Sunday, 9 December 2012

In The Name Of Glory - Tom Rubython

Continuing my post-season reading efforts, I have recently completed another book which formed part of my Kindle "backlog".  This was In The Name Of Glory by Tom Rubython, a study of the momentous 1976 Formula 1 season, and more specifically the championship contest between James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

The author does have his detractors amongst racing enthusiasts, and it has to be said that the subtitle of this book (1976 - The Greatest Ever Sporting Duel) hardly inspired confidence.  However, I was prepared to give this one a chance........

The most noticeable thing at first glance was the brevity of this publication, certainly in comparison to the two other Rubython ones which I have previously read, The Life Of Senna and Shunt, the latter of which I blogged about here:-

Shunt - The Story of James Hunt

A couple of contentious assertions early on in the book rather set the tone for me, particularly the one concerning Lauda's supposed attitude to losing the championship in such circumstances.  What is said runs totally against the grain of the majority of perceived wisdom on the subject.  Also, it is stretching things to imply that the 1976 season was uniquely dramatic, exciting or eventful.

The book contains a few factual errors.  Lauda's debut in Austria in 1971 is not mentioned, and he did not win the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix. There was no Canadian Grand Prix in 1975, and Haiti is not in South America.  These things tend to grate after a while....

The thing which most perturbed me, though, was the tendency for hyperbole and exaggeration.  Personality clashes, or personality traits, of certain individuals are laboured excessively, presumably to heighten the sense of abundant frisson.Motor racing, like life in general, tends to be a subtle and complex endeavour, and therefore best seen in a million shades of grey.  However, here the author seems at pains to interpret things in extremes. Where the 1976 season is concerned, this is unnecessary, as the reality was in itself sufficiently remarkable...

To suggest at one point that Luca di Montezemolo was solely responsible for Ferrari's mid-1970s revival is also a novel interpretation of events.  I dare say that Messrs Lauda and Forghieri would have something to say about that.  This is an example of the author's "all or nothing" approach to some topics.

There is an appraisal also of the feverish politics which supposedly gripped the Ferrari camp around that time, especially when di Montezemolo became less involved in the Formula 1 effort.  Again, there may be a little embellishment, but one can gain a good idea of the backdrop to Lauda's campaign, and these passages should be of some value to those not previously familiar with the stories.

There is much prurient, if entertaining, focus on James Hunt's lifestyle.  Where the book did score some bonus points for me was in its efforts to detail Lauda's upbringing, and his early racing activities, including the way in which he raised finance, and incurred the wrath of some family members along the way.

Unsurprisingly, much of the Hunt-orientated material will be very familiar to those who have read Rubython's Hunt biography.

For all my reservations about the book, the raw facts of the story are enough to make this an entertaining read, if one takes some of the author's flights of fancy with a pinch of salt.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Limit - Michael Cannell

With the end of the 2012 Formula 1 season, I have thrown my energies into further exploration of motorsport history.  As part of this process, I recently read a book which had been nestling on my Kindle for a little while.  I refer to The Limit, by Michael Cannell.

Ostensibly, this book, sub-titled Life and Death in Formula One's Most Dangerous Era, takes a look at the lives and careers of Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, culminating in the tragic conclusion to the 1961 season.  However, in a wider sense it serves as a chronicle of a whole epoch in the sport, and it also throws a light on the changing of the times in the aftermath of the Second World War.

There is a wealth of biographical detail about both Hill and von Trips, and some attempt along the way to gauge how aspects of their respective backgrounds may have impacted on the course of their racing careers. The chapters covering Hill's upbringing in particular I found enlightening, and some of my preconceived notions about him were dispelled.

There are some evocative and sobering passages dealing with Hill's attempts at the Carrera Panamericana, and an intriguing account of how he gradually attracted the attention of Ferrari.

The parts documenting the formative years of Wolfgang von Trips are valuable because there seems to be a dearth of in-depth material available about him, in the English language at least.  Again, the story does not conform to some of the blithe assumptions which I previously harboured.  Some effort is made to explain how he ascended to World championship contender status, from his links with Mercedes and Porsche, the ambivalent attitude of his family towards his racing activities, to some of the accidents which hampered his progress along the way.

