The cars go round and round – discovering the unexpectedly interesting

Posted: February 11, 2014 in writing life
Tags: , , ,

I’ve long held to the theory that anything can be interesting if you look at it in enough depth. The pleasure of listening to Mark Kermode’s film reviews doesn’t come from expecting to see the films but from listening to him talk intelligently and passionately about a topic he loves. Books on fonts or map making can become enthralling by taking the right angle in addressing their subject.

But there are certain topics I have always thought of as unutterably dull, and one of them is motor racing. I mean seriously, they just drive round and round in circles making noise and smoke – what’s so exciting about that? The only time it gets interesting is when it goes horribly wrong, and I don’t enjoy seeing people go through real life car crashes. If I want that sort of entertainment I’ll watch a Jason Statham movie – the camera angles will be better and there might be a fight scene too.

But today I had to read about motor racing for a piece of freelance work. I was writing about changes to Formula One rules this year and the challenges this raises for people building and designing cars. I’m no engineer, I’m no car enthusiast, and I’m certainly not someone with a deep and abiding love of rules and regulations. I was all ready to yawn my way through this one.

And yet, to my complete surprise, it fast became fascinating. Looking beneath the bonnet of motor sports, seeing how designs arise from competing interests of safety, excitement, aesthetics and even environmental concerns. Recognising the huge chains of people and organisations involved in making the sport work. Appreciating the precision engineering that goes into every detail of car design, making some of the articles read like passages from a book on spaceships. Even the cursory reading needed for a single blog article involved varied and complex combinations of engineering and game design.

This doesn’t mean that I’m going to start watching motor sports, or that I’ve got over my deep and abiding loathing of Jeremy Clarkson. But maybe next time someone mentions Formula One I’ll pay a little more attention.


  1. John Moley says:

    Ironically (or is it? I don’t know. Don’t hate me!), this post reminds me of why I started watching Top Gear. It was about five years ago that my wife got me playing the Need For Speed games with her on the PS3. All the races were fun, but by far my favourite ones were the drag races. There’s not really any skill to it; there’s a knack to optimally warming the tyres, a reflexes requirement to hitting the accelerator at the right moment and a certain amount of strategy involved in timing the nitrous injection. It is fair to say, however, that the result is usually determined long before those elements come into play. Drag races are won and lost in the garage. Once I discovered how much acceleration could be affected by something as simple as the selection of drivetrain, I was hooked. Long after we’d stopped racing, I’d be tinkering away at the blueprints of our cars, doing everything I could to optimise performance. I learned to appreciate cars, not just as functional objects, but rather what functional objects become when they are obsessed over, reworked, and reimagined over generations; engineering masterpieces. Quite unexpectedly, I found that between the tiresome pretence of politically incorrect thought that so disturbs Stewart Lee the presenters of Top Gear were waxing lyrical about some truly stunning marvels of technological achievement. Suddenly a good 50% of the show was stuff I actually found interesting and the passion these three idiots displayed in abundance was something I could relate to. I still roll my eyes at the stupid comments and wish they could find other routes to comedy, but as a televisual attempt to express mankind’s love affair with the automobile, nothing else comes close. Oh, and the classic slapstick stuff that they do when they’re trying to drive through jungles and the like is good for (wholly inoffensive) chuckle. 🙂

    • This is the sort of thing I find fascinating about motor sports – that so much of the skill and effort that goes into them happens out of sight. Those little nuances of design and engineering. It’s nice that Clarkson and Co. are obsessing over something of merit and interest, in between the other stuff.

  2. Sheila says:

    One of the many industries we do stuff for where I work is motor racing. It is good to see innovative engineering move from this niche to more general application. Just a pity it doesn’t happen without the noise and fossil fuel consumption.

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