Letter to readers, July 1989

A second look

A recent letter on the subject of visibility and eyesight (Motor Sport, April 1989) has provoked a most interesting response, so much so that I feel I most return to it. As always the letters I have received have come from far and wide, from people of all ages and of widely differing interests. The writers are all avid readers of Motor Sport and above all else are dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts for the motoring (and motorcycling) way of life.

In my letter I said “I have yet to see a World Champion who wears glasses” (corrective lenses or spectacles, to be more precise). I was referring to motor racing’s Formula One World Champions, but quite rightly one reader pointed out that the Swiss motorcycle and sidecar racer Florian Camathius wore glasses.

Dr Joe Bayley, a reader of very long standing, sent me a lovely picture of HL Daniell, the works Norton rider, saying “You haven’t forgotten Harold, surely?” How could I? He was one of my heroes in my formative years, and I learnt an awful lot about racing from Harold Daniell; he was that sort of chap. When he set the record for the Isle of Man TT circuit on a works Norton in 1938 at 91 mph he was wearing glasses, as he always did.

In recent times Bobby Rahal won the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, and he wears glasses. To thread the eye of a needle at over 200 mph, which is what it must feel like as you travel down the two main straights and line-up for Turn One and Turn Three, you need to see where you are going.

I am not suggesting that these top-flight men have poor eyesight, far from it. Their eyesight has to be superb, as does that of any top-line racer, but the Sennas, Clarks, Mosses and Villeneuves of our world have truly exceptional eyesight, and if you have exceptional eyesight you are already one step ahead. If all your other faculties and requirements are of an equally high standard then you are a rare and outstanding human being, and fully justify the title of World Champion.

I still stick to what I have said, as regards Grand Prix (or Formula One) racing, but one day I might be proved wrong. I know a lot of people think Ivan Capelli has the making of a World Champion, and indeed it would give me great pleasure to see him rise to the pinnacle of Formula One, for he is one of the present crop of Grand Prix drivers that I like very much. I like his whole attitude to the sport, his driving and racing are always a joy to watch, and he has a very pleasant and sunny character. As Mike Hailwood would have said, “He’s a good lad, is Ivan”. But he wears glasses, and races wearing contact lenses.

To wander from the subject for a moment, some years ago I was watching a pit-stop at Le Mans, and when the driver jumped out of the car, instead of getting straight up onto the pit-counter, he started grubbing about on the ground alongside the car. When I met him later in the race I asked: “What was that all about, at your pit-stop?” He laughed and said: “Oh dear, one of my contact lenses fell out as I jumped out of the car.”

Then came the question “has there ever been a top flight racing driver with only one eye?” I could not think of one, but the reason for asking was that there had been three notable racing motorcyclists with only one eye. Austin Monks was a Manx Grand Prix winner, the Australian Harry Hinton could outride most people, especially on short circuits, and John Kidson has a row of TT Replica awards to stand testimony to his ability round the Isle of Man.

Kidson wrote to me on the eyesight question and racing (he is a Motor Sport reader of thirty years standing), and said that he never felt he had a problem due to having sight in only one eye, but he could never know whether he would have ridden faster and better if he had sight in both eyes. The only problem he encountered was that he couldn’t see the opposition over his left shoulder!

A motorcycle is a narrow single-track vehicle and you are sitting on the centreline, so the span of vision required when racing is only about the width of the front tyre. With the centre-lines of the eyes about three inches apart, looking along a racing line with either the right eye or the left eye would be no problem. The ability to swivel the body and head, especially when leaning over in corners, means that peripheral vision is very good; except on your “blind” side if you only have sight in one eye.

In a racing car you need a much wider span of vision, as your sighting points (ie, the front wheels) can be 6ft apart. If you are in a saloon or a sports-car, sitting offset from the centre-line, the requirements are more complex. Add to that the modern-day driving seat and harness and there is no way you can swivel your body about in order to see who is behind you, or alongside you, so you have to rely on mirrors, and single optic vision would present a real problem. When you watch video or television film taken by a camera fixed to a car or motorcycle you get a perfect example of what we are on about. A camera is like a human being with only one eye working; and added to that it has no peripheral vision and there are problems of where it can be fitted. So far l have not seen any such film through the eyes of the driver; it is either from one side or from over his head.

A classic video film is the one where the camera was mounted on the tank of a Honda ridden round the Isle of Man by Joey Dunlop. It was mounted on his sight-line when he was really tucked down behind the fairing, and he must have been looking along both sides of the lens. You saw the rev-counter the way he saw it, your view banked over as he leaned into the corners, and you were looking right up the exhaust pipes of bikes he was overtaking. If you knew the TT circuit well it was an even more enthralling picture. So far I have not seen a film from a car that comes anywhere near reality. There has been some good entertaining stuff, but nothing that has approached the bike films.

Returning to human eyesight and driving, an interesting letter came from Doug Ewen in County Clare, Ireland. He was driving along on a wet and dark night when visibility was poor, and it crossed his mind that while travelling at, say, 60 mph you are covering about 30 yards every second, and every time you blink you are probably covering about six yards with your eyes shut. This means that racing drivers who are travelling at 180 mph must cover 18 yards with their eyes shut every time they blink! He says “I don’t suppose Senna and Prost blink very often?”

The answer is that they do blink, but the brain is working ahead all the time and has already dealt with the pre-planning required for that 18 yards when the eyes are shut. I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to look into the eyes of top racing drivers from Fangio to Senna and, take it from me, they are very special eyes. Writing about one of those long-distance open-road races that used to happen in South America, an Argentine journalist recounted an incident at one of the breaks at the end of a particularly arduous stage. Most of the drivers had arrived and were sitting around chatting when a young man came in, an ex-mechanic turned racing driver who had been leading the stage against all the acknowledged stars. “This young man came in; his eyes were clear in spite of the immense tiredness which showed on his face, his hair was brown in colour, and as he walked quietly into the room he said in a flat tone ‘buen provecho’ to the assembled company.”

It was Juan Manuel Fangio at the age of 28 years. Those eyes are still clear at the age of 78 years.

From the question of racing with vision in one eye, the obvious next step is people who have raced with one arm or one leg, but that will have to wait for another time. We might then go on to the people who race with no brain! . DSJ