Racing From Peking To Paris

Lest anyone thing that the ACF is all about wrenches, gas, and oil - I also spent a fair bit of the winter reading...about wrenches, gas, and oil. One of the most fascinating reads was Peking To Paris by Luigi Barzini. Barzini was an Italian journalist who, in 1907, joined a team of two others to race a car from Peking all the way to Paris. Even by today's standards, that is a big undertaking. But imagine that in 1907, the car was only a commercial entity for about 10 years and was still very novel. Over much of the route, the racers would encounter people and animals (the car's primary competition at the time) who had never seen a car before and many who weren't yet aware of their existence! Also allow for the fact that there were no gas stations, no repair facilities who were familiar with working on cars, and the big one - not many reasonable roads and none up to our modern standards. Twenty five cars registered for the race and five actually showed up in Peking to compete.

On top of these logistical challenges, the Italian prince who owned and largely piloted the car, Prince Scipione Borghese, his mechanic, Ettore Guizzardi, and Mr. Barzini were driving an Itala

The Itala they drove was a 40hp model and was open to the elements. Wind, rain, name it. Of the competitors, it was the biggest and heaviest car, but also the most powerful. It was a race, after all, so speed counts. But fuel economy is of concern in endurance racing. Especially when you have no idea where your next fuel stop might be.

A particularly fascinating aspect of the race is that for the first few weeks, going through China and Mongolia, they required the regular assistance of a large team of local helpers to make forward progress. These human beings often had to pull the car through difficult terrain, out of deep mud - often up to it's axles, and through water crossings. In 1907, bridges were not built with 2,000kg cars in mind. They often adopted a strategy to move over these sub-par bridges swiftly before they could break. Imagine that stress! One bridge, actually, was not quite up to the challenge.

To read of the adventures, misadventures, and specific challenges of driving a car long before this earth had any appetite for them, well, it was astounding. It's so easy to forget that our ultra-convenient infrastructure is a very modern fabrication and that early motorists really were pioneers taking great pains to advance a new invention to prove out its usefulness. 

This race is still happening and would be an absolute bucket-list item for anyone who fancies endurance racing, history, and travel.

Another great read during the "cold track season" was Damon Hill, Watching the Wheels, My Autobiography. Damon is the son of twice World Champion Graham Hill. Graham was tragically killed at the age of 46, along with much of his then F1 team, in a small plane crash returning home from a race. Having lost my own father at the age of 33, I found quite a bit to commiserate with in Damon's story of his life.

The aspect I particularly liked is that you may think that it is fairly natural for the son of a racing driver to become a racing driver - and a successful one. But I, personally, had no real inkling of how difficult it is to achieve that status even once let alone in succession. And the glimpse of the process from the inside provides quite a bit of insight into things like why Nico Rosberg would win and then retire immediately. The many years of training, sacrifice, mental gymnastics and political games - all of these things, plus the trappings of fame and fortune, must absolutely wear out the soul of these people at a very young age. 

Damon's story showed me another good example of how losing a parent early in life greatly affects your outlook and decision-making process - for good. You can pretend that it doesn't but it's a fallacy. It catches up to you eventually and demands that you confront the issues. Damon fought hard against not only these personal challenges, but against the best drivers of his age and maybe any age - Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher chief among them, but also Nigel Mansell, David Couthardt, Mika Häkkinen, Jacques Villeneuve and more. 

Damon was Senna's teammate at the time of Aryton's tragic death at Imola in 1994 after his Williams team bought out that year from Alain Prost and took in Senna instead. Damon was an official part of the inquiry, driving in essence the same car on the same track at the same time. The cause of Ayrton's accident is often cited as a broken steering column, but Damon presents compelling evidence that it was instead suspension failure that caused the catastrophic event. The cars were equipped with telemetry at the time and, as a racing driver, Damon talks at length about what he would expect to have seen in the data if the column itself had broken and how that differed from what he saw. Damon also presents quite a bit of additional information about the day, the days leading up to it, and that a potential fueling mistake (adding too much) all contributed in ways to the outcome. 

Damon's racing history is certainly a fascinating tale, but it is also intriguing in it's discussion of what I find to be incredibly consistent when reading the histories of racing drivers - the constant and persistence need to find sponsors and the financial wherewithal to fund their racing. That fact certainly hits home for me. Racing is not for the faint of wallet and it's not enough to be quick. 

I also consumed Aussie Grit by Mark Webber. Mark is a consummate professional and generally wonderful ambassador for racing. He's a warm, funny person (from what I've seen of him in interviews and at races) - even taking a swig of champagne from the well-used racing shoe of his countryman, Daniel Ricciardo (known as a "shoey")! But he also provides insight into the frustrations of working with a somewhat childish and devious Sebastian Vettel. Seb has seemed to have taken a page from Michael Schumacher's book of "win at all costs." Mark provides great insight around the famous "Multi-21" incident at the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix where the team ordered Seb to allow Mark to finish first since he was already in the lead at the end of the race, only for Seb to aggressively pass Mark to snatch victory but risk crashing out both cars. Mark has gone on to do endurance racing for Porsche, and I saw his car racing at Le Mans last year, so I'll always be a fan.

It wasn't the worst winter weather we've had, but it was still a good season to reflect on the human side of this sport, the history, and how far it has come in just over a century. I hope you all had a good off-season as well and are primed for 2017!