Off piste: A fortnightly series in which academics step outside their area of expertise

Off Piste: Racing demon

The individual aspects of motor racing can be intellectually appreciated, but the sum of the total adds up to a pure, gut-stirring experience that's all about feeling, enthuses Sir Drummond Bone

Ever since the Times Higher Education Supplement as it then was outed my racing Maserati I am often asked when did I become interested in motor racing, less often, strangely but perhaps politely, why. The answer to the often asked question is 1955 at the latest (I was eight and I can remember watching Stirling Moss trailing Juan Manuel Fangio in Grand Prix Mercedes on the television), the answer to the less-often asked one is difficult, and really purely speculation. Neither of my parents was interested in motor racing (both were artists) and only interested in cars in so far as they didn't at that time have one and wanted one (the idea of hire purchase was anathema to good Scots back then, so I didn't learn the habit, essential to a motor-racing enthusiast of high (financial) gearing from them either).

None of my immediate school friends at that early age was keen - it was a long while later that we began to pick each other because of a common interest in vroom vroom. All I can really do by way of explanation is read back into those early days the web of interests which I now identify with motor sport, and offer a post-facto explanation. Actually, that's a kind of explanation I like intellectually, professionally speaking: I prefer explaining phenomena by what they produce or lead to rather than by what apparently caused or led up to them. It's a way of thinking I like to believe is related to test by prediction, though it's not quite the same I grant.

So of course there's the competitive element - but then most vice-chancellors are pretty competitive and most aren't interested in motor racing (though I am not entirely alone - you know who you are!), and competitiveness could come with any sport. Then there's the pattern recognition element - I could get monstrously geeky over this, but to (almost) keep the lid on it and yet give you an idea, there are for example multiply-variable ways of taking a racing line through a corner, but two big categories - early turn-in, foot still on the brake, using the forward weight transfer basically to help the car turn, or late turn-in, foot off the brake at the turning point, and using the accelerator to help the back of the car round. Both make a very distinctive "shape" to the corner or you could think of this as variations on a curve of constant radius, or perhaps even as a matter of balance (which is how the driver probably "feels" it). And so on and so on - but of course pattern recognition is key to most sports (and poetry and music and maths and most everything the human brain does!).

There's the mechanical bit of it - and there is the mechanical bit of it for me, because like most racing types (wonderful how "period" the vocabulary is ...) I am interested in, feel bewitched by, most things mechanical, from cameras to the latest high-tech railway locomotive. Though Italian cars in particular have deep cultural roots - Modena, where or near where Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati are all made, has been a centre for the casting of alloys since the Renaissance, and Italian engine castings are beautiful to look at still. Moreover, for all the high-tech, the motor-sport supply chain is still part of an artisanal tradition - a cottage industry, often with a strong family tradition.

But this mechanical element does I suppose cut down the number of sports possibilities, so where did it come from? Some might say it's a male thing, tools and weapons and all that 2001: A Space Odyssey stuff, but not all men are motor-racing fanatics, and fewer still actually do it. Or is it really a love of craft - in which case it could be a part of those artist genes. Clearly linked to the mechanical thing is the noise thing - for those who like it it is real excitement, for those who don't, well, they don't - but at least one famous conductor and one famous singer are on record (so to speak) as lovers of the combustion engine scream. There is little more evocative of the whole experience for the addicted than the way a multi-cylinder racing engine starts up on a cold morning, from deep barp-barp to orgasmic yowl-howl. It's either Wow! or fingers in ears. The "wow" response is not gender-specific by any means and can be quite complex - I have seen people with misty as well as gleaming eyes. Ah, yes ...

So here I am in my sixties, conscious that the combustion engine and the motor car, while deliverers of freedom, are also deliverers of pollution and planning nightmare and, one has to face it, death - and it now seems truly bizarre in motor racing how death was simply accepted as routine in the 1950s - but still so seduced that from time to time I put on the overalls and the helmet, take the mags, still meet mates to kick tyres, still stay passionate about the talents of Michael Schumacher or Sebastien Loeb. It is about a feeling for shapes, or balance if you prefer, symmetries and asymmetries - it is about the joy of things well made, it is about visceral excitement and competitiveness, all things I love in other pursuits - poetry, music and more - but why is it specifically about motor racing? - who knows ... don't bother asking, too late to worry, it just is.

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