MMR Blog

My Word: F1 – The Green Flag Falls

Posted on March 20, 2014 Comments (0)

By Denise McCluggage

It is St. Patrick’s Day as I write. I see green things around me never meant to be green—beer and bagels. Then I am struck with an “aha” moment. On the weekend I saw something like beer and bagels that was also never meant to be green: A Formula 1 Race.

If a race were meant to be green there’s a simple way to assure that it is—don’t have it. If you’re planning an intimate party, don’t rent Yankee Stadium. What is it, I wonder, about “antithetical” that the FIA doesn’t understand? A selection of wheeled objects on which lots of money, engineering brilliance and time were expended and a season of races planned as far distant as they can be one from the other to decide which of these costly objects can go faster than the others. Beautiful in its simplicity, if not egregious in its expense.

All this is created so as many people as possible can pack into their own wheeled objects and get to these venues to watch the purpose-designed wheeled thingies perform. All the time hoping that as much noise of a pleasing din level can be made for their near-pain pleasure. Has anyone asked if this is socially desirable or in the best interest of humankind?

Hardly relevant, really. If a foot has been set on the path it is too late isn’t it? And cannot something be soul-satisfying without having redeeming social virtues? Like racing has been for most of us forever. Wasteful, pointless, marvelous and fun. Rationales have been created—improvement of the breed etc.—but racing doesn’t really need them. After all it’s hard to overcome the simple fact that the start line and the finish line are the same. That’s important, isn’t it? But if you wish you can point out the rear-view mirror was invented at Indy in 1911. Breed improvement rampant I’d say.

In all this did someone this year actually say, hey wait. F1 must be meaningful. F1 must act in the interests of frugality and fuel-saving technology. F1 must express relevancy to our time.

Why? Really. Why?

We are talking about F1 which is an embodiment of one Bernie Ecclestone, the very essence of excess. What’s relevant to Bernie is money. That’s why and how F1 exists. Who sold him on this social relevance irrelevance? Green is meaningful to Bernie only in stacks of bills. Was it Jean Todt? Crikey, I knew that guy would get up to nonsense if given half a chance.

Anyway on that March weekend of Australia I watched some boy racers do some fine things in the uncertainty of a new scene in new tools. And I saw some veterans get shat upon by those same tools. I suspected it would be entertaining to see who would literally and figuratively be up to speed in the new Formula. Though I would have just as soon given them all a pre-season opportunity to do their learning and make their adjustments so we could then get to racing right away in its simplest form of comparing speed to speed.

The FIA has its ways. Sigh. Complicating matters is a favorite.

And such high tech ways of doing it. Take regeneration. As Henny Youngman would say: “Please!?” What F1 needs is new ways to heat things up, produce smoke in odd places and at odd times. Collecting expended energy seems to do that. C’mon. Stop it. RACE!

And if you want to limit the fuel cars use (to interfere with their actual racing) just give them some barrels of it and say that’s it. No, the team engineers are too clever. They’ll find fiddle factors and ways to create an advantage. So make them eye-dropper the fuel out over time. Make them use FIA meters which don’t work properly and keep the metering out of the control of drivers. Why should racing drivers have control of their race cars? They’ve been giving that up for years.

Which brings us to Daniel Ricciardo and his second place finish. And don’t cry for him, Australia. He did finish second. You all saw it. The charming glee on the podium from the young newcomers (Magnussen was a trip, too) was refreshing and very good for F1 racing. That moment cannot be erased. It was real. Oh, the points can be erased and were. That’s what the FIA does hours after the fact. That’s why it is called organized racing.

But that performance cannot be erased. Racing occurred, a result resulted and we cheered it. An adjustment was made (open to readjustment) and we readjust to that, but that is scorekeeping. Not racing. Scorekeeping makes championships possible but that is an adjunct to racing. Racing is what happened and so congratulations to Danny Boy. Celebrate. So you are less likely to be champion this year but you may have beaten the guy who will be. While racing.

And the silly eye-droppering of fuel which mattered more to the green foolishness of the FIA than the racing stole the day. Perhaps I should be cheering the FIA’s earth-saving efforts to be bolstering to the planet. I have my own preference (for diesel power and algae-based fuels—but not necessarily for racing). Saving the planet isn’t a bad idea. I simply see the FIA efforts as insincere, misplaced and antithetical to what F1 is truly about—racing.

