My Jackie Stewart article on Jalopnik claims that a writer can create the sensation of speed on the page by using the first person and an accumulation of detail.
Here’s an excerpt from my first book, Formula One, published when Mastadons still roamed the earth. I could change the details to bring it up to date like raise the rpms from 11,500 to 18,000 but once you get started on that it’s a slippery slope; F1 cars don't have gauges any more, they have displays, and radios did away with lap boards years ago, etc. etc.. So, unvarnished from Formula One, a trip down the main straight at Brands Hatch in a 1990 Formula One car.
It’s the sixth lap of the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. I am on the outside of the turn at Clearways, my left wheels rabbiting on the thin strip of concrete at the edge of the track, 145 mph and accelerating hard.
Cavelli’s Ferrari is two hundred yards away in first, crossing the start/finish line. Aral is six feet away in second. A blue puff out of his exhausts tells me he’s just changed from fourth to fifth. The force of turning in wants to drag my helmet and my head off my shoulders. The little vibration in my left wheels stops as the left wheels come back onto the tarmac just before the concrete strip runs out. My right foot is trying to push the accelerator through the floor. The engine just ticks the electronic cut off at 11,500 rpm and I let up for fourteen thousandths of a second to snatch fifth and mash the accelerator to the floor, still six feet behind Aral.
Aral is holding me up. If I can get a tow from him, stay close enough behind him in the aerodynamic vacuum in his wake, I can get up the extra speed to pass him before Paddock Hill Bend at the end of the main straight.
On the last lap I’d made a move to pass him on the outside, on the left at the start/finish line. I didn’t have the speed to pass him but I wanted to set him up for this lap.
Aral clips the inside of th track under the big yellow Shell sign and seven thousandths of a second later, I do the same. As I shift into sixth, I check my gauges (everything is just fine) and more or less at the same time (I shift my attention rather than my eyes) I look ahead to the pit wall on the right to see if there are any messages for me.
Not that I care at this point; things are going to be very busy shortly. Aral’s crew is holding out a board telling him he’s in second, a second ahead of third. I laugh because Aral has his mirrors full of me and knows I haven’t been as far back as a full second for two laps. Just to drive the point home I move a little closer to his exhaust pipes, about two and a half feet, say, two to three thousandths of a second behind him. My crew give me a thumbs up sign. Over their heads, the big electronic board registers Cavelli’s speed across the start/finish line:196mph.
We’re creeping up to almost the same speed , although with me tacked into his slipstream Aral has to haul both cars through the atmosphere, so we’ll probably only reach around 190.
Looking in my mirrors I could see a group of cars behind us back in Clearways. But nobody right behind us. Plenty of room.
At that speed there are two time zones. Inside the cockpit it’s slow time. Lift your foot off the accelerator as fast as you can to stomp on the brake and so much of the track slips by underneath while you lift off one pedal and onto the other, you have the feeling your foot is stuck in molasses. So much landscape whizzes by while you check your mirrors.
While the time inside the cockpit slows down, the rest of the world has picked up speed. It’s like those science fiction movies when the skyship accelerates into hyperspace and everything turns into a blurred tunnel except the one point on the horizon.
The car is alive. It’s in its element, nervous, hunting for another direction, for a new path of its own, away from human hands. It needs a graceful, easy touch and all of your strength and will. Ignore it for a microsecond and it will charge off in its own mad direction. Treat it roughly and it will tear your head off.
Two and a half feet behind a Formula One car at 190 mph is not the ideal place to relax. Blink once, for example, and you’ve driven thirty yards with your eyes shut. And even with your eyes wide open the view is mostly the backside of Aral’s engine, suspension rods, exhaust pipes and big wide black racing tires. All bouncing, jouncing, shaking, vibrating.
Strapped to the chassis, your body hums along at 11,500 rpm with the engine, and the car bounces and skitters from the uneven surface of the track and the boils of wind coming off the car in front.
And the air is bad, full of fumes, rubber dust and shrapnel from the grit and small stones vacuumed up by the car in front and tossed back at you by the tires and ducts from the undertray. Lots of incentive to look for a better neighborhood.
About thirty yards before the start/finish line I moved left like the lap before. But Aral knew I wasn’t likely to try to pass on the left. The main straight at Brands isn’t really straight but a gradually decreasing radius right-hand turn. Pass on the left on the straight, and unless you are going a lot faster than the car in front, you can easily run out of race track. Still Aral moved to the left to block me and I made my move to the right.
No problem. Except, of course, the road disappears. After the start/finish line there’s a little rise, and just over the brow, where you can’t see, the track turns, bends right and dives downhill, a great roller coaster of a turn. If you get it right.