Photo via Red Bull
Hyperbole is a basic human instinct that often cries out to be satisfied. We want to find a thing, and then consume whatever is the most of that thing. It’s why people who liked baggy jeans wore JNCOs in the 90s, why English majors read every single volume of Proust, and why masturbation enthusiasts watch that really weird porn where people punch each other in the face. It’s also why we watch Formula One.
I’m having these thoughts as I sit in a box at the Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka, Japan, watching the qualifying round of the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix. It’s hard to sustain a line of thought for too long here, as every few seconds a stupidly fast car whips past your face at volumes that are not safe for human ears. You can put in earplugs, but honestly, they don’t do shit—your head is still going to be buzzing by the end of a weekend at an F1 race.
Watching qualifying, I get the sense that people here take the races very seriously, probably more seriously than I’ve ever taken anything. This goes back to my point about F1—it’s an extreme sport, not in the way that snowboarding or whatever is an extreme sport, more like, in order to properly appreciate it, one has to be fully invested. It’s an exhausting thing to watch, almost like being at work, because despite the visceral thrill of watching a car go impossibly fucking fast, you have to really pay attention to see what’s going on.
Talking to Mark Webber, one of the absolute best F1 drivers in the universe, I get an even further sense of the minutiae that goes into being a great driver. Formula One cars are engineered within an inch of their lives, and even a nearly imperceptible movement imparted upon the wheel can send you crashing into a wall. “Our eyes are at knee-level,” Webber tells me. “The acceleration and braking is extremely brutal.” The steering wheel looks zero percent like a regular car’s, as well. It's more akin to something you might find on the Millennium Falcon, which is to say there are lots of buttons that look like they do very important things. There are only grips for the wheel on the sides, so there’s no way you’d be steering it like a lowrider. Oh, and Formula One drivers don’t have windshields. Just these helmets that are like Cramps-level hardcore. If a bug hits you in the face at two million miles an hour, there's a layer of plastic that sits on top of the visor, which you can rip off and keep driving, unfettered.
Webber ends up qualifying in second, just behind his Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel, a 25-year-old German dude who seems just evil enough to only care about being the absolute best at something. You tend to find a little streak of evil in truly great athletes—think Mike Tyson in his early interviews, or Michael Jordan’s ability to pull off legendary performances based on petty grudges throughout his career, and then subsequent inability to dress well in retirement. With Vettel, it’s his total dispassionate nature. He’s a Kraftwerk song come to life, a cold robot of a man whose evil stems from the fact that his only passion is speed.
As I watch qualifying and explore the track’s paddock (this little area on the inside of the track where obscenely rich people—and me—hang out) I glean some other nuggets. Kamui Kobayashi is Japanese, and is therefore the driver who the mostly-Japanese crowd is overwhelmingly rooting for. He'll be starting the race at third. Michael Schumacher, a seven-time world champion who officially announced his retirement just two days prior to the race, barely made the cut at 16th. With Vettel and Webber coming in one and two, respectively, it seems like they have a Shaq-and-Kobe-esque relationship, their fervor for victory nearly surpassed by their yearning to do so while looking better than the other. That is to say, these guys clearly do not play golf together on their days off.
The unequivocal highlight of qualifying comes when Webber passes another driver as they both turn the track's first corner. Passes in F1 require chess-like planning—drivers set them up laps in advance, and if something goes wrong they're not going to be able to make it happen. Here, Webber slowly positions himself so that he's on the other driver's right as they near the turn, whipping past him as the turn approaches, forcing him to take the outside position. From there, he gains a few crucial moments on the inside, and once the straightaway hits he leaves the poor motherfucker in the dust.
In the paddock department, meanwhile, there is a booth staffed by a woman named Marta that gives away free champagne; this is important. Additionally, there is a station that gives away free ice cream sundaes, another one that provides free manicures, and yet a third that sells watches. I end up taking a macaroon from the ice cream station that may or may not have been decorative, looking at the expensive watches, and passing up a woman’s offer to give me a manicure.
Suzuka (Red Bull)
The next day at the race proper much of the crowd is wearing red for Ferrari, but each driver has a contingent. Myriad German flags fly for Vettel—he’s the race favorite—but each driver has at least a few supporters within the eighty thousand-ish person crowd.
Before the race begins, drivers of yore parade around the track in vintage cars. One is carrying Kobayashi; he hops out at the pit area, gives the crowd a thumbs-up, and jumps the fence to get to his car. The crowd loses its shit.
You have not lived until you have watched a Formula One race go off. It’s one of the loudest, most overtly mercurial things one can witness. One second you have these airplane-esque cars sitting on the starting line, and the next, you’ve got a sonic boom up in your face.
Vettel leaves the pack behind pretty much immediately, which is good for him because as soon as everybody hits the first curve there is a crash and the shit immediately hits the fan. It’s kind of hard to tell what’s going on in an F1 race if you’re not intimately familiar with the sport, and to me it just looks like a few cars have spun out and a couple seem down for the count. Seconds later, however, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that the crash has extreme implications: The parties involved are Mark Webber, Romain Grosjean, and series leader Fernando Alonso. Grosjean, who by all accounts is kind of a dick when it comes to car-to-car contact, touched up on Webber as they were nearing the corner and caused him to go into the grass. Alonso ate shit, and suddenly the number-one dude in the world is completely out of the race. This is huge for Vettel, as even though he’s been the world champ two years running, he’s currently sitting 29 points behind Alonso, and winning an F1 race gets you 25, which would put him just four points behind his rival. Vettel also won in Korea a week after Suzuka, and heading into the mid-November Austin race, is in the points lead. (That race will be the first F1 race in the States in five years.)
At 23 laps in, Vettel is in first place to a psychopathic degree. The consensus in the stands is that his victory is pretty much a foregone conclusion. If Formula One is about the elimination of error as much as it is about pure speed, Vettel could have been a Magic: The Gathering player, or the world’s best Quality Control guy. Kobayashi and Felipe Massa are jockeying for second, but they’re pretty much fucked as far as winning goes. Schumacher’s showing flashes of his old brilliance, but for the most part he’s navigating the track much in the same way Rod Stewart worked his way through the 80s. Webber’s worked his way to the middle of the pack, but his chances of winning are slim to none.
The race ends the way everyone knew it would since Lap 7: with Sebastian Vettel winning, Massa in second, and Kobayashi in third. Vettel drove like hot fuck and deserved it completely, but to me, the real heroes of the race are Kobayashi, whose reception from the crowd made him seem like a national hero, and Schumacher, who managed to not finish in dead last. When it comes to sports, I’m drawn to the fuckups, burnouts, wannabes, has-beens, and almost-weres. Winners are boring—it’s within failure that the truly interesting shit lies. And this bevy of near-successes and total disasters is what makes F1 interesting. The rest is just science.