Do Catholics, with their “special relationship” with death, make for faster and better racing drivers? Is it just a coincidence that most of the greatest racing champions have been Catholic, including Tazio Nuvolari (the Flying Mantuan) in the 1930s, Ayrton Senna (killed during the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1994) and Michael Schumacher, near fatally injured while skiing in 2013 (his son Mick is now signed with Haas in F1).
Michael Schumacher had an “emotional” audience with Pope John Paul II as part of the Ferrari team in which he said that the pope’s personal audience inspired his “motivation and success’. In 2016, Schumacher was visited at his home by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the confidant and private secretary of Benedict XVI and a close aide of Pope Francis. Senna once said of his vocation for motor racing: “I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence. If you have God on your side, everything becomes clear.”
Record world racing champion Lewis Hamilton is a committed Christian who has said that “God has his hand over me.” When rain intervenes at the right moment to suit his tyres, he will say it is “divine intervention”. Although crediting God for his wins has led to vilification by some other Formula One drivers, who complain that Hamilton both thinks and drives as if he is “Jesus” on the track, no one can deny that he doesn’t take his faith seriously. He prays before and after races and is often seen kneeling by his racing car.
After winning the German Grand Prix in 2018, he said: “Today is one of the most unbelievable days for me because… I prayed as I always do before the race and my prayers were really answered. It freaks me out a little bit more than normal and then to see the kind of biblical storm afterwards.”
But while modern F1 drivers benefit from greatly increased safety in their cars – measures largely introduced as a result of Senna’s fatal crash – motor racing was a very different vocation when any crash could result in death due to poor safety and some drivers not even wearing crash helmets.
One of the more interesting aspects of 1930s motor racing was just how many of the top champions were Catholic. Last year a book called Faster was published by American author Neal Bascomb that told the story of how “Jewish underdog” French racing driver René Dreyfus, financed by an American speed-queen heiress Lucy O’Reilly Schell, took on the Nazis “in an epic motor racing duel against the Silver Arrows around the street circuit of Pau on the eve of war”.
The story sounds as if it has all the glossy ingredients for a new Chariots of Fire motor racing epic set in the “blood and circuits” world of the Silver Arrows. This was the legendary name given to Hitler’s all-conquering Nazi German 1930s racing teams of Mercedes and Auto Union.
Yet Dreyfus was actually a Catholic convert and not Jewish at all when the main action of this story takes place. Dreyfus had a Catholic mother and converted to the Roman faith in 1934 on marrying his French wife Chou-Chou at the request of her family. His brother Maurice – whom he was later to open New York’s famous Le Chanteclair restaurant at 18 East 49th Street – also converted (and was the more devout).
Certainly, anybody reading the book would struggle to think of Dreyfus identifying himself as a Catholic despite his formal conversion in 1934 and maternal Catholic heritage. The author describes Dreyfus as “agnostic”, saying that “racing” – in cliché style – was his true religion. Who knows whether he prayed before each race? Towards the end of his life, Dreyfus liked to joke that he may be listed in the Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports but that he also qualified for the “Catholic sports encyclopedia”.
Indeed, O’Reilly Schell, the heiress who financed her Ecurie Bleue Delahaye privateer racing team, was Catholic (or of Irish Catholic origin). In this sweeping “round the circuits” history of racing’s golden era that Bascomb refers to as “death-defying”, the subject of religion and sport is hardly mentioned while politics becomes a centre-stage theme towards the end.
This is regrettable as so many of Europe’s top drivers or team managers/ owners in the 1930s were all Catholic (or at least of Catholic heritage), including Germany’s star driver Rudi Caracciola (the family were originally Italian), Louis Chiron, the Maserati brothers, Ettore Bugatti and Enzo Ferrari, to name just some.
Although Bascomb refers to pre-race driver rituals and superstitions such as Nuvolari wearing a “golden tortoiseshell necklace” and yellow jersey, no exploration is made in the book of whether being Catholic – whether practising the faith or not – gave these sporting gods (at least to their fans) any competitive edge, at a time when the death rate of drivers was the worst in racing history.
We are only told that Dreyfus regarded his old “grease-stained” leather race shoes as his “holy relic”. The modern-day classic car collector’s quest to find these original old Delahayes is likened to a holy grail, their parts “religious relics”.
Another great Catholic racing champion of the 1930s was the German driver Caracciola, who was of Italian heritage. Caracciola writes about his life in his 1961 memoir A Racing Car Driver’s World. Much of his success was thanks to the legendary Mercedes motor racing manager of the 1930s, Alfred Neubauer – another Catholic who actually took the Mercedes team on a day outing to Lourdes before the Pau race.