The Right to Win
The theme of the 2013 edition of our college magazine, Cactus Flower, is sports. As part of the editorial team it is one of my responsibilities to write a theme story for the same - and given that this is my last year on campus, and that I hadn't written a theme story for any of the previous three editions, I decided to actually write one. And the only sport I know well enough is Formula 1, and thus, this is what came out.
It was 6 AM in the morning when Marcus Jacob stepped inside the helicopter. He always liked his job. And today would be no exception.
He pressed some buttons and pulled some levers, and the mighty rotor blades started moving. Very soon, they had picked up enough rotational speed to appear almost invisible to the casual eye. And the prevailing silence was replaced by a steady and slowly intensifying mechanical whir Wisps of dust and leaves that had fallen the night before were swept away by the strong gusts and it wasn't long before the chopper was airborne.
Marcus strapped his helmet properly and looked around him through his visor. As the helicopter gained altitude, he was able to see the the subject of his inspection in its entirety. The racetrack was sprawling. Majestic. And the clear skies and early morning sun added to the ambiance. It all looked too beautiful.
In his cockpit, the deafening roar of the turbo-shaft was only a steady, low-volume purr. Marcus took off his goggles, just to enjoy the sight through his naked eyes. He soared around the track and observed the different sections closely. And while at it, he marveled the design of the layout with every bit of appreciation that he could.
‘These Japs’, he said to himself, ‘have a way of keeping things neat, tidy and small.’ And he wasn’t wrong. The Suzuka Circuit was probably one of the smallest circuits to have been used in the FIA Formula One world championship. It took up a fraction of the land area that the average circuit did, yet one lap of it, was as long as any of the others.
The trick was of course, known for the unique figure of 8 layout that the designer, John Hugenholtz had so ingeniously utilised; it managed to keep the whole track within a very narrow area of land, yet offered enough miles of racing ground to award spectators with thrilling Grands Prix year after year.
A little further off, Marcus could clearly make out the ferris wheel of the surrounding amusement park; yet another unique feather that the Suzuka Circuit had in its cap. He swooped his helicopter around the giant wheel and went on towards the Degner Curve. A little distance away was the beautiful figure of 8.
Twenty odd minutes later, he called it a day. “All clear. Nothing outta place anywhere”, he spoke into his mic.
“Roger that, Marc. We’ll have the next run in a few hours.”
When Alain woke up to the sound of a whirring chopper rotor, it took him a few minutes to realise that he was still in the Ferrari garage. After a hard day’s work and car set-up in the previous night, he and the team’s technical director, John Barnard had decided to sleep over in the garage itself - so that they could resume work as early as possible the next morning.
The Frenchman yawned and shook John awake. It took a couple of minutes for John to come to his senses, and when he did, he stuttered “What, What happened? Did they change the line?”
Alain shook his head, “I don’t think so. Though I’m not sure. The last thing I heard was Senna railing; and Ron trying to appease him.” John stifled a yawn and let out a very muted, if pensive, “good.”
By then, some of the mechanics had come and when they saw Alain and John, still curled up in the sleeping bags, an expression of utter surprise lined their faces.
Ayrton Senna was very disgruntled, thank you very much. He couldn’t believe how stupid the whole Formula One management was. He had shouted in his broken English to almost every official he had come across yesterday; and still felt that a grave deal of injustice had been done to him.
“This is not what I like!” he had fumed into a TV camera. He grabbed the microphone from the hand of the stricken journalist and swore “It’s unfair. Plain unfair. Makes no sense. Not one bit. I was the quickest around the track yesterday. I did nothing illegal. I just drove fast. Very fast. And I get pole position too. But what is it that I have to get for the race? A starting position on the wrong side of the track!”
He turned towards another camera. “Do any of you, non-racing fools, know how big a difference it makes?”
“There’s very little grip on the inner side! It is not a racing line at all! No way! My pole position on that side of the track is absolutely useless! I need to win. And I cannot...”
“...for absolutely no bloody fault of mine! I could have driven a second slower today, and been on the better side. And potentially converted that into a championship! And now, this. It’s terribly unfair, I say.”
A slightly perturbed Ron Dennis had then led him away to the paddock. The McLaren team principal knew exactly how to appease the Brazilian. It began with a cup of hot coffee, and went on to easy conversation.
