Nico Hulkenberg’s debut win at Le Mans this weekend was a superb achievement and tremendous to watch. Sadly also served to highlight how far we are from the glory days of motor racing and the ‘triple crown’.
Apologies if you are not familiar with the phrase. Between the 60s and 80s a group of drivers emerged who attempted to win 3 very special races: the Monaco GP; Indy 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours. An extremely elite club exists of winners of every race – Graham Hill is the only man to have achieved that legendary status. The roll call of those who have come close is a who’s who of motor sport including Clark, Foyt, Nuvolari and McLaren. Despite this rich heritage the concept has been drifting further and further in to the archives for decades.
The ‘triple crown’ exists only as a theoretical badge of honor but what it represents is far more valuable. It is the mark of a brave, versatile and ambitious driver. A driver unafraid to get out of their comfort zone and so confident in their talents that they don’t fear being embarrassment.
The specialization of racing categories and the clash between Monaco and Indy have long put paid to any opportunities for active F1 driver to even contemplate doing both. The Le Mans classic has gone from being a one-off every active driver had to win to becoming a swan song for semi-retired drivers. The latter allowed drivers to try and complete at the end of their ‘proper’ career. But increasingly sports car racing and ergo Le Mans has become a good way for younger drivers unsuccessful in F1 to make a living thus crowding out the possibility of one timers and old timers.
Often it is argued that driver contracts – especially in F1 – don’t allow such forays in to other racing. That in the main is rubbish – it is the fear of being beaten that keeps most drivers out of it (and let’s be honest the fear of the concrete walls at the Brickyard.) It is sad for motor sport that few drivers will likely ever take on the triple crown again and that Graham Hill may never be joined in the rarefied air of triple winners.
The fact Nico’s Le Mans win has and will continue to cause such a stir is because so few drivers are willing to take that risk. Of current ‘active’ drivers only Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve have two of the three. Sadly both are in the latter years of their top flight career (and that’s being very generous to Jacques) and the chances of landing a LMP1 ride capable of victory looks unlikely.
The willingness to take on the challenge and be a victor goes much of the way to answering the old ‘best all round’ driver question we all love to chew over. In victory a driver’s status as a legend is assured but even in attempting it, they will be viewed as a cut above the rest.
Kudos to Nico for his win and for taking on the challenge. Hopefully it will open up the minds of more drivers and bring the triple crown back in to the present. For now I will be hoping Nico gets a top F1 ride soon and then we can start to think about Indianapolis.