Green is the “go” flag. Other than that, forget it.

As for the sound of F1, I’ve lost any facility to judge that. I certainly liked the scream of the old cars though I knew it to be dangerous. I never wore ear protection when I was racing, so now I have over-priced under-performing hearing aids and say “huh?” a lot. Once your hearing is compromised that’s it. Be warned. Certainly protect the kids. Then go sit on an amp at a rock concert if you wish. But trust me, you won’t like the outcome.

Hearing aids are not spectacles for the ears. They cannot “improve” what you’ve lost. Hearing aids will fill your head with raucous noise at the expense of genuine sounds. Music is different, voices are different, engines are different. Lament the change in the new F1 engines but that’s going to change for you anyway with time. Simply hearing it will change it.

The decision is yours. Be thoughtful.

My Word: Racing – The Way It Was

Posted on February 14, 2014 Comments (4)

Denise McCluggage

By Denise McCluggage (written in 1998)

“You asked what I remember most about those days,” Louise said. “It was the laughter.”

The sand was hard packed. We strolled with three dogs along a deserted stretch of beach on Casey Key just south of Tampa. We talked of the late ‘50s and the racing scene in Europe of which we had both been involved in our different ways. Louise King had been starring in The Seven Year Itch in Miami when she met Peter Collins, an attractive young Englishman on the Ferrari racing team. Within days they were engaged then married and off to Italy and the racing season.

Peter Collins

As a journalist I wrote about the races and as a driver I raced assorted cars—Alfas, OSCAs, Ferraris, Porsches—in assorted races. It was simpler then.

Laughter, yes. A photograph Louise had readied to mount in an artful montage on her wall was testimony. In it Mike Hawthorn, another talented Brit in the Ferrari stable and Peter’s mon ami mate, was arched backward with laughter throwing his open face to the sky, mouth open. The tweed cap, the pale blue racing pants. It was all so instantly familiar I could hear Mike’s uninhibited guffaw across the decades. And I could see Peter and Louise creased with smiles. It ached with memory.

Mike Hawthorn

And. The caring,” Louise added.

That was then. Like most major sports, motor racing has segued from game to industry. Megabucks have a way of settling seriousness over a scene. A great infusion of sponsorship money may well have saved motor racing, but it has imprisoned it, too.

It has even changed its color.

In those days race cars were painted the assigned national colors—red for Italy, blue for France, yellow for Belgium, white with blue for the United States, silver for Germany etc. (Actually, Germany’s assigned color was white but Neubauer, racing guru of Mercedes-Benz, knew how much paint weighed and decided that naked silver was white enough—and lighter.) These days racecars are the color of cigarette packages or whatever else those who pay the bills decree. Only Ferrari has clung to tradition and red.

As for money, in 1961, the year Phil Hill driving for Ferrari, became the first American to win the world driving championship he probably made something well less than $100,000. Now successful drivers most likely tote up some $2 million each race. Plus endorsements.

Let me take you back to earlier days and the ragged orbit of the racing world careening from Monaco to Rheims or Rouen to Silverstone to the Nurburgring and on. Time and places were interchangeable—we spoke of “after Sebring” or “before LeMans.” Our world coalesced around one place or another each weekend, shattered into individual parts then whirled back to a shared life again the next week.

Maybe it is for me the year of the Alfa. A bright blue Sprint Veloce with a snarky engine note. Or the year of the Porsche 356, the color of a wet river stone with an unheard-of electric sunroof and knock-off hubs. Or maybe of the Ferrari 250 GT, a dark blue Berlinetta with a sonorous authority that drew heads to second-story windows even before it could be seen flashing through toy mountain villages. Nothing does more for an echo than a V12 at full song.

And nothing in those days could be cooler than pressing along sharply in that very Ferrari with a crunched fender and the ghosts of racing numbers on its sides, hastening back to Modena and Scaglietti’s little Carrozzeria to get the car’s skin put right after a spot of trouble at the Nurburgring. (That alone shows how long ago it was. Scaglietti’s is now a full-blown factory.)