We are also given shorter, but still affecting, portaits of some of the other characters in this drama, such as Alfonso de Portago, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins. One is left with the feeling that a uniquely diverse, complex and substantial band of men inhabited the Ferrari team, and motorsport generally, during those years.

The turbulent and tragic 1958 Grand Prix season is covered in depth, particularly the internal and political strife engulfing the Ferrari driving strength.  It appears that the scheming, intriguing and general volatility assumed some kind of peak around the middle of that year.  The portions revolving around the deaths of Luigi  Musso and Peter Collins, and their aftermath, are interesting to say the least.

Many of the anecdotes, including those concerning Enzo Ferrari, will be familiar to many, but it is good to have so many condensed into this tome, and for many the book will serve as a form of "refresher" pertaining to the goings-on of that era.

Perhaps understandably, the 1959 and 1960 seasons are largely glossed over, so that attention can be rightly devoted to the momentous 1961 championship struggle.  The impression given here is that there was more tension and gamesmanship between Hill and von Trips than is often assumed. Their relationship that year was a curious one, and it is a moot point whether any mild animosity which may have developed was precipitated by the actions of the Ferrari team itself.  The events surrounding the fateful Monza race are dealt with sensitively and without sensationalism.

One of the most striking aspects of this book for me is its depiction of the personality of Phil Hill.  He had always been a somewhat enigmatic figure to me, different in many ways from the archetypal Grand Prix driver of virtually any era, but The Limit paints a very complex picture, even when compared to that which I had always assumed to be the case. Belying his image with some as a "Ferrari man" through and through, Cannell implies that the Californian felt under-valued and under-appreciated in the team.

There is some well-pitched analysis of the differences in the relative psychological make-up of Hill and von Trips, and how this affected their attitudes to racing and its perils, their motivations to compete and their outlook on life in general.  Some racing books can indulge in this sort of thing to excess, but I think here the author got things just about right.

I found Cannell's writing style to be expressive and rich, but also accessible and enjoyable.  The atmosphere and ambience of the time, both on and off the racetrack, is powerfully and effectively conveyed. The book contains the odd, relatively harmless, historical inaccuracy, but this should not detract from the book's entertainment value. The one other mild irritant is a tendency for the socio-political importance of  motor racing, particularly in parts of Continental Europe, to be over-estimated.

I approached this book with an open mind, not knowing quite what to expect.  I was pleasantly surprised by its content and style, and by its ability to hold the interest and attention.  The fact that I got through it within a few short hours is testimony to this.  I came away feeling that I had genuinely learned things, which is one of the criteria with which I judge a book's merits.  Dedicated historians may not feel that it adds that much, but for anyone seeking a grasp of the flavour of the sport and the times, The Limit is well worth checking out.

In addition, I came away with a greatly enhanced respect and reverence for Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and all those who participated in top-level motorsport during that time....

Monday, 3 December 2012

Grand Prix - the movie

When it comes to motion pictures about the sport of motor racing, the record of success would have to be described as mixed at best.  Indeed, I have seen and heard a few observers venture the opinion that some of the worst creations ever committed to celluloid have been motorsport-related.  However, a few efforts shine like a beacon amongst the general mediocrity, and remain vaguely definitive.  One of these is the 1966 movie Grand Prix, directed by John Frankenheimer.

It was an opportune time to be conceiving a film about Grand Prix racing.  In 1966, the new 3-litre engine formula was instituted, and a new breed of more meaty and muscular machines entered the arena.  These cars looked and sounded more dramatic and imposing than their 1.5 litre predecessors.  The elegant European aesthetic of the mid-1960s was also a strong ingredient in the movie's appeal.

As well as taking advantage of circumstance, the producers carried off a master-stroke by enlisting the co-operation of the Formula 1 circus, or at least most of it.  By filming at the actual venues during the race meetings, they imbued the picture with an authenticity with most other examples of this sub-genre have manifestly lacked.

