ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 52 Email to Friend   Printable Version


The Bookworm Critique
By Denis Jenkinson.
Published by Bentley Publishers.
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this book"No doubt if I suggest that driving a car at high speed is an art, along with music, painting and literature, I should be greeted by some very cutting remarks from students of the accepted arts; but I really do consider fast driving as an art, an essentially twentieth-century art, and one demanding as much theoretical study, natural flair, learning and practice as any of the classical arts. It is an essential that the Racing Driver begins his basic training at an early age, perfects his natural ability by trial and error while he is still young enough to have dash and spirit, ripens into maturity along with experience, reaches a climax of perfection and then either stops at the peak or tapers gently downhill, so that even if his display of artistry is no longer equal to that of newcomers, the touch of the real artist is still evident. When a man has gone through all those phases, then and then only can we consider him to be a true performer in the art of high-speed driving."

And with these words, which so perfectly set the tone for the two hundred or so pages that followed, Denis Jenkinson embarked upon the first chapter of one of the great classics in motor racing literature. In a sport where, as Ron Dennis is so fond of saying, 'to stand still is to move backward', one could be forgiven for wondering whether there is something inherently contradictory about the reissue of a book that was originally penned over forty years ago. There's no point comparing Formula One circa 2001 with the late 1950s version - from a technological, administrative, and commercial perspective, they are on completely different planets.

Despite the enormous changes that the sport has weathered over the decades though, there are certain things that do remain constant. One example is the fundamental qualities that distinguish the good drivers from the great ones, and it is this focus that ensures the continued relevance of this book. 'The Racing Driver' is the product of Jenkinson's efforts to pinpoint exactly what is required to create a Fangio or Senna. It was written at the height of Jenkinson's golden years as Motor Sport magazine's 'Continental Correspondent', and draws accordingly upon observations and impressions gleaned from watching the stars of the time; particularly Fangio, Moss, and sidecar racer Eric Oliver (with whom Jenkinson teamed up to win the inaugural sidecar World Championship in 1949).

From where I'm sitting, these observations proved to be one of the real highlights of the book. Having been born far too late to have seen any of these drivers in action, I sometimes feel that my understanding of this era is rather two-dimensional. Visually, the drivers are familiar to me primarily as flat black and white images, and the drama of various races and seasons has been distilled to the stark sterility of the printed page. There is something about Jenkinson's writing, though, that seems to bring it all back to life again. Just as his Motor Sport columns transported thousands of British readers across the channel to the drama and excitement of Spa, Monza, or the Mille Miglia, so to does this book take the reader back to a time when the World Championship was still less than ten years old.

The manner in which the author draws out particular characteristics of the different ways that various drivers go about their business to illustrate a point does much to compensate for that extra dimension of understanding that we tend to lack when it comes to things that we have not experienced first hand. Particularly vivid are the occasions when Jenkinson refers to such drivers as Mike Hawthorn and Jean Behra, both of whom were killed very shortly after the publication of the book. The kinds of details that the author was discussing are rarely touched upon when a driver is being written about retrospectively; thus, 'The Racing Driver' serves as a kind of window back to a time when they were at they peak of their careers.

'The Racing Driver' is not a driving manual per se. Rather, it is an attempt to create a theory (or system of theories) concerning the practice of driving fast. It deals with the easily measured aspects of the 'art', such as cornering techniques and slip angles, but it also delves into the less quantifiable factors that distinguish the racing driver from the average motorist. Some of the latter, such as courage; are fairly predictable; but Jenkinson being Jenkinson, the scope is sufficiently broad to encompass everything from 'Italian sympathy' to one's ability to 'tiger'.

Occasionally you'll come across an argument that is built upon a rather less than solid foundation, but this is of little real concern. Those close to Jenkinson have often referred to his tendency to make his mind up about something and then remain absolutely committed to whatever he had decided, often in the face of fairly solid evidence to the contrary. Frequently, this stubbornness probably owed as much to great pleasure that Jenkinson got from winding someone up as it did to the strength of his convictions.

Really, this book is as much about Jenkinson as it is anything else. He is highly visible throughout - he weaves himself into the journey as much as possible, both by placing himself into the story, and also through his distinctive writing style. Usually, such self-indulgence leaves me as a reader wishing that the author could find something else to do with their time, but Jenkinson is one of very few writers who can get away with it. There have been many brilliant characters in motorsport, and many eccentric ones too. But only Jenks was able to combine such enormous doses of both, and then cap the lot off with an extraordinary ability to convey something of himself to his readers. Consequently, we have in 'The Racing Driver' one of those books where the journey is truly as exciting as the final destination.

Those with an original edition of 'The Racing Driver' might be interested to know that the reissue includes some extra material. Jenkinson wrote a new introduction to supplement the first one, and there is also an abridged version of Doug Nye's great tribute to Jenks (the original having been published in 'Jenks: A Passion For Motorsport'). The best of the new inclusions though is the transcript of a remarkable discussion between Jenkinson and Ayrton Senna concerning the nature of racing and those that do it at the top level. It seems a fitting way to close with an excerpt:

"JENKS: Following on from Fangio's observations (five times World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio once observed: "A driver gets very tense when someone comes to talk to him before a race. That is a time when one prefers to be alone, to think, and to be calm and collected"), it's interesting that Gilles Villeneuve once told my friend and journalistic colleague Nigel Roebuck not to come and try talking to him on the grid, because he said he was always busy thinking and programming his brain for every eventuality for what might happen at the start.

SENNA: That's one of the things, certainly. But to be honest with you, it's always on the limit. Sometimes over the limit, psychologically. It's a difficult thing to maintain. It's really hard to cope with it in the best way. I think you can only get these things minimised to a level where you have so much time racing already that you're not really that committed to it anymore. The minute you pass the chequered flag - boom! - your mind goes down. You're just holding your mind, holding it, to the chequered flag. Then it falls to the ground. At Francorchamps this year, where we all had to go through the stress of three starts, when I saw the red flag come out for the second time, I had to suppress a desire to jump out of the car and walk away for the rest of the afternoon. It can be that intense!

JENKS: A lot of our friends in the press don't appreciate that. I've seen you after a race; the last thing you want to do is go to a television studio and have people talk to you in four different languages. I don't think many members of the press understand that it's not simply the mental stress of the race, but the build-up since Thursday.

SENNA: Always the objective is the chequered flag. Everything is pre-established to produce the optimum up to the chequered flag. When you get there that's the end. From Thursday to Sunday you establish this target to achieve, and you have so many steps to go through. They all drain you, they are all problems. You are just doing your best all the time, whether you get it right or not, if you are committed to it, you're doing your best all the time. There's nothing else.

JENKS: You're not always thinking about how you've got to keep it up to one hundred percent?

SENNA: No, no...there are spots where it's going a little bit down and you have to say to yourself keep cool, give a moment, think positively. Just go for it. Sometimes there are different reactions which tend to push you down, to compress you. As strong as you are, when you are on your own in a corner, you tend to have a feeling that it's a bit too much, then you have to bring it from somewhere...

JENKS: Is that the point that you start to think in Portuguese?

SENNA: Yes, that's are getting to the point there you are becoming a bit vulnerable. Too vulnerable, let's say. So in order to close that door, you have to go back to basics." (p. 204-205).

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   Tell a Friend about this Article