Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Formula Zero |
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Formula Zero

If the wheels can come off an empire, they came off Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One empire in Austria on Sunday, when Rubens Barrichello, under team orders from Ferrari, slowed down to let Michael Schumacher take the win. A zillion petrol-heads all over the world were thus given an unmistakable television signal that they might as well have been reading the business section of their local newspaper. The fix was in.

The bottom line and the finishing line had revealed themselves as being identical. The chequered flag was a cheque book. As a writer by profession, I resorted naturally to word-associations for the expression of my outrage. Elsewhere in the audience, there was probably a circus performer in Singapore who threw knives at his wife, a removal man in Auckland who heaved a chest of drawers out of his attic window. How apt, I exclaimed to one of my study walls full of strangely noncommittal books, that the stitch-up should have taken place on a circuit called the Spielberg. Ideally, a racing circuit should be called the Hitchcock, to convey suspense. But when they’re racing on the Spielberg, a tent-pole production devotes a mountainous investment to a predictable materialistic outcome with a spiritual quotient the size of a mouse. My metaphors became ever more mixed, the books ever more aloof, scared by the spectacle of homicidal fervour from a man who had previously confined his passion to fingering their spines. Far away in Vancouver or perhaps Valletta, a dog-breeder was filling a bucket of water in his bathroom.

For many years now, the circus performer, the removal man, the dog-breeder and I have all been united by our propensity to rearrange any schedule so that we can be seated before the television set to watch the latest Grand Prix. All of us might have been racing drivers in a different life. Circumstances having dictated otherwise, we are willing to let other men do the driving for us. Admittedly, they have unfair advantages, these others: they are younger than us, better-looking, and they combine a flat stomach, sensitive fingers, unflinching valour and an enormous salary into a sexual signal that few fashion models can resist. The injustice cries to Heaven, which gives no answer. But we are content to let it happen. Let these gifted children race for us: as long as they race.

Most of the time they do, and there is none of them who is not admirable for his bravery alone, quite apart from his skill. Mainly owing to the tireless efforts of Jackie Stewart, Grand Prix racing has become much safer than it was when I started following it, but it is still a lot more dangerous than writing. Takuma Sato could easily have been killed last Sunday when he was side-swiped, and Juan Pablo Montoya was only a split second from being decapitated in the same accident. The cars are very strong in the cockpit area nowadays, but a high-speed impact against the wall can still do to a driver what it would do to an egg in a steel box, no matter how tightly the box fitted. Ayrton Senna was killed that way, Mika Hakkinen almost was, and the carbon-fibre front end was only a partial protection for Schumacher’s legs when he sailed across the gravel-trap and smacked the tyre-wall at Silverstone. It was probably the fresh memory of that incident which helped to persuade the Ferrari management they should stack up the championship points for him while they could, even at the expense of disappointing the watching world and painfully reminding Barrichello that his newly extended contract carried a price in enforced humility. Schumacher has a big say in what the Ferrari team does. He ought to: if they are on top now, it is because he put them there, and he did it with his practical wisdom as well as with his supernatural flair. If he shared in the Spielberg decision through patching into a conference call from the radio in his car, he, too, was probably remembering Silverstone. Brave by nature as they all are, he would have been more likely to recall what happened to his season than what happened to his leg. I would have remembered the leg. Johnny Herbert had his career ruined by smashed legs; Jacques Lafitte had his career ended by them; and Allesandro Zanardi, racing in the American version of the same sport, actually lost them. I, however, am not Michael Schumacher.

No, you’re not, says the Devil in my ear, and it’s because you’re a human being. But the Devil is a casuist as always. Admittedly Michael Schumacher is an easy man to dislike. It was especially unfortunate for him that the driver he stole the victory from on Sunday was the hardest man to dislike in Formula One. Rubens Barrichello, a cuddly toy already nicely padded under his padded suit, is the top half of Kelsey Grammer with a nervous smile to match. Nobody so quick was ever so cute. But Schumacher gives the air of having arrived at ordinary affability only by hard study, and the mask — modelled in rubberized plaster by Arno Breker as an archetype of Aryan manhood in a rare benevolent mood — is always apt to slip. He is a natural sporting hero, but sportsmanship is not his natural mode. Let us not, however, distract ourselves with a glib antipathy. Sportsmanship is not the natural mode of Formula One.

