The winner takes it all
What is sport in the larger scheme of things? Is it life's little dramas played out on a stage? Perhaps it is one, says NIRMAL SHEKAR, whose players spend their lives pondering victory and defeat. But there is one category of sportsmen heroic and of superior will, and operating on a risky and elevated plane ... the stars of Formula I racing.
SPORT, in many ways, is trivial pursuit. If this would mortally wound our own bloated egos as sportsmen, sports administrators, sports fans or sportwriters then so be it. For, what is sport in the larger scheme of things? Where does it rate with wars, natural calamities, poverty, racism and other equally major issues of life on planet earth?
But, sometimes, in a world full of division of all kinds, tension and trauma, it is sport that seems to, however remotely, keep us in touch with sanity and civilisation. Mostly, it's life's little dramas played out in convenient forms on a little stage without serious harm or injury to anyone. Disaster generally means the loss of a one-day cricket final. And unsurpassed glory means winning Wimbledon or the World Cup of football.
In the event, our everyman sportsman, as a rule, spends his life pondering victory and defeat, fame and misfortune. Seldom does he worry about death. But there is one category of sportsmen not our everyman sportsman to whom "it is always in the back of the mind ... a possibility", as Niki Lauda once pointed out. Death, of course, is Lauda's "it".
It takes a special kind of person, one with a superior will, to take to Formula I racing. And it takes a very, very special kind to endure the tension, meet the demands and end up as a legend in the sport.
"It's like balancing an egg on a spoon while shooting the rapids," said Graham Hill, the English driver. A very delicate balancing act, indeed.
Over the years, several heroic drivers have walked that tightrope with great success, many have lost balance and their lives, some even before achieving their potential.
But what is life without danger? Will it not be monotonous and boring if all the top sportsmen stopped taking risks, if all of them were to maintain a healthy respect for danger, salute it at first sight and keep away from it?
"The true man wants two things: danger and play," wrote the incomparable philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
To be sure, most of us love safety. In man, the survival instinct is the basic instinct. But in certain areas of human activity, including sport, there are deeds that call for a total definance of that basic instinct. And in the performance of such extraordinary deeds lies great sporting glory .... Formula I glory.
Ah, excuse me, dear readers. I am stuck in the past, a glorious past that seems a fading dream today at the end of a Formula I season underlined by predictability and boredom, one where wheel-to-wheel racing of the sort that produces seat-edge thrills was a contrived farce rather than a competitive reality.
Of course, in the last seven or eight years, ever since the death of the greatest driving talent of all time, the Brazilian Ayrton Senna, on the Imola track in Italy in 1994, Formula I has improved its safety standards remarkably, which is, in a way, a huge positive.
But strangely enough, during an era when television has brought in large amounts of money into the game and the sort of exposure it never before had, today Formula I, despite the presence of Michael Schumacher, one of the greatest drivers of all time, seems to have lost a lot of its romance of old.
Last month, as Schumacher contrived a farcical climactic manouevre at Indianapolis, something that made a mockery of the very essence of competitive sport in the penultimate race of a season that's been about as exciting as watching a staging of "Hamlet" back to front, last act to first act, longtime addicts of the sport might have been tempted to look back to the good old days with nostalgia ... and die-hard romantics such as this writer can hope to be forgiven.
... and Michael Schumacher... the men and their machines.
Ah, what a fall! How badly has a great sport, one filled with the heroics of virtuoso performers behind the wheels, slipped into the morass of the predictable and the farcical!
As you grow older, the one thing that quite often strikes you is that sport is never as good as it was. It's much like movies and music. The contemporary stuff can never match the classics of old. What on celluloid, today, can stand up to challenge "Casablanca" or "On the Waterfront"? What on the pop scene can aspire to match Elvis Presley or the Beatles?
Nostalgia, to be sure, is a disease, a disease that not even a double dose of reality can cure. It is as common as common cold in many of us who look back to our golden yesterdays and then sigh, "Ah, nothing is what it used to be."
Ten or 20 years down the line, our sons and daughters might look back to the early years of the new millennium and say just that. And the point is, nothing can be what it used to be. For, life has no reverse gear. If our todays were like our yesterdays, we would probably die of boredom.
Then again, no matter all this, there are eras in sporting history that appear far more romantic, considerably more exciting and, in hindsight, surely more worthy of being a part of, than the present. This might seem particularly so in a sport such as Formula I racing which, for a variety of reasons not only because of the genius of one man, Michael Schumacher, who is so much better than his nearest rival has become predictable for the most part.
This season, long before Schumacher, in a moment of ill-advised indulgence, slowed down at Indianapolis in a botched attempt at bringing up a dead-heat with his Brazilian team-mate Rubens Barrichello, the circus had been reduced to a farce. The trapeze artists and the dare-devil performers had already disappeared behind the curtain and only the clowns were left at the climax, so to say.
Backed by an inspired Ferrari team of far-sighted managers, brilliant engineers and hard-working mechanics, Schumacher, who matched Juan Manuel Fangio's record of five titles this season, has moved so far away from the pack that it is going to take a near-miracle for a rival team to throw up a serious competitor to the German genius next season.
And the Catch 22 situation in which most other teams find themselves does not make room for optimism vis-a-vis competitive intensity at the very top in a sport that has always thrived on thrill-a-minute, spill-a-minute split second rivalry.
While the task ahead for Ferrari's rivals in finding the right driving talent and, more importantly, the technical expertise and the millions of dollars needed to turn themselves truly competitive seems daunting, this, and the fact that the sport has become mostly predictable, cannot dilute the enormity of what Schumacher has achieved.
The German maestro is clearly miles ahead of every other driver of his generation, a driver who can only be compared to the great masters of the past men such as Fangio and the peerless Brazilian Ayrton Senna and one who seems destined to break every record there is on the fast lane to immortality.
