Responding To "Small Ball"

On October 15, we posted a commentary item from Janos Wimpffen - here. Radio Le Mans (and UK) commentator (and endurance man) Paul Truswell forwards this response - in the form of a private and public reply to Janos's original thoughts.

Janos

I thoroughly appreciated your "thoughtful piece" that Malcolm posted recently. We have something similar exhibited by Caterham racing in the UK. Now this is a bit like describing basketball to someone who's never seen it, but in Caterham racing you get 25 minutes of slipstreaming, in which it is impossible to count the number of overtaking moves, followed by a dash to the flag out of which one of the competitors will emerge triumphant.

Now this is all very entertaining stuff, but the criticism has been made of it that you might as well do away with the first 20 minutes and just have the "dash to the flag" bit to establish which driver is best at outfumbling the competition. Well, yes you could, but you would miss something. Watching closely, you notice some drivers getting themselves all excited trying to make up positions, or avoid losing them, at every corner. Others maintain their position in the leading group, while at the same time preserving their car and keeping their cool. So by the time you get to the last lap dash, you have built up a knowledge of the characters involved and probably chosen a favourite. Without placing it in its context, the race can lose its edge, its grit.

Years ago, on annual holiday in France, a group of us would go and watch the local ice hockey team play. Not NHL, you understand, but nevertheless top national league stuff. Our group leader refused to go until the second half, on the grounds that "nothing much ever happens in the first half, all the fights always happen towards the end". But of course there was a piece of me wanting to know the background to all these grudges that had built up - as far as we could tell, the outbreaks of aggression were completely spontaneous and certainly unwarranted. To this day, I am convinced that, had we have seen the game from the very start, we could have had great fun spotting who was going to try to beat seven bells out of whom before the night was out.

Now if you know me, I have always been a kind of "why did that happen?", "what is he thinking about?", "what is going to happen next?", type of guy. And I apply such thinking to the things that I see, especially the sports that I like. And I think that's where our common love of endurance racing comes in.

But there is a malaise these days, isn't there? There is a "go on then, entertain me" attitude pervading our society. And this attitude has, as a consequence, led to a different kind of approach by the entertainment industry, by the media, whereby everything is "look at this, it's great". "In your face" is good, subtlety is bad.

When I go to a great sporting event, I go to see the event, I want to see real people striving to prove themselves above their competition. And the outcome, although it may be predictable, is unknown and sometimes unfair. When I want to be entertained, I go to the theatre. I don't want to underestimate theatre, but its function, the function of its participants, is to portray fiction, to stimulate the imagination. I don't try to work out "whodunnit", there is no point, the author has already worked it all out. There is an important difference, I am sure you can see, between the two.

And the sporting event itself is important too. You cannot proliferate greatness. By definition, not everything can be great. There is a good reason why the Olympic Games and the Soccer World Cup are only held once every four years. Nineteen World Championship Formula One races a year is too many. The term "Grand Prix" has lost its lustre.

And so to endurance racing. This is not a battle between two individuals, tennis style. Nor yet between two teams, cricket (or baseball) style. But between twenty, thirty, forty or more teams, each with characters to be observed and admired, behind the wheel, in the pits, in the factories in the weeks before the race. And he who does the job best, wins (sometimes).

But you can't package this up into a bite-sized TV programme. There is no point turning up at Le Mans on Sunday lunchtime to watch "the climax" of the race. You have to watch the drama build up, unfold and complete. You have to concentrate. At least I do. All this doesn't seem to sit well with many of today's consumers. Today's consumer wants a weekly fix of his F1-soap opera. Or NASCAR in the USA. And how many people do something else while they're watching?

But ultimately, I don't think I care. It would be reassuring to know that the majority thinks like I do: it would make living in a democracy easier. But hey, I'm in a minority anyway, I like motor-racing. I also like folk music, this puts me in an even smaller minority. As long as the powers-that-be don't outlaw me, I'm OK. And I can get into and out of my chosen pursuits without parking difficulties and traffic jams. There's a voice inside my head telling me that being in a minority is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to attempt to change. The Financial Times (Wall Street Journal) is no less worthy a newspaper than The Sun (USA Today), just because it has a smaller circulation. Indeed maybe the contrary is true.

What is important, and what we have to strive to do, is to convince people (whether or not they like sportscar racing), that it is a worthy exercise, that it is "important", in some sense of the word. The proposed six hour sportscar races in the UK next year are worthy in the same sense. But in my view, the organisers need to strike a careful balance to ensure that there are a sufficient number of races during a season, but not so many as to spoil the sense of occasion.

And I am vaguely uneasy about ALMS, LMES, Grand-Am, FIA GT, FIA GT3s - there is a finite amount of butter being spread on an ever-increasing number of slices of bread - and some of those people are chasing a crock of gold rather than promoting quality motor-racing.

Sorry to go on at such length, I guess the theme just got me going a bit.

Hope you're well,

Paul

 

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