If it is the Alfa then I might be on the way back to Modena, Ferrari’s hometown, from Monaco. I had spent a few days with Peter and Louise on Mipooka their boat docked in the harbor. There they lived between races, much to the consternation of Enzo Ferrari. He preferred his drivers unmarried and living within his beck. That described Phil Hill. Every year Phil took delivery on a new Volkswagen Beetle, drove it to Modena and checked into the Albergo Reale (now a bank, emblematic of what has happened to racing.) As the season lengthened Phil pined for an American breakfast. I was taking him some Rice Krispies I had found in a Monaco grocery. There were no American breakfast cereals in Italy. Phil was exceedingly grateful. How he bridled when they referred to his cereal as “fagiolini” (little beans) at the Albergo breakfast room.

En route from Monaco I picked up a friendly dice. Often on the highway drivers of sports cars—which were not yet common among the every-day Fiats and Renaults—would pair off for some anonymous sport on the road. We whipped along together, not exactly racing, but exercising each other’s skills. Over one col then another. This time I do not remember the marque just that the car was red. He led. I led. When I blinked my intention to pull in for fuel the red car stopped just beyond the gas station and waited. Then we resumed our dance until the pull of differing destinations separated us. We never stopped to converse and rarely even waved; we just drove spiritedly in parallel play, like tots in a sandbox. That was the way it was then going to and from the races.

Getting into the races these days requires a major effort. In Japan (not part of the scene then) the right to buy tickets is granted by lottery. I doubt that I would even qualify for press credentials now. Then it was easy. There were so few of us covering races. And there were no press conferences. No after-race gatherings where everyone dutifully writes down the same quotes. (And no winner’s podium either where the top three stand at appropriately varied heights and spray the world with champagne.)

Drivers were accessible then. They sat on the pit wall, strolled about the paddock. No motor homes to duck into. No helicopters to whirlybird them off to their private jets. If you had a question you posed it to the drivers in the pits, at the hotel, over dinner. They were your friends. They were there, sharing space and talk.

And laughter.

Language might have been a partial barrier. Now English is the lingua franca of the racing world. Then you learned smatterings of all the languages. By the time Phil Hill’s stint in Europe ended he not only spoke passable French and an excellent Italian but he could even send his Ferrari mechanics into gales of laughter with Modenese, the French-Italian melange that is the local dialect.

There’s that laughter again.

Sometimes the drivers seemed like fraternity brothers after finals, an observation I am sure cannot be made of the current crop. I suspect today’s drivers are totally immune to high jinks. Not then. I recall the year at Rheims when Harry Schell’s tiny little Vespa car (yes, car) proved too great a temptation to the pranksters. First it was driven into the hotel lobby. An early-retiring Harry was sent for to view the joke. He declined to come down. Somehow enough willing hands were found to wrestle the mini-car up the curving stairway and into the salon at the summit. A vase of flowers was set atop it. This time Harry did come out, robe-wrapped, to sleepily shake his rumpled head over his colleagues’ handiwork. (The next day the car had to be taken apart to get it back to ground level.)

I also remember bicycles placed high in trees and mild food fights in tolerant restaurants. And symphonies played by rubbing the rims of wine glasses. (I recall Phil Hill meticulously tuning the glasses by sipping here and there.)

The modern Formula 1 race car probably has more in common with a rocket than the Formula 1 cars of the ‘50’s. Now computers control most of the vital functions, including declutching. Shifting is done with a button on the steering wheel. Telemetry tells more what an engine and chassis are doing than the most sensitive drivers could discern. Today the greater G-forces and higher speeds make driving a race car quite different from what it was then. Today’s drivers score no points for being adept at stirring about with a gear shift. That’s as useful as flicking a buggy whip. What is demanded of today’s drivers is both so little and so much more.

In those days drivers were not the racing specialists they are today. Formula 1 was the elite, as it is now, but factory drivers drove everything else, too—the long-distance sports car races and sometimes even rallies. And most of them did the Mille Miglia and the ten-day rally-race hybrid called the Tour de France. The driving championship was determined in the open-wheeled single-seaters of Formula 1. Factory championships were back then determined only in prototype sports cars. Examples: Ferrari Testa Rossa, D-type Jaguar, Maserati 300S—machines that increase the heart rate of modern collectors. Porsche wasn’t a contender for overall victories in those days because its engine at 1.5 liters was half the size of the big guns. Its hegemony came later.

