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Technocrats Killing F1 Aesthetics

April 21, 2017 In the News, Racing

Technocrats Killing F1 Aesthetics

By Doug Nye

It must be my age.  When I first became fascinated by motor racing, it must have been around 1950-51. It was an entirely remote, academic interest if such an adjective can be applied to the musings of a five- or six-year-old kid. My family didn’t own a car.  Neither of my parents drove, so within my mind the motor car as such was a remote, exotic, phantom beast…

I adopted my big brother Rod’s “Observers’ Book of Motor Cars” – and committed all the makes and models to budding memory. Then one day he introduced me to a slender weekly magazine named ‘Autosport’. On the front cover was a black-and-white photograph of – nnnhhh! – A Racing Car. Oh bliss, oh joy…oh poop-poop!  And that’s how the fight started, your honour.

1956 Juan Manuel Fangio in the Monaco Grand Prix driving a Ferrari D50

I’ve been a dyed-in-the-wool racing fan ever since. But for me, as I recall, it wasn’t just the racing car, that shapely, swooping, darting, omnipotent, weapon of war that intrigued and gripped me. The car in that photo was bounding over a hump, dynamic, in near-flight, evidently on a knife-edge of control, yet the guy in its cockpit looked totally relaxed, in command, utterly competent…and his name, as I recall, was Juan Manuel Fangio.

And then there was still more. Other photographs showed such cars racing in wonderfully exotic foreign parts. I had never been more than – say – two miles from my home – my father had never been more than – say – 100 miles from home, and would never ever extend his range any further, despite living way into his 80s. So “foreign parts” became an exotic laminate upon the exotic racing car itself, and its exotic racing driver.

Tony Brooks in the Vanwall team’s Formula 1 car at the Moroccan Grand Prix in Casablanca. In this same year, 1958, Team Vanwall won the inaugural Constructors Championship but due to the failing health of it’s owner, Tony Vandervell, it was their last appearance as a regular multi-car race entrant.

And there was even more. As my voracious appetite for racing photographs expanded, and I saw more and more published in magazines and newspapers and books, so the form of the ’50s race circuit imprinted deep into my young and inquisitively receptive mind. Race circuits flanked by banks, and walls, and trees, and ditches, set in hills, or by super-exotic Mediterranean harbours, or reaching out around a thousand miles – no less – of the Italian leg, extending way south into the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and the Appenines. Coo-err – it all just gripped my total, rapt, attention, and soon I was deep into those wonderful fold-out ‘National Geographic’ maps that my dear Mum bought for me, but what I was doing was checking out, and marking in, where the great motor racing circuits of the world were located…

Yup, this is what we used before GPS

So I kind of grew up with a real aesthetic sense of motor racing at its highest level, a challenge to man and engineer, but one set in many ways by the dictates of combined geography, and ancient history – by the tenets which had governed the often centuries-old layout of public roads, mainly (of course) in Continental Europe.

And when I began – from the age of 18 – viewing motor racing from the active side of the fence, reporting races for ‘Motor Racing’ magazine, and then for ‘Motoring News’ and ‘Motor Sport’ and then so many others – it was always the aesthetics of the piece which really “did it for me”.

Lotus-Ford 49 driven by Jim Clark at the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix

To stand amongst the tough, tall, marram grass, up a seaside sand-dune at Zandvoort, looking down into the cockpit of Jim Clark’s works Lotus flashing by below, was just a mere hors d’ouevre.

BRM P57 driven by Graham Hill at the 1963 Belgium Grand Prix

For the starter course, go to the forested sheer majesty of Spa-Francorchamps – stand amongst the spring pasture on the farmland hillock about a half-mile infield from Masta hamlet, and watch competing cars howl by unrelentingly from end to end of the Masta Straight, beyond and below you. Then there was the Nurburgring in its old, full-fat form – bounded each side with more race track actually within sight than two or three home-bound British artificial circuits joined end to end.  Stand out there in the Eifel hills, dark, shaggy trees overhead, roasting under a piercing sun one moment, coughing in the chilling fog the very next – my, what a life unfolded before me…

Nürburgring Nordschleife Circuit Tour – 1971

And then, just to fill one’s aesthetic sense absolutely full to bursting…the Targa Florio in Sicily.  Oh my, oh my… sun, sensational cars, spectacular road racing, the supremely scenic Madonie Mountains, agaves and gaping drops amongst far-distant coastal vistas, the sheer aural sex of racing engine exhausts racketing back from village-street buildings … this was real motor racing at its most sensory; unbelievably imposing, an absolute feast for the eye, the ear, the brain…and the heart. Yessir – that’s what made me a lifelong, starry-eyed fan.

