F1: Not just cars going round and round

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The Independent Online

The thing is, it's the British Grand Prix this weekend, and I will be watching it on television. After football, it's the most popular sport in the world, so apparently about 530 million other people will be doing the same, but I don't know any of them.

As a fan of Formula One, I feel quite iconoclastic, since every time I mention it, my friends say, "Oh please...it's so boring, just cars going round and round." Or, "It's all about who has the best car."

They obviously haven't cottoned on to the fact that each driver is racing against a man in exactly the same car, namely his so-called team "mate", with whom he is actually locked in a deadly personal war. So in a grid of 24, there are, in effect, 12 separate races.

Sure, the sport is safer than it was. Formula One drivers may no longer have a one in 10 chance of dying every season, as used to be the case in the Sixties, but their discourse still has a stiff-upper-lip terseness. If they crash while travelling at 200 miles an hour, they might say they have had "a bit of a moment" or an "off"; a really bad smash and they might speak of having "lunched" the car.

Juan Pablo Montoya once laconically expressed his racing philosophy: "Get in car, drive car, see what happens." I also like the way the drivers compress incredible technical arcana into what sounds like raffish upper-class slang. For example, a car with oversteer (that is, the front corners faster than the back) is "a bit pointy".

Yes, the drivers of today are constrained by a corporate straitjacket, but they break out of it very often. Witness, for example, Lewis Hamilton's recent outbursts after being penalised twice by the stewards at the Monaco Grand Prix. ("Maybe it's because I'm black.") On live TV once, Martin Brundle asked Kimi Raikkonen why he was late on to the starting grid. "I was having a shit."

Unlike Premier League footballers, Formula One drivers have "hinterland". Fernando Alonso does magic tricks; Jarno Trulli makes wine; while Sebastian Vettel, the reigning world champion, is obsessive about Monty Python.

A sport gets the followers it deserves. Clive James likes Formula One, as did George Harrison. Ironic, really, that he was "the quiet one". But then this underrated spectacle is steeped in paradox and perversity.