The Bookworm Critique
"Deadly Obsessions:
Life and Death in Formula 1"
By Phil Shirley.;
Published by Harper Collins.
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this book

Most tickets to Grand Prix events feature a small disclaimer that begins with the words 'Motor Racing is Dangerous'. (Those lucky enough to have attended the Australian Grand Prix will have noticed another one that warns you not to drink the water in the lake...hope everybody paid heed). The one major drawback to being a fan of motorsport is that there is always the chance that you're going to see someone get badly hurt. I've never subscribed to the idea that Formula One's appeal lies in some subconscious desire to see a massive shunt - while I accept that a crash can be spectacular to watch, it only becomes exciting once you know that the guy crawled out of the car in one piece.

Few sports demand as much from its participants as does Formula One. On top of the considerable physical effort required to drive an F1 car, the drivers also need to be able to maintain immense levels of concentration and make split second decisions at insanely high speeds, lap after lap, for two hours. While changes to the safety regulations in recent years have seen errors in judgment punished rather less severely than in the past, it is wrong to think that Formula One can ever be completely safe.

People have been wondering about what motivates somebody to risk their lives in the name of sport for almost as long as there have been motor races. It's not too difficult to imagine that the drivers themselves must wonder sometimes whether there isn't an easier way to earn 4 million per year as they barrel roll through a gravel trap. Not too many people have written books about it though, and this book just might shed some light on why.

'Deadly Obsessions' is basically an attempt to explore the various factors that motivate Formula One drivers to do what they do; and also to investigate their reactions when there is a serious injury or death during a Grand Prix weekend. On the surface it sounds like a fairly simple assignment, but the more you think about it, the more you realize just how complicated the subject really is. Author Phil Shirley tackles the topic from a perspective that is probably best described as semi-religious. There's a definite Christian theme running throughout the whole book, however many of his arguments are based upon spirituality in more general terms. Nevertheless, Shirley's argument is based very heavily upon the premise that Formula One drivers are reacting to some kind of higher power. It does not seem to matter too much how religious the individual driver maybe; indeed, this is used to explain in part why each driver approaches various situations or concepts differently.

While Shirley tries valiantly to win favour with his audience, I found that the book as a whole just did not seem to gel. By taking the approach that he did, Shirley was probably treading on dangerous ground before he even wrote the first sentence. Spiritualism is a highly personal concept; a thing which some people hold in higher regard than others. Those who are less sympathetic to these kinds of ideas may have difficulty appreciating his arguments irrespective of how convincingly they are presented. There is nothing wrong with tackling the subject from such a perspective - if the author is particularly interested in those types of issues, then by all means go for it. But such an approach invariably carries the risk of ostracizing a large chunk of the potential audience; who may have completely different religious beliefs, or who may pay little attention to spiritualism at all.

Speaking personally, this approach did not particularly bother me either way. What lost me was the fact that Shirley presented his ideas so unconvincingly. This was a real pity; because I frequently found myself thinking that he may have made a good point, yet all too often it was delivered in a manner that made it hard to take on board. A large reason for this was Shirley's predilection for creative license, particularly with regard to the most personal thoughts of some of the drivers that have been lost to Formula One over the years. The author seems very keen to support his case by telling us exactly what Ronnie Peterson, Gilles Villeneuve, Ayrton Senna, or Roland Ratzenberger were thinking about shortly before their fatal accidents, without ever telling us exactly how he knows this.

It was even more irritating when such 'insights' were supported with silly bits of melodrama:

"A still, small voice inside (Gilles) Villeneuve said: 'Don't race today. There is danger out there. Death stalks Zolder...looking for you Gilles, waiting for you.'" (p.6).

The author also tends to rely too much upon lengthy excerpts from other books. Not all of the extracts are superfluous, but there are several that really don't seem necessary. A good example of this are the two paragraphs borrowed from Timothy Collings' 'The New Villeneuve', which describe Gilles Villeneuve's fatal accident. The passage simply describes an incident that occurred on a racetrack. I'd have expected that somebody who is capable of writing an entire book about Formula One could have described such an event in their own words.

The other major problem in 'Deadly Obsessions' is one of repetition. The most annoying examples lie in the small quotes that appear at the beginning of each chapter - virtually all of these also appear somewhere in the text, and occasionally they turn up more than once. We also revisit the same incidents over and over. The most bizarre example of this relates to a chapter that deals with the death of Jeff Krosnoff and track marshal Gary Arvin in 1996. We are given a description of the accident, then a paragraph that gives a brief rundown of Krosnoff's background, and then the incident is described all over again, albeit in a little more detail. It is difficult to get through the book without feeling that you are always moving in circles.

This isn't helped by the huge emphasis that Shirley places upon Ayrton Senna. That Senna should figure heavily is understandable - his death was the most recent fatality on Formula One, and it was certainly among the most significant events to touch the sport. But the reader is constantly hauled over the same heavily trodden ground over and over again. Shirley adds nothing to the considerable body of work relating to Senna's death that has appeared over the past six years, and the result is page after page of information that has been presented many, many times in the past.

The book would also have benefited greatly from some careful editing. Not only would this have tidied up the repetition problems, but it would also have sorted out the awkward grammar and ambiguous phrasing that pops up from time to time. There are a few factual errors scattered throughout too, such as the reference to San Marino as the Italian Grand Prix (p. 68), or the naming of Jacques Villeneuve as the winner of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix (p. 149).

There is the odd interesting bit here and there. I particularly liked a comment from Michael Schumacher:

"I had the childhood of any other boy. Playing football, climbing trees, getting into a little trouble. Absolutely normal. Until one weekend, when I was maybe 11, I had to decide whether to take part in a judo competition or a go-kart race. I chose judo, came third, and I knew that was the wrong decision." (p. 136).
Now, a quote like that could potentially form the basis of a really fascinating book into what motivates these guys, but unfortunately we'll probably have to wait a while.

Other sections were reasonably insightful; particularly the chapter that dealt with Mika Hakkinen's horrific crash at Adelaide in 1995. This is perhaps due to the fact that the Mika survived his accident and was able to discuss his feelings about it himself, as opposed to relying upon the author to cook something up based on the odd quote from earlier interviews and a lot of hypothesizing. Martin Brundle's thoughts on his massive shunt at Melbourne in 1996 were similarly interesting, probably for the same reasons.

Probably the best thing about 'Deadly Obsessions', though, is the appendix. Shirley has created a twelve-page table outlining the number of accidents that resulted in serious injury or death during various periods of Formula One's history, and included a very detailed timetable of the development of the safety regulations. The latter is particularly useful, because the author has gone to the trouble of organizing the regulations into categories (cars, circuits, drivers, and organization) that makes it simple to look up any information that you might suddenly decide you need.

'Deadly Obsessions' just didn't seem to work for me. While Shirley does make some valid points, I found it difficult to accept a lot of his supporting material. The lack of cohesion throughout the book didn't help the author's case either, because it automatically made me think that a lack of focus in the text may reflect a lack of clarity in some of the author's arguments. Those who share some of Shirley's thoughts on spirituality might get a bit more out of the book than I did. Perhaps my own views are such that I missed some of Shirley's points completely. As I mentioned earlier though, that is the risk that an author must take if they are going to approach a topic from this kind of perspective.

Mark Glendenning© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
Send comments to: Terms & Conditions

Want to buy this book? Click here. Want to buy a different F1 book? Click here.

[ Back to Atlas F1 Front Page ]