As for the plot, well if not totally implausible, then it errs decisively towards the "Hollywood".  Not that most of the events depicted have not occurred in real life, but not condensed into just a few months, and revolving around a few select people! To some extent, any misgivings concerning about the story-line are ameliorated by the movie's excellence in other departments....

One of the areas in which Grand Prix excels is in its cinematography, the race action sequences being highly accomplished and advanced for their time.  Indeed, these portions of the film even stand up to 21st century scrutiny. In a wider sense, the film is visually luxurious and sumptuous, trouble seemingly being taken to focus on landmarks and the opulent.

Of the actors involved, I find James Garner's performance as Pete Aron to be the most convincing and impressive.  Garner capably constructs Aron as something of an outsider, a strong and silent type.  Hardened and quite cynical, but at the same time a humane and sensible figure.  Garner's overall plausibility and impact in the role may be related to his apparent affinity for racing.

The other performance which I find both credible and accomplished is that of Jessica Walter as Pat Stoddard.  She comes across as what might have been the public's perception of the typical racing driver's wife of the time, but the character is believable, and as an added bonus Ms Walter is very easy on the eye!

Yves Montand is assured as Jean-Pierre Sarti, evoking the gravitas but increasing weariness of a Fangio-esque elder statesman. It has to be said that some of the other actors did not work quite as well in their roles, whatever those with rose-tinted glasses may say.  The poor acting in places is an irritant and a blemish, even if it is unlikely to perturb unduly the people who will view the picture.  Some of the acting by the racing drivers is cringe-inducing, but they can be excused!

Having said that the elegance and stylishness of 1960s Europe is an enticing backdrop to Grand Prix, it also sometimes strikes me that 1960s motor racing was quite conservative, "square" even, when compared to other arenas of cultural endeavour of the time.  The "dolce vita" ambience therefore could be viewed as a touch dated, whatever its seductiveness.

The film does convey the sense of community and togetherness which, by all accounts, prevailed in those days in the racing scene, and which is so often cited as one of the main ways in which the sport has altered in the ensuing decades.  At the same time, the increasing professionalism and commercial pressures are not totally overlooked.  It was not always about camararderie and chivalry...

As is obligatory in racing films, there is much philosophising about the dangers and risks, although in fairness this is not done to excessive lengths or in a sensationalistic way.  The dialogue on this subject, and related matters,  is comparatively mature and understated, rarely descending into mawkishness.  For example, the scene outside the pub after the British Grand Prix, involving Sarti and Louise Frederickson, is very well judged.

One criticism which I would level against the script is that there is occasional superfluous "fluff", mostly in the downtime when the cars are not on track.  Although it can be contended that these passages would appeal to the "general" audience, discarding them would also have made the film shorter in length.  Perhaps they should have made an "alternative" edited version, cutting out the more frivolous parts, for the benefit of petrolheads?

The movie's makers deviated from the real 1966 calendar by having the Italian Grand Prix at Monza as the final race of the season, and also by staging the race on the old banked circuit. For dramatic effect, these decisions were perfectly understandable. The Monza sequences are beautifully constructed, with the circuit  presented as the inspiring "cathedral" of motorsport.  Tension is created, and many of the strands and sub-plots coalesce.

Granted, the four-man championship showdown may stretch credulity for some observers, but the nature of the race itself was not too dissimilar to many Grands Prix which took place at Monza during that period! The final scene of the entire movie is one of its most masterly and evocative, with James Garner strolling down the pit straight at Monza, in front of deserted grandstands.  Spine-tingling stuff....

Despite the reservations, Grand Prix remains a great looking and sounding film, and to a large degree effectively captures the organic and analog F1 of the mid-1960s.  It remains amongst the most credible mainstream movies made about auto-racing, and the much-hyped and anticipated efforts of more recent times have almost without exception failed to hold a candle to it. It is still a benchmark of sorts. The conditions under which Frankenheimer's work was made will in all probability never be replicated, and this  militates against something matching it.  Technology and finances are no substitute for realism, passion, ingenuity, and that intangible "magic"....