When the subject of a biography is killed at the age of 26, it reduces the potential content. In the case of Richard ‘Dick’ Seaman, however, a brief but colourful life allows the author to set this story within the intriguing social and political context accompanying the emergence of a world-class racing driver.
The difficulties associated with such a feat in the 1920s and 1930s may be the central theme but Richard Williams skilfully and gently lays out the nuances of a life that ended violently when Seaman’s Mercedes smashed into a tree and caught fire during the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix.
The date – two months before the outbreak of World War II – gives a clue to the dilemma faced by an Englishman determined work his way into a dominant German team while, at the same time, becoming a party-political tool as Britain and the rest of the world began to realise the ruthless ambition of Adolf Hitler. An uncomfortable symbol of the German Chancellor’s gamesmanship was the arrival of a massive wreath that required two men to carry it to the Seaman family home in London’s Kensington – wherein lay another sad strand of this compelling tale.
Seaman went to his grave in Putney knowing that Lillian Seaman did not approve of her son’s marriage six months before to a German girl, Erica Popp. The daughter of the general director of BMW and the urbane Englishman may have cut a social dash abroad but the subsequent estrangement with Lillian made her views abundantly clear despite having given Dick £30,000 (approximately £2m by today’s values) to fund his early motor racing career.
Such a sum indicates Seaman’s privileged beginnings in a Sussex house large enough to form 18 luxury apartments today. Williams has made extensive use of Lillian’s deeply personal and unpublished memoir to help paint a precise picture of daily routine revolving around lunch at Claridge’s, dinner at the Ritz, and travelling between a country property (now a private school) in Worcestershire and game shooting in Yorkshire.
Seaman may have made use of the family fortune but none of it was frittered away, as was the habit of wealthy sporting motorists of the day. He was focussed in the manner of Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton in relentlessly pursuing recognition as being the best. Details mattered, as witnessed by using the work of a photographer friend to study the racing lines of rivals and team-mates.
The records show 13 career wins (including the 1938 German Grand Prix) but such a figure is accounted for by a similar paucity of events at the time. Had the fatal accident while leading in the rain at Spa-Francorchamps not occurred, who knows what his future might have held. Seaman was the sort to have led a squadron in the Battle of Britain. Had he survived, then age would have been on his side when racing resumed. As it is, this exhaustively researched and immaculately written book can only feed such fascinating but ultimately sad speculation.