3/17/2004 0 Comments
Formula One is not conducive to personal relationships.
All these people, they live half lives. The nature of the obsession is that they have to give themselves over to it, spend as much time as they can, thinking and building and dreaming, and it doesn't leave much time for anything else. They travel all over the world, go racing every two weeks in pursuit of something, this nebulous thing that none of them could put into words, even if they were asked.
It's not just about speed. It's not just about competition. It's not just about winning. It's about doing, and measuring. They compete against each other; they compete against themselves. Sometimes there's not much difference between the two.
I'm one of these people too. I arrived in Sydney, my home town from a life lived long ago, and I was thinking about getting down to Melbourne, getting to the track and doing what I do, and trying to do it better than before. But prior to that I was staying with my friends Alex and Belinda, a small calm centre before the squall of Formula One, despite the exuberant presence of their daughter Olivia and her efforts to acclimatise me to the coming noise.
I had been living away from Australia for a long time; I had been based in London and New York before moving to Milan to take the job of writer for Atlas F1, and I had been back to Australia only twice in seven years - once when my mother fell into a coma and was close to death, now restored and living down the coast with my father, and once for my previous girlfriend Elisa's memorial service after she died in the World Trade Center attack later in the year.
Neither visit was for a good reason, and I had wanted to come back to Australia to enjoy myself for once, but it wasn't shaping up this way. I was coming back to work, and time was at a premium as it always is when Formula One is involved. I told my friends that I was returning, that I was flying from the other side of the world, but most of them had trouble coming across town, making the final few steps.
Everything I owned arrived in Milan two days before I left for Australia, boxes of paintings and books and music a year late from New York. Everything arrived except my photos, the carrier bag of memories from the last ten years. I rang the freight company, but they had nothing else to bring.
It felt like a decade of my life was erased, as though someone turned the pencil over and rubbed. This never happened, this person said; there is nothing to see here.
Traveling around the world constantly shrinks your own world around you; your life contracts to one piece of luggage and a carry-on bag, and if something doesn't fit then it isn't in your world. You travel light because light means ease, means simplicity, means speed.
I spent a month and a half with my girlfriend Jennifer in the off season, in London for a holiday, in New York for her world. It was nothing like enough; it was too much. We missed each other too much last year, we blamed the ocean between us, we blamed the job and the world and the fates. When we were apart we pined, when we were together we didn't know how to deal with the expansion of our worlds. When we were apart we wanted to be together; when we were together we didn't know how to be.
I went back to Milan; I went back to Formula One. I didn't know what else to do, or how to do it. Formula One doesn't let you think; Formula One makes you move. Speed precludes thought, mostly. Not thinking has an appeal. Not thinking is sexy. I can see now why the people in Formula One do it.
Melbourne was easier than Sydney, because Sydney is the Outside World and Melbourne is Formula One. None of my friends from Sydney went down to Melbourne for the race, and I was secretly happy about this because Formula One doesn't like its people dealing with outside affections. Melbourne meant I could just work, and not think. Emails could come from New York, could be full of doubts and confusions and uncertainties, and Formula One would say sure, you read them, but then you're coming back out to the paddock; you're coming back to me.
I'm a bad Australian. Overseas I call myself Australian, I proclaim all things Australian to be good and right, and yet when I'm in Australia I feel set apart. Being Australian overseas is a way of marking myself as different, and something other than those around me; in Australia I am just One of Many.
"Who would live here, with all this heat? You'd have to be nuts," I said to John One in the paddock, the sky so white as to make the sun invisible. John One is small in stature and big in personality, blonde and shaggy as an audition for second guitar in Oasis. He was standing blinking behind his sunglasses, smoking in between the constant movement his job entails, looking like Formula One personified. Everyone's job in Formula One entails constant movement, and most smoke in-between, looking to see who is around to talk to. No one is allowed to think in Formula One, and no one is allowed to be alone.
"I would, and in a second; it's glorious here," he responded. "I think there's something wrong with you for leaving, quite frankly. I think they probably kicked you out for looking like a tramp, and you're just being disparaging as revenge." I had grown a beard and long hair in the off season; I looked like Formula 3000 in comparison to John One, and he was friend enough to mock. John One is Welsh and wears it like my Australianism, like a negative into a positive in the face of soft ridicule.
"Have you seen the average Australian male? We're all scruffs."
"Which explains the low birthrate here."
