Sport on TV: The formula for F1's success is revealed, in a roundabout way
Sunday 22 May 2011
Richard Hammond introduced his guide to the Formula One car with the words: "They're so fast that the engineers have to work hard to stop them taking off." He kept revelling in footage of Manfred Winkelhock getting airborne at the Nürburgring in 1980. The F1 technicians who gave Hammond access must have been well aware of his reputation because they didn't let him anywhere near one of their cars.
In Richard Hammond's Engineering Connections (BBC2, Sunday) the Top Gear presenter was trying to show that the technology involved in F1 was rooted in simple but historic developments such as forging swords and firing cannonballs. This wasn't particularly surprising given that all human advances stem from an evolutionary process. At least he didn't show us a wheel and say "once upon a time these were square, then someone had a bright idea".
Depending on your point of view, F1 is either the most exciting sport of all – man and machine in perfect harmony with the help of billions of dollars – or the most boring – a bunch of blokes stuck on a large roundabout. The technology is all but impenetrable for the non-enthusiast. All the cars end up pretty much the same anyway; it's not as if a driver rolls out of the pits, looks around and realises that everyone else has got a big spoiler on the back and he hasn't.
It was laudable for Hammond to strip the issues down to the basics, and yet it had a tendency to make it all sound even more boring. But if you're talking cannonballs and pistons, it is all about boring holes.
The technical change in F1 which is quite interesting this season is the fact that all cars must run the race on one tank of fuel. In these tough times, with petrol prices soaring, this is presumably because every time they pulled into the pits to fill up, the price would have gone up a couple of pence. It's good to know that even F1 is feeling the pinch. But as Hammond the petrolhead kept instructing a man to shoot flaming arrows at various fuel canisters, we were more inclined to make him feel the punch.
Surely the most fascinating aspect of F1 is not the cars but the drivers, and how the human psyche can cope with all the engineering advances. In Inside the Human Body (BBC1, Thursday) Dr Michael Mosley – no relation to Max, as far as we know – was examining the brain and he met Stephanie Beane, at 13 the world's youngest stock car racer. We see her racing against grown men at 90mph at the Winchester Speedway, the "world's fastest half-mile" with the steepest banking in US motorsport.
Her attitude is not cluttered by the clutch of adult anxieties. She says: "It's pretty awesome 'cos whenever you go round, it's like you get all that speed in you and it just builds up and it's like, I wanna go!" She gets a "stronger natural high" from making a successful manoeuvre than her adult rivals. Mosley explains that the mind of a teenager is designed to take risks before the brain settles down. "Even when she recognises that something is dangerous, she'll probably do it anyway," he says.
All of which won't reassure the big boys in their big toys. If it weren't aerodynamically unsound, they would probably all be shaking their fists out of the cockpit and shouting: "Bloody kids!" Beane is certainly earning her go-faster stripes, but the others must want to throttle her.
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