The Stuff That Myths Are Made Of

Atlas F1

The Stuff That Myths Are Made Of

by Emily Wheeler, U.S.A.

When my friend Andrew was 14, enduring his school medical on a dreary English day, the doctor made small talk to distract him from the more unpleasant aspects of the exam. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" he asked, in the midst of poking and prodding the tow-headed adolescent.

"A racing driver," Andrew answered, staring at the rain that tapped the exam room's small, square window.

"Cough," the doctor ordered. Andrew complied heartily, still gazing at the rain-spattered windowpane. "No, you don't want to be a racing driver," the doctor chuckled. "What do you really want to be? Something sensible."

Andrew moved his gaze away from the weather to stare into the doctor's cold grey eyes. "I want to be a racing driver. Nothing else matters." He turned his attention back to the window.

The doctor clucked his tongue and continued his work.

More than two decades have passed, and Andrew is not a racing driver - although he has progressed to better weather on the California coast. But the dream has never completely deserted him, as his myriad speeding tickets and unwavering devotion to the Formula One circus on American cable TV attest. Everywhere out there, other little boys - and grown men, and little girls, and grown women - harbor the same fascination with the Grand Prix's tarmac, and the daring men and temperamental machinery that inhabit it.

What is it about this paradoxical sport - so technologically controlled yet so patently unpredictable - that holds millions in thrall across the earth? What grips our collective imagination so tenaciously?

Like the myths that we have surrounded ourselves with since the beginning of time, Formula One is all about the best and worst in us. There are striving heroes, tragic heroes, virtuous heroes, unsung heroes and (of course) villains; duels to the (usually mechanical) death, sons carrying their fathers' torches, village idiots, and good guys clawing their way to the top from nothing. Like Odysseus or Beowulf or Gilgamesh, these dashing young men conquer our deepest fears - of failure, defeat and even death - to become the heroes we all wish we were. And, of course, as in all good myths, there is plenty of backbiting and one-upmanship and egotism and sexual bravado to give all that highfalutin stuff some color.

That's it, really; for those of us who worship the mystique of Formula One, it is all about heroics. As with epic films and mythic literature, our fascination with this most glamorous version of motorsport is the same timeless admiration we have always had for people who somehow endure more than we could ever bear and manage to succeed.

Despite failure - sometimes of the most horrific, fiery sort - the best Formula One heroes carry on, far beyond the limits of what we would ever expect of ourselves. The best of these heroes overcome extremes of pain, terror and sheer tiresome defeat that most of us can only imagine. 1998's top contenders personify this ideal: Michael Schumacher's breathtaking charge through the field at Suzuka, from an enforced last place to third in just over thirty laps, exemplifies the stalwart heart of the true champion. Even more compelling is Mika Hakkinen's rise to glory after a near-fatal crash at Adelaide three years ago. His comeback from Intensive Care to World Championship is the stuff Formula One legends are made of. Both of these men join a long, proud history of never-say-die types who occasionally transcend motorsport's gritty world of corporate sponsorship and nasty rumors.

Over two decades ago, one Austrian driver had a tale like Mika's to tell. In 1976, the year after winning his first World Championship for Ferrari, Niki Lauda seemed a sure thing to do it again after capturing five of the season's first six races. But at the German Grand Prix, one of the most frightening crashes in Formula One history put Lauda's championship - indeed, his career and even his life - into question. Lauda's Ferrari swerved to the right on the first lap, struck the embankment, skittered back across the track, and burst into flames.

A trio of drivers pulled Lauda from his blazing car. He suffered terrible burns, and his lungs were badly damaged by the fire's toxic fumes. The story of Lauda's horror at being given sacramental Last Rites is now legendary.

Mere mortals like us would believe ourselves lucky to be alive and would likely consider a more sedentary career in something like needlepoint after such a horrific experience.

But not Lauda.

Six weeks - yes, weeks - later, a badly scarred Lauda was back in his Ferrari at Monza. He managed to finish well up in the points, and continued his race with James Hunt for the championship as if nothing had happened. Incredibly, by the last race of the season in Japan, Lauda still led Hunt by three points. Lauda pulled out of the race after two laps due to vision problems, thus losing that year's title, but came back the following year to reclaim the championship. And he wasn't done yet: he won it again with McLaren in 1984, after a brief retirement stint.

So much for crippling injuries.

Not all heroics, however, are the result of near-death experiences. Most of Nigel Mansell's tragedies have been mechanical, but his career is no less remarkable than Lauda's for sheer stubborn persistence.

Mansell had an uncanny ability to endure in the face of disaster, carrying on and driving strongly despite failure after failure. Two years in a row, in 1986 and 1987, Mansell's title hopes ended with freak accidents. At Adelaide in 1986, he experienced a tire blowout that nearly resulted in his using a concrete wall as a braking device. The following year's mishap was an even bitterer disappointment: Mansell was fighting with teammate Nelson Piquet for his first championship as the season neared its end in Japan - until Mansell wrecked his car, and his back, in qualifying.

1988 was an unqualified disaster that motivated Mansell to move from Williams to Ferrari in 1989. Here he continued his dogged pursuit of the title for two years. Although well-loved as "Il Leone" by the tifosi, he was saddled with inferior equipment and team politics during his second year, and thus returned to Williams. By this time, most ordinary folks might begin to wonder if there was any point to all of this driving around.

But Mansell carried on. Finally, in 1992 at the ripe old age of 39, Mansell finally won the title he had so stubbornly pursued for well over a decade, later followed up by winning America's Indy Car title in 1993. Persistence pays off, it would seem.

Unless, of course, your name is Stirling Moss.

Moss' only fault appeared to be that he was driving Grands Prix at the same time as Juan Manuel Fangio, to whom he finished second from 1955 to 1957. In the late fifties, those in the know believed he had what it took to become Britain's first World Champion. But, in 1958, he came in second yet again - to Britain's first World Champion, Mike Hawthorn.

However, Moss seemed unfazed by his status as "the first man to lose" year after year. He drove every race as if it were the championship, and his career boasts an impressive string of achievements. Moss won at least two Grands Prix per year from 1956, and he gave Lotus their very first win, at Monaco in 1960. His indomitable spirit shone its brightest in 1961, when Lotus' underpowered Climax engine ran against a solid, technically superior Ferrari team. At Monaco, Ferrari's Richie Ginther battled with Moss for the lead during much of the race. Through sheer skill, Moss was able to hold off his rival by over three seconds, despite his ride's impotent engine.

Moss' career ended, sans championship, when a crash at Goodwood left him partially paralyzed. His superior skill and heart were recognized officially in 1990, when he was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame.

Of course, there are those Formula One heroes who remind us that they are all merely mortal: Senna, Clark, Villeneuve. Their extraordinary skill paired with their tragic ends gives them a mystique that defines the very essence of Formula One. But the hard-working, persevering types mentioned here - of which there are many more - allow us to find a piece of ourselves within the dangerous glamour of motorsport.

It is here that the universal appeal of Formula One lies: watching the Laudas and Mansells and Mosses of the world overcome such enormous obstacles shows us that, indeed, anything is possible - whether we're drivers, doctors, or just schoolboys wondering what to be when we grow up.


Emily Wheeler 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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