On Beauty in Motor Racing


Why is there such beauty in a motor race? At heart, it's a simple exercise - a few dozen cars drive laps around a roughly circular track as fast as possible either a set number of times or for a set duration. The premise hardly seems an enticing one, if viewed entirely in the abstract. But then, for that matter, neither does the proposition of watching grown men punt a stylised pig's bladder up and down the same hundred metres of muddy earth for ninety minutes. All sports are laughable - trivial - when stripped bare and robbed of their soul. So wherein lies the soul of a motor race, the heady intoxicant that makes it such a potent brew? Perhaps, as many have speculated, it lies in the sport's danger. It's a common belief, but one that I tend to think false. Very few men die in Grand Prix cars these days, fewer still in touring cars, LMPs, and other such categories besides that can be equally thrilling. It cannot be denied that a pilot who is willing to go side-by-side with a rival up the Raidillon, as Kimi Raikkonen famously did in his handsome Enstone Lotus, must be imbued with more than their fair share of courage. Yet while I think the element of danger serves to sharpen the appeal of the sport, I do not believe it constitues its foundations. Surely technology, then, is the true beating heart of the enterprise. After-all, with even a modest Grand Prix outfit running on an operating budget well north of 100 million pounds a year, the tech in the upper echelons of the sport is undeniably spectacular. Everything is uber-engineered in a Grand Prix team - from the steering wheels to the team polos to the hospitality centres that are flatpak enough to make a Swede blush. And yet, in spite of all this extravagence, half a dozen two-stroke go-karts can provide a racing spectacle as memorable as a billion-dollar Grand Prix. So while every subtle change to each hundred-grand front wing on an F1 grid may be fascinating in its own right, technology is hardly integral to a thrilling afternoon's motor racing. No, for me, the appeal of motor racing is derived from something more intrinsic than flashy tech or the half-chance of some poor sod shunting expensively into the Armco. To express it simply - the beauty is in the movement. A racing car driven well is a racing car pushed to its limit - straining against its own momentum like a creaking willow bent double under heavy snow. Yet unlike the beleagured tree, whose torment is static and unchanging, the stress to which a racing car is subjected is constantly variable; in flux; from metre to metre, from blink to blink. The vocation of the skilled driver is to hold their machine at its limit - like a daring ice dancer twirling pirouettes at the top of a frozen waterfall - and in their hands the car becomes a quill scribing poetry on the asphalt; each apex a couplet; each lap a verse. Sadly, television has the decieving effect of making modern downforce cars seem rather manageable things. So adept are today's engineers at setting up their racing cars, even backmarkers seem - to employ the classic similie - as if on rails. Certainly this locomotive illusion can be broken, when a car is seen to violently snap away from its heading, but these 'derailings' appear to the casual viewer as discreet interruptions to an otherwise uneventful schedule. I am not sure why the camera has this effect, but rest assured it is a deception. An afternoon spent trackside at the circuit would convince all but the least observant spectator that racing cars, from the shoestring back-row stalwarts to the perfectly tuned polesitters, are living beasts - constantly dancing and quivering, threatening to pitch themselves into the barriers with barely a shade more steering lock or a touch more throttle than the pilot dares to apply. Far from being a passive activity, the art of driving a racing car involves dialling oneself into a feedback loop as tight and as delicate as the limits of human cognition allow. At Grand Prix speed, the difference between a fast laptime and a moped ride back to the paddock is measured in milliseconds. It's not coincidental that the very greatest drivers are invariably lauded for their 'feel'. This sensitivity, characteristic of the very finest pilots, comes to the fore in wet conditions, when at each new corner drivers must tease and coax the grip level out of the unforgiving tarmac. No wonder then, that Clark, Senna, Schumacher, and Hamilton have all been bestowed the title of Regenmeister - with the sensational Verstappen looking set to join their ranks in forthcoming seasons. Just as one cannot love a great film or album on the basis of another's effusive description, an appreciation for the beauty of motor racing is something that must be acquired first hand. This acquisition is made difficult by the fact that the beauty in question is not always particuarly evident. Often, after an especially laborious hour and a half of bland circulation, it can seem entirely absent. Yet keep watching, and sooner rather than later a race, or a stint, or even a single lap will come along that is breathtaking in its poetry. For every race that stumbles along as hasty scribbled prose, there is another that plays out in flowing, illuminated verse, and as the chequered flag drops you will feel sure that motorsport is among the noblest of human pursuits. It's in those moments that you remember why it's all worthwhile.
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