Ken Jones: I have one simple question for fans of Formula One and that is: Why?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This question is for the many thousands of people who turned up at Imola last weekend for the San Marino Grand Prix and the millions worldwide who followed the race on television. What's so fascinating about a sport whose participants are seldom visible to the audience, a sport so technically complex that it passeth all normal understanding?

This question is for the many thousands of people who turned up at Imola last weekend for the San Marino Grand Prix and the millions worldwide who followed the race on television. What's so fascinating about a sport whose participants are seldom visible to the audience, a sport so technically complex that it passeth all normal understanding?

It was no startling insight when a leading figure in Formula One recently agreed that the outcome of races depends a great deal more on physics than human skills and endeavour, but it made me wonder. What's going on when there are figures to show that motor racing's pull internationally is surpassed only by football? Apparently the Chinese can't get enough of it.

Motor racing is one of the few big sports I know where practitioners don't get the full rich benefits of directives from the stands. You call on a footballer to shoot, a boxer to throw a hook, question a jockey's judgement, but try yelling at a man who is travelling at great speed in a mobile billboard. Who is it anyway? The engine's whine, a flash of colour. Even the best commentators sometimes get it wrong.

Accordingly, I put this to a friend who has a wide interest in sports and bets on most of them. He told me about three men with whom he shares an office. It appears that they wouldn't cross the street to watch any form of ball game or a horse race. They think boxing barbaric. Athletics leaves them cold. But when it comes to motor racing they could bore for Great Britain.

You probably know the type. "They go on and on about fuel loads, pit-stop tactics, engine ratios. It wouldn't surprise me if they came to work in overalls and helmets," my friend said. "It's worse than listening to a golf addict."

The only thing I know for sure about a car is that the clock does not work a month after you buy it. Sometimes the rest of it doesn't either. However, before a universal prejudice sets in I'd better declare my admiration for race drivers.

Once - and this is going back a bit - shortly before the US Grand Prix was staged in what used to be the car park at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, I nervously accepted an invitation to be driven around the track in a pace car. From the effect on my facial muscles as we went into sharp bends I quickly deduced that I was not meant for this form of motoring. Another circuit and I would have been sitting in a damp patch.

As everybody knows, a Formula One car is hard on tyres, burns a fortune in fuel and the sound is deafening. You don't see a grand prix, you hear it. You could get a punctured eardrum just flying over the circuit.

A motor racing correspondent I know admits to indifference. "Gets you around the world but I can never imagine paying to watching it," he admitted.

Once, in a fit of nostalgia, Sir Stirling Moss spoke of differences brought about by technical advancement. "Time was when you could stand on a bank during practice and identify an oncoming driver by the way he held the wheel, distinctive mannerisms. Now they are cocooned."

If Moss's time was more romantic it was also more dangerous. Years after his retirement, the great Juan Manuel Fangio would sadly speak about losing so many friends in racing accidents. Moss himself came close to death. A big reduction in peril has long since defeated the theory that public interest in motor racing is essentially morbid. This adds to the bafflement I share with others.

Of course, there is the intrigue, the politics, the disputes, charges brought over millimetres of infringement, the money, the prestige. It has been said that motor racing is more and more like watching speedway - on some of the tracks it is practically impossible to overtake the driver who starts in pole position.

So what explains interest so great that Formula One is extensively covered in newspapers and across the airwaves? Is it fascination with speed, vicarious involvement, the racing car as a phallic symbol? To my mind, feeble as it may be, motor racing amounts to more noise than I can deal with.

Imola saw Fernando Alonso just hold off Michael Schumacher over the last three laps. According to reports it was the most exciting finish for years - which tells you something.

Comments