Atlas F1

The Bookworm Critique
by Richard Williams; Published by Penguin.
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this book I've got Jeff Buckley playing on the stereo. As I write this, it is the anniversary of the American singer-songwriter's accidental death by drowning in Memphis. I remember reading an interview with Buckley a few years ago, around the time that he released his 'Grace' album, and he was talking about how his favourite records all had a 'timeless' quality, and that's what he was aiming for when he was writing his own songs.

I'm not sure whether or not Richard Williams can sing, but he certainly knows how to write a book that can maintain a large degree of relevance over the space of a few years. This is hard to do when dealing with any sport, never mind one that evolves at the pace of Formula One.

On the surface, 'Racers' follows the three-way chase for the World Championship between then-Williams teammates Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill, and Ferrari's Michael Schumacher in 1996 - a fight which saw Hill finally emerge victorious in Japan. This is not just another 'season in review' book though. In 'Racers', Williams sandpapers away the heavy coating of lacquer with which F1 is normally presented to us, and gives the reader a look at what is underneath.

While the book features the 1996 season as the backdrop, it is not the place to go if you are after a detailed, round-by-round account of Hill's battle for the crown. Instead, Williams uses the unfolding dramas on the track as a springboard, from which he dives deep into areas of the Formula One world which tend to be ignored by the vast majority of F1 scribes, and subsequently, the fans. In doing so, the author demonstrates perceptive and deductive powers that at times reach almost ESP-like proportions.

This is the only Formula One book I have ever read which makes a serious, non-sensationalised attempt to explore the aspects of the sport that we all know exist, but for whatever reason are usually not talked about in any great detail by those 'in the know'.

Williams tries to take us inside the mind of an F1 driver, giving the reader some idea of the ways in which they manipulate the media, perhaps in order to gain some psychological points at a championship rival's expense, or maybe to raise their value in the paddock as the 'silly season' approaches. The author can hardly have hoped for a better group of subjects - the main protagonists in the championship were all very different individuals, and psychological chicanery probably played a bigger part in 1996 than in any other over the last few years. Williams does not miss the fact that Hill, the contender for whom many felt that the mental aspect of racing was a weak spot, managed to win the crown.

But the fun doesn't stop there. As the events that shaped the 1996 season unfold, they are placed within a broader historical and cultural context. Michael Schumacher's move to Ferrari at the end of 1995, for example, is discussed in terms of the mystique and tradition of the team as a whole. As with the rest of the book, though, the author manages to do this without falling into the trap of either being overly sentimental, or obnoxiously flag-waving. The result leaves the reader with a far greater sense of what Ferrari and Formula One mean to each other than a lot of books devoted to the Prancing Horse are able to, and in a manner that maintains the integrity and dignity of both the team and the writer.

The great majority of Formula One related books tend to be a little formulaic. If you buy a driver biography, a team book, a season review, or a behind-the-scenes expose, you have a fairly good idea of what you are going to get before you even open it. Often, it seems that the biggest variable between different titles is quality, rather than content, and it is here that Williams breaks away from the pack.

At no time does the author resort to delivering team-approved interpretations of events or individuals. Williams constructs his own arguments, based upon his own observations and analysis and this is where 'Racers' shines brightest. The whole book is devoted to Williams presenting his ideas, and providing evidence to support his case. Anything that is not absolutely necessary has been trimmed, including photos - other than the cover, the work is completely picture-free.

While the author's interpretation of Formula One is still highly relevant today, the benefit of hindsight makes some of the quotes particularly interesting. Page 246, for example, sees Damon Hill in a press conference, talking about Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the man who was to take the Englishman's seat in the Williams team for 1997. Upon being asked whether he could beat Frentzen in equal machinery, Hill replied:

"No question. Why don't we put me in an equal car and find out? But that's just a hypothetical situation."
Not in 1999...

Ultimately, this is a book that takes an amazingly complicated sport and places it into perspective. Those who are new to Formula One will find that 'Racers' will help them to make sense of the myriad of strange events that occur on an almost daily basis in Formula One. It will also equip them with the necessary tools to make their own judgements about the goings on, whether it be a remark made by a driver or some seemingly illogical team orders.

Readers who have been following the sport for a bit longer will appreciate the quality of Williams' analysis and the manner in which he interprets the various events that made up a very unusual season. You might not agree with all of the author's opinions (I know I didn't), but you cannot help but admire the cohesion with which he has put this book together. Engrossing, articulate, intelligent... I could go on forever.

Just read it.

Mark Glendenning© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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