The Bookworm Critique
By Mark Glendenning, Australia
Atlas F1 Columnist
It's always nice to hit some kind of personal milestone, even if nobody else really cares. I achieved one with this book - I made more notes while reading it than I have for any other in the history of this column. In fact, I probably made more notes than I have for all of the reviews over the past 12 months combined. But then, this is a special case - it's rare that an author does such a sloppy job of investigative journalism as this, and then actually manages to get it published.
I'd never heard of Turner before, as Australia's feed of ITV's F1 coverage is limited exclusively to the races, but apparently she was part of the network's on-screen line-up for some time, entrusted with the heavy-hitting role of cornering boy bands for interviews. Presumably the Brits out there will know who she is.
Turner spent three years hosting elements of ITV's F1 broadcast, and it seems that she was sufficiently horrified by the 'real face' of the 'world's most high-profile capitalist jamboree' that she was compelled to produce a shocking, no-holds-barred expose that lifts the lid on the whole thing. I don't have a problem with Turner's sentiments.Everybody is free to like or dislike whatever they wish.
There were occasions in this book where I found myself agreeing with her. And even when I didn't agree, I could sometimes sympathise with her position. But the overwhelming majority of the time, her arguments were so flimsily constructed, so weakly supported and so appallingly unbalanced that it took a tremendous surge of willpower to bother finishing the thing. It's exactly the kind of precise, insightful brilliance that you would expect from somebody who was professionally involved with Formula One for three years and still cannot spell Heinz-Harald Frentzen's name correctly.
Turner uses the 2003 season as the staging ground for her broadsides against the sport, and thus the book opens with the Australian Grand Prix. In the course of her time in Melbourne, Turner encountered the Save Albert Park group, a long-running protest movement geared towards removing the Australian GP from Albert Park. I have a bit of a background with these guys, having done some research on them (including spending time at their office and attending a couple of meetings) as part of my thesis a few years ago. If you dig back far enough through the Atlas F1 archives, you'll even find a feature about them.
It's kind of fitting that they make an appearance early in the book, because SAP and Turner share some fundamental flaws. As admirable as some of their motives may be, they frequently lose sight of their real goals (SAP's campaigns often stray into anti-F1 territory, despite their claims of not being against Formula One itself). And both scuttle themselves by starting with a conclusion and then trying to substantiate it, rather than reaching a final position based on the examination and analysis of available information.
Constructing an argument in that way is like trying to build a house by starting with the roof. It's flimsy, and just asking to be knocked down.
Turner's basic premise is that F1 is an exclusive club for egotistical high-rollers obsessed with money (if they can get it through evil means like tobacco, then all the better), and the sporting element is, at best, marginal.
OK, so let's have a look at it. Yep, there is a lot of cash in F1. It's an expensive sport, no two ways about it. It's not the only sport that eats money (you could clear several national debts with what it costs to develop a couple of racing maxi-yachts, or the transfer fees involved when the world's top football players change teams, or the salaries in the NBA), but it's more evil in F1 because, well, it just is.
Turner is obsessed with this (as is evidenced with such flashes of stupidity as quotes like "in 2003, they (SAP) struck gold. Not the kind that F1 team owners line their baths with …"), to the point where it has apparently blinded her to everything else in the sport. Indeed, she struggles for much of the book to see F1 as a sport until, at the very end, she sees "small temporary glimpses" of it. And where does she find it? In the drivers, and the fans. You'd have thought that would be the first place one would look, but that was either too easy or didn't suit her agendum.
Instead, she focuses her energies on drawing parallels between the money in F1 and the lack of it in the favelas of Sao Paulo. It's a preposterously simplistic and pointless comparison at the best of times - the two bear no more relationship to one another than David Beckham does to the problems in Rwanda.
I'm getting into dangerous territory here, because like Turner, I am not an expert on Brazil (but unlike Turner, I won't pretend to be). My limited understanding is that it's not that there is no money in Brazil, it is that there is a huge imbalance in the way that it is distributed. It's similar for India, which has enormous numbers of people living in poverty, yet apparently also boasts more millionaires than the USA. Simply driving through the favelas throwing money out to the crowd would not solve what is a far more deeply-rooted issue.
Curiously, Turner chooses not to dwell on some of the good that F1 has tried to do in Brazil - the Senna Foundation remains a powerful charitable force a decade after the death of its namesake, and Rubens Barrichello reportedly also does much away from the spotlight.
In fact, Turner takes the exact opposite approach: "It's hard to guess how much the drivers contribute to charities anonymously, but in a sport predicated on PR and self-promotion my guess is that it is unlikely to be of great significance," she writes on page 36. Aside from displaying a heartwarming effort from the author to presume the best of those around her, this statement is a perfect illustration of just how shoddily Turner has done her homework.
