Monday, August 2, 2010

Velocity

A sort of philosophical investigation (eventually)

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“Velocity”

Scottish football manager Gordon Strachan’s response to a reporter’s request for “a quick word.”
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On the next-to-last weekend in July this year, the small German town of Hockenheim (population just above 20,000) was invaded by an international army: the Formula One circus had descended upon the state of Baden-Württemberg to conduct the German Grand Prix auto race. For those not familiar with the world of auto racing, be aware that Formula One is the most highly-sophisticated, technically-advanced, and, hence, most expensive form of auto sport (within the past two years such automobile giants as BMW, Toyota, and Honda, looking at the financial bottom line, packed up their gearboxes and went home).

The Formula One season is comprised (this year) of nineteen races run from March through November, and includes encounters at such venues rich in motoring history as Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Turkey, and Bahrain. It all leads, at the end, to the crowning of two champions: the World Drivers Champion (individual) and the World Champion Constructor (team).

The great sports writer Jimmy Cannon would occasionally write a column entitled “Guaranteed to Happen,” in which he would offer a jaundiced—but accurate—anatomization of a sporting event (such as the Kentucky Derby) or a non-sporting one (such as the annual office Christmas party). Well, it’s pretty accurate to say that “guaranteed to happen” during any Formula One weekend is controversy. And just past the half way point of the schedule the Hockenheim race produced the biggest of the season (so far).

At the start of the race the pole sitter (determined by qualifying lap speed) and hometown favorite, young Sebastian Vettel, from the nearby burg of Heppenheim, moved sharply to his right in an attempt to keep the second-place qualifier, Fernando Alonso of Spain, from outsprinting him into the first corner. Unfortunately for the German, not only did he not prevent Alonso from getting ahead of him, by veering off his driving line, he also allowed the third-place qualifier, Felipe Massa of Brazil, to pass both him and Alonso on the left. And so the race unfolded all the way to the checkered flag.: Massa in the lead, followed by Alonso, who was unable to pass the Brazilian, and Vettel, who was unable to pass the Spaniard. Or should have unfolded.

You see, while Vettel was driving for Red Bull Racing (all that energy drink profit has to go somewhere), the two cars in front of him were Ferraris, and the driver of the second-place Ferrari (Alonso) was getting more and more upset as the race went on, because he couldn’t catch and pass his teammate in the leading Ferrari, who he thought was holding him up. “This is ridiculous,” he complained over his radio to his support crew. Bowing to Alonso’s whining, the Ferrari race bigwigs radioed Massa (who had lost the 2008 World Drivers Championship by a single point), telling him, "Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?" “The Da Vinci Code” it wasn’t; a more obvious command from the management to let Alonso (a two-time World Drivers Champion) pass there couldn’t be. On lap 49 (of 67) Massa slowed dramatically, allowing Alonso by--and the controversy to begin.

Since 2002, after another Ferrari manufactured switch of positions (that time just a few feet from the finish line), team orders that would affect the racing outcome have been banned from Formula One. (The race authorities saw the Alonso/Massa switch as team orders and has fined Ferrari $100,000.) After the race,, neither of the Ferrari drivers, the unrepentant Alonso nor the crestfallen Massa, used the term “team orders” but came mighty close, Alonso pointing out that the team pays his salary (a whopping great one—leading F1 drivers are among the highest-paid athletes in the world). The Spaniard justified his win by claiming that he was faster than Massa all weekend during the practice sessions. (Alonso was ahead of Massa in the points standing for the Drivers Championship, but, in fifth place, a not-impossible, but also not-probable threat for a third title.)

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And now the philosophical investigation:

What do we mean by “faster” or “fastest”?

Alonso, trailing Massa, claimed that he was "faster" than the Brazilian. But if he was "faster," why was he behind his teammate? Now, passing another car (at least one that is competitive with you) is not especially easy in F1. (The tracks are not the nice wide ovals like the Indianapolis Speedway, but are composed of both slow twisting corners and high-speed straights.) But neither is an F1 race a race up a ladder, in which the person who gets to the lowest rung first will always be ahead.

Perhaps Alonso was correct in claiming that he had the “faster” car and could race away from the other Ferrari in a head-to-head battle. Motor racing does provide for such match-ups—drag racing, where from a standing start two cars sprint down a quarter-mile strip to see who gets to the finish line first. At Hockenheim, it was Massa, starting farther back than Alonso, who won the drag race (against Vettel also) to the first corner. Did that mean he was “faster”? And how about this: the car that registered the top speed through the course speed trap (317.5 km/h) was driven by Englishman Jenson Button, who was fifth across the finish line. Did that top speed mean that Button, the defending World Drivers Champion, was the “fastest” of all the drivers—and should have been awarded the winner’s trophy?

The drag racing criterion for determining the winner is simple: who crossed the line first? But even there, one must sometimes separate “winner” from “faster”—for drag racing uses a handicap system to stagger the starts of its races, the “faster” car (based on past performances) being forced to concede its rival a slight time advantage.

The “fastest” car in a Formula 1 race (based on qualifying lap time) concedes its rivals nothing; in fact, it has all the advantages—it starts at the front of the grid a few feet forward of the second-place car sitting to its right or left (depending on the track configuration) and its initial racing line is on the clean side of the track, which allows for more tire grip. At Hockenheim the impulsive Vettel squandered his advantages, to the benefit of both Massa and Alonso. Massa, in front of Alonso, did not squander his advantage. He kept the Spaniard behind him all the way, until the Ferrari brass intervened. Had they not done so, and had Massa crossed the finish line ahead of his teammate and rival, would he not have been the “fastest” on the race track—if by that term we mean the one who completed the task, overcoming the obstacles in the way, in the shortest elapsed time?

Massa was Alonso’s obstacle, and apparently he could only overcome it by wishing it away.

It is worth noting a philosopher’s words about another sporting endeavor:
In a football match, everything is complicated by the presence of the other team.
Jean-Paul Sartre
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In the Bible we are informed by “the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem”:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Ecclesiastes 9:11

On the other hand, a twentieth-century American writer advises us:
It may be that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong -- but that is the way to bet.
Damon Runyan

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