The Ferrari 250 GTO 64 chassis 4091GT, number 168, of Marsala and Adriano Reale racing at the 1966 Targo Florio in Italy.

But as the decades have passed, inevitably, things have changed. I couldn’t help thinking this as I sprawled on the sofa at home, 6am start – to watch the 2017 Chinese Grand Prix on the TV. Much of the old buzz remains the same. Will in this case Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes-Benz fight back against Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari?  Will the enigmatic and now veteran Finn, Kimi Raikkonen, shine on a circuit he likes and which suits him?  Will those two cars driven by Danny Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, who pays for them again…oh yes, that horrible energy drink that merely made me feel sick… come good…?

All the old questions were there, all the old buzz in that respect, but now we are talking 2017 and every one of these drivers has cut his teeth on kart racing. Kart tracks seem mostly to be painted-on or marked out upon a mere acre or so of tarmac – and the old racing aesthetic has long-since been submerged by FIA safety requirements, by the march of ‘civilization’, and by the cold, dull, logic of Ecclestone-era Germanic architects…effectively set-building, with precious little imagination, for a TV-driven era, for TV audiences, and not for the relative few real live paying spectators actually there, on the day.

Porsche 917Ks at the 1971 Spa 1000Km

One senses that few, if any, of the powers-that-be have ever stood beside the apex barrier at Spa’s Stavelot Curve to see the Porsche 917s being pitched-in there by world-class drivers, nine-tenths or more committed, approaching at 180mph-plus – their slipstreams making one’s trouser legs flutter as they slammed past within a yard of unprotected toes…

Jim Clark drives car number 4, a Lotus-Climax 25. Photographers take pictures alongside the track during the 1962 Dutch Grand Prix .

One senses that few, if any, of the powers-that-be have ever crouched in a trackside ditch at the Nurburgring Nordschleife, head at track level, to get the best view of Graham Hill’s Lotus 49 or Jackie Stewart’s Matra MS80 aviating over the approach crest – thumping back to earth by your ear, with a shower of sparks and sometimes gravel, slattering through the grass fronds…  Without such aesthetic, motor sport has become a grievous loser…

So I followed the Chinese GP on the telly – and squinted with a million more through the Shanghai smog to see the covered-in empty grandstands in the background there, red with some obscure sponsor’s logo blazoned large.  The pictorial composition was wide-screen landscape, with the dullest of dull horizontal greys completely unrelieved. Onboard cockpit view – wow, part of me still loves ’em – but what do we see, zero hazard, zero threat, more wide-screen landscape horizontal grey…

Ho hum – so Hamilton won (hurrah!) and Vettel finished second (equally hurrah!) – the pair subsequently showed one another perfectly amicable due respect (doubly-hurrah!) – and F1 owner Liberty’s suspected scriptwriters could relax after a job well done, setting up this F1 season very nicely – thought the cynic within…

But the previous day for practice I’d been there gazing at the TV again, and immediately the Chinese F1 coverage had failed to please me, I clicked idly through the satellite channels. Now here on our Atlantic island we find that about the only good thing to come out of Europe lately is a TV channel named Eurosport. And Eurosport TV covers professional bicycle road racing.  And they cover it fantastically well, with motor-cycle-borne cameras amongst the racers on the road, and with multiple helicopter-borne cameras in the skies above. And a day-Stage in a major bike race like this can extend to 170-miles or more, and they battle away, pedal to pedal, handlebar to handlebar, in a game of three-dimensional tactical chess which is mind-bogglingly admirable in sheer terms of physical capability, fitness and commitment. I am lost in awe, and really couldn’t care less what rocket fuel the occasional over-driven rider might be burning…

And the aesthetic of that sport is just stupendous. Of course, to my eye one bike is like another, but to see the sportsmen so plainly in combat mano a mano, on fabulously scenic roads, highways and byways, compares the Shanghai horizontal grey against the Basque country forested-mountain vertical green, the colour-bursts of springtime meadow plants, a true visual and sporting feast.

And there’s real, tangible, cultural history too.  After watching Hamilton and Vettel fight their grey, horizontal fight for the Mercedes and Ferrari marketing men’s satisfaction – it was over to Eurosport TV’s coverage of the 115th – no less – annual running of the Paris-Roubaix cycling classic – some 230kms overall, in this single day, with 55kms – no less – over cobblestone pavée roads.  No wonder the great race’s nickname is ‘The Hell of the North’.

