MAURICE HAMILTON

Motor sport: paying the price for publicity


How many times have you been asked: "Why do racing drivers do what they do?"

It's a question that usually arises when newspapers and websites are plastered with scenes of a motor sport tragedy. The tone of the enquiry usually suggests that anyone pulling on a crash helmet is either lacking in imagination or, in the view of singularly uninformed questioners, possesses some form of death wish.

Such dumbed-down reactions can emanate anywhere from sports editors to the man standing next to you in the pub. It's as if motor sport is a thoroughly irresponsible business. The problem is, we've no one to blame but ourselves for this sort of overreaction thanks to the spotlight placed on our sport by a voracious media feeding off the spectacle, the money - and the inherent risk.

That thought came to mind when reading last weekend's newspapers and the comment on nine climbers whose lives were taken by a huge avalanche on the Mont Blanc massif in France.

Nine climbers! That's an unimaginable tragedy. Had it happened in a motor race, the chances are that calls would be going out right now from political bandwagon jumpers to ban motor sport and save us from ourselves. Yet, in terms of the Alpine catastrophe, newspaper comment remains benign. As it should.

Or should it? A few minutes spent on the internet will reveal that mountaineering worldwide regularly produces enough obituary columns to match the routine deaths in a small town. Never mind the effect of hazards on well-known terrain such as Mount Everest or K2, figures for 2010 show that 15 climbers were killed in Colorado alone. Apparently, 2010 was a bad year. But it does hint at a world-wide trend that would give Jean Todt sleepless nights were it applied to motor sport.

I'm not condemning mountain climbing. Far from it. In fact, last week's calamity has prompted some very fine writing such as a thoughtful piece penned in 'The Observer' by Peter Beaumont, an experienced climber.

Drivers are often asked how they can slide into the cockpit, flip down the visor and go racing in the aftermath of a fatal accident, be it days or weeks later. Beaumont raised that very question when he wrote:

'This weekend, if the weather is fine, you can be certain there will be people climbing on the route where nine alpinists were killed on Thursday. It is not because they are callous or reckless or insensitive to risk but because for most climbers an acceptance of - and management of - certain levels of risk is part of the game.'

Beaumont goes on to quote Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist - a keen climber in his younger days - who once wrote: 'To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life.'

Of course, there is a huge difference between motor sport and mountaineering in that the latter is susceptible to the capricious and potentially lethal mood of nature. And the other is televised and scrutinised to the nth degree. But the two disciplines are similar thanks to the act of edging a car to the limit having the same effect as conquering the elements on some mentally and physically exhausting snow-covered vertical wall.

It is dealing with different types of risk - but risk, nonetheless. It is stepping beyond the margins of life that is increasingly wrapped in the cotton wool of Health and Safety. Or, as Beaumont puts it so eloquently: 'For some, in a world in which we spend so much of our time navigating expectations and judgements and convention, the indifference of the mountains to our passage over them has the power to remind us of the insignificance of our existence. Paradoxically they also supply a reminder of how intensely that life can be experienced.'

In a month's time, we will go to Spa-Francorchamps. If you need reminding of F1's ability to provide the extreme experience Beaumont refers to then simply look into the eyes of a driver when he raises his visor at the end of a very fast lap. The quick breathing and bright-eyed expression says anyone standing outside that car can never truly appreciate what it was like to be sitting in the cockpit during those past few minutes.

Why do racing drivers do what they do? Just ask climbers as they return to base and unload their ice axes and crampons. And then quietly point out they ought to be thankful that mountaineering is not a spectator sport with the resulting sensational comment.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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