The parents at the heart of Formula 1’s racing stories

Formula 1 drivers owe much to the endeavours of their parents, whose unending efforts to assist their child have brought them to the top level of motorsport. LUKE SMITH underlines the importance of a parent's unconditional support, through the eyes of the drivers and in his own career

The parents at the heart of Formula 1’s racing stories

As Red Bull’s Formula 1 celebrations began in front of the famous Foro Sol at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez last Sunday in Mexico, one man was taking centre stage.

Max Verstappen may have won the race and taken a big step towards winning his first F1 world title, but it was Perez who was the most jubilant and celebrating most wildly.

I don’t mean his team-mate, Sergio, either. Instead, it was his father, Antonio Perez, who stole the show as he celebrated his son’s first podium on home soil, marking a high point for Mexico since the return of the grand prix in 2015.

The scenes of him embracing Red Bull's local hero and running around with the Mexican flag were heart-warming, and beautifully portrayed the significance that every single parent or parent-figure plays in the story of every F1 driver, engineer, staff member or fan.

No matter who you are or your level of involvement in motorsport, you have a story of how you caught ‘the bug’ for racing. It’s where the roots of your love of our glorious sport reach back to; the moment that defined and began, for many, a life’s passion to follow. Typically, it’s Dad - and sometimes Mum - who was there at the very beginning.

A number of dads have played and still play an active role in the careers of their kids in F1: Verstappen’s dad, former F1 racer Jos, is at most of his races as part of his entourage; Lance Stroll’s father, Lawrence, owns the Aston Martin team; and Lewis Hamilton’s dad, Anthony, was famously integral to his early career and path to F1. The list draws on much further.

A more understated but touching father-and-son moment came earlier this year at Monza, when on the Thursday, Sebastian Vettel was seen walking the track with his dad, Norbert. Vettel had arrived at the track at his normal time, only to find that the press conference was later than planned due to the sprint weekend timings, giving him time to kill. He decided it would be the perfect opportunity to go for a track walk with his dad, notably at the site of his first race win back in 2008, even if he’d have to go again later with his Aston Martin engineers.

Norbert Vettel (left) joins son Sebastian on the Monza track walk

Norbert Vettel (left) joins son Sebastian on the Monza track walk

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

“Without him I wouldn’t be here - but I think we all have that in common!” Vettel quipped, before speaking about the influence his father had on his racing career.

“He’s been a huge inspiration when I was young,” the four-time world champion explained. “He was doing some hillclimb racing, and we started motorsport off as a family, and he was supporting me throughout and he still is.”

Much as Norbert was there for Sebastian as he soaked up his first win at the same track 13 years ago, so had Anthony been for Lewis. The bond of the Hamiltons was evident from the moment the McLaren youngster made his debut back in 2007, as their story of sacrifice and resilience became more well-known.

Hamilton often notes his poor memory, but he recalled clearly in Sochi earlier this year how his dad helped further his love for motorsport from a young age.

“The first memory that I have, my dad lived in a one-bedroom flat in Hatfield, and I would spend my weekends there with him,” Hamilton said. “I remember the couch - because it’s the couch I would sleep on, there wasn’t another bed. I just remember sitting there with I think a bacon sandwich we would have, or noodle soup or something, we would have in the morning watching the grand prix together.

“My next door neighbour was racing a radio controlled car around outside on the road. And I’m pretty sure that day I went out, and the guy let me drive it. I was like four or five years old, and my dad was like, ‘ah, he’s pretty decent for such a small kid’.

“But I already had a love of cars. My dad was passionate about his car, he took such great care of it, and when I would sit in the back seat, I would just watch him doing the gears and everything.” Hamilton closed off his answer with a smile, adding: “He’s my hero."

Lewis Hamilton with his father Anthony Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton with his father Anthony Hamilton

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The next day, he would score his 100th grand prix victory from seventh on the grid in Russia, spurred on by his dad’s support.

“Last night, just the same as the first race I had or the first championship I fought in when I was eight, my dad was messaging and called me last night,” Hamilton said after the race. “He has always been that one reassuring me and continuing to support me.”

But sadly, not every driver can continue to rely on such support. Charles Leclerc lost his father, Hervé, back in 2017 while he was racing in F2. Days later, Leclerc would go on to race and win in Azerbaijan, having told his father before he passed that he had an F1 seat secure for 2018. He didn’t at the time, but would, of course, go on to graduate with Sauber before joining Ferrari one year later.

Hervé was so integral to Leclerc’s early love for motorsport, having raced himself in Formula 3 in the 1980s, giving Charles “many, many moments” that stand out in his memory.

“We went karting and he was taking me to the track every weekend, every Wednesday just after school,” Leclerc said. “He would teach me the basics of this sport, which obviously helped, especially at such a young age.