Some team drivers did only the sports cars while waiting for the chance at Formula 1. Before Phil Hill got his drive on Ferrari’s Formula 1 team he had become a frequent winner for Ferrari in the long races, like the 12-hours of Sebring and the 24-hours of Le Mans. He teamed sometimes with Olivier Gendebien and sometimes with Peter Collins.

That’s another change from the old days. Pairs won the long races then, now the list of drivers on a single car at Le Mans or Sebring or Daytona (not existing in the ‘50s) can be as long as a college team roster. Always at least three now. When there were only two it was easier to keep track of things.

Perhaps I have made the point that in those days the racing community was truly a community with all that implies—brotherly closeness for some like Peter and Mike. And Harry Schell and Portago. Friends, perhaps; friendly quite likely. Truly caring at best; civil to each other at least. I cannot recall the open animosity then that seems to exist today. Back then, Fon Portago used an odd term—“unkind”—in describing driver comportment. He told me: “You are not unkind to someone on the race course because they can be unkind in return.”

It can be said with certainly that unkindnesses have occurred in modern day racing. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were more than rivals. Senna actually used his car as a weapon against Prost in a Grand Prix in Japan and removing them both from the race. And Schumacher and Damon Hill have had their problems. Schumacher lost his chance at a third championship when he abruptly turned in on Jacques Villeneuve at Spain in 1997 but, instead of deterring the Canadian, Schumacher ended up stuck in a gravel pit.

No laughter here, at least not the sort born of good humor.

On the same Casey Key beach where Louise and I spoke of the laughter of the old days she fell into conversation on another afternoon with neighboring dog walkers. They had a residence in Monte Carlo. Louise told of her time in Monte Carlo on Mipooka. “I was married to Peter Collins, the racing driver. We lived there,” she explained. As coincidence would have it the Monte Carlo pair knew of Peter Collins and the August before had been at the Nurburgring for a vintage car event. They had participated in an impromptu memorial program at the site on the ‘Ring where Peter had been killed.

The old days had laughter and caring, yes, but they had death as well. It was almost common in those days. The crashes. The funerals. Drivers raced with that awareness always with them—unmentioned, but hard to ignore.

Today’s drivers began their careers and proceeded without that spectre. It was simply absent from the scene. So much so that Ayrton Senna, the extraordinary champion from Brazil, was deeply shocked when Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed in practice for the Grand Prix of San Marino in 1994. The possibility of dying in a race car seemed to come as a startling novelty to him. So affected by the revelation was Senna that he sought out Prost to apologize for his past behavior which he now recognized as life-threatening. Ironically Senna himself was killed the next day in the race. These were the first fatalities in twelve years in Formula 1.

The crash at the Nurburgring that killed Peter Collins was in August 1958. He and Louise had been married eighteen months and since their first date in Miami had been apart only the one day when Peter and Mike Hawthorn went to practice for the Mille Miglia. That’s what Louise remembers. That and the laughter.

Peter Collins and friend

Those were the days.

My Word: Auto-Auto

Posted on January 29, 2014 Comments (7)

By Denise McCluggage

It’s closer than you think. What to call it isn’t quite so certain. Some say “driverless cars”, others “self-driving cars”. I have decided on Auto-Auto which is short for “autonomous automobile”. That may well be my own private whimsy, but I like it.

The technology has flown on the wings of bright minds and bounding curiosity. And a lot of striking the forehead with the heel of the hand. One of the most critical such strikes came when the idea of smart highways—buried wires like those that change our traffic lights, sensors on fence posts etc. and similar ideas which were making headway in Europe—suddenly gave way to: “Not the road, stupid—the car, the car.” Strike away.

So arrived the challenge in the Mojave. The slightly skewed thinking (a near-requirement for such ventures) was in evidence at the first prize-supported robot car challenge (with a military spin) in the Mojave Desert a decade ago. Laughably inept machines were struggling to dodge shadows and the leading contenders ended beached on boulders, bobbing awkwardly. None completed the full course. No prize- money awarded.

But be careful what you sniggle at. The very thinkers and tinkerers involved in that adventure and the far more successful one the next year have now put thousands of accident-free miles on the likes of Google do-it-without-you vehicles and an Auto-Auto world is here! Just not obviously yet. (Four states so far have authorized on-the-road testing.)