But the fact that he wins all the time and does not have the kind of rivalry barring perhaps during a couple of years when Ferrari cars were still not the ones they were aiming to build and the Finn Mika Hakkinen more than matched Schumacher that Senna did with Alain Prost and then with Nigel Mansell, has prompted people to take the German for granted.
Ah, Schumacher? Oh, he should win. He will win. So what?
But why? How can such a consistent display of stunning excellence come to be taken for granted?
It has to do with perfection, almost super-human perfection. We live in a world where perfection of the sort symbolised by Schumacher can actually be a handicap when it comes to popular appeal. For, most of us like our heroes with feet of clay.
There is a touch of romance to vulnerability. A hole here, another there, makes for a perfect picture, although it is not a perfect picture in reality.
"Michael wins races that he should not do, and does not lose races that he should win," says Ross Brawn, the English engineer who has contributed so much to Ferrari's success.
Schumacher does this because he is a greater natural talent behind the wheels than perhaps any man who has ever driven in Formula I ... well, every man barring one, Senna.
These days, it has become fashionable to sound "politically correct" which means who cannot call an idiot an idiot and you can win a lot of fans and easily find your way into the big league of the so-called "progressive" crowd if you dismissed all suggestions that someone was born with a certain talent that cannot be acquired by practice and hard work.
In fact, even erudite social scientists are joining the long queue of men who want to go up on stage and "nail the myth of natural talent" simply because they want to be seen and heard saying the socially-agreed right things. Opportunities, motivation, drive and practice are the things that make a genius, not natural talent, they would say.
Then again, if you are the type of person who says, "to hell with political correctness" and stuck to your convictions, it will not at all be difficult to acknowledge that all men are not born equal in terms of talent.
What kind of motivation, drive and practice would help a little known painter come up with something that would match or surpass Van Gogh's "Sunflowers"? Given equal opportunities, can all physicists achieve what Stephen Hawking, the less than physically able English genius, has accomplished?
And more than in any other area of human activity, it is in sport which is a wonderful laboratory for observation that we see the operation of the genius principle, the heavy hand of natural talent making a huge difference.
As a genius behind the wheels, Schumacher should rank with the very best in his sport. In my mind, only one man would rank higher Senna.
"Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy," wrote Scott Fitzgerald.
Somehow, to me, it was always difficult to imagine Senna sitting by the fireplace and recalling tales of his heroism on the fast tracks to his grandchildren.
Can anyone have imagined John F. Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe or John Lennon enjoying septuagenarian good health and a round of golf this, even when these legends were alive?
Some lives seem destined to be be cut off at the very peak. Cruel as this cutting off, this act of fate, may be, it is the final saga the unexpected death that helps complete the picture of the legend.
Dying young provides an ethereal halo to the legendary heroes and sets them far apart from the survivor-heroes who live to tell and re-tell their oft-repeated tales.
But Senna's halo is not merely triggered by his death on the track while still in his prime. Even when he was alive, many experts in the sport, as well as millions of fans, were sure in their minds that they had never seen a driver quite like the Brazilian, and will never see one like him in the future.
With a monkish one-pointedness, Senna sought to find a limit that corresponded to his own higher intensity of purpose. The passion he often referred to when talking about his own profession is not something that people living ordinary lives with low pressures would understand, much less readily relate to. Only the very few who constantly seek a higher and higher intensity of purpose could have empathised with Senna.
The Brazilian genius was a man who preferred high speeds and great pressures, a man who constantly pushed back frontiers, testing his own will and endurance harder and harder. Essentially, the car was no more than a handy vehicle as Senna drove towards his own Nirvana.
Senna's obsession with perfection saw him operate on an elevated plane where the ordinary thrills of motor racing did not matter. Such an obsession is fairly risk free in most professions. I can strive to write the perfect story, the perfect sentence. If I fall short, no sweat. There is always tomorrow.
But it is another thing striving for perfection at 200 mph time after time, and especially when you know that it is not your input alone that will make for perfection. If one little thing goes wrong in the setting up of the car, if one small mechanical problem crops up, what goes is not just perfection, but life itself, as it happened in the San Marino Grand Prix eight years ago in the case of Senna.
That was a devastating loss to Formula I, especially because it came at a time when Schumacher was just beginning to assert himself. Senna and Schumacher in well matched cars on the tricky Monte Carlo circuit under brooding skies and a downpour in the second half of the race ... that would have been a connoisseur's delight.
Over three decades, one has watched several great drivers in Formula I, not the least men such as Alain Prost, the implacable French "Professor", Nelson Piquet of Brazil, Niki Lauda and Mika Hakkinen.
But, in my mind, Senna and Schumacher were in a league of their own. They were the Gary Sobers and Don Bradman of Formula I racing. Schumacher, like Bradman, might raise the bar so high that no man might ever catch up.
Then again, sport is not merely about numbers. I have always believed that Sobers is the greatest cricketer that ever lived. And I believe too that Senna is the greatest driver to ever race a motor car.
The writer's all-time Top 10
1. Ayrton Senna
2. Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio
4. Alain Prost
5. Niki Lauda
6. Jackie Stewart
7. Alberto Ascari
8. Jack Brabham
9. Jim Clark
10. Nelson Piquet
Five ways to rein in Michael Schumacher and turn Formula I more competitive next season:
- Make it mandatory for Schumacher to complete two laps more than the others on every circuit.
- Make him carry one or two passengers in his car in every race.
- Make him start last in the grid in every race.
- Strip Schumacher's Ferrari of all its sophisticated driving aids.
- Ban overtaking in races where Schumacher is not in pole position. Just kiding you know!
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