|"Control, control, you must learn control!"|
When I was young, my parents signed me up for piano lessons. I was never given a choice in the matter. I was simply told, when you’re older, you’ll be glad you learned how to play an instrument. I cannot say that I enjoyed it when my father dragged me out of bed at six in the morning to practice for an hour before I went off to school, but I endured the regimen, and learned how to play the piano competently enough. While I don’t practice the piano any more, and rarely play, still, I suppose my parents were right. At least I know what it’s like to play an instrument, and that’s an aspect of life I would have been completely ignorant of, had I not experienced so much of it when I was young.
Twenty years ago I started watching automobile races. After awhile, my interest in other series waned, but I never stopped watching Formula One. To me, these engineering marvels are beautiful, and drivers like Kimi Raikkonen are heroes. Out of necessity, I performed simple repairs on my car during high school, but that experience hasn’t helped me understand all the complex systems of a Formula One racecar. Every time I watch the drivers during the race, I’m amazed how they work all the controls, while slammed back into their seats from the acceleration along the straights, taking the perfect line through every corner, and breaking at the very last moment through every turn. Then, when they come up on a slower car, they’ve got to take a different line, brake in different places, and readjust their controls—in other words, do everything differently--in order to pass it.
The controls of today’s Formula One cars are all located on the steering wheel. This allows the driver to keep both hands on or near the wheel while making near-constant adjustments. In Formula 1 ’99 Technical Analysis, author Giorgio Piola depicts a Ferrari steering wheel, and describes the function of all twenty-one controls. (It’s safe to say that the steering wheels have evolved since then). Today’s Formula One drivers may not need to work all the buttons, knobs, and paddles during every lap, but some of them, such as gear shift paddles and brake adjustments, are operated dozens, if not hundreds of times each lap. This reminds me of the cockpit instruments in a fighter jet or a spacecraft, in which the pilot or astronaut must make constant adjustments as he hurtles along at unimaginable speeds.
While every consideration is made for driver and audience safety, auto racing, just like flying and spaceflight, remains a dangerous sport. The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix reminded everyone of Murphy’s Law: if anything can go wrong, it eventually will. When Rubens Barrichello hit a curb wrong during practice, his Jordan launched into the air and crashed into the tire barrier. Thankfully, he emerged with nothing more than a broken nose and an injured arm. During qualifying, when his Simtek’s front wing failed, Roland Ratzenberger slammed headfirst into a concrete wall. He wasn’t so lucky. J. J. Lehto, not doubt unsettled by his friend Roland’s death, stalled at the start of the race. Pedro Lamy’s Lotus plowed into Lehto’s Benetton. The impact hurled debris into the air, some of which flew over the safety fence and into the crowd, in the process injuring nine spectators. After the restart, something went wrong with Ayrton Senna’s car. When his Williams suddenly veered off the track, even the triple-champion’s incredible talent and superhuman reflexes couldn’t help him avoid the crash that ended his life. Finally, ten laps before the end, a wheel worked itself loose as Michele Alboreto’s car left his pits. The wheel hurtled along pit lane, and struck two Ferrari and two Lotus mechanics, sending all four men to the hospital.
Despite all the subsequent advances in safety, Formula One remains a dangerous sport, perhaps just as dangerous as the risks involved for an astronaut or a test pilot. I’m amazed drivers like Kimi Raikkonen, or test pilots like Pete Conrad, work so many controls while traveling so fast. The closest I could ever come to matching their performances would be if I played the piano in a jazz group, constantly taking cues and changing my performance to match that of the other members of the group. But to really match my heroes’ performance, I’d need to have the Incredible Hulk standing behind me while I played, constantly pressing my head down, or shoving me to the side, or yanking me back to simulate the G forces of acceleration, turning, and breaking. And should I play a wrong note, get out of key, break my rhythm, or fail to make any other adjustment quickly enough to match the group’s constantly changing music, the Hulk would slam his fist into me, and knock me to the ground. Or he would pick me up, grunt, “HULK, SMASH,” and…well, we know what happens then.
Please, Stan Lee and Joss Whedon: don’t get any ideas.
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