Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008)
The Racing Driver and his Double1
Formula One is a rather good example of the era of performance, in which the heights achieved are the work of man and machine simultaneously, each propelling the other to extremes without it being really clear which is the engine of this meteoric advance and which merely the other's double.
If man is haunted by the evil genius of technology, which pushes him to the limits – and even beyond his capabilities – then technology is haunted by man, who identifies with it and projects all his passions into it. The alliance between the two, the pact between them, can be brought about only through an excessive expenditure, a spectacular sacrifice. In Formula One, the two are reconciled by speed – the phantasm, the spectre, the ecstasy of speed – which has become an unstoppable, undeniable collective passion.
Viewed in machine terms, Formula One looks like a pyramid: a pyramidal synthesis of the efforts of thousands of people which culminate in a single car, a single man, a single brief, dazzling moment. The condensation is extreme, and the mirror of the race refracts all the energies deployed – energies all working towards one goal into the performance of a single man, or rather into a two-sided confrontation, the intensity and brevity of which have nothing to do with the accumulation of effort and the extent of the infrastructure. The collective fascination with the race certainly owes much to this transfiguration of all into one. But this pyramid, of which the driver is simply the tip, is projected in its turn through the media and television on to millions of people – a gigantic redirection, a spectacular superstructure (even leaving out of account the commercial and promotional aspects of the operation). High concentration, then high dilution. In this way, Formula One encapsulates a whole collective, technical and imaginary-cycle.
The driver, for his part, is alone. In his cockpit he no longer is anyone. He merges with his double, with the car, and so no longer has an identity of his own. He is a bit like Italo Calvino's Non-existent Knight in his armour. And he does not see the others, the other tournament knights. “You don't have to like them or respect them,” said Alain Prost, “when the green light comes on, they don't exist. I know I'm going to do battle with a Williams, a Lotus or a Ferrari”. The only time they see each other, when they really feel like adversaries, is on the start line, in pole position or just behind – the most dramatic moment, when often the race is decided on a single reflex in a perilous moment of dicing with a rival in close combat. After that, car and driver are merely a living projectile, whose purpose is to reach the goal. Keep your sights fixed on the podium. A Grand Prix is very much an obstacle race these days, with one's opponents among the obstacles, together with the rain, the state of the tires and unpredictable accidents. A perpetual calculation. The projectile has to be constantly regulated, corrected. Only in appearance is the circuit the site of the competition. The competition takes place elsewhere – on the world car market, in the drivers' popularity charts, in advertising and the star system. The race takes place on a screen, the screen of speed. For, in these extreme reaches, speed is no longer exactly a spatial dimension but a screen on which the driver has to move with the dexterity of a tele-conductor. “As the fans can imagine, the real pleasure of driving has, if we are honest about it, practically disappeared”. The erosion of one's own pleasure is the price to be paid for shifting up from movement to pure speed, from the body in movement to the screen of speed. There is no passion in· this – except the passion for winning, of course, though that is not a personal, but an operational passion. It shows up in the driver's brain the way the technical data show on the dashboard. It is in-built in the technical object itself, which is made to win, and which incorporates the driver's will as one of the technical elements required for victory. This seems inhuman, but to be honest about it, it is the mental logic of the race.
Having said this, at 180 mph, there is calm. This is the equivalent of the eye of the storm, the stasis of speed, the trance-like state: you are no longer in the same world (more modestly, you can achieve this same sensation in a normal car at over 125 mph). The background becomes definitively televisual, the physical perception of the other cars fades; you are in the pure event of speed; the perception of space becomes a tactile, reflex perception – (in McLuhan's sense: the car becomes a tactile, tactical extension of the human body). There is no longer any reference here to a real landscape, or to competition or prestige: you pass into virtual imagery. You approach real time, the instantaneity of motion – but also, of course, catastrophe.
And here might be said to lie the other passion – alongside the passion for winning – a passion both more spectacular and murkier. Connected, admittedly, with the dramatization of the danger by the media, but also, more profoundly, with the symbolic rule of the challenge and the duel: the passion for accidents and death. There was a time when not just the drivers, but the spectators too, risked their lives on the circuits. Those sacrificial days are gone. As the personal pleasure in driving is gradually disappearing from the circuits, so too is the personal risk of death.
Death is no longer anything but a virtual imaginary element. Only the cars die, only the engines are driven to destruction. Only the technical 'double' dies, which reinforces the abstract nature of the race. Admittedly, everyone dreams of it (which is not to say that they desire it), but the spectacle of death, shown 'live', is unacceptable today. However, the definitive elimination of accidents is unthinkable, as unthinkable as the absence of spectators. Even if the real spectators are only a tiny part of the virtual (television) audience, they are there. Even if the real risk is tiny in relation to the imaginary risk, it is there. And this dimension is absolutely vital. Without any random factor, without incident, expurgated of all its unpredictable elements, motor racing would lose all interest.
So the Formula One driver has a dual status: he is both an automatic terminal of the most refined technical machinery, a technical operator, and he is the symbolic operator of crowd passions and the risk of death. The paradox is· the same for the motor companies, caught as they are between investment and potlatch. Is all this a calculated – and hence rational – investment (marketing and advertising)? Have we here a mighty commercial operation, or is the company spending inordinate sums, far beyond what is commercially viable, to assuage a passion for prestige and charisma (there is also a manufacturers' world championship)? In this confrontation between manufacturers, isn't there an excessive upping of the stakes, a dizzying passion, a delirium? This is certainly the aspect which appeals, in the first instance, to the millions of viewers. In the end, the average TV viewer has doubtless never been aware that McLaren is a flagship for Honda. And I am not sure he or she is tempted to play the Formula One driver in ordinary life. The impact of Formula One lies, then, in the exceptional and mythic character of the event of the race and the figure of the driver, and not in the technical or commercial spin-offs. It is not clear why speed would be both severely limited and morally condemned in the public domain and, at the same time, celebrated in Formula One as never before, unless there is an effect of sublime compensation going on here. Formula One certainly serves to popularize the cult of the car and its use, but it does much more to maintain the passion for absolute difference – a fundamental illusion for all, and one which justifies all the excesses.
In the end, however, hasn't it gone about as far as it can? Isn't it close to a final state, a final perfection, in which all the cars and drivers, given the colossal resources deployed, would, in a repetitive scenario, achieve the same maximum performance and produce the same pattern in each race? If Formula One were merely a rational, industrial performance, a test-bed for technical possibilities, we should have to predict that it would simply burn itself out. On the other hand, if Formula One is a spectacle, a collective, passionate (though perfectly artificial) event, embracing the multiple screens of technological research, the living prosthesis of the driver, and the television screens into which the viewers project themselves, then it certainly has a very fine future.
In a word, Formula One is a monster, Such a concentration of technology, money, ambition and prestige is a monster (as is the world of haute couture, which is equally abstract, and as far removed from real clothing as Formula One is from road traffic). Now; monsters are doomed to disappear, and we are afraid they might be disappearing. But we are not keen, either, to see them survive in a domesticated, routinized form. In an era of daily insignificance – including the insignificance of the car and all its constraints – we want at least to save the passion of a pure event, and exceptional beings who are permitted to do absolutely anything.
1 This article originally appeared in Libération in March 1995