Sunday, September 30, 2012

Michael Schumacher's marmite nightmare

Richard Feynman once remarked that experimental particle physics is somewhat akin to smashing watches together, and examining the various gears, cogs and springs which fly out, in order to better understand how such an intricate device is first put together.

Inspired by his academic counterpart, one can only assume that Michael Schumacher has recently developed a deep interest in the transmission internals and rear-wing assembly of a Formula One car, and wishes to better understand how they are put together.

Hurtling down Esplanade Drive at the re-start of last week's Singapore Grand Prix, approaching the ninety-degree right of turn 14, Michael appeared either to mis-judge his braking, or under-anticipate the braking point of those on worn tyres ahead of him. Locking up all four wheels, and slewing marginally sideways, Michael plunged into the rear of Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso.

On time-scales brief to the human eye, this triggered a complex hierarchy of energy degrading processes over a range of different length-scales. The front-wing of the Mercedes broke off and partially shattered as the nose of the Mercedes was driven into the rear of the Italian car, lifting it into the air. As the Mercedes rode up and over the rear crash structure on the Toro Rosso, the detached front-wing was briefly trapped under the rear of Vergne's car. The front wheels of the Mercedes folded inwards, the rear-wing of the Toro Rosso shattered into a characteristic fragment-size distribution (large numbers of small fragments, small number of large fragments), and a titanium end-plate of the Mercedes front-wing was simultaneously dragged along the road, raising a cascade of sparks, diffraction-spiked in subsequent photos like an astrophysical star cluster. It was a frightening freeze-frame moment of beautiful complexity.

The ultimate cause of the accident, however, may lie with a comment Schumacher made in the October issue of F1 Racing magazine. Here, Michael was quizzed with readers' questions, and at one point was asked if, looking back over his career, he had any regrets. The answer was terse, but revealing:

"Jerez. In 1997."

Now, far from being a confession or admission, this actually constituted an implicit rebuttal. Michael was, in effect, saying that he doesn't regret any of the litany of other transgressions of which he is often accused: the other deliberate accidents; the dragging of wounded cars back onto the track to get races red-flagged; the deliberate blocking of the track in final qualifying, etc etc. None of that is regretted, presumably because Michael was only stripped of points for that one incident in 1997, when, as Nigel Roebuck put it, the FIA came down on him "like a tonne of feathers."

Michael's latest denial was only going to provoke further action from the Karma Police, who've had the former wunderkind in their cross-hairs for some time now. The combination of circumstances on the restart at Singapore was simply their latest move; an elegantly planned and executed slice of 'fate'.

Elsewhere in the same interview, Michael was asked if there was something which irritates him about Formula One today, and his response was somewhat enigmatic: "Black gold." Prompted to elaborate, Michael merely added "Think about it."

Could Michael possibly be expressing concern about the use of petroleum-derived energy sources in Formula One? Surely not; after all, the total greenhouse gas emissions from the sport are an infinitesimal fraction of global emissions, and McLaren Pan-Galactic, for one, announced late last year that they're actually a carbon-neutral organisation. 

Perusing the list of other possible referents for 'black gold', one's eye immediately alights upon that notoriously polarizing condiment, marmite. Joining up the dots to understand Michael's source of vexation, it should be remembered that Lewis Hamilton is Formula One's Mr Marmite: loved by some, loathed by others.

And, as we all found out on Friday this week, Michael's marmite discomfort transpired to be fully justified.

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