How Can One be a Formula 1 Race Fan? Fear, Technology and the Politics of Excess

(I lost the Works Cited)

Copyright © Jim Loter, 1994

Fan reaction to a recent series of crises within the Formula 1 (F1) racing world has indicated that the social and cultural functions of the sport touch far deeper than the economic "base" theorized so heavily in Marxist criticism. F1 racing, with its emphasis on technology and safety, as well as economics, communicates crucial "meanings" that transcend issues of production and consumption. The F1 narrative is not fully emptied of meaning and fetishized; instead, it carries additional significant meanings which address spectators' fears and anxieties about technology and control in a highly industrialized world. Pierre Bourdieu's economistic paradigm of sport as a utilitarian cultural formation in Europe, for example, leaves no room for an adequate analysis of F1. Instead, to truly understand F1's cultural impact, we must turn to The Accursed Share, in which George Bataille attempts to establish a theoretical framework that transcends this rigid binary conception. Bataille's formulation of a "general economy" places surplus capital/energy in a realm of pure uselessness: an "excess" that must be contained by rationalist ideologies but that maps out areas of escape from those ideologies. It is through this contradiction that we can formulate a theory of Formula 1 popularity and answer the question: how does the discourse of safety and technology in the light of spectacularly catastrophic events reveal the extent to which Formula 1 as cultural discourse operates in spheres outside the purely economic?

Bourdieu's description of the historical transformation of sport from an Ŕlite practice of amateurs to a milieu of professionals who perform for mass audiences is certainly applicable to Formula 1. But his analysis remains mired in a class-struggle-based paradigm that F1 problematizes. Bourdieu divides the field of sports into two categories according to any particular sport's relation to philosophies of the body. The first, "a more ascetic one," which emphasizes the disciplined, cultured development of the body for its own sake (linked to the upper classes). The second, a "more hedonistic one," which strives to be unrestrained and expressive and "natural" (linked to the working classes -- Bourdieu 345). It is on this bodily distinction that Bourdieu locates the source of class antagonism vis-Ó-vis sports. He writes:

But while it is true that, here as elsewhere, the field of production helps to produce the need for its own products, nonetheless the logic whereby agents incline towards this or that sporting practice cannot be understood unless their dispositions towards sport, which are themselves one dimension of a particular relation to the body, are reinserted into the unity of the system of dispositions, the habitus, which is the basis from which life-styles are generated. (Bourdieu 350)

In fact, the very definition of sport as a field of social practice is a struggle between totalizing forces which seek to impose "the definition of the legitmate body and the legitimate use of the body" (Bourdieu 344). Ultimately, then, sport as class-struggle is predicated on "the development within the field of practices oriented towards one or the other pole, aseticism or hedonism, [which] depends to a large extent on the state of the power relations within the field of struggles for monopolistic definition of the legitimate body" (Bourdieu 345).

In Formula 1, this distinction becomes a problematic area of tension. By far the most predominant topic in F1 discourse is the technology of the cars and its relationship to the drivers. Throughout the last decade in particular, F1 autos increasingly have been designed with computerized driver-aids that accomplished everything from controlling tire spin to automatically adjusting the car's suspension. In the midst of the 1993 season, it became apparent that the two richest teams — Williams Renault and McLaren Honda — were running away with the Championship mainly because of their innovative driver aids. The Federation Internationale du Sports Automobile (FISA) discussed altering the rules of Formula 1 to limit technological development in the 1994 season. Much of the official discourse on F1 technics and their potential banishment mentioned the sheer economic fact that F1 costs rocketed out of the reach of most of the smaller teams. But dissenters argued that the exotic nature (and, hence, popularity) of the sport depends on expensive computerized technics. Peter Egan aptly sums up this debate in a 1993 Road and Track article.

The organizers are concerned that telemetry, automatically programmed gearchanges, active suspensions, traction control and so on are costing too much .... Underfinanced teams seem to agree with this position, while those who have invested millions in these very technologies are not happy over the prospect of losing their advantage. (Egan 27)

Beyond economics, however, this debate ultimately comes down to the so-called "human element" — the role, or lack thereof, of the driver who is becoming menacingly overshadowed by the machinery. Egan continues, "I would like to see only those [changes] that essentially sever the car's umbilical cord to the pits and also require the driver to use his or her own talents and skills in managing the controls" (29). Going even farther than Egan's desire, the actual changes that were implemented at the end of the 1993 season resulted in the absolute banishment of the multi-million dollar computerized aids.