Therefore it wasn’t surprising that half an hour later, Ron shut the paddock door on the entire team’s face, asked everyone to step outside, sat with Ayrton and handed him a cup.
Ayrton would have lashed out at anyone who had called him “m’boy”. But Ron was special.
“You know the track better than anybody. It was quite evident in your qualifying time. One-thirty-six-point-nine-nine-six… look at that. You need more than just skill to drive that quick. And this is Suzuka. Which means it’s difficult. No one managed to undercut the one-thirty-seven mark, yes. Not even Alain Prost. So it doesn’t matter which side you begin on. Fifty three laps is a long race. Six kilometers per lap. Which makes it … nearly three-hundred-twenty kilometers of racing. You’ll catch up, ol’ boy. Even if you lose the lead to him”
Ayrton sipped at the cup and looked up. “I still don’t like this. I am a racing driver! I know how important the side of the track is. And trust me. The inner line on the start-finish straight is shit! There’s no grip. I’ll have wheelspin. I’ll be slow off the mark. And Alain will sail past me from his lousy second place. And he’ll go on to win and ...”
“Ayrton! Ayrton! Relax. You start the race with a nine-point lead over Alain. Even if he finishes ahead of you, closing that gap will be difficult! You’ll be champion, ol’ boy. You have nothing to fear.”
Sometimes, speaking to him like a child helped, Ron had observed. Or else, it was just a luxury that Ayrton favoured Ron with. With the technical people, Ayrton would go all-out on the details of the most nitty gritty of things. But Ron was like a mentor. He believed most of what he said.
“What if the car stalls!” Ayrton asked indignantly.
“Ayrton! You’ve won a championship before. And you know better than doubting our machine. And look at this season! How reliable has the V10 been? The folks at Honda have done a good job. You aren’t leading the championship because of nothing. You’re a great driver, and you’ve great car!
“Besides”, Ron continued calmly, “look at Ferrari’s problems. If I had to put my money on one of the cars stalling as a third person, I’d choose the Ferrari over the McLaren any day!”
Ayrton didn’t say a word. Of course, if for some reason Prost’s Ferrari got disqualified tomorrow, the championship would certainly be his, irrespective of whether he finished the race or not. A glint appeared in his eye.
Ron noticed it as well, and hoped for the best.
It was 11 AM. Race day. The circuit looked quite unlike what it had looked like when Marcus had done his preliminary inspection a few hours back. Crowds of people moved around everywhere. The pit lane was abuzz with activity. Reporters and press staff snooped around trying to get that exclusive scoop from the paddock.
From the air, Alex Wilson could spot the myriad colours in the pitlane. He was doing the general aerial inspection in the same helicopter that Marcus had been in, earlier in the morning. The crowds around the red Ferrari garage and the red-white McLaren garage were particularly dense. It wasn’t unexpected; after all, all the competition that the season had seen, till the very last race, which was this, had finally boiled down to a face-off between these two arch rivals. And though the folks from Woking had the clear advantage when it came to the current championship tally, the prancing horse could cause quite of an upset in the finale and take the trophy over to Maranello.
From the air, Alex could clearly make out flashes from the TV cameras. He peered closely through his visors and then spoke into his microphone, “Everything seems normal. A lot of crowd around Ferrari and McLaren. As usual”. A few seconds later his headphones cackled “Roger that, Alex. Keep an eye on that. We don’t want any problems with the crowd or the fans, you know.”
And immediately, as if in sheer compliance to this rule, he spotted some fresh confusion around the McLaren pit. He swooped the chopper down low and could see an infuriated Ayrton Senna walking out into the pit-lane; trailed by a dozen cameramen and microphone wielding reporters.
ESPN SportsCenter 12 noon.
“Former Formula One world champion and McLaren driver Ayrton Senna, has created quite a stir with his announcement ahead of today’s championship deciding Japanese Grand Prix. The Brazilian racing driver, who took pole position yesterday at Suzuka, is furious after having been given a grid position on the dirtier side of the track. He has expressed his indignation at the Formula One Management in general, and has vowed that if Alain Prost, starting at second position and on the cleaner side of the track, gets an advantage into the very first corner, he would do whatever it takes to reclaim his lead. Prost, the defending world-champion, upon hearing this has remarked that he’s “willing to fight a clean duel on the racetrack”, as long as either driver does not step a toe out of line. Senna’s declaration has indeed upped the excitement surrounding the last Grand Prix of this season and fans around the world are all set for what many have called, one of the most anticipated races in recent Formula One history. Currently Senna leads Prost by nine points, and is clearly the hot favourite with the fans. But can he convert this margin into a second world title?