“What I am the most grateful for is he never really pushed me, or never forced me to keep going in this sport. It’s always been a real pleasure for me to drive, and this I think has helped me massively for the future. He obviously made me the person I am, and this also helped me to reach my goals.”

Following Sunday’s celebrations in Mexico, Perez’s father revealed in an interview with Marca Claro that Leclerc had been in touch with Sergio and said: “You don't know how happy it made me to see your parents celebrate like that. It brought tears to my eyes.

“I would have loved for my dad to see me [like that].”

Charles Leclerc during his F2 years at Baku, with

Charles Leclerc during his F2 years at Baku, with "Je t'aime papa" after father Herve passed away

Photo by: Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images

Mick Schumacher’s arrival on this year has understandably led to questions about the influence of his father, Michael, one of F1’s all-time greats, who sustained life-changing head injuries in a skiing accident in 2013.

“I think dad and me, we would understand each other in a different way now,” said Mick in the recent Schumacher documentary.

“Simply because we speak a similar language, the language of motorsport. We would have had much more to talk about and that is where my head is most of the time, thinking that would be so cool. That would be it. I would give up everything just for that.”

Watching the celebrations and the wonderful bond between Perez and his dad, it made me think of all the parent-and-child F1 stories there are out there. On a personal level, it made me think about my own one, which I shared with my Mum.

When I first caught ‘the bug’ by stumbling across F1 in 2005, I quickly told Mum about the race I’d seen on TV. She revealed that she used to be an avid F1 fan, attending the British Grand Prix every year, and that she supported Gilles Villeneuve and Ferrari. Aged 10, my response was: “But Mum, Jill is a girl’s name!”

From there, it became a passion we shared together, watching every single grand prix and attending whatever local races we could at Brands Hatch or Lydden Hill. Many a happy Sunday was spent chatting away in the sunshine, taking in the sounds and smells of racing.

These experiences were so formative to my life decisions that would follow: to give motorsport journalism a shot, to try and turn an interest into a career. As I got my first paid writing jobs, my first printed work and started to make steps in the industry, she was there every step of the way.

Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 126C2

Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 126C2

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Joining Autosport was a particularly significant moment. Every year, she bought me the double edition with the top 50 drivers in the world to go in my Christmas stocking - a tradition she maintained until I was 24! To be able to give her the first copy of the magazine that had my name in as F1 Reporter meant the world; it felt like a full circle moment.

Her favourite drivers were Hamilton, Leclerc and Fernando Alonso - referring to Alonso as “my Spaniard” - and her love for Ferrari was always there. As she battled some ill-health late last year, a friend at Mercedes kindly sent me a signed Hamilton cap, which I planned to give to Mum for Christmas before COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from spending it together.

When I got a call in March to say her cancer had rapidly advanced and she was deteriorating badly, meaning an exemption would be made for me to see her in hospital, I packed what I could into a bag before heading to the train station, grabbing the cap as the final item.

It seemed pointless, in the grand scheme of things. But when I got to see her and give it to her, her face lit up. She kept it by her bedside at all times, showing it to her nurses and doctors, and insisted on wearing it as we watched Hamilton win the Bahrain race together in hospital. At the bleakest of times, it provided her some joy and happiness.

I spent Mum’s final few months by her side every single day, talking about everything we could, trying, as futile as it may have been, to fit a lifetime of conversations we should still have looked forward to into whatever time we had left. And so often, it came back to F1.

Signed Hamilton cap brought joy

Signed Hamilton cap brought joy

Photo by: Luke Smith

It was a way for us to not think constantly about the looming, tragic inevitability of what we knew was to come. She wanted to know all the gossip, all the news, everything I could possibly share with her, even when none of it seemed at all relevant or important. It was comforting.

Her passing over the summer left an immeasurably large hole in my life. But it has also made me contemplative of and so grateful for - among the endless list of good that she did for me and those around her - how she helped me catch ‘the bug’ and started my story in racing.

It means with every single word I write, with every article that’s published and interview that goes out, she’ll be with me. And to be able to write about her for the very publication she would watch her young boy consume with such glee all those years ago is again a way to continue her legacy and do her proud.

The same thought goes, I am sure, for Charles Leclerc, for Mick Schumacher, for Sergio Perez, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and all the others on the grid, in their racing. And for every other person in motorsport who has their parents to thank - to ‘blame’ - for planting the seed for that interest and encouraging their love for motorsport.

The increasingly accessible digital era, spearheaded by Netflix, may mean our avenues into the sport are changing. But when it comes to sparking that interest in F1 among the youngest generations, the kind that will last a lifetime, there’ll be no influence as strong as our parents.

Sergio Perez's sister Paola and father Antonio celebrate his Mexican GP podium

Sergio Perez's sister Paola and father Antonio celebrate his Mexican GP podium

Photo by: Mark Sutton

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