Turner tells us that she found very little evidence of charitable work from Formula One drivers. Her evidence? She couldn't find many references to it on their personal websites. Man. Now if that is not an example of relentless pursuit of the truth, then I don't know what is.
I don't want to sound like an F1 apologist here, but I have heard numerous stories to the contrary. In addition to the massive financial contribution made by Michael Schumacher after the tsunami in south-east Asia, the German has worked extensively with organisations such as UNICEF and UNESCO over the past few years, as well as funding a school in Senegal and a centre for homeless children in Peru. Mark Webber does work for children's cancer charities in Australia. Jacques Villeneuve holds fundraising events in the skifields during the off-season to raise money for charity. And the list goes on. In light of all of that, such comments from Turner as "to harbour a conscience would betray the ethos of Formula One" seems rather snide.
Turner is also apparently entranced by the potential for fatalities in motorsport. She's not the first, and she doesn't come up with anything new (other than when she expresses her bewilderment at the esteem in which Gilles Villeneuve is held when his statistics are not all that great), but once again she does a great job of missing the point entirely.
Given F1's safety record in recent years, the constant emphasis on death from within the non-specialised media has me a little bewildered. Yes, motorsport is dangerous. And despite what books like this keep telling me, that is not, in my case, part of its appeal. Anybody who wants to see a driver get hurt should probably be institutionalised. And yet Turner picks up the theme and runs with it, referencing "respected F1 writer Phil Shirley", whose total motorsport output seems to consist of 2000's utterly crap 'Deadly Obsessions' and a biography of Richard Seaman that I haven't read yet.
Referring to the war in Iraq, Turner writes, "if war isn't good enough reason to die, how can sport be?" It's a fair point, but given F1's safety record in recent years, it seems like a bit of a cheap shot - particularly when you hold it up against some other sports. Elsewhere in the book, Turner is fond of using road cycling as an example of everything that she perceives F1 not to be - noble, exciting, sporting and so on. I'm behind her support for cycling 100 percent - it is my favourite sport after F1. But as well as being riddled with politics, bitchiness and even the occasional contrived result (ever wondered why a French rider always wins the Tour de France stage held on Bastille Day?), it has a fatality rate to rival any sport you'd care to name, courtesy of both accidents and the side-effects of doping.
The book starts to take a turn for the interesting when Turner begins to look at the psychological factors that compel top-level drivers to battle their instincts, but just as it seems that we might be getting into something worth reading, she pulls out and moves on to something else. This is another of Turner's unfortunate habits - on the rare occasions that she ventures into territory that is seriously worthy of discussion, she does just enough to get you interested and then either drops the subject or loses focus.
A good example of this is the issue of women in racing, both as drivers and in a more general capacity. Yes, there is an imbalance. And no, there should not be. I was intrigued to read about how few of the many girls who race karts go on to compete at a higher level, not least because I was talking to somebody from Australia's motorsport regulatory body about exactly the same issue in this part of the world just two weeks ago.
Here, Turner had the foundations for what could have been a valuable exploration of the situation, but just as she gets close to the core of it, she drops the ball and reverts to mindless chest-beating about sexism and the prevalence of archaic attitudes towards women - a stance that is somewhat undermined when she writes of Jenson Button that he "regularly appears on lists of 100 sexiest men (which very few colleagues can boast about)". (p.47).
Yes, there are sexist, small-minded jerks in motorsport. It's a shame, but at the end of the day I'm more inclined to feel sorry for them than anything else. It's a funny thing, though - prior to starting my current life as a racing journalist, I had stints in all sorts of jobs, ranging from being a lighting guy for professional theatrical shows like The Phantom of the Opera, to working in the travel industry. And you know what? There were small-minded jerks in those industries, too. Beverley, get yourself to a few airline functions - I can't wait to see the book that comes out of it.
Another area that Turner seems to have failed to get a handle on is the role of sponsorship in F1 - or sport in general, come to think of it. Her difficulties in this regard are too numerous to cover properly (this review is too long as it is), so we'll look at a couple of basic examples.
The first ties in with the sexism issue, and deals with the author's disgust at the way the model Helena Christensen was 'paraded' with a diamond at a Steinmetz function in Monaco.
Two problems here. First, Christensen is a model. A supermodel, even. A model's role is essentially to be a coathanger. In other words, it's Chistensen's job to be paraded. That's what she does for a living, and she has made a sizable fortune out of it. A more lateral thinker might consider it Helena's good fortune that someone is willing to pay her that much money to walk around smiling for a couple of hours. At any rate, I doubt very much that Christensen felt that she was in any way being exploited that night.
Secondly, it was a sponsor's function. It was a publicity event held by a company unrelated to motorsport, but timed to coincide with a prestigious race in order to fit the company's image. It was not F1. Any F1 personalities that were there were presumably paid to be, and probably didn't hang around any longer than they needed to. It was an event organised with minimal, if any, input from the F1 paddock. Does this mean that there is a third book (the travel book will be the second) exposing old-fashioned sexism in the diamond industry?