What we are really waiting for are the lawyers. Americans have to know who to sue. Well, agreed, liability is important so pardon my facetiousness. And impatience. But do get on with it. Besides the liability matters, some mind-tossing refinements are needed for cityscapes and crowded scenes where varied objects and people interact randomly. But right now the Interstate highway system with little more than the “nanny” aids available on new cars could be navigated safely over long distances without a human’s driverly input. Uh, maybe because of that absence. The only accidents any Google cars came near were those that happened while humans were in control.

Sorry, but you are no longer necessary.

And that irreversible fact is going to change things over time as much as the arrival of the driver-driven car more than a century ago. Just what changes will there be in that new world coming to a reality near you? Futurists are making their PHD-ish noises about it. And I, unburdened by credentials, will, in the paragraphs following, indulge my own fantasy of what a part of that future might be like—particularly for those of us who like being Drivers.

My take? Cheer up, you guys. As I see it the era of the Auto-Auto will be a boon to us. Driving will be less of that tiresome wheel-holding in crowded flocks and more actual driving. More fun, less anxiety. Oh, not in the Auto-Auto things but in the real cars of history, of fantasy, of dreams. With Auto-Auto the real cars (they don’t vaporize you know) become the new horse.

Consider this: when the clop-clop beasts were no longer needed for bearing burdens or pulling plows and coal wagons they did not—as a species anyway—disappear. Indeed horses became even more numerous than they’d ever been. But their raison d’etre was no longer utilitarian. It was recreation, joy, entertainment. A collected canter through the park; competitive jumping in tanbark arenas; extended cross-country trials; high-stepping, tail-streaming gaits in the show ring.

Marshall McLuhan has the idea. When a way of doing something is replaced by a new way the old way becomes free to reinvent itself. To become, in effect, an art form. (Anyway as I simplistically interpret him.) Thus, say, with the advent of TV then movies became “film”. Cinema.

Just you wait. You think fancy car shows are popular now, when the Auto-Auto becomes the norm for getting to work, covering necessary ground, doing whatever may be the tedium in using a car, then a concours will blossom on every main street every weekend and autocrosses on every parking lot of appropriate size. Fun. Games. Driving is so cool!

And you, dear Driver, will use the Auto-Auto to get where you have to go allowing its robotic perfection to whisk you hither and thither while you thumb through emails, make phone calls, order stuff on the internet, read a book, nap. Or gaze at the new world passing by. Nothing more is needed from you apart from your initial instructions that you input when you ordered up your Auto-Auto. What size vehicle is wanted, what amenities, when you want it to wheel up to your door. When you plan to send it home. All arranged by smart phone or computer and credit card. Tap. Tap.

I think it’s unlikely you’ll actually own an Auto-Auto. They’ll be like the late lamented Lincoln Town Cars. Available on demand, they’ll exist in fleets, only in varied sizes and with specialized purposes. And no liveried drivers. Indeed no drivers at all. Unless special circumstances call for a biped to use the Auto-Auto to, say, hand-deliver some things or interact with other bipeds in some way. At least that’s how I imagine it. (I even see these minions in dark red and green patterned uniforms and odd knit caps. Don’t ask.)

As for the Auto-Auto, I see it as fully robotic. No human oversight except in special circumstances and more for appearances. Just as there were those that envisioned the smart highway as the road to the future, some see the Auto-Auto in the watchful care of an overseer driver. Silly, I say. I think more troubles are created in that interface between complete automation and the intervention of a human. I say a driver is either totally involved with the driving of a car or totally out of it. And the present day problems with so-called “distractions” demonstrate that too many drivers are half in, half out of attention.

Anyway, there is really no such thing as a “distraction”; there are only drivers attracted to something not relevant to their immediate task. A text message on their phone. The Coke that needs to go back in the cup holder. The out-of-the-loop drivers who are suddenly alerted to pay attention to driving are more apt to over-react, respond inappropriately or goof up the scene in a unique and disastrous fashion. It must be all-robot for the Auto-Auto, say I. The Google driverless cars—testing, testing—have done more than half a million miles without an error while in driverless mode. Yes, there was one present to satisfy laws but so far never needed.