And the coverage was great, the aesthetic was painted-in by bright-yellow fields of rapeseed blossom, many, many thousands of fans lining the confined, cobbled, countryside course – and the most dynamic wheel-to-wheel, competitive, lung-busting racing which was just brilliant. This nethers-battering race ended with five athletes in an ultimate nerve-tingling mass charge to the timing line, and a win by about one-tenth of a second…

2017 Paris- Roubaix. Photo courtesy of Gran Fondo USA

Against such competition – such visual, aesthetic and sporting comparison – Formula 1, 2017, upon the modern Tilkedrome courses is unattractive – despite the good and partially-effective efforts of the Bahrein GP set-dressers to paint their tarmac run-offs in tasteful pastel shades it looked even more like my grandson’s playmat. Aesthetically this is all thin gruel indeed…a ghastly loss to this once so multi-majestic sport.

Unless you’re a totally absorbed, wholly uncritical fan who has never seen, known or experienced better.

And yet – much as I regret the way these modern venues look – I’m happy to have my memories, and happier still to find I’m still, unashamedly, A Fan. It’s just that Formula 1’s new owners really could benefit from a new set designer – a real lateral thinker – with imagination, and at least some aesthetic sense of majesty.

6 Responses

  1. Malcolm Parker

    I couldn’t agree more with Mr Nye. Modern F1 has the look of video game and for many people actually offers less excitement. Hopefully the new management will recognise that part of their remit is asthetics and by denuding the cars of some of the more extreme aerodynamic protuberances like the McLarens coat hangers and a few of the more elborate vortex generators, the cars might be slightly less stable, but the racing perhaps a little more adventurous. As far as circuits go, Goodwood has shown that it is possible with a bit of effort, to produce a safe circuit that is also pleasing to the eye. Hopefully someone will recognise that by making the cars and circuits look more attractive, the appeal of the events themselves will also be increased.

  2. Joseph Freeman

    Doug Nye has it right, with the added comment that American Indy cars are even uglier, although the fan can closer (at least at Long Beach.) But getting closer doesn’t mean that the observer can see the driver at work, or even be able to identify him without all the sponsorship completely covering the car. Oh, yes, and try to read a number. For all we know, those creatures hidden somewhere inside all the carbon fiber aren’t robots, being directed by other robots in the pits. Definitely time for a change!

  3. Rick Raducha

    Exactly Doug. Watch even GP2 or any race from Spa or Watkins Glen even..the views are better than what is show with F1 and you can see more elevation and scenic views. Why, it’s the same track?

  4. Scott Crater

    Right on. I love watching the Tour de France mountain stages every summer for all the reasons you cited. And the World Championships of cycling from my hometown of Richmond Va was also great viewing–hills, cobblestones, etc.
    Your essay also helps explain the immense popularity of vintage tours and rallies, such as the modern Mille Miglia. The MM draws a staggering number of spectators today, at least 1 million people, because the cars can be driven and viewed in their natural environment.
    Spa is far and away my favorite F1 track–long, sinuous, hilly, with forested surrounds. Too bad the area around Austin is so barren and devoid of trees, because the Austin track itself is also spectacular, but the surroundings are pretty blah.

  5. Jim Hatfield

    I must agree with much of what Doug has written, but believe it must be balanced with the advances in safety since the “golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s. I came to appreciate (or become obsessed) with racing a bit later than Mr. Nye, around 1959, when my father first took me to a dirt car champ race at Langhorne Speedway in 1959, won I believe by a Dale Van Johnson. My first Indy 500 was in 1965 when I was a dedicated Jim Clark fan. My first road course event was at Marlboro Park Speedway, where I saw Mark Donohue decimate the Trans Am field. In case you’re not up each of these drivers, all died in racing accidents. By the mid 1970s, I had about lost interest in professional racing when I realized so many of the racing heroes of my youth had been taken by on track incidents.

    Yes, the cars of the 1950s and 1960s were beautiful, as were many of the tracks. However, a reading of Brian Redman’s excellent new book, “Daring Drivers, Deadly Tracks” should give a perspective on racing in the era from a driver’s viewpoint. I remain a dedicated fan of the sport in part because I no longer need to wonder how many drivers will perish before the racing season is over.

  6. David Burgess-Wise

    Having just watched highlights of the Tour de France (the idea, incidentally, of the Count de Dion) on the ferry back from Vintage Revival Montlhery on the 1924 banked circuit, which makes modern motor racing look dull by comparison, I agree with Doug how good cycle racing looks on the screen. But doesn’t that carefully filmed, always with the pack, presentation give a totally unreal impression of the event, just as the paintings of Gordon Crosby and Peter Helck give a glamourised view of city-to-city racing at the dawn of the 20th Century? In reality, those roadside spectators have maybe 90 seconds’ action to watch as the tete du peloton, followed closely by the massed riders of the peloton whizz by in a blur of brightly coloured Lycra and then there’s nothing left but the scenery…

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