The Bookworm Critique
By Nigel Roebuck;
Published by Haynes
by Mark Glendenning,

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So here you are. It's the middle of the off-season, the F1 testing times just aren't speaking to you, you're in the depths of summer/winter, it's really hot/cold, and you're bored. You've thought about buying an F1 book, just to get a fix - it's been more than two months since the last race, after all; and the next Grand Prix isn't for another few weeks yet. Besides, you've already watched the official FIA Formula One 1999 Season video so many times that you can hear Michael Schumacher saying 'some people drive this, some people drive that; but I, I drive a Ferrari' over and over in your head when you try to sleep at night.

You've searched through bookstores, hoping to chance upon some literary equivalent of an aspirin to help dull the pain of the off-season. Title after title, cover after brightly coloured cover flips past your eyes as you scroll down the screen, but it's no good. You're on a limited budget, nothing seems to be leaping of the screen and shrieking 'ME! BUY ME!', and you can't afford to take any chances. If you pick the wrong book, not only will the F1 urge remain unsatisfied, but you'll be broke as well. And that bookworm guy is no good either - he just says stuff like "it's not bad, buy it if you're desperate for something to read on the train but otherwise tread carefully". That means nothing to you. You don't even catch the train.

Relax. Salvation has arrived, and it has taken the form of 'Chasing the Title', the new book by Nigel Roebuck. Most will know Roebuck best for his 'Fifth Column', which appears in Autosport. In a sense, 'Chasing the Title' is like an installment of 'Fifth Column' that happens to be spread across three hundred or so pages. Along the way, Roebuck shares memories, reminiscences, anecdotes, and opinions about pretty much whatever he pleases. Given that he has covered Formula One for around thirty years (longer than many of the current crop of drivers have even been alive!), few were better placed to sit back and take stock of the F1 World Championship in the year of its fiftieth birthday.

One of the most appealing things about this book is that the topics upon which Roebuck has chosen to focus are not always the most obvious ones. Sure, some old ground is covered - for example, the first chapter deals with the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix - but there are a few nice surprises too, such as the sections on Tony Brooks and Piers Courage. Roebuck takes a very 'human interest' type of approach, which is natural given that it is the human aspect of F1 that appeals to him the most strongly. Subsequently, the text relies heavily upon anecdotes, interviews, and Roebuck's own memories and experiences. This, as always, is a good thing, and it is further strengthened in this case by the fact that many of the stories that are related were new to me, and all of them are invariably informative or entertaining. Quite frequently, they're both. For example, the chapter on Rob Walker includes a small discussion of the British Grand Prix in 1994, during which Michael Schumacher was black-flagged. Walker related the following story:

'It was at Casablanca in 1957. Brabham was in my Cooper, and it had something wrong with it. The Clerk of the Course was "Toto" Roche, a very fat man, who sometimes used to start races with his flag while standing in front of the grid.

'I saw him reaching for the black flag, and guessed it was for my car, so what I did, I engaged him in conversation every time Jack was due to come past. Roche was on the track, of course, with his flag, and I was in the pits. Several times it worked perfectly: as he turned around to answer me, he'd have his back to the track - and Jack would go past, behind him.

'Eventually, though, he realized what was going on. "I know what you're doing Rob," he said, "and next time round I'm going to give your driver the black flag." He really didn't know what he was doing though, and he waved it at the next driver through - which was Fangio!

'It was awfully bad luck on Fangio, but he was terribly nice about it afterwards. And it's significant that, when he got the black flag, he simply obeyed it without question, even though he hadn't a clue why they were giving it to him. Not like bloody Schumacher..." (pp.94-95).

The book isn't all quite so light hearted, with chapters such as that on Imola 1994 representing some of the sport's darker moments. Even these, though, are handled in a unique way. Steering around the standard 'the day the world lost a champion' stuff, Roebuck instead talks about how he, as both an associate of Senna and a member of the media, was affected by the Brazilians death (particularly given that the San Marino Grand prix had already been an extraordinarily bad weekend for F1, with the death of Roland Ratzenberger on Saturday, Rubens Barrichello's massive shunt, and a number of other incidents).

This is particularly interesting when he is discussing the media fallout in the days immediately following San Marino; a period that saw Formula One weathering accusations of being an activity that was happy to let young men die in the name of sport and money. Karl Wendlinger's serious accident at Monaco just two weeks later only made Formula One look worse, and led to an intensification of the criticism being aimed at motor racing. Naturally, this began to affect the Formula One fraternity, a situation that Roebuck illustrates well with a quote from Gerhard Berger:

"At the time, it seemed as if the world had gone crazy, as if, for some reason, Formula 1 had suddenly become much more dangerous. We looked for some common link in the accidents at Imola and Monaco, but really there wasn't one. You look back on it, and you see it was all horrible coincidence." (p.20).

Photophiles will find much in this book to get excited about. The images are just archive shots, so there may be a few that you have come across before, but they are superbly selected and well reproduced. Like the text, they don't always represent the most obvious moments in Formula One history; but illustrate instead something that Roebuck has a particular interest in, or (and it's amazing how many books fail to do this), they support an observation or comment made elsewhere in the text. Some of them though are just incredible, irrespective of what they are supposed to be telling you. The shot of Jacques Pollet screaming along the Monza banking while Carlos Menditeguy passes under the bridge below him is fantastic, as is the colour shot of Fangio hauling his Maserati 250F through Tabac at Monaco. Image-wise, the only element that lets the book down is the dust jacket, which is really tacky and appears to have been designed by some kid on work experience.

As long as I'm criticizing the book, I should raise one other point. There are a few anecdotes or arguments that conclude with a quote or newspaper headline that is reproduced in their original language. This is fine, except for the fact that they are not translated. Now, my Italian is pretty much restricted to the names of towns and pasta varieties, and my French is not much better. Given that the French / Italian part of the anecdote tends to represent the climax of the story, the whole point ends up being lost on me. Unless you speak French and Italian, you're presumably going to have the same difficulties. Fortunately, I happen to have both Italian-English and French-English dictionaries, so I was able to figure out what was being said; otherwise I would have been in trouble. It's a problem that only arises two or three times in the whole book though, and it's the only real disappointment in a book that is otherwise closer to flawless than anything else that I have reviewed. It's just a shame that something that would have been so easy to rectify was overlooked.

This is easily one of the best Formula One books to have been released in the last few years, and one of very, very few that will still be sought after in thirty years time. You might as well get it now and save yourself the trouble later on.

Mark Glendenning© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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