“It is interesting to note that just last season, a collision between Prost and Senna here at Suzuka had handed the world championship to the Frenchman. Will this race be Senna’s way of getting back at Prost? The Japanese Grand Prix begins in less than four hours. Stay tuned to find out.”
3 PM. McLaren paddock.
“Ayrton, you have everything in your favour”, Ron Dennis repeated for the umpteenth time. “you do not need to do anything drastic to win.”
Ayrton smiled, and donned his crash-helmet, before going down inside the cockpit of his red-white Marlboro McLaren Honda “I’ll do my job Ron. Remember, I race, to win.”
3 30 PM. Ferrari paddock.
Alain Prost strapped the velcro around his neck. He then put on his racing gloves. With the nod at the rest of the team around, he sunk into the cockpit of his scarlet Ferrari.
The noise of thirty V10s revving was deafening. And the atmosphere was electric. The stands around the Suzuka Circuit were overflowing. For someone who hadn’t been to a Formula One event before, it was an experience quite unlike any other.
There were only four minutes to the start of the race and the thirty cars were now doing the formation lap. As the multi-coloured machines weaved in and out of corners, the tension around the grandstands was peaking. Most of the eyes around the track however were on two vehicles, car number 1 : the Ferrari of world champion Alain Prost and car number 2 : the McLaren of the number one contender, Ayrton Senna.
Past the Casino Triangle and then the final corner of the lap, the cars slowly lined up and stopped at their respective starting positions. It took another minute for the entire pack to get set. Behind the thirty cars were three safety vehicles, with emergency lights blinking.
And the race was all set. On pole position Ayrton Senna. Beside him, Alain Prost. And behind them their resepctive team mates - Gerhard Berger and Nigel Mansell. No one quite cared about the cars behind though. The first row was all that mattered. For the showdown. The climax. That which the entire motorsport community had been waiting for.
The red light had now turned on. All that was now required was for the red to turn off and the green beneath it to turn on.
And it did, and the race was underway. Senna’s McLaren jumped into the lead, but very soon the disadvantage of his side of the track came to the fore. And in less than four seconds, Prost’s Ferrari had come alongside him. The crowd around the Suzuka Circuit roared. This was just what they had come to watch. A championship deciding duel between two of the greatest racing drivers of all time. At 200 kilometers an hour. And increasing.
Senna stepped on the throttle hard, but Prost’s Ferrari had all the grip in the world, and the first corner was approaching quicker with every passing fraction of a second. Senna, on the inner line had the shorter path advantage but he had already dropped a car’s-length amount of distance to his Ferrari rival. Two more seconds, and Prost had braked hard and gone into the turn, following the optimal racing line that he had the advantage of.
Fans around the world waited with bated breath.
Would Senna? Wouldn’t Senna?
Meanwhile in Hürth, West Germany, a 21 year old man sat in front of his television set, transfixed. The speakers on his television set weren’t the best in the world. But he could hear the commentary nevertheless.
“The green light is on! And it’s go-go-go! Senna has pulled away .. but Alain Prost takes the lead! This is incredible stuff, Senna is losing track position to his nemesis and the championship has been thrown wide open yet again ... but no, the McLaren is accelerating down the inside! Senna is coming up to Prost along the inside … and they crash!
“Senna has collided with Prost. Senna has been hit. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna have come together again and they’re both off the racetrack. This is unbelievable!
“... and if the race continues it’s the end of the championship. We haven’t seen any red flag yet, have we?
“... no we haven’t. So it looks like the race is going to continue.
“... and the championship is over. Ayrton Senna is the 1990 Formula One world champion”
The 21 year old man jumped to his feet. He did a little dance and wept uncontrollably at the same time. The whole gamut of human feelings went through his mind. He didn’t care about the race anymore. He switched off the television.
From the next room, his mother called out. “Michael, is everything okay? Are you fine?”
“Yes, mom.” he sniffed back. “Everything’s fine.”