There were more emails that night, more guilt and recriminations. I felt like I deserved them, as it was my decision to return to Formula One. I returned because I didn't know how to stay, but that didn't seem like much of a reason when the emails came. I finally fell asleep, and dreamt all night of being in the paddock. Tori Amos was playing God throughout. God sometimes you're just so stone cruel. Do you need a woman to look after you?
In Sydney I woke every morning at ten. In Melbourne I woke every day at six thirty. Formula One was sounding her siren, and I was repeatedly drawn to dash myself against her rocks. I stayed with a local colleague; Mark is a journalist too, and understands the draw, but I felt as useless staying with him as I do anytime I impose myself on someone's good graces. I always feel like a burden to people when I'm in their care.
No one in Formula One talks about the appeal, because they don't need to; it's not something they need to discuss when it's something they feel in their marrow. All weekend we pass each other, we say hello and shake hands or kiss, we ask each other what we've been up to while we've been apart without much caring about the reply. We know that time away doesn't matter as much as time here does.
"Who would live here, with all this heat?" I hear myself saying again. "The locals must be insane."
"I would," said Fritz, squinting for want of the sunglasses he refuses to wear. Fritz is in his mid fifties, Zimbabwean, and far too tough to wear sunglasses after this many years of harsh exposure to the sun; at this late stage to wear them would be an admission of failure, of softness. This is why he has as many wrinkles as my father, why he is a potential glimpse into my own future, why I wear sunglasses.
"I was with one of my guests last night and this huge bear of a man bumped into me at the bar," Fritz continued. "At home I would be worried that something was going to start, but he turned around and said sorry mate, and he meant it."
"We are all overly polite - our mothers brought us up too well."
"I'll be sure to notice the next time you are polite then. Have you got one of the free jackets they're handing out? You must get one." Fritz has an unerring ability to sniff out free things being handed out, and his nose is busy on a Formula One weekend.
We were sitting, talking together in a bar over a beach near a track on the other side of the world from where we live, and there was a Formula One car on the beach surrounded by suntanned people, looking on in awe. I was looking at Fritz, as I get to see the car snarl and scream to itself every other Sunday. Fritz was looking for more free things to claim for himself. This happens more often than you would think.
When I went back to Mark's place after being fed and watered through the good graces of a clothing company I'd never heard of before it came to Formula One, all I could think about was my love, about how it was pulling itself in every direction, how it was tearing itself apart in front of me. When I was alone I had nothing to think about except for her and my pain. Formula One doesn't allow pain in, which is another part of its appeal. I spent most of the night watching my heart bleeding onto the floor.
I finally fell into a fitful sleep, and dreamt of being in the paddock. Supersonic by Basement Jaxx was playing. Look in the mirror time to face up. Ever tried to live without the photographs and money?
In the media centre I saw all these people I know. Last year I was the enemy, the representative of all that was evil because I worked for a new media that they didn't understand. I represent a company that is strengthening as the old forms fall away, and this fear is clear in a few still. Most of them have accepted me into the fold now, although whether this is through appreciation of what we are doing or to keep their enemies closer remains unclear.
Journalists write about other lives rather than live one themselves. Sometimes this manifests itself into bitterness, sometimes into resignation, sometimes into understanding and consideration. Bira, my editor, would rather that I ignore all of the other journalists and just work. Bira understands Formula One better than most.
"Remember I asked you for cooking tips yesterday for that guest who invited himself over?" she asked when I called back to Milan to talk about work. Bira was taking the graveyard shift, which meant she was awake back in Europe when I was awake in Australia.
"Sure. How did it go?" Any food that isn't an Israeli staple seems to need my instruction for her, if not my active involvement, such that fried prawns needed an explanation about the oil, the temperature, and the length of time to cook them.
"Well, it turns out he came to warn me that I may be targeted by terrorists if I go to Bahrain."
"Hello? David? Are you still there? By the way, the shrimps were good."
I went outside to think. It wasn't a normal Grand Prix weekend, and it was getting weirder, but weirdness is normal in Formula One. I walked around not telling everyone I met anything about my confusion; about the news I'd just heard, about my broken and bleeding heart. I walked along the paddock with my stomach sliced open and my entrails dragging along the floor behind me, but nobody noticed.
Nobody notices anything in the paddock, because they don't need to. Formula One runs on competition and rumours, and that's the way everybody likes it. Better to consider Bridgestone finding an extra half second in their tyres than to deal with a person falling apart; there is less mess from the rubber on the floor than a gaping wound in someone's chest, and they have specific solvents to clean the physical mess. Solvents are lousy with emotional pain.