It might be, if it was just the drivers racing each other. But the manufacturers are racing each other too, and there’s the rub. Whatever way the formula is readjusted, a few manufacturers will each produce a car decisively faster than the rest of the pack, even if their respective cars are only fractionally faster or slower than each other. But the cost of producing a competitive car is so enormous that none of the top manufacturers can protect their investment for long unless they have a champion, or at least a championship contender. The best drivers are attracted to the best teams. So instead of the contenders being spread evenly through the field — as they might be through an equivalent of the draft-pick system in American football — they are quite likely to end up two to a team. Theoretically the sharpest competitive edge in Formula One racing is between the two team-members; and indeed this might be so; but only if the team allows them to race each other. Unfortunately it is in the team’s interest to allow only the opposite, so that the prospective champion is placed out of danger from his closest rival.

Effectively this has been true of modern Grand Prix racing since the beginning. When Mercedes-Benz made their post-war comeback, they had a car that nothing else could touch. Juan Manuel Fangio was signed to come first, Stirling Moss to come second; and that’s the way the game played out, even if Fangio loftily ceded Moss the British Grand Prix as a consolation prize. (To prove it was a gesture, Fangio trailed Moss over the finish line by only a few inches. To prove he was accepting a poisoned chalice, Barrichello, poor mite, did the same at Spielberg.) If they had really been racing, Moss might have given Fangio a proper fight in every race on the calendar. But it never happened except in our dreams. Team orders prevailed. As Richard Williams pointed out in these pages yesterday, team orders prevailed again in 1958, when Phil Hill handed Mike Hawthorn the last race of the season and the championship along with it. When Mario Andretti and Ronnie Petersen were both driving for Lotus, the fix was blatant. Petersen was at least as fast as Andretti, and sometimes needed all his skill to come second: he was treading on the brakes while Andretti was treading on the accelerator. In a later period at Lotus, Ayrton Senna, then clearly on his way to supremacy, refused to have Derek Warwick as second driver because Warwick might have been a contender, and Senna thought the team lacked the wherewithal to support two contenders. Senna was probably right, but I remember the way Derek Warwick’s wife pronounced Senna’s name at a restaurant near Monza on the evening before Warwick went out to race in the slower car to which Senna’s realism had condemned him.

Before his untimely death canonized him, Senna’s realism was commonly called ruthlessness by everyone in the sport. To a certain extent it was: when he figured out that he would become champion if Prost could be removed from the track, he accomplished this by driving into Prost, thereby removing himself as well, but with the championship in the bag. He engineered the impact straight after doing the sums in his head, thus setting a bad precedent. Such behaviour brought Formula One close to being a Demolition Derby, but it was a natural consequence of a team’s readiness to back up its top man, even if his conscience-free behaviour was at the expense of its second man. More recently, tighter rules have made the deliberate shunt harder to pull off, but as with the professional foul in football, the spirit of the thing is hard to quench.

This depressing Realpolitik comes with the financial commitment of the top marques: they can’t afford anything less. Unfortunately we petrol-heads are on their side. We don’t want an Americanized version of the sport. In American motor racing, all the cars are effectively the same, and thus run beside each other, to the delight of the American audience, which, although not as dumb as it is often painted, certainly likes things simple. But out here in the undeveloped world — i.e. everywhere except America — we like the complications of Formula One, and so do bright American refugees like Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya follows in the tradition of Mario Andretti and Jacques Villeneuve: charioteers in standardized cars who had fun racing wheel to wheel, but came over to Formula One because it was more interesting. And indeed the interest of Formula One is enormous: the leading manufacturers, interpreting the formula to its optimum, come up with machines so precisely attuned to the task that the full distance is as far as they can run before they fall apart while being measured by the scrutineers. Petrol-heads all over the planet bore their friends and families helpless with details of the technology before being left alone in front of the piece of technology that eventually generates the cash-flow for the whole adventure: the television set.