In another example, Turner gets confused when trying to portray F1 as the only 'sport' that places heavy reliance on technology. The first problem with this is that technology is everywhere in all sorts of sports. It's just that in F1, it makes a bit more noise. Check out the latest generation of bikes used by the top cycling teams. For that matter, look at how much time a rider can lose if their bike breaks - like motorsport, their performance has suffered because their equipment, not their bodies, has let them down.
Look at how much further golfers are hitting balls now, and then go and do some reading about the latest technology in ball aerodynamics and clubs. When someone like Greg Norman can say that he is now hitting the ball further than he ever has, you can bet that it is not because he is stronger than he was when he was 30. Or compare how fast tennis players are serving now, and then go and do some reading on the latest string technology and power-producing racquet designs. Does using that stuff make Roger Federer a lesser player? Of course not.
She gets into further trouble when she tries to support her case with some Bridgestone advertising copy:
"Schumacher relies most for both his success and safety on four rubber rings - his Bridgestone Potenza tyres. For no matter how hard he works … Schumacher still needs the grip and staying power of his tyres to keep his car firmly planted to the track. Bridgestone has a track record even better than Schumacher's. This year Michael is chasing his sixth Formula One championship in nine seasons, and Bridgestone is after its sixth too - but in a row".
According to Turner, this is 'proof' that Michael's personal performance is overshadowed by that of his equipment. In reality, all this does is prove that Turner's willingness to take things at face value is any advertiser's dream. Bridgestone's sentiments are simply an attempt to capitalise on the investment that they have made in the sport by highlighting their association with success. Similar ads have been run since at least the 1960s.
The most mystifying thing about this, though, is that it is no different to Nike talking up their link with Andre Agassi, or the proliferation of companies that take out ads in cycling magazines to promote the role that they have played in helping Lance Armstrong win the past six editions of the Tour de France. As with so much of this book though, such considerations either did not occur to Turner, or did not suit her purposes.
There are any number of other areas of the book that I find problematic, but for the sake of space, time and your attention span we'll just deal with one more, and that is Turner's 'analysis' of F1's fan base. This is a truly remarkable section of the book, not least because it is an amazingly misjudged piece of ignorant stereotyping from an author who has just spent the previous 140-odd pages banging on about how small-minded everyone in F1 is.
After referring to those whose interest in F1 developed from when they first worked on their own car and those who are simply 'speed-freaks' (um … OK), she reserved most of her wisdom for her account of the "die-hard, petrol-sniffing, F1 fanatics who can be identified by their branded baseball caps and their ability to drop phrases like 'beryllium-aluminium alloy' and 'stability management systems' into casual conversation.
"Petrolheads can witter on for hours about the beauty of Formula One and will often cite the fascinating conversation of technical excellence, team-manager strategy and driver talent as the sport's defining qualities.
"They are also horrified at the thought of recording a late-night Grand Prix broadcast and prefer to set their alarms for 4am to watch the ninety-minute build-up and the analysis before going back to sleep … They are utterly at one with the sport's complex rules and regulations, eager to dissect them at a moment's notice and always ready with a fistful of reasons why Formula One is neither predictable nor monotonous. However, this almost religious devotion to one topic of conversation can leave one painfully ill-prepared for others." (p.140).
Well, I fit most of those criteria. I know what a beryllium-aluminium alloy is. I have a reasonably good general understanding of the regulations (or I did, until this newest incarnation of them). I do see real beauty in the sport, and enjoy the talent of the drivers and the strategy. I won't argue that there are not boring F1 races sometimes - there are, just as there are boring football games, tennis matches and swimming carnivals. But I don't think it is monotonous.
And I do set the alarm and get up to watch the races at 4am. Bearing in mind that I am in Australia, where roughly three-quarters of the races are on at unsociable hours, that is quite a commitment. About the only part of the list that I can't tick is that I don't own an F1 cap.
But it's weird. On top of all that, I also have honours degrees in both history and cultural anthropology, I have travelled a fair bit (and not just to attend races), I have a collection of about 1000 CDs, I'm a keen cyclist, am a reasonably competent amateur chef and I'm about to start a wine appreciation course. So I'd thought that I was reasonably well-rounded and capable of holding down a conversation in most environments. But I am thankful that I had Beverley Turner to point out that I am, in fact, a rock ape.
There is so much more that I want to write about this book, but I've already given it more energy than it deserves. It's unfortunate that Turner did not enjoy her time in F1, and intriguing that she found it all so hostile. But lopsided outrage does not make for especially informative reading, and it's a shame that Turner's short-sightedness and poor judgement has let a golden opportunity to intelligently explore some worthwhile issues go to waste.
PS: We've just achieved a second milestone - the longest edition of Bookworm ever. Someone open the champagne!