The “driver aids” in the modern car seem to add to a driver’s ability to luck through a lot of inattentive driving. (You’re out of your lane; you’re following too closely.) But that is not safety; that is chance. I believe for 100% error-free driving—which is Google’s goal and which has so far been realized—it takes the removal of the human factor. Ah, dear humans, there is much appealing about you but unerring judgment and repeatable precision in execution are not two of them. (However—pat, pat—your sort did program the computer! And tested it and corrected it and tested further. (Yes—eyes to the skies—man is still the astronomer.)

A survey by an insurance company, in an effort to determine what would be the trigger to prompt a driver to consider buying an Auto-Auto, found that only 25% of those asked thought a computer would drive better than they could. That proves how inattentive and limited in judgment drivers are. At least those who take surveys. What did kick the “would-consider-buying” answer to 90% positive? An offer to reduce insurance costs by 80%. Guess what matters most in our world.

But survey answers are not going to matter. These bargain-seeking drivers will be amazed how nick and dent free they will be, how little Auto-Auto driving will cost. How much discretionary income they’ll have for playing with cars.

Which brings me up sharply to that other kind of driving. The “horse” part.

You’ve just returned home from a three day road trip in a mid-sized Auto-Auto. One other colleague went with you. You’ve used the trip back to prepare your joint report, make plans for next week and even natter about sports. Then you dropped him at the office and selected your home on the Auto-Auto menu. Quickly you make sure all of your stuff is out of the Auto-Auto and punch its home station on the menu. (The Auto-Auto will be serviced, cleaned and automatically stored until another electronic alert summons it.)

Your trip is forgotten as your thoughts and smiles rush to your personal garage. Your finger has set the door in motion. And what is revealed?

Ah. Yours is a moderate version of what Drivers of the Auto-Auto age will have to call their own. There’s a charming low-mileage Miata; a 250 GT Ferrari SWB that your great aunt raced “in the day”; an 8C Alfa of dubious provenance but you love it anyway; an early Mercedes Gelandewagen, and a genuine garage-find Dietrich-bodied Packard.

That’s nothing. Collectors with hundreds of exquisite cars are spread across the country, some in secret underground garages beneath landscaped roadways and race courses, some with semi-public museums. And many Drivers with space or budget for only one vintage, antique or classic automobile make the most of that and love it. Some Drivers belong to exchanges in which cars circulate among the members. They claim that serial collections are simpler to deal with and just as satisfying. “We all drive one at a time,” they say.

You have several hours before your family gets home. You’ve heard that the new off-road addition to the city’s hilly Drive Park is challenging so you decide to take the G-Wagen and try a section of that. You’ll be back in time to ready the Packard for a top-down evening spin to the drive-in with roller-skating waitresses. That’s in the Drive Park by the lake. You’ll decide over sweet-potato fries which concours to attend that weekend. You’re leaning toward the all-Italian one because they’ve scheduled some races as well and the Ferrari could use some speed work outs. And you too of course.

Then the driving lessons in the Miata for the kids. Everyone should start on a manual shift before they’re twelve. If you decide to visit the in-laws you’ll order up a commercial-van-sized Auto-Auto so homework can be faced as well as that movie you want to see. Next Friday you’ll order an Auto-Auto with a trailer and take the Alfa to the national convention. The kids will come the next day in another mini Auto-Auto, ordered for one-way so you can all go home together with the Alfa.

The worst thing about a car is what to do with it once you get where you’re going. Why don’t they fold up? Or deflate? How nice you can “tap” them off when you want and “tap” them back if they’re needed. Welcome to the Auto-Auto world. You suspected they’d be great for transport from Point A to Point B—and on up the alphabet—safely and conveniently. But admit it: you’d no idea how truly excellent the advent of the Auto-Auto would be for Drivers.

Ah, but not everyone will own a cache of vintage cars—or any car at all. They’ll have their account with an Auto-Auto company and want no more. The myth of America’s love affair with the car is just that—a myth. The relationship is more a long-time marriage—dependency, need, habit. But even that is changing. Surveys show that the next generation—Millennials—reportedly find cars too expensive and ownership not particularly attractive to them. Auto-Auto fits them better. Maybe cars have reached their zenith.

One thing is certain, changes will be extreme. The auto industry will be reinvented, a subject well beyond this piece. My intention today is to reassure Drivers.

And to encourage them, like snowed-in gardeners, to plan for spring. What will be in your garage?