April 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Winning slowly

By Clive James

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“The secret,” said Niki Lauda, “is to win going as slowly as possible.” This remark is sometimes attributed to another and even greater racing driver, Juan Manuel Fangio. Perhaps Niki Lauda was quoting it without acknowledgment. Anyway, I actually heard Lauda say this, at a pre-race press conference in Portugal in 1984, the year he came back from the burns unit all the way to his second World Championship. As far as I know, I was the only reporter who wrote it down. None of the other Formula One correspondents had come to Estoril to study philosophy and neither had I, but even at the time it struck me as a profound remark from someone who had only one race left to snatch the title, and one way or another I have been thinking about what he said ever since. In its specific application to motor racing, the idea is simply right. You can’t win the race unless you finish, and the driver who is kind to his car is most likely to go the distance. A Formula One car has very little redundancy in its make-up: it can be hurt by a single missed gear change. In the turbo days the fiercer drivers blew their engines early. Whatever the current specifications of the formula, the tyres are always critical, so the smooth driver will soon be driving a different car to the one wrestled by the less smooth, no matter how spectacular the latter might look.

Fangio, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, three of the all-time great champion drivers (Clark might have won more races than the other two put together if he had not been killed in an accident that wasn’t his fault), were all kind to the car. Alain Prost, who won more Grand Prix races at a quicker rate than anybody until Michael Schumacher came along, was considered uncanny even by the other drivers for the way his cars held together: it was as if he could hear what was going on in the engine. Prost was the car’s friend. Other drivers treated the car no more tactfully than they treated women. I was actually Nelson Piquet’s passenger in a Nissan sports car on the ad hoc track at Caesar’s Palace hotel in Las Vegas when Mario Andretti went past in a similar car. It was supposed to be a demonstration run but Piquet immediately went frantic to catch up: he always drove with passion and that was his problem. He won the World Championship twice but broke down more often than he should have, and when his passion went he could scarcely drive at all.

Stirling Moss, on the other hand, rarely broke down through his own fault. The main reason he never won a championship was that he condemned himself, through patriotism, to inferior machinery; but he could make it look superior by the economy with which he drove it. When I was making a television special about motor racing I needed an ordinary road licence – though always crazy about cars, I had never learned to drive – and we enrolled Moss as my instructor, starting with the very basics. Thus I was inculcated into his principles, which all sprang from his initial precept that the car, not the man, has the power, and the man’s job is not to interfere. Moss never, but never, touched the brake pedal unless the car was moving in a straight line. Braking and changing down were all done before he turned into the corner. As a direct result, he rarely span off. Formula One fans often asked me what it was like to be Moss’s passenger on an ordinary motorway. The answer is that it was hair-raising, but not because you thought he might be out of control. His personal car was a tiny Peugeot but it had plenty of hidden oomph – it was a wolf in shrew’s clothing – and you just couldn’t help wondering if all the huge trucks he went zipping closely past were being driven to the same standard.

Nobody who was following the fast cars in the 1950s will ever forget Eugenio Castellotti. But he didn’t last long, either in life or in most of his individual races. In the Mille Miglia he drove his Ferrari on the footpath when the road was full of spectators. He was always over the limit, like Jean Behra, another spell-binder who suffered the same fate. In more recent times, the flamboyant Keke Rosberg lived to retire, but it was something of a miracle: in the old days, before carbon-fibre monocoque construction made a crash more survivable, he would have been killed ten times. Rosberg’s style thrilled crowds but it strained the machinery. Gilles Villeneuve earned an undeserved reputation for being thrilling to watch. In his time at Ferrari, the car was a monster. He had to fight it all the way, and would have much preferred to look less dazzling: some people wise in the ways of motor racing still think that Villeneuve was the fastest driver ever but that he never had a car to match his talent. As for Ayrton Senna, he was so superior that he could keep the car right on the limit without breaking it. All the drivers in Formula One are superior, even the duffers, but Senna had the full eleven tenths. His winning strategy depended on his ability to go flat out from the jump, with no time wasted playing himself in. The other drivers were meant to be demoralised straight away and usually were, except for Nigel Mansell, who couldn’t be demoralised by a pistol held to his head.

The answer to the question of whether Mansell was as quick as Senna is yes, but Mansell was just that crucial bit less easy on the machinery. Senna wasn’t killed by a mistake: he was killed by a component failure, and almost certainly it was not caused by any strain that he imposed – apart, of course, from the strain necessarily imposed by driving the car as fast as it could go, all the time. The most convincing proof of Senna’s fundamental smoothness was that even the car he drove in his first year at Lotus (a notoriously fragile beast, it was seemingly designed to fall apart before it left the garage) would go several laps before breaking down and sometimes even won. On the subject of Michael Schumacher, questions answer themselves. As was true of Fangio, if his car is on the pace then there are few races Schumacher finishes that he does not win, and for the same combination of reasons: ability, strategic judgment, and sympathy with the machinery. (Fernando Alonso might have all these things too, but he also has, for the moment, a slightly faster car.) The second and third reasons matter more than the first, although the first makes better copy. In reality, there was never that much difference in sheer driving ability between Schumacher and, say, Michele Alboreto in the period when they were still racing each other. But Schumacher’s car got to the chequered flag and Alboreto’s went to the junkyard. In journalism, it is more rewarding to talk about Schumacher’s supernatural reflexes than to dwell on his capacity to think ahead, and there is no mileage at all in writing about what doesn’t show – his gift for preserving the car against its own inbuilt tendency to disintegrate. A racing car is just the most concentrated possible form of a system tending towards entropy. Schumacher understands the second law of thermodynamics. So did Lauda.

That Lauda’s principle has a general application to life might seem a mere truism. Obviously, as long as you get enough exercise, you will live longer if you minimise the time you spend running for a bus. But it gets interesting when applied to the arts. An artist must concentrate, and the more original he is, the more likely it is that he will focus his mental energy beyond the normal tolerance of the human brain in particular or his body in general, let alone the patience of his loved ones. Even if his compensating relaxations do not destroy him, he might well find life difficult. (As we learn from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen, the greatest novelist in English was put out of action for ten years by an enforced change of residence.) Proust and his friend the composer Reynaldo Hahn were once touring the garden of a large private house. Proust stopped to look at a rosebush. Hahn left him there, slowly circumnavigated the house, and returned to find him still looking at the rosebush. They remained friends, but only because Proust chose his friends carefully. If you spend half your life in a contemplative trance, you must do your best to ensure that the other half is adapted to that activity, or your life will be short. The secret of applying energy is to economise on effort – to win going as slowly as possible.

Clive James

Clive James was an author, critic, broadcaster and poet. He wrote more than 20 books, including his memoir, The Blaze of Obscurity, and a collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum.

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