ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 11 Email to Friend   Printable Version


The Bookworm Critique
By Chris Nixon.
Published by Transport Bookman Publications.
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this bookIt's hard not to be a little cynical about this book. For sure, the fact that there are writers out there who are still dedicated to researching people and events that were a part of motorsport more than six decades ago (and, equally importantly, there are publishers willing to get behind them), is a great thing. Some sports are not so lucky. But if I was to suggest a driver from the 1930s that deserved the full treatment, Seaman wouldn't be the first (or second or third, for that matter) name to spring to mind. From a purely racing point of view, it would be like somebody sitting down in 2070 and overlooking Senna, Schumacher and Hakkinen in favour of a biography about, say, Heinz-Harald Frentzen or Rubens Barrichello. Not wishing to take anything away from H-H or Rubens, but hopefully you get my point.

Of course, I'm oversimplifying things a bit, because there's far more to it than that. Before going any further though, it's probably necessary to give Seaman a brief introduction. Richard (Dick) Seaman is often referred to as the best British racing driver of the pre-war era. (Historians are far from unanimous about that though, so it might be safer to say instead that he was the most successful British racer of his time). Seaman made history when his exploits in an ageing Delage won him the attention of the mighty Mercedes-Benz factory team. He subsequently became the first Brit to drive for the marque. The highlight of his career came when he drove his W154 to victory in the 1938 German Grand Prix - a result that, in view of Seaman's nationality and the political climate at the time, caused the Nazis considerable embarrassment.

Seaman's marriage to Erica Popp also takes on a special significance when placed against the backdrop of world politics. Popp was the daughter of the head of BMW, and while the family were by no means sympathetic to the Nazi cause, Seaman's mother refused to accept a German into her family. Consequently, she and her son had a dramatic falling out that sadly would never be resolved, for less than a year later Seaman was killed when he crashed while leading a typically wet Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1939.

Seaman's story lends itself very easily to a book, and this seems to have been a major factor in Nixon's decision to write 'Shooting Star'. Further illustration of this is provided when Nixon informs us that he had originally hoped to take Seaman's life to the big screen. Indeed, the script had been finished, but none of the film companies had taken it up. (Along with Christopher Hilton's involvement with similar plans to make a movie about Ayrton Senna's life, originally conceived with Antonia Banderas in the lead role, this is something that I personally hope never sees the light of day).

From a human-interest perspective, I guess that Nixon's fixation with Seaman is understandable. I don't think that anyone would deny that he led an interesting life that finished with a tragic ending of Hollywood proportions. As a figure in books that deal with the era more broadly, Seaman's career with Mercedes, his fairytale romance with Erica, and the tension that this created in his family all conspires to make for a great sub-plot. I'm not sure that, from a racing perspective, there's enough to carry a book such as this though. (Or perhaps there is, but the final product simply fails to reflect it adequately). The author leans heavily on the non-racing aspects of Seaman's life, and consequently it is hard to learn much about what the man was like as a racer.
I was reasonably familiar with Seaman before I read 'Shooting Star' - in other words, I had a fundamental understanding of who he was, what he did, and how he fitted into the picture of Grand Prix racing in the 1930s. Apart from some biographical information and the details about his earliest racing years, I didn't feel that this book did as much to add to my knowledge as I had hoped. Whether my expectations were too high or this book falls that far short of the mark I don't know, and I probably won't until I manage to track down a copy of an earlier Seaman biography, written many years ago by Prince Chula Chakrabongse.

What I did like about this book were the photos. Well selected and well reproduced, the images were undoubtedly the highlight of 'Shooting Star'. (It helps, of course, that the race cars that Mercedes-Benz were running in the late-1930s were so damn photogenic). When producing a book about racing history, there is an ever-increasing trend toward trying to find a middle ground between something that belongs on a bedside table and something that would be at home on a coffee table, and this is certainly an example of that.

Final verdict. Well, I've probably made 'Shooting Star' sound a bit worse than it was. As a straight birth-to-death account of Seaman's life it is adequate. There's not a great deal of depth though, and the book reads as though it was written rather quickly. I was looking forward to learning a little more about Seaman (and hopefully, a few of his contemporaries along the way), but for some reason it just didn't seem to quite come together the way it was supposed to. If you've got the money kicking around, it might be worth picking up for some of the pictures, but again there are better books for photos floating around too. At the end of the day, this is one of those books that you would be best advised to flick through before you start waving your money around.

Mark Glendenning© 2007
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