Saturday, November 20, 2010

Jonathan Meades in the pitlane

I'm Jonathan Meades, and this week I'll be looking at the world of Formula 1. I'll be looking at its culture, its mores, its idioms, and its aesthetics.

Modern Formula 1 is both a craft, a trade, and an artform. Whilst it has inherited the pragmatist aesthetic of the aerospace industry, it is essentially, in its British context at least, a cottage industry transformed by cashflow into a blue-chip extravaganza of kinetic marketing.

At McLaren's headquarters in Woking, we find a monument to corporate Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: the McLaren Technology Centre. Whilst the headquarters of other Formula 1 teams acquiesce to the ubiquity of the neomodern aesthetic, the MTC is a starchitect Norman Foster design, its external yin-yang geometry a pretentious usurpation of Taoist symbolism.

This is neither hangar, nor factory, nor laboratory, nor suburban industrial unit. It protrudes from beneath into ambient parkland, like the first manifestation of a technologically-advanced and previously submerged alien civilisation. It is a hybridisation of the office block and the garage, lacking the verticality of the former, and the grime of the latter. More Kennedy Space Centre than Cowley or Dagenham, it is no coincidence that McLaren possess a Mission Control within, where strategists and engineers study real-time telemetry transmitted from a race in Tibet or Mongolia. Four ion-drive engines, and a supply of anti-matter, are secreted within the foundations of the MTC, and will one day rip it from its concrete tethers, whence it will be free to travel the cosmos, dispatching self-replicating robots to colonise the galaxy.

The engineers who work for these Formula 1 teams are intelligent, lean and competitive; the mechanics are earthy and hard-working; the drivers are superfit, superefficient hand-eye-body-coordinating expert systems. Together, they design, manufacture and operate what are essentially aircraft constrained to remain in contact with strips of asphalted aggregate, deposited on the surface of the Earth. The cars seem equally at home circulating city streets as they are traversing airfield perimeters. The start of a race is akin to twenty simultaneous Space-Shuttle launches, yet the combative element gives the drivers the code of conduct and patois of fighter pilots rather than astronauts.

The history of Formula 1 is an epic narrative of heroism and technical ingenuity, interwoven with tragedy, politics and greed. Emasculated by the risk-averse nature of the modern world, the spectre of death no longer hangs over the sport, but it has developed into the most competitive technological arms-race on the planet. In fact, Formula 1 is the most sophisticated, multi-dimensional cultural activity in the world, for nothing else features its defining combination of sport, technology, politics, and business.

Yet ultimately, the cars are merely prostheses for the expression of the human competitive instinct. The teams spend millions of dollars on an annual basis operating wind-tunnels and supercomputers, exploiting loopholes and ambiguities in the regulations, in order to equip their drivers with the means to extend the bipedal locomotive capabilities they inherited from biological evolution by natural selection. Years of practice honing kinaesthetic sensitivities, sensory feedback loops, reaction speeds, spatial pattern recognition, racecraft, and mind management skills, culminates in a race every couple of weeks, for eight months of the year. Here, the ambitions of twenty drivers and their teams are brought into conflict by extinguishing a row of red lights, and then deconflicted a couple of hours later by a chequered flag.

It is this spectacle which draws the crowds and the television audiences in their millions: the opportunity to vicariously experience the glamourous, technologically-driven, adrenalin-charged gladiatorial combat. And it is the realisation of this common vicarious experience which draws the telecommunication companies, the drinks companies, the banks, and the roadcar manufacturers, to invest and advertise. Here, they piggy-back on the global information flows generated by the sport, seeking to insert brand-values, conceptual associations, and unbidden wants into the minds of the audience, tugging their consumerist behaviour this way and that.

It is the information flow which supports the flow of money, which supports the flow of technological creativity, which supports the prosthetic extension of the competitive instinct, which supports the vicarious experience of glamour and combat, which supports the information flow that keeps the F1 wheel spinning.


Sean said...

Its fantastic that you can get Jonathan Meades for a guest post, it really helps in the off season...but not as much as F1 2010 on the playstation, but quite nearly as brilliant.

Maybe you could really excel yourself and get a seance organised at McCabe Towers and report to us on Colin Chapman and Enzo Ferrari in conversation on modern motorsport?

Gordon McCabe said...

Is it best on the Playstation or the Xbox? And have you got a steering wheel and pedals?

Sean said...

Not seen the xbox version but I am told by my younger playmates that PS3 is a bit smoother.

Logitech Driving Force GT with a frame and seat made up my yours truly, but I tend to use the pad.

Steering deadzone: 5%
Throttle deadzone: 3%
Throttle sat: 95%
Brake deadzone: 5%
Brake sat: 90%

are the settings, the rest default. It will put a smile on your face.

Patrick said...

I think Meades only actual comment on motorsport had been that "the unspoken appeal of all motor racing lies in the gratification of the appetite for crashes"

Gordon McCabe said...

If I recall, he's not very keen on golf either.

David said...

My long-standing, and genuine, contention is that Jonathan Meades and Clive James should be tasked exclusively with providing our F1 coverage. Can you imagine the unmissable television propostion that the 50minutes leading up to race-start would become.

Meades on Peter Collins:

Gordon McCabe said...

Meades on Peter Collins! Excellent find.