Matters of moment, September 2015

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“You need to be pretty strong to deal with the business of motor racing,” writes Tyler Alexander in a new book documenting his incredible life in the sport. Like any of his generation who fully embraced such an existence, this founding member of McLaren suffered more than his fair share of loss over the years. The quote refers specifically to his feelings after close friend Peter Revson was killed in 1974, in a Formula 1 Shadow at Kyalami. Alexander’s words on the tragedy are understated, just as they on the subjects of Timmy Mayer, Bruce McLaren and Ayrton Senna. They do not hide his strength of feeling – in fact their bold simplicity enhances it – but within those words there’s an unspoken acceptance that death is part of the deal.

Tyler’s thoughts returned to me on that Saturday morning in July when we awoke to news that Jules Bianchi had finally succumbed to the injuries sustained more than nine months earlier in Japan. In the hours that followed, the outpouring of grief and sympathy from fellow racers and fans was genuine and heartfelt. The reaction also reminded me once again that the old acceptance of the ultimate price is now out of step with modern thinking. Sure, we all know motor racing is still dangerous – but decades of progress in levels of car and circuit safety have hardened attitudes to fatal accidents.

During his career, Alexander’s response to tragedy chimed with the majority in racing paddocks or on spectator banks: “Well, we just have to get on with it, don’t we?” Now, such stoic fatalism – while completely understandable as a coping mechanism, especially in the context of time – is never enough. Today there are always consequences in the wake of fatalities. And that’s surely as it should be.

Nevertheless, as Nigel Roebuck discusses at length in this issue, despite society’s heightened sensibilities we find ourselves questioning whether motor sport has become too risk-averse. In the immediate wake of the dreadful Bianchi news, Nigel knows he’s walking a fine line, but I found myself on the same tightrope while watching on TV the Indycar race from the California Speedway back in June. So-called ‘pack racing’, as 200mph single-seaters swarm just inches apart on ovals, lap after lap, is both thrilling and terrifying all at once. In this age of safety above all else, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Was this really 2015? Didn’t Dan Wheldon lose his life in exactly these circumstances? Then again, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

After Ryan Briscoe’s nose-diving, multi-flip shunt ended the insanity (thankfully without harm), I stopped holding my breath and nodded vigorously as Will Power and Penske crew chief Tim Cindric roundly criticised what had been allowed to go on. Then they cut to AJ Foyt, who smiled and shrugged something about it just being motor racing – and I found myself nodding again, this time a little sheepishly.

And that’s the most pressing contradiction of modern motor racing, right there. When do daring risk and feats of bravery cross the boundaries of unacceptable danger? In Bianchi’s case, that’s easy to answer because of the strange nature of his accident. It simply shouldn’t have happened. But for most series, most tracks and most drivers, week in, week out, where is that line?

In the wake of all this progress, it’s become so much harder to define.

We celebrate the magic of Monza with this issue, in the knowledge that its Formula 1 future remains shrouded by doubt because of the financial pressures and demands imposed on Grand Prix venues in the era of CVC. The circuit, too, offers an example where motor racing walks that line. Our affections for the place are all wrapped up in the high-speed avenues between the trees and those barely latent dangers.

During the British Grand Prix, I found myself contemplating Silverstone’s place in comparison to Monza. Both have their traditions and wonderful high-velocity characters, but nothing is ever simple when it comes to the airfield in the centre of England. Silverstone is just so different from how it used to be.

Free from the shackles of having to watch the race in front of a bank of TV screens, I left the windowless press room in the concrete Wing and wandered down to the inside of Club Corner, on the bit of new terracing beside the pit entry. Thirty-four years earlier I’d been standing on tiptoes on the other side of the track, cheering John Watson to victory at my first British GP. Back in 1981, where I stood now was the barren apron to one of the criss-crossing runways, and my vantage point all those years ago was just… there: about where that giant grandstand starts its sweep around what is now the last corner. And that mass of people over there on the outside of Vale, that was the track.

If I close my eyes, I can still picture ground-effects missiles shooting down from Stowe, a yellow flash for Renault, red for Ferrari, orange for Arrows and so on, my ears stinging to the unwavering engine notes without the hint of a lift for fearsome Club. How could there be a person inside that thing, going that fast? The screams would continue all the way up through Abbey, and out of sight. Shivers down the spine, even now when I open my eyes.

How can I feel the same way about a place that looks entirely different, where most familiar landmarks have long been swept away? And then it hits me. Look at that crowd, under those same, familiar big skies. The Silverstone masses are a match for any tifosi in my book, especially on a day like this with a home hero to cheer. Fired by a genuinely exciting Grand Prix – Hallelujah! – the atmosphere crackles and it occurs this really could be nowhere else.

The Silverstone of Wattie and Mansell is gone – but it’s still Silverstone.

The Wing? That’s irrelevant to the vast majority of the 140,000 throng. Most of them can’t get anywhere near it, anyway. Walk the circuit and discover the great vantage points for a still-fantastic place to watch Grand Prix cars. And if you look closely, every now and then you will find a familiar view, a patch of track that hasn’t changed too much or a bit of forgotten old kerbing.

The magic of Monza is much more obvious, because chicanes and run-off aside, it’s all as it was. Silverstone isn’t like that. It couldn’t be if it wanted to hang on to its race. But somehow, almost despite itself, the old airfield is just as special. What would we do without either of them?