Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Risk, precision and aesthetics


My brother directed me towards a programme on the iPlayer last night called 'Madness on Wheels: Rallying's Craziest Years', and I'm glad he did - it made for compelling viewing. If nothing else, it reminded me of where my taste in cars was formed. These flared and angular machines of the 1980s are still my benchmarked ideal for what a car should look like today. It is no surprise that of the cars I have owned, my favourite was my Volvo 480, with pop up head lights, no curved lines in sight, it conformed to my ideal so completely that I was prepared to forgive the fact that I never knew how much petrol was in it, and had to fill it up with a litre of oil every week.
But apart from my own person reminiscence, the programme was fascinating for the footage of the rallies in Corsica and Portugal, when drivers would race at a million miles an hour down these dusty tracks, trying not to be distracted by the hoards of people lined up by the sides of the road, often only jumping out of the way of the car at the last minute, and often trying to touch them as they went past. To have one's leg broken by a passing rally car was considered by some to be a medal of honour.
This was of course a morality tale, of the risks of unfettered technological advance in the absence of modernisation of other features of racing. Rallying is always going to be a risky, but the footage of a Ford RS200 ploughing its way through a crowd of spectators makes its own argument for the level of risk that spectators should be exposed to when they are watching others risk their own lives in the name of sport.
In rallying, there used to be a big problem with what I will call 'risk interface' - a rally driver and his co-pilot step in to their car knowing that what they do is risky. The rally driver has control over what happens, and is therefore to a greater extent, in command of his fate. The co-pilot exists in a middle ground: his instructions help the driver drive quickly and safely, but he doesn't have his hands or feet on any controls. One has to wonder how often co-pilots find themselves pressing a phantom brake peddle when they find themselves hurtling towards tree, cliff or other form of mortal danger.
The fans, however, come to see these cars race, but how many of them think that this in itself is, or should have, attached to it risk of harm. There are of course, some plonkers who run across the track, try to touch the car, or stand at the side of the track on the apex of a corner, but do they see it is as risky, and should it be allowed to be risky?
There is an inherent subjectivity to such a discussion, but one's approach is no doubt influenced by how one frames the issue.
There was a magic moment in the programme, when the director juxtaposed the views of two of the top drivers of the time, about the risks that they took as drivers. Ari Vatanen, a Finnish driver, who raced the legendary Peugeot 205 spoke about rallying by using allusions to music. He spoke about how when he listens to music, he closes his eyes, and lets the sound wash over him, feeling his way through the composition. For Walter Rohrl, the German Lancia driver, rallying was about precision, and that was reflected in his language - he talked about the calculation of risk, and the fear the fans at the side of the road caused him, because he wasn't in control of what they would do.
Polarising racing drivers between the robot on one one side and the artist on the other has been done many times before, but perhaps most famously between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Prost used to be called the Professor. Senna was the man who said that 'if you do not go for a gap, you are no longer a racing driver' and was guilty of some spectacularly misjudged over-taking attempts. He was also responsible for some of the most glorious examples of racing that you will ever see.
Given what you know about Senna, it will probably cause you no surprise at all to discover that it was Vatanen had a big shunt, from which it took him 18 months to recover, while Rohrl raced safely and competitively until he retired in 1987.
So what does this mean? To hear Vatanen talk about rallying is rather inspirational: he looks into the middle distance, and he mimes driving with his hands, as if he is conducting the car. To him, driving has a real aesthetic quality, and is an outlet for his creative forces. He is the kind of person to inspire you to become a rally driver.  
For Rohrl on the other hand, driving is no less thrilling, but for slightly different reasons: he revels in the precision of it. Where Vatanen no doubt thrives on the beautiful arcs he can create while putting the tail of his car out going round a bend, for Rohrl, the pleasure of exactly the same corner is expressed more in terms of the fine balance of the accelerator and brakes, and holding the car in exactly the right position. Where Vatanen feeds off the music of driving, Rohrl enjoys the physics of it.
I suspect Vatanen was more popular than Rohrl - he can obviously command the imagination of others. But who would you rather be co-pilot for?
The calculation of risk, and the chances you take are informed by the possible benefits, and also by the potential fall out. It is one thing to take a punt when the only potential victim is you, but quite another to subject others to the prospect of harm.
The way we process risk is influenced by all sorts of factors, such as the way information is presented, and the manner in which it is processed. Do you put your faith in the person for whom the risky activity is a thing of beauty, or do you place it with the person who makes it a calculation?

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