I can't remember the last time I missed a good night's sleep, and I haven't had a bad dream since I was a boy of 7—over 30 years ago. This may seem a strange statement for someone in the supposedly hazardous sport of motor racing to make, but the fact is that our sport, which undeniably has its element of risk, simply isn't the fantastically dangerous thing that most people make it out to be. Besides, I probably have a built-in safety valve, a safety valve in reverse, if you like, that keeps me from lying awake nights worrying about the day to come. I think just about everyone does. We are constantly being hit over the head with reports on the fatalities on the road and the fatalities in the air, so you could easily believe that just getting through the day was a pretty risky adventure. But you can't go through life thinking that you're going to cop it at any moment. If you did you'd never get out of bed in the morning—and then the roof probably would cave in. It's easy enough to believe when you leave the house at the beginning of the day that you might never make it back.
But it is human nature not to believe such a thing, and nobody does. This thinking applies to the people in some pretty risky professions: astronauts, fighter pilots, test pilots, steeplejacks, football players, racing drivers. We all know our jobs, what our function is, and, usually with very good reason, we put a great deal of faith in the people who provide us with the equipment we use. We expect that things are going to turn out well, and they usually do. Despite the popular impression, we do not live with fear.
In my own case, the reason is that I get such enormous enjoyment out of motor racing. I get pleasure out of driving sports cars and saloon cars, but what is really the top of the tree as far as I'm concerned is the single-seat Formula I racing car. Here is a finely balanced machine. It is a powerful machine, of course, and it requires extremely sensitive control. It is the control of this machine, and the control over yourself that is required to control the machine, that creates the tremendous appeal that the sport has for us. We are executing a very fine balancing act on the edge of disaster, if you like, and it is an absorbing struggle that leaves very little room for worrying about the various dangers involved.
To help you understand what I'm trying to get at, let me explain about the most difficult part of our job, taking a car at high speed through a corner. At 180 mph, say, I'm approaching a corner that I'm going to have to take at 120. Somehow I have to lose 60 mph. I have to find a point where I can brake without unbalancing the car too much or losing too much speed—and thus precious seconds—to my opponents. I barely touch the brakes. I mustn't allow the wheels to lock. I must keep the car in balance, a balance that will vary, depending on how much fuel I have in the car and how flat or how dry the surface of the track is. By the time I have finished braking I have also probably dropped down one gear.
I go through the corner on the finest, fastest line I can find while balancing the car against the centrifugal force that is trying to throw the car to the outside of the track. I am balancing the car on the four little patches of rubber that are my contact with the track, and I am trying to employ the maximum amount of grip these four patches of rubber can provide. If I make a small mistake I can make a correction, but a major mistake, like taking the corner too fast or locking the brakes, will almost certainly cause the car to spin or to fly off the track. Of course, I don't want to go too slowly either.
This is the balancing act I spoke of, controlling this superb, powerful machine in such a way that it goes through the corner on the fastest line at near the fastest possible speed. When it is done right the result is a great feeling of accomplishment. You have thrown down a challenge that the other drivers must now try to beat.
This competitive feeling is something that all drivers must have, and it is another element that keeps our minds off the dangers of racing, such as they are. You must be thoroughly competitive to enjoy motor racing. If you don't want to win you will be asking yourself, "What am I doing here?" You must want to beat the clock, the circuit and the other drivers. You must do your utmost to win, to drive yourself and your car near the limit all the time. So not only do you get the benefit of all that lovely feeling of control and the pleasure of driving a car, but if you are lucky enough and good enough you also get the satisfaction of beating your opponents. You may even get some pleasure out of the acclaim that comes afterward. It all helps to drive out any fears you might be harboring.
Actually there is little reason to harbor very many fears. You must keep in mind that, though we are traveling at terrifically fast speeds, we are tuned in to those speeds and can handle them. This is similar to a cricket player who starts out a new season thinking that the ball is coming at him like a streak of lightning. Once he has played himself in, the ball no longer seems to be coming very fast. Suddenly it looks quite large and may even seem to be floating. Zap. Hit for six. The same sensation occurs in motor racing. I don't mean to be rude or sound superior, but if the ordinary citizen was driving a car into a bend at 100 mph he would undoubtedly think that the corner was coming at him at a terrific, terrifying rate of speed. A race driver will approach the same corner at 150 mph and think of the approach as a pretty slow, tame one. His reactions are tuned in to that speed. He is tuned in so thoroughly, in fact, that he can adjust quickly even when something goes wrong. He can quickly make the necessary corrections. It's all part of the fine balancing act I keep talking about. Any driver who has been traveling along a motor expressway at 70 mph and then turns off onto a country lane knows the feeling. When he drops down to 30 mph the rate of speed seems so slow that he figures he could get out and walk faster.
Simply going at terrific speeds is not what frightens us. In fact the only thing that really does scare us, outside of the unexpected—like sudden car breakdowns or sudden accidents on the track ahead that can't be foreseen—is wet weather. Wet weather is the real bogey in a race driver's life. We get pretty fearful about what can happen when the rain is pouring down and the race circuit is covered with puddles that you don't know about until you're in them. When a car traveling at high speed hits a puddle of water it is likely to start doing what we call aquaplaning. This is a horrible situation. The tires lose their grip on the track, the car begins to skid and spin and car and driver are completely out of control. No amount of driving skill is going to save you. It is like being up on a pair of water skis. Helpless or not, you work like the devil to regain control of the car, and it isn't until afterward that you find out how scared you were. You come out of it feeling pretty weak. It is one of the few times when everything inside you is saying, "Stop, this is ridiculous."
But controlling fear is all part of the challenge of racing, part of its enjoyment even. Somehow or other you must control the feeling of fear and not stiffen up. That would just make matters worse. If you were out there just flogging around on your own no doubt you'd start slowing down, but of course there are other racers driving against you. Maybe you slow down, but it isn't long before you start thinking that the others aren't slowing, that they are going around a lot faster than you. So quite quickly you stop thinking about being afraid and start thinking about how to win.