John Two ambled over apologetically to say hello, looking around nervously to see if his team was watching. John Two is an amiable bear of a man, hirsute but prematurely balding, who looks in every reflective surface he passes to see if he is looking at least okay but would be mortified if anyone saw him do it. He is the kind of guy who tears himself apart to do a better job for his team, and then wonders why everyone but him moves up the employment ladder. John Two is the type of person who would wonder why he is not John One, but would never bring himself to ask for fear of an embarrassing scene.
"Who would live here, with all this heat?" There's a certain comfort in repetition.
"I would. Australians seem to have an amazing ability to breed thin girls with big breasts." His eyes flicked around behind his sunglasses to see if he was overheard. "How are you, anyway? I thought you'd be pleased to be home."
"I'm fine" I lied, thinking about New York, "although this sun is brutal for me. It's a curse being the whitest man on the planet."
"I'm sure it is - I haven't seen a single Finn in the paddock all weekend."
"They've probably hired a refrigerated truck for transport."
Formula One came and saved me again. Work here is a constant competition; the teams compete with the other teams, drivers with drivers, manufacturers with manufacturers; even the journalists compete with each other to be the first with a story. Competition gives you something better to think about than mere thoughts. It's easier to go out and find a new story than think of anything else to do, so I did that until it was time to go home.
I spent the night looking at emails and trying in vain to find the right words to unlock them. It looked like it was all over, and there was no argument to be found anywhere to piece it back together. I finally fell asleep, and dreamt all night of being in the paddock. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart by Wilco was playing. Let's forget about the tongue-tied lightning, let's undress just like cross-eyed strangers. This is not a joke, so please stop smiling; what was I thinking when I said it didn't hurt?
John One pretends that he doesn't care about things. I pretend that I don't notice that he does. This arrangement suits us both; it's very Formula One. Needless to say, it goes unsaid, like so much in the paddock.
"I have no idea at all what I'm going to write about this week," I muttered. This is a columnist's constant refrain, and thankfully most people around us just tend to ignore it and let us blather on until we're finished.
"It has been a bit boring, I guess."
"Less so for me." I thought I felt a hint of a raindrop, but I wasn't sure if it was a phantom drop or not.
"Yeah, I can see that. Maybe you can just do more of what you did last year? That seemed to work."
"Maybe, although my life has changed substantially since then. I've noticed that I hold onto things until I can write about them. Writing about things is how I let them go."
"So just let go." A full drop landed on his shoulder; ghosts of clouds were solidifying in the sky.
"I think it's all over with my girlfriend."
"That's..." John One paused, and then paused. "Shit; I have no idea what to say. How are you?"
"I'm completely devastated. And I can't tell anyone here - weakness is like carrion to vultures." The Lone Ranger ponytailed past, looked at me quizzically. The Lone Ranger is a journalist for another publication, and that's what he does - he never talks to anyone, but looks at everyone to see who they are talking to, to see if there is a story to be had, and how to get into the middle of it without anyone else noticing. The Lone Ranger likes to slip his Dictaphone in to get a story, which is fine if it's an open interview, but then objects when anyone else does it to him. The objection is silent of course; he merely shoots dirty looks towards the offender.
But John One wasn't a big enough story, and needless to say I wasn't, so he skulked on down the paddock, off the path and behind the trees. We watched him go before John One added, "keep the sunglasses on - no one will ever know."
"I think it's all over with my girlfriend."
"Mate, that's terrible." This was Fritz in the media centre, and my self imposed embargo on the truth didn't last long. "I've been there too - I lost my wife to Formula One. Did I ever tell you about breaking up with her on September 11?"
"I can trump you on that - I lost Elisa that day."
"Oh. I never knew."
"It's not exactly something you would publicise."
"It was hard for me to break up with her though." Insert requisite pause. "Well, I'd better be getting back out into the paddock."
This is why no one has a public private life in Formula One - the paddock is full of half people, people who are driven for any number of reasons, most of which they don't let people know about for fear of embarrassment, or worse. Maybe that guy pushing the tyres from the tyre area to his team is running away from a shattered heart. The girl with the headset on may be in the paddock to avoid a dysfunctional family. The guy with the clipboard and sunglasses might be hiding his introverted personality by being in the most extraverted group in the world.
All these people, Formula One people, are like carny folks, like people who ran away to the circus to avoid something they didn't want. People this driven, this keen to compete and win, all seem to have something broken at their centre. Maybe my broken heart makes me one of them at last; maybe they're all freaks like me. Every one of them has their own story; this one is mine.
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