Rarely does it provide a thrilling spectacle. Apart from the occasional shunt, it mainly shows you a procession. But to the fan, the questions are endless, convoluted and enthralling. Can the driver of the car that is a second slower make up the difference? Montoya almost can, but Schumacher either knows how to get another second of supremacy out of the Ferrari engineers or else he is driving faster than ever. It is all, inherently, fascinating to think about. Unfortunately it is also as boring as hell to look at. Schumacher and Montoya won’t be racing wheel to wheel unless their cars are identical in performance, and at the moment the Williams is a second down. The only people racing wheel to wheel will be the two drivers of the quickest marque, because their cars are identical in all respects. And if the championship is at stake, the fix will go in.

As things stand, Ferrari, Michael Schumacher and Barrichello will go before motor racing’s governing body the FIA on 26 June, for the Spielberg production to be investigated and solemnly ruled upon. It will be a date in the annals of fatuity. First of all, there can be no doubt about what happened. Second, Formula One is ruled by Bernie Ecclestone. He invented it, and it’s all his. On the whole he has done a brilliant job. He rules a community richer than most small countries; nobody gets hurt except volunteers, and he diverts hundreds of millions of people across the globe, thus fully justifying the hundreds of millions of pounds he diverts into his own pocket. There is nothing Bernie can’t arrange. It was a wonder that he confined himself to slipping the Labour Party a mere million. Nobody who has ever met him would have been surprised if Cherie Blair had started smoking two packs of Silk Cut Extra Mild every day in public. But now he has to arrange something more challenging, and pronto. Formula One is in the toilet, and looks all the more obscene because the toilet is made of gold. The only cure is to outlaw team orders. The circus performer, the removal man, the dog-breeder and I can all just about stand watching two cars the same colour coming first and second. It’s the reward for technical achievement. But if their drivers aren’t racing each other, there is no reason to watch at all. For the next Grand Prix, the huge world-wide television audience will be down by at least one name I can vouch for. Anyone who feels like joining me can register his protest the same way I will. It can be done at the touch of a button. You can bet that the man in question will get the message. It’s a boycott, Bernie: either the racers race, or I read my books instead of shouting at them.


I had a record stretching back for decades of being interested in Formula One no matter how tedious it got, so if even I was protesting, the sport was in trouble. Not long afterwards, the boom was lowered on team orders, but nothing could stop the Ferraris dominating the events. Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello were racing each other again, but they would have had to crash into one another if any other marque was going to have a chance. It’s in the nature of the sport that a little difference makes all the difference. But the technical edge of a leading team would matter less if the cars could pass each other. It is downforce that makes the sport incurably uneventful. The Americans, in their various versions of open-wheel racing, equalize the technology to make sure that the cars can race beside each other. So the American versions are superficially more exciting for the TV audience than Formula One, just as baseball on TV is superficially more exciting than cricket. Actually there is a lot happening in a baseball match that can’t be deduced from the image on the screen by anyone except an expert. Usually it takes the commentators on the spot to pick the difference between a slider and a knuckleball. But the overt struggle for supremacy is easy to follow, and even if the pitcher pitches a perfect game — no hits, no runs — the spectacle is not necessarily boring. Formula One is often a boring spectacle even to those who understand the details of its true fascination, the struggle behind the scenes for the decisive technical edge. As a result, there are always a few voices in favour of Americanizing the sport. But only a few. Like food, Formula One is something that the world does better than America, and it adds to the fun that the Yanks don’t get the point. The fun needs a lot of adding to, but there is cause for pride even in that. My promise not to watch, incidentally, lasted for two whole races.

In the following season, elaborate new rules were introduced to even things out, and in the 2005 season the rules were made more Byzantine still, to the point where, near the end of a race, it could be won by the car whose tyres were in the best shape. The dominance of the Ferraris melted away in the technicalities, and there were several occasions when the final laps became almost as exciting as watching kittens fight. The downside, however, was that the television commentary became full of talk about tyres.