Memorable portraits of two mesmerising talents who died young

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The Independent Online

In a year of biographies on heavy hitters such as Sir Jackie Stewart, Juan Manuel Fangio and Ronnie Peterson, my two favourites covered drivers killed before fulfilling their potential.

Even the author Adam Cooper, in Piers Courage - Last of the Gentleman Racers, asks why a book on a driver who never won a grand prix, but after reading this mesmeric tome the question is redundant. Instead, you ask why there are not more motor racing books like this.

Piers Raymond Courage was the scion of the brewing family, who established himself as a great Formula One driver in the months before his untimely death in 1970. Cooper's superbly told tale taps into the recollections not just of his widow Sally (Lady Sarah Curzon), his brothers, Charlie and Andrew, and sons, Jason and Amos, but countless friends too, such as Sir Frank Williams for whom he drove. The characters are bound by their deep and genuine affection for the central figure. Had he lived there is little doubt that Courage would have helped Williams to build a winning team far sooner than he did.

Equally enjoyable was Ivan McLeod's biography of the Australian racer Paul Hawkins, whose boisterous life was cut short by a fiery accident in the 1969 Tourist Trophy sportscar race. His claim to Formula One fame came at Monaco in 1965 when he spectacularly crashed his Lotus into the harbour, but his victory for Porsche in the gruelling Targa Florio sportscar race in 1967, and winning works drives for Ford and Ferrari, were testament to his talent.

Hard driving and hard drinking, the much-loved "Hawkeye" was a wild man off the track. Defending a friend accused of speeding, he once told the bench: "If anyone ought to be charged with dangerous driving, it should be the police..." He was a dab hand with cherry bombs. Upon learning that they worked even underwater, he once blew an elderly lady off her toilet after flushing one down the loo in his own hotel bedroom.

Where Courage had breeding, the profane Hawkins called a spade a shovel and could allegedly swear for 10 minutes without repeating himself. He once told a hapless entrant that driving his car, "is like trying to have sex with a fat woman in a hammock." My kind of driver, my kind of book. It is McLeod's first, and, I hope, it will not be his last.

Eoin Young's biography of his fellow New Zealander Chris Amon also struck the right notes. Amon, forever damned as the best driver never to win a world championship grand prix in his heyday driving for Ferrari in the Sixties, was one of the few that Jimmy Clark rated.

Young was there in Amon's day, and has since spent many happy hours imbibing with him at his farm in Bulls. This affectionate, readable account captures the man and every maddening incident that denied him his just deserts. Though history remembers Amon as the champion of hard luck and wrong time, wrong place decision-making, whose car forever broke when he was leading, Chris himself simply believes he was lucky to have survived one of the sport's bloodiest eras.

The super Swede Ronnie Peterson unfortunately did not, losing his life through problems with embolisms after an accident at the start of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix. Johnny Tipler's large format biography of one of the sport's most popular characters is a masterpiece that captures the spirit of the fastest driver of his day and backs it with al fresco photos from the Peterson family's own albums and the memories of his closest friends. Though pricey, it is a remarkable tribute to a huge talent still much missed.

Unfortunately Virgin Books' Christmas offerings arrived just too late for detailed review. Jackie Stewart, A Restless Life, by Timothy Collings and Stuart Sykes, analyses the irrepressible Scot's life not only on the track and latterly as a team owner, but as a tireless campaigner for improved safety standards and a family man whose wife, Helen, and son, Paul, recently had to fight to overcome cancer. Gerald Donaldson's offering on the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, the man "deposed" in 2003 as the winningest champion of all time by Michael Schumacher, mirrors his deep understanding for the sport's heroes.

If the cars rather than the stars fire your enthusiasm, Michael Oliver has surpassed his own Lotus 49 book with his latest tome on the iconic Lotus 72, arguably the best-looking F1 car ever designed. Oliver's research is exhaustive as he relates the tale of the people behind a car that made a posthumous champion of Jochen Rindt, the youngest champion of Emerson Fittipaldi and a regular race winner of Peterson.

The eagerly awaited second volume of Doug Nye's history of BRM was finally published this year, a decade after the first. This is the series that redefined detailed research, and while it is expensive at £70 it is worth every penny and the wait.

If you cannot make head nor tail of the sport on a Sunday afternoon, the Autosport writers, Jonny Noble and Mark Hughes, have the answer: Formula One Racing for Dummies. If you've ever found yourself wondering what "playing with the set-up" means when a driver offers his televised litany of excuses, what all the flags mean, or why races can be lost in the pits, this is the one for you.

TALES OF THE TRACK

Piers Courage, Last of the Gentleman Racers by Adam Cooper (Haynes Publishing, £30).

"Hawkeye" The rapid and outrageous life of the Australian racing driver by Ivan Mcleod (Motor Racing Publications, £15.99).

Forza Amon! A biography of Chris Amon by Eoin Young (Haynes Publishing, £17.99).

Ronnie, Formula 1 - Super Swede by Johnny Tipler (Coterie Press Limited, £34.95).

Jackie Stewart - A Restless Life Timothy Collings and Stuart Sykes (Virgin Books, £20.00).

Fangio - The Life behind The Legend by Gerald Donaldson (Virgin Books, £20.00).

Lotus 72, Formula One Icon by Michael Oliver (Coterie Press Limited, £39.95).

BRM: The Saga of British Racing Motors, Volume 2, spaceframe cars from 1959 to 1965 by Doug Nye with Tony Rudd (Motor Racing Publications, £70.00).

Formula One for Dummies by Jonathan Noble and Mark Hughes (Wiley Publishing, £14.99).

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