Is it still sport when technology has a hand?

2008-11-07 00:00

I DO not do Formula One unless I am having trouble sleeping on a Sunday afternoon, in which case the roar of the cars and the drone of the commentators puts me to sleep faster than a few glasses of red wine. I find it difficult to relate to athletes when you cannot see them in the flesh and have no affinity for cars that all look the same apart from their garish liveries. I do not belong to what I hope is that minority of motor racing fans who watch in the hope of seeing an accident.

I do not pretend to understand the various rules that Formula One has introduced in order to make the racing more competitive. Artificiality in any sport turns me off, but I guess that these rules provide a preferable alternative to the predictable processions of those years when the sport was dominated by the few constructors whose cars ever win any of these races.

So Formula One is not exactly my cup of tea, yet last Sunday I found myself watching the season’s finale from start to finish in a state of agreeable tension. For once, the story of a Formula One race was compelling enough to grab a wider audience than normal.

The gifted home-town boy, Felipe Massa, had a race to win to have a chance at the world championship while the bad boy of Formula One, Lewis Hamilton, had to finish no lower than fifth to win the title that so narrowly eluded him last year in his rookie season.

Just why Lewis Hamilton is unpopular with his peers is not readily understandable. Maybe it is a Don Bradman thing involving the jealously of a talent that has brought with it the fame and money denied to those less gifted. Perhaps it is that English thing that causes the Poms to crow so loudly whenever one of their teams or athletes makes the journey into the temporary atmosphere of supremacy. It may be the fact that Hamilton is threatening to become the Tiger Woods of his sport and all that that entails.

But unpopular Hamilton is, to a degree that several of his colleagues in Formula One let it be known that they would do virtually anything to stop him winning the championship. In the lingo of drivers, this means that, given half a chance, they would push him off the track. Thus, not only did Hamilton have to finish no lower than fifth, but he also had to watch his back.

Add some dodgy weather to an already dramatic script and one had an event that promised compelling viewing. On top of which, it took place at a time when a satisfactory Sunday slumber had been safely negotiated through the cacophony of burglar alarms and barking dogs that so often disturbs suburban peace in the rainbow nation.

I have to confess that the race itself delivered more than it promised right from the rain-filled uncertainty of the start to its ultimate dramatic denouement. It even had the premature celebrations of the Ferrari camp, which put me in mind of that fateful run out at Edgbaston when we all thought that Klusener had made his ground, only to realise with horror that Allan Donald had not run and was stranded at the wrong end of the pitch.

Like many others, I assumed that a monumental piece of luck had given Hamilton the championship when Timo Glock ran out of grip with the finish line almost in sight. I find it astonishing that luck actually played little part in anything Hamilton did in the final laps of the race.

It turns out that Hamilton’s tactics were plotted for him by the McLaren strategists back in their Woking, England, bunker. There the boffins had determined that, with heavy rain falling on parts of the course, Hamilton could afford to avoid a potentially damaging scrap with Sebastian Vettel who was right up his backside with just three laps to go. Their computers were telling them that Glock, on his dry tyres, was slowing sufficiently in the difficult conditions for Hamilton to be certain to catch and overtake him on the final lap.

This information was relayed to Hamilton via the McLaren pitwall at the race track and so he let Vettel past and coolly waited for the slowing Glock to appear in front of him. The rest is history. This episode illustrates the extent to which attention to detail is now such an integral part of any major sporting endeavour.

The question is this: is this dependence on detailed planning and advanced technology enhancing or detracting from the struggles for supremacy? There is no doubt that the quality of the participants has become better with such assistance, but can we do without the humanity in sport?

Would Lewis Hamilton’s world title not be more meaningful if those final crucial moments had been left entirely in his own hands? Rather than the noble emotions of passion, courage and determination that might have motivated him, it was a cold message coming from thousands of miles away that saw him safely home to his world title.

His only risk was that the advice was accurate. Great moments in proper sport should not be made of such bloodless interventions.

I was intrigued and drawn into all the drama of last Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix, but for that reason I still do not do Formula One.

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