Importantly, some feared that F1 driver safety would ultimately suffer as a result of these banishments. Road and Track's Joe Rusz reported that many of the drivers themselves complained that removal of technology "takes away the finesse needed from the driver.... Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher feel that it's just as difficult to go fast even with all the aids" (126). World Champion Aryton Senna declared "It's a great error to remove the electronics from the cars.... The cars are very fast and difficult to drive. It is going to be a season of accidents" (Serrill 74).

Indeed, Senna's words rang tragically true. In May of 1994, in Imola, Italy, rookie driver Roland Ratzenberger died during a qualifying lap when his car flipped over. Later that weekend, Senna himself was killed during a race when his car hit a barricade at 185 miles per hour. Senna was by far the most popular driver in the world (especially in his home Brazil) and his death in particular raised concern about the safety of the sport to a worldwide scale. Two weeks later, driver Karl Wendlinger spent three days in a coma as a result of an accident he suffered in Monaco. In response to these disasters, the F1 governing body ordered further drastic measures to improve the safety of the cars. In Car and Driver, Ed Hinton quite melodramatically explains the advent of the modifications ordered in response to Senna's and Ratzenberger's deaths:

There ... would be the horrific clipping of aerodynamic wings and the stifling and starving of engines -- and yet, by paradox, the fattening of the car's weight. The prospect of the mechanical carcasses that would be left from all this seemed hideous. There would be drastic cutting in half of downforce from a breed whose aerodynamics had only last year shamed Stealth fighters.... Teams would cut holes in the rear of the air boxes, ruining the ram effect ... [the air boxes] would be virtually meaningless mechanically. (168) [1]

The technological specifics aside, the tone conveys a distinct apocalyptic mood (Hinton also continually refers to the weekend at Imola as "The End"). Additionally, non-fatal incidents in the crowded pit lanes inspired the establishment of a speed limit in the pits; as a result of the recent deaths, entire courses were ordered to be redesigned with increased run-off space and additional "chicanes" -- or tight, speed-reducing curves -- in some of the longer straightaways. The almost desperate sense of urgency in which the driver/car debates were steeped after Imola represents a new level of crisis in Formula 1. The combination of the pre-season technological mandates and banishments with the deaths and injuries in the opening months of the season brings to the forefront the tense body/machine contradiction that lay at the heart of the sport.

In the months that followed Senna's and Ratzenberger's deaths, popular automotive magazines engaged in a heated debates over the causes of the tragedies and offered suggestions for preventing future disasters. These theories played along the tenuous axis that divides driver from car, body from machine. Rob Walker, in an article for Road and Track, declares, "It has been a terrible season, the worst I can remember" (96). The deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger prompted, among other things, a strict redesign of Walker's favorite racetrack at Spa-Francochamps in Belgium. "It was no longer the Spa I used to know," he laments. "These days, they seem hellbent on ruining all the best circuits in the name of safety. Why isn't it down to the drivers to operate with a little more caution and skill, I don't know" (98). On the other side of the spectrum, Road and Track 's regular Formula 1 columnist Dan Knutson strongly advocates new safety measures. "Formula 1 cars need to be slower, made less sensitive to bumps and less dependent of downforce ...," he declares. "Some say the rules that banned most of the technology in 1994 are responsible for the accidents. Rubbish. The new rules actually made F1 safe" (147). The conflicting attitudes of these two writers emphasize the irresolvable contradiction at the heart of Formula 1. In Walker's view, the driver must be the active agent; he must exercise the necessary restraint and control over the continually evolving technological apparatus. Knutson, on the other hand, recognizes that the driver is more or less at the whims of the extreme technology; the car itself has pushed beyond the limits of human control and agency. Though both writers are ultimately concerned with safety, they locate the origin of danger in different places and are hence governed by two different definitions of the body's legitmacy within the confines of F1.

