mercedes teammates, Rudolf Caracciola to his right Image: Daimler AG

Dick (centre with hands in pockets) with his Mercedes teammates, Rudolf Caracciola to his right Image: Daimler AG

Seaman’s career at Mercedes is less intimate compared to the tale of his rise, building racing cars in his mother’s garage, but we get to see the birth of the modern racing team and Williams covers it with style. Ruled over by the remarkable Alfred Neubauer, Mercedes were designed to win. Having expected the full backing of the Nazi Party’s pledge to dominate Grand Prix racing, they were outmanoeuvred by a collaboration of German manufacturers who called themselves Auto Union (now Audi) and had to share the pot. The two teams burst onto the scene in 1934 and they were better at every level. Imagine not one but two new teams showing up in F1 one year and being four to five seconds a lap quicker out of the box. That was the impact these teams had.

When Auto Union dominated the 1936 season, to the point Mercedes withdrew halfway through. They had a young, incredibly talented designed in the English-born Rudolf Uhlenhaut who developed the new W125 for 1937 to bring them back on par with Auto Union. Neubauer went looking for new drivers to join their lead drivers in Rudolf Caracciola and Manfred von Brauchitsch and the mechanic turned driver, Herman Lang. Dick Seaman got the call and proved himself up to the task at a trial at Monza.

Dick on his way to victory at the Nürburgring in 1938. Image: Daimler AG

Dick on his way to victory at the Nürburgring in 1938. Image: Daimler AG

Williams narrative through this period leading up to his win at the Nürburgring and death the following year is wonderfully evocative. You have the Englishman abroad, competing Germans (class and politics playing a large part here too) and the dark shadow that are slowing crossing Europe. Williams keeps us looking through the eyes of the Seamans as the contrasting views of Nazi Germany’s ambitions are played out against Dick’s own ambitions. And then there is the girl to drive a further wedge between mother and son. Erica Popp was the daughter of BMW’s boss. 18, beautiful and smitten with Dick. Theirs is a love story played out in the spotlight following his win. Lillian did not approve.

Dick and Erica on the morning of the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix

Dick and Erica on the morning of the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix

It is this shortly loved bliss that Williams handles so well in the closing chapters. With the warring Mercedes drivers, the warring Seamans and that moment of happiness Dick finds before that cold, wet June day in Belgium, and it is here that I felt that Williams gets closest to his subject. Through much of Dick’s life, we are kept at arm’s length from his feelings, buttoned-up as only an Englishman knows how. But the battles with his mother over his German wife, the beautiful young woman who only has eyes for her hero husband, we are let in momentarily to the mind of this very closed man, one who faced an impossible choice with the clouds of war returning.

A Race With Love and Death is a beautifully crafted and written book. I came to it after years of collecting and reading about my forgotten hero and Williams brought him to life for me and taught me even more about him that I didn’t know. Williams brings a fresh voice to Dick’s life that I found refreshing and timely. Williams is unafraid to challenge his subject, especially around his politics in an age of heightened political fervour and his book is all the better for it.

Even if you are not a motor racing fan, A Race With Love and Death is worth your time as it is a stunning snapshot of the days before that long weekend in 1939 and of a man who turned a blind eye to it all in pursuit of glory in a Silver Arrow.

A Race With Love and Death by Richard Williams is out now, published by Simon and Schuster. RRP £20

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