John Richard Beattie Seaman
Born: 4 February 1913 in Aldingbourne House, Chichester, England
Died: 25 June 1939 in Spa, Belgium
When Richard Seaman drove his Mercedes-Benz W 154 3-litre formula racing car to victory at the 1938 German Grand Prix, he sealed his reputation as the most successful British racing driver of his day. Although a perennial favourite among German race-going crowds, Seaman’s role as a representative of National Socialist motorsport shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War was viewed critically in his homeland. But Seaman would not live long enough to see Europe descend into war: just eleven months after his triumph at the Nürburgring, his career came to a tragic end at the Belgian Grand Prix when his car left the circuit and crashed into a tree. Seaman died of his serious injuries that same evening.
24 July 1938 would be the greatest day in Richard Seaman’s racing career. The 25-year-old Englishman lined up alongside Hermann Lang and Manfred von Brauchitsch on the front row of the grid for the German Grand Prix, having driven his Mercedes-Benz W 154 into third place in qualifying. On the second row behind the three Silver Arrows was another Mercedes-Benz driver, Rudolf Caracciola, who lined up for the start alongside the Auto Union driver Tazio Nuvolari.
With thirty seconds to go, the 12-cylinder engines of the seven Silver Arrows gave a confident roar as the mechanics from the
Mercedes-Benz stable started up the race cars. Racing manager Alfred Neubauer, known to all as Don Alfredo, gave the sign to the works drivers: “Ten seconds to go.” Finally the flag came down and as the engines whined to a deafening crescendo Lang immediately took an early the lead.
But after just one lap Seaman was up with him in second place, and on the sixth lap the Englishman led the field for the first time. 300,000 spectators at the Nürburgring were about to witness a “race with a capital R”, as Seaman’s biographer Chris Nixon would later describe the grand prix at the Nürburgring. Although Lang was forced to retire with technical problems, a fascinating duel developed over the ensuing laps between Seaman and Manfred von Brauchitsch – until von Brauchitsch’s car caught fire during a pit stop on lap 16. With great presence of mind, Neubauer pulled his driver from the flames and sent Seaman, the second driver into the pits, back onto the track. Now Richard “Dick” Seaman was leading the biggest race of the grand prix season. Easily recognisable in his W 154 with the start number 16 and green bonnet, the 25 year-old Englishman gradually consolidated his lead and eventually finished three minutes and 20 seconds ahead of Hermann Lang, who had taken over Caracciola’s car.
But who exactly was this young man, whose meteoric rise and tragic death in 1939 was so reminiscent of the career of Bernd Rosemeyer? Who at just 25 years of age already stood shoulder to shoulder with the best drivers in the Mercedes stable and was the first Briton to win the German Grand Prix since the victory of Sir Henry Segrave back in 1923?
Richard John Beattie Seaman was born on 4 February 1913 into a wealthy British family. William John Beattie Seaman and his wife, Lilian Mary, who was 21 years his younger, owned a country estate and a townhouse in London as befitted their social standing. The family also owned a chauffeur-driven British Daimler saloon, which caught the young Richard’s eye from an early age. But even though “Dick” enjoyed drawing sketches of racing cars as a youngster, nobody in the Seaman household ever thought his life would one day revolve around racing cars for the famous German brand. A career in the Diplomatic Corps or a well-paid job in the City of London’s financial quarter would have been considered appropriate for a boy with a background such as his – but not a career as a racing driver.
Richard’s schooling began at the Hildersham House boarding school in 1921. This preparatory school set the young Richard on course for entry to Rugby, the renowned public school, and then for future studies (French and Italian) at Cambridge. On leaving school his parents presented him with his first car – a Riley Brooklands Nine.
In 1931 Seaman (by this time the proud owner of an MG Magna) began his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. He rowed for his College, but he was also a member of the University Automobile Club (CUAC) and took part in motorsport events. It was during this period that he met a fellow Cambridge student, the American Whitney Straight. Straight encouraged Seaman to pursue his interest in motor racing, and when his parents bought him a 2-litre Bugatti in 1933 (soon replaced by a Lagonda), Seaman began to take motor racing seriously. Now a member of Straight’s racing stable, success came quickly to the young Englishman as soon as he took the wheel of his black MG Magnette in 1934, securing a class victory in the Prix de Bern and overall victory at the Mont Ventoux hillclimb.
Seaman’s parents were unhappy with their son’s expensive and dangerous love of racing. His father was particularly critical, as Richard was only able to support himself thanks to significant and regular subsidies from his mother. His parents even bought him an aeroplane in an effort to dissuade him from motor racing. But Seaman simply used this new means of transport to get him to races quicker and thus take him closer to his goal of becoming an internationally renowned racing driver.
When Straight retired from motorsport, Seaman signed a contract with ERA (English Racing Automobiles). But the works vehicles proved less than reliable and Seaman left the works team and went on to celebrate victories as a private driver in Pescara, Bern and Freiburg. When his mechanic Giulio Ramponi advised him to switch to a ten-year-old Delage previously owned by Francis Curzon, 5th Earl Howe, Dick bought the car from the aristocratic racing enthusiast. Ramponi completely rebuilt the vehicle and Seaman was soon notching up new race victories at the wheel of this motoring anachronism.
Seaman continued to draw increasingly upon his mother's financial reserves – and his ambiguous public image fell somewhere between “spoiled brat” and “possibly the greatest road racing driver Britain had ever produced”. The latter assessment of Seaman’s ability came from Prince Chula Chakrabongse of Thailand, Seaman’s friend and motor racing rival on the circuits of Europe, as well as author of his first biography, published in 1941.