Thus, in F1, the body is partially effaced by the technologically overdetermined machine (technology being akin to "culture" or the "civilized" under this framework) and becomes, almost literally, one with the automobile, impossible to separate in discourse. Conversely, the omnipresent threat -- and, often, reality -- of that organism spinning, hurtling and crashing out of control re-introduces wild nature and the body stripped away from its mechanical shell. This contradiction is in many ways akin to Bourdieu's paradigm of conflicting definitions of legitimate bodies. In this sense, the "ascetic" and "hedonistic" are equally and simultaneously figured onto the hybridized racing dyad of the car/driver organism. It is clear from this that Bourdieu's theory requires modification to answer my question. The broad distinctions he draws between separate sports are contained within the boundaries of the single sport of Formula 1 racing. The existence of this internal conflict between competing definitions of "the legitimate body" produces a tension within the sport that cannot translate into the larger social field of struggle Bourdieu identifies across the field of sporting practice. Rather than create class antagonism, this tension between defintions of the body -- between unrestrained speed and the restrictions of safety -- is the very source of F1 pleasure.

The historical roots of this antagonism are indicated by film historian Lynne Kirby in her 1988 article "xxx" in relation to trains and the cinema around the turn of the century. "Early railroad travellers," she notes, "lived a double relation to the train journey: the pleasure of speed, the thrill of the 'projectile' being shot through space, matched against the terror of collision, and its psychological effects, phobia, anxiety and, in many cases, hysteria" (116). Kirby invokes Freud's concept of the "stimulus shield" which is a psychic process that internalizes shock in order to protect against further shock, much as antibodies build up in the bloodstream to ward off future viruses. The cinema at this time, she argues, "might seem to be already part of the 'stimulus shield,' just another shock of modern life that could easily be referred to past experience" (Kirby 118). She describes further the popularity of train crash films in the 1890's and 1900's, and even that hucksters (including Thomas Edison himself) often staged wrecks to the delight of thousands of paying spectators. Kirby concludes that such events contributed to an "'imagination of disaster' which clearly seems rooted in the fantasy of seeing technology go out of control...

As a spectacularization of technological destruction based on an equation of pleasure with terror, the "imagination of disaster" says volumes about the kinds of violent spectacle demanded by a modern public, and the transformation of "shock" into eagerly expected, digestible spectacle. (120)

Though she describes events which occurred almost 100 years ago, I feel Kirby's argument is particularly relevant to the condition of spectators of Formula 1, especially considering F1's continual references to the eventual application of its technology. These references bring its issues into the everyday lives of spectators just as trains constituted an integral component of the lives of early cinema's audience members. Disasters of minor and major magnitude are not infrequent to F1 racing and indeed images and invocations of twisted metal, fiberglass and human carnage account for a great deal of the discourse that surrounds the sport. On almost equal footing with discussions of technological innovation and speed is talk about F1 safety. Invariably, this latter emphasis directly or implicitly conjures up references to the catastrophes that inspired measures taken to limit speed and eliminate the potential for mishaps. Almost a decade and a half before Senna’s and Ratzenberger’s deaths, for example, the death of driving legend Gilles Villeneuve prompted the elimination of several design options on the F1 car. Likewise, non-fatal incidents in the crowded pit lanes inspired the establishment of a speed limit in the pits; as a result of the recent deaths, entire courses were ordered to be redesigned with increased run-off space and additional “chicanes” — or tight, speed-reducing curves — in some of the longer straightaways. Large components of race commentary on TV broadcasts frequently refer to the memory of fallen drivers, previous spectacular crashes, and the technical/safety components of the cars — all subjects which cannot help but keep the threat of danger and the atmosphere of terror mixed with the thrill of speed in the spectator’s mind [2] . In most discourse surrounding F1, the safety of the sport is related to technological issues; the tension between the pleasure of speed and the terror of maiming or death is ubiquitous and serves, I would argue, to help create a kind of "stimulus shield" such as the one Kirby describes as a vital component of turn-of-the-century cinemagoers in relation to the modern phenomenon of high-speed travel and the thrills and dangers it entails.

In addition, Georges Bataille's formulation of a "general economy" in his three-volume work The Accursed Share I feel is especially relevant to explain the appeal of Formula 1 in terms beyond the simple economic sphere. Bataille writes:

The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of the system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically. (I, 21)

In the terms of his "general economy," this "excess energy" cannot be reduced simply to commodity surplus alone (though that particular excess is not excluded from consideration). Excess, for Bataille, is that which cannot be subsumed under a rational paradigm of economics based on a subject/object split (such as both capitalism, which attempts to reinvest it, and communism, which seeks to eliminate it); it is, in effect, useless . Hence, existing outside the dichotomy of the subject/object, excess -- whose mechanism is desire -- removes the distinction and "violently" restores a "sovereign totality which is not divided by any abstraction and is commensurate with the entire universe" (II, 112). Though the veritable objectification of the subject (and the inverse "subjectifying" of the object) seems at first glance akin to Marx's concept of commodity fetishization, Bataille stresses that it is the initial subject/object split , not the unity of the two (produced, in Marx, under "false consciousness") that is wrong. The unity, he claims, " is not an illusion ." (II, 114). Sovereignty, then, for Bataille, is, paradoxically, loss of the sovereign self (subjectivity).

