Whining engines, flashes of colour and deaf ears

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The Independent Online

This question is for the many thousands of people who will shortly converge on the British Grand Prix at Silverstone andmillions world-wide who never miss an opportunity to follow motor racing 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 light in Formula One agreed last week 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? I'm told that the Chinese can't get enough of it, that it's big in India.

Motor racing is one of the few sports I know where practitioners don't get the full, rich benefit of directives from the stands. You can 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 and flash of colour. Even Murray Walker gets it wrong.

Accordingly, I put this to a friend who has a wide interest in games 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 be a surprise 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 doesn't work one 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 undying admiration for race drivers.

Once, shortly before the US Grand Prix was held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, I accepted an invitation to be driven around the course in a pace car. From the effect on my facial muscles as we went into bends I quickly deduced that I was not meant for this form of motoring. Another circuit and I would have been sitting on 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'd get pulled up by the law just pushing it through Piccadilly, it's so noisy. Actually, you don't see a grand prix, you hear it. You could get a punctured eardrum just flying over the circuit.

There are motor racing correspondents who admit to indifference. "Gets you around the world but I can never imagine paying to watch it," one of them recently admitted.

Once, in a fit of nostalgia, Stirling Moss spoke of differences brought by technical advancement. "Time was when you could identify an oncoming driver by how he held the wheel, distinctive mannerisms. Now they are cocooned." Moss's time was more romantic, more dangerous too. Juan Fangio would sadly speak about losing so many of his friends in racing accidents. Moss himself came close to death.

A reduction in peril defeats 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 disputes, charges that are brought over millimetres of infringement, the money, the prestige. Someone said the other day that motor racing is more and more like watching speedway. On some of the tracks it is practically impossible to overtake the leader.

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 and, at Silverstone, the prospect of being stuck for hours in a traffic jam.