Getting to meet F1 drivers properly is not something I get to do very often. The days of being able to mill around the pits with them are long gone – these days you’re lucky to get a cursory glance and an unintelligible scrawl on your race day programme.
But on the rare occasions I have got to exchange words with a driver I’ve been reminded that it’s a lot easier to dislike someone until you’ve met them.
Of the current grid I’ve only seen a few of them – Mark Webber, Ralf Schumacher, Heikki Kovalainen and Nelson Piquet Jnr – and not really been in a position to strike up a conversation.
Even so I was impressed by Piquet. I’d not thought much of his rise through the junior formulae given that most (if not all) of his teams were backed by his dad. I’d read journalists’ descriptions of him as surly, but his gracious willingness to sign autographs for a friend of mine convinced me that I’d been a bit harsh.
Similarly although I’d never been a great fan of Damon Hill – always a distant second to the swashbuckling Nigel Mansell in my affections as a young F1 fan – I was blown away by his cool, rational intelligence when I interviewed him for Auto Trader last year. This man should be FIA President after Max Mosley. No-one else deserves get a look in.
Away from F1 the biggest change of heart I’ve had has been about Italian touring car racer Fabrizio Giovanardi. He had a stack of titles to his name before arriving in the British championship in 2006. But I’d written them off in my mind as the work of someone who’d cruised and collected easy titles in top-notch factory cars in under-subscribed series.
Having met Giovanardi several times last year, and been driven around Thruxton with him in a Vauxhall Vectra, I have changed my mind about him entirely.
His racer’s intellect is cool and razor sharp. He knows how to make a racing team gel around him. And he has a wicked and understated sense of humour.
I hope in future to get to meet more of the current F1 grid and I fully expect more of my expectations to be utterly confounded.
Which drivers of the past and present have you met? Were they what you expected them to be?
More on meeting drivers