That this loss circulates in the realm of the erotic for Bataille does not make his concept any less applicible to the situation of Formula 1. As with the notions of pleasure and terror, the concept of loss is especially apparent in the current mode of crisis in which the sport finds itself. It is commonly noted that automobiles (and machinery in general) are often fetished and even eroticised by their devoteÚs. Avant-garde film director Kenneth Anger wrote of his unfinished project Kustom Kar Kommandos , "the treatment of the teenager and his hod rod or custom car ... will bring out what I see as a definite eroticization of the automobile, in its dual aspect of narcissistic identification ... and ... mechanical mistress paraded for the benefit of his peers" (Sitney 125). In Bataille's terms, that erotic is the excess which transcends the subject/object dyad of traditional economic theories. In F1 discourse, the eroticism of racing cars is equally apparent as it is to Anger in his observations of hot-rodding teenagers. In Ed Hinton's aforementioned Car and Driver piece, the author bemoans the announced mandates to remove the F1 cars' rear underwing diffusers. Such a move, he complains, "would devastate my standard quick response to laypersons who ask how I could tell the difference between an IndyCar [the high-end US racing machine] and an F1 car at a split-second glance, even from behind. 'Easy,' I used to say. "The F1 car's the one with the beautiful ass'" (Hinton 166). No longer able to eroticize the chassis of the F1 auto, Hinton turns to such telling words as "devastate" and a general tone of regret. The sovereign sense of the loss of subjectivity that comes from reveling in the excesses of the F1 technology is tossed into an uncertainty. Value and utility -- two terms scorned by Bataille in regards to his conception of the erotic -- are suddenly reintroduced as essential to the sport of Formula 1. The constraints of safety replace the excesses of speed in this mourning period and thrust necessity back into dominance. The melancholic atmosphere of Hinton's piece and the almost panic-laden disappointment evident from the discourse of F1 TV commentators points to the crucial function of the non-"economic", the irrational and the excessive in contributing to the popularity of Formula 1.

In sum, the case of F1 calls into serious question the sufficiency of economic paradigms to account for the popularity of the sport. The paradigms used to explain consumer behavior in relation to sports (as in Bourdieu) assume a rational public imbricated thoroughly with capitalist values and motivations. Bataille's description of the irrational effects of "loss" vis-Ó-vis waste and excess add a much-needed dimension to traditional cultural studies critical frameworks. We must resist the temptation, however, to figure Bataille's sovereign loss as a "subversive" counter to the rationality of bourgeois logic. Rather, in this paper I have argued that the phenomenolgy of auto racing intersects with the purely vulgar economic and class-based frameworks and provides a much more nuanced model for understanding its popularity. The crucial functioning of the forces of pleasure, terror and loss in Formula 1 racing is especially apparent in this current time of crisis for the sport. These forces circulate above and beyond the traditional world of goods and render inadequate the subject/object split of consumer/commodity paradigms. All of this is not to say that pleasure, terror and loss cannot or do not play into issues of consumption -- indeed, one of the results of the "stimulus shield" or the "sovereignty" an F1 fan constructs for him/herself could result in the desire to consume more . But I would stress, focusing solely on the economic or even politico-economic sphere fails to account for the cultural value of Formula 1.


1 Interestingly, as an aside, Hinton notes later that the air boxes themselves ("tunnels" in the car located above the drivers head which collect the rushing air as the car speeds along and "ram" it into the engine creating a turbo effect) "would be kept only because they’re prime signage spots for sponsers" (168).

2 The racetrack in Villeneuve’s home country, France, was renamed in his honor, and several tracks world-wide dedicated curves in Senna’s name. The continual referral to these memorials during even the practical (i.e., non-"color") race commentary also maintains the spectres or injury and fatality in F1 discourse.