Monday, December 30, 2013

On edge

Photo: rollingstone64
I've always believed that you should never, ever give up and you should always keep fighting even when there's only a slightest chance. - Michael Schumacher, October 22, 2007

Forza, Michael.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Photo: Dave Wilson
The first real chance to catch up on thoughts mulled over during a phenomenally stressful and draining first few months of teaching:
I have taken a few of my random free opportunities to seek out and absorb descriptions of Sebastian Vettel's driving style when possible, in an effort to more fully understand just how he has come to so totally rule Formula One - and how he has done so while being regarded with something between dismissal and contempt.

Seriously: it's hard to think of another athlete, never mind racing driver, who has proven to be so talented and successful while gaining so little respect in the process. And he is immensely, almost supernaturally talented, of which more later.

But he doesn't get a lot of love, which I believe is partially because of his wunderkind ascendancy. Four World Driving Championships by age 26? As has been noted elsewhere, Alain Prost hadn't even won his first Grand Prix at age 26. F1 has plenty of room for bright young talents, but this kind of dominance is a bit much for most fans to handle. Especially given that Vettel drives for Infiniti Red Bull, which is both faintly ridiculous (seriously, an energy drink company building race cars? didn't we go through something like this with Benetton?) and dominated by the presence of design genius Adrian Newey. Neither element does a lot for Vettel's credibility. I wonder how we'd feel about him if he had been associated with McLaren or Ferrari during this run.

Of course, if it was all about the car Mark Webber would have likely shown a lot better over the course of these last seasons. We have to go back to the person being behind the wheel - and the more important part of Vettel's success.

Back to those borrowed moments of research about Vettel's style. People don't have a lot to say about how he sets up his car; it's not like Schumacher's preference for a lively tail-happy feel or Nigel Mansell's very British fondness for understeer. Instead, two elements come to the fore: an obsession with thorough preparation and a sensitivity to car reaction that borders on the superhuman.

No one disputes that Vettel is the most involved, most attentive driver on the grid. He absorbs information like a first-rank field intelligence agent. He talks to the right people at the team's suppliers and asks the right questions. He really cares about knowing what is going on, a lesson learned from Schumacher and then expanded to its current state, and it shows.

Once those suppliers contribute their pieces and the car comes together, though, something really odd starts to happen. Vettel just seems to make them all work together to a sublime degree, more so than anyone else even knows how to do.

Forget for the moment the rumors of illegal traction control. Again, if it was all about that Webber is no slouch and it would have been a lot closer there.

Instead, what we get is repeated displays of a freakish degree of driving skill. But it's subtle. It's not the virtuoso flamboyance of a Villeneuve or Moss or the hardcore intensity of Schumacher or Senna or the cool confident reserve of a Prost or Stewart. And it's not really a robotic anonymity, either.

If anything, Vettel's style is Taoist. He knows the Way. His ability to feel what goes on with the car and react to it is unsurpassed and possibly unsurpassable. His ability to play the game and deal with traffic has improved by quanta even in the course of this short career. He drives with Non-Ado; nothing is wasted, nothing is out of order. He goes out, he drives, he wins, he points his finger in the air, he goes to the next race.

Yes, he is still human, and occasionally he does some pretty human things. (See: Malaysia.) But he knows how to do it, and innately is able to do it.

Which leaves the lack of respect. I think this will change given some time; opinion from the old heads is coalescing firmly in his favor (Gerhard Berger calls him already one of the all-time greats, and coming from someone who raced against many of those greats that matters), and as we further understand his abilities and stop looking for the drama or heroic slashing efforts as signifiers, we may realize what is happening.

Not that he has to worry too much from his perch atop the motor racing world, surrounded by incredible material success, but I have to think he deserves far more appreciation than he's received. Hopefully he has a sense of self-possession to match that fantastic skill; he should be at peace with all of this, even if it's beyond the respect of the masses so far.
Photo: Dave Wilson, again
The flip side of Vettel's style - and popular appreciation - is over at MotoGP, where Spanish phenom Marc Márquez seized the crown in his rookie year at the top echelon. Márquez is a classic devil-may-care charger, a screamingly fast and forceful rider who has already earned a massive degree of love and devotion (except among his competitors, who doubtless still respect him). He's the clear heir apparent to Valentino Rossi; as Il Dottore likely winds down his magnificent career, Márquez comes in to provide a worthy fan favorite and standard bearer for the series.

We are the poorer for not being able to see him race against Marco Simoncelli for several seasons in what would have likely been a rivalry for the ages. In that it remains to be seen what the current field will do to face him, or what talent will come up in the same way. Regardless, Márquez is the most exciting racer in motorsports right now and it will be fascinating to watch his career develop.

I like the new Mustang. Yes, it could have been better in some ways, which I guess is just a different way of saying I would have done a few things differently, but in general it works. Have to wait and see how well it works on the road (and I'd like to see it in black) but given my anxieties about how this could have turned out - see the awful ski-jump rear that Car and Driver was so sure we'd get - this is good.

I feel for Mustang product planners. For far too long they've had to deal with a vociferous fan base that's about as progressive as a Salt Lake City VFW chapter - think about how long it took to get disc brakes, never mind a modern powerplant or rear suspension - but it seems like something of an Enlightenment mindset has finally worked its way in to the conferences. America needs a great, classic, affordable GT car that's not overly trapped by precedent; after too many false starts and retro homages, we might finally get some of that to match straight up against the flawed but very respectable current Camaro.

It's definitely enough to keep it on my "maybe/inquire" list.
The ascension of Mary Barra to head of GM is still slightly shocking. It's not because a female CEO is all that radical in this day - actually, it should rightfully be more common - but that it happened in what is still probably the most traditionalist, hidebound, and insular large industry in the US, and especially at General Motors of all places. In a universe where a certain breed of manly-man attitude and entrenched traditionalism still seems to rule, Barra's coronation is a step beyond expectation. She's more than earned it and will be great for the company, though, if her resume is any indication. Would love to sit down and talk shop with her.
Oh, no manual box for the new Lamborghini after all. Too good to be true, I guess.