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What type of man becomes a professional racing driver? At heart he must be an adventurer. Six hundred years ago he would have been off to the Crusades or would have more conservatively stayed at home, slain a few dragons and have saved an occasional damsel in distress. Today, however, the Crusades are over, the dragons are in hiding, and if a damsel gets in trouble she calls the police or her psychiatrist.
Adventure is a religion. Religions require faith, and the adventurer must above all other things have faith in himself. It is the uncertainty of the future that attracts the adventurer most. Few professions, except possibly that of Communist politics, have less security and more uncertainty about the future than racing. One can be at the top one second, but all it requires is one very small error and one is very embarrassingly dead the next.
As one may well imagine, racing is an extremely competitive business. In most sports today, the old spirit of "the game for the game's sake" is fast dying out, and with the exception of a few isolated outposts of the British Empire and, naturally, the playing fields of Eton and Harrow, everyone has acquired a somewhat deplorable desire to win. However, as we approach the limits of human and mechanical ability, it accordingly becomes increasingly difficult, both mentally and physically, to surmount the actual records.
Speed is the keynote of our age. But the sportsman who has neither the physical ability to run a four-or even five-minute mile nor the mental ability to work on things like guided missiles has to settle for such sports as automobile racing and bobsledding. Both of these occupations also have the advantage that one remains, at least most of the time, in a comfortable, seated position. There is none of this nonsense of running around the park at some ungodly hour to keep in proper trim. As we race every Sunday from March to October, after the initial month's racing we automatically (and much to our surprise) find ourselves in excellent shape. We then are able with little or no effort to maintain this condition to the season's end. It is very definitely one of the prime requisites of being a good driver to have, first, the physical strength to drive a car at very high speeds for at least three hours in what is practically unbearable heat, as, for example, in Argentina, and second to have the mental strength to be able to concentrate upon one's driving for the same length of time.
Are we brave? Not necessarily. An act of courage is the performance of an act in which one overcomes fear. Driving a car at what most people would consider a suicidal speed is not frightening to us. We have spent many years learning how to do so with a minimum of risk. At times a driver will perform an act of courage, such as going off the road in preference to hitting a spectator. The mere fact that we race requires no courage on our part. To put it in a nutshell, we are not brave because as far as automobile racing is concerned we have no fear to overcome.
But do we ever get frightened? We get terrified. Fear is the awareness of danger. Whenever a driver makes a mistake and loses control of his car for even a split second, the danger is acute and he is frightened. However, he knows what he should do to rectify his mistake (if it is reparable), so his fear is, in most cases, of very short duration and is quickly forgotten. On the other hand, if the mistake is a serious one, it always seems like an eternity between the time one loses control of the car until the time one hits whatever one is going to hit. I, myself, am considered quite an expert on the subject of going off the road. I have never enjoyed doing so, even at slow speeds. I think what frightens me most is that when I have actually lost control of the car there is absolutely nothing I can do except sit still, frozen with fear, and wait for events to take their natural course.
A driver's first feeling when he goes off the road and is unhurt is one of shame. All the way back to the pits he will be busy concocting a reasonable excuse. I have heard the most extraordinary stories about a new species of tree that will actually jump out into the road and hit cars with considerable violence. Most drivers, however, stick to simple little tales of small children and/or old women crossing the road in front of them.
The problem of automobile racing is not one of winning at the highest possible speed but rather one of winning at the lowest possible speed. Fangio has been practising this theory with rather more than a modicum of success for some years now. It is obvious that the slower one goes the less chance there is of breaking down. At the same time, however, one must go fast enough to be the first car across the finish line. Fangio more often wins races by 10 seconds than by five minutes, and he does this by preference.
In the Grand Prix of Cuba, last February, which is run over a distance of 320 miles, I knew that Fangio was very worried whether his brakes would last the entire race. I knew that the best chance I would have of beating him would be to force him to use his brakes as hard as possible. This strategy worked for a while. Fangio, after briefly trying to pass me, let me go ahead by myself. After we had both made our pit stops to refuel on about the 55th lap, I was ahead by about 65 seconds. My car was not only running perfectly but my brakes were in good condition. I hadn't a worry in the world.
On the 65th lap I happened to see Fangio coming down one straight as I was going up the other. I probably saw his face for half a second. The expression on it gave me a terrible shock. He was completely relaxed and unworried. He had the expression of a man who knew that he was shortly going to win the Grand Prix of Cuba. Five laps later a gas line on my car broke. I was forced to come into the pits. It took my mechanics five minutes to repair it. When I rejoined the race, I was in sixth position, with Fangio, naturally, in first. I eventually managed to finish third (and establish the lap record). But as long as I live I shall never forget that glimpse I got of Fangio's face.