Columns - The Youth of Today

Assuming the Locust Position


The preservation of life was high on the agenda of Formula 1 in Italy in a more immediate and universal sense than is usual, but safety is the relentless preoccupation of our sport - as it has been since Max Mosley took over as president of the FIA a decade ago.

A note of minor importance to the world at large, for instance, is the study into the brains of the common or (tropical) garden locust. Yet while it might not be making the headlines just now the Acrididiae could well be the foundation of something big in the Formula 1 pit lane if Mosley's grand plans for safety are seen through to completion.

Quite what the relationship between the brain of a locust and the brain of a racing driver might be was already a matter of heated debate in certain quarters of the paddock on race day morning in Monza, as sides were drawn between those who wanted to race from the word go and those who wanted to play themselves in for a corner or two.

But with the assistance of the humble locust the entire farce could well have been avoided, as could future first corner contretemps, according to a bit of research that you can be sure President Mosley is keeping an eye on.

Now we all know that students are prone to funny ideas. Rag Week Ôwackiness' tends to be a feature of daily life among tomorrow's intellectuals and I grimace at the memory of the case study, execution and follow-up essay on the merits of a day of national celebration for the Ginger Nut biscuit that earned one bloke a handy chunk of his B.A. (Hons), during my time in academe.

Thus when I heard that students at Newcastle University were strapping locusts to a table and forcing them to watch Star Wars in the name of research the first, unavoidable conclusion was that somebody was taking the proverbial. But no, it seems, this really could help avoid collisions of cars and egos wherever they converge - be it at Ste Devote or the M25.

Unlike Formula 1 drivers or sales reps, locusts are capable of traveling at high speed in close company without ever having a shunt. No mean achievement by out friend Acrididiae this, because he and his mates tend to swarm in their thousands and each in several directions at once yet somehow always getting away with it.

That's because the locust may have a small brain but, being impervious to the sort of rubbish we humans tend to think about, it is largely taken up with what's called a Giant Lobular Movement Detector.

This clever piece of kit acts like a built-in collision-warning device, allowing locusts to fly with abandon in the safe and secure knowledge that they will never come to harm. Clearly Mother Nature intended that locusts should fly and gave them the tools to do the job.

Doubtless Mother Nature is hardly surprised therefore that just because we have learnt to propel ourselves at great speed we shouldn't be as good at it as locusts. I mean even Michael Schumacher makes mistakes.

Thanks to the undergraduates at Newcastle University though, we might well be catching up on that front courtesy of their locust and his intimate knowledge of the story of intergalactic battles set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

When said locust watches the climactic dogfight over the Death Star that ends Star Wars, he thinks he's in the middle of a swarm. Having duped him the students also have the little fellow rigged up with sensors to trace the electric signals that his Giant Lobular Movement Detector is sending out and how he reacts to duck and dive out of the way of the Tie fighters and X-Wings.

Doubtless the students all sit around doing Darth Vader impressions and say "The Force is strong with this one," but high jinks aside this is proving to be invaluable stuff for the motor industry because as a result of this unlikely research, a program is being devised that will see cars rather than drivers react to the threat of collision.

Which brings us right back to Formula 1, where President Mosley would doubtless be keen for that sort of advance to be tried out in the Ôcontrolled' environment of a race circuit before it hits the streets. Doubtless too that many others in F1 would be keen to see it happen.

Jarno Trulli for one, for if Larry the Locust could have avoided him being harpooned by Jenson Button in the opening seconds of the Italian Grand Prix he would doubtless have given him a bit of barley to munch on. The Williams team could also hardly fail to argue over the wage bill demanded by a small insect, no matter how voracious he might be.

There is also an understandable lobby in motor sport that says we should maintain the sanctity of the sport, that in an ideal world it should be restored to a red-blooded man against man, machine against machine competition.

Sadly though, as the events of the last week or so have shown us, ours is not an ideal world. As representatives of our sport in a time of crisis the drivers couldn't decide whether they wanted a full-blooded race or not and maybe President Mosley and Larry the Locust might just be able to help them out in future.