The Worst Incident in the History of Motorsport
Circuit de la Sarthe
Le Mans, France, 1955
It’s a perfect June day, which maybe explains the turnout. Nearly 300,000 record-setting souls in attendance. Everyone’s packed in wherever they can fit, all sport coats and earth tones. They’ve scaled the scaffolding to bargain for a better view, elbowing their way up enormous advertisements for tyres. Particolored flags flutter above the rolling countryside. Surviving photographs of the aftermath of what’s about to happen capture sweaty crowds in grayscale; berets, of course; smoke and dismay smeared across faces. It’s only been a decade since the war.
Gunfire. Scramble of footsteps as the drivers bolt to their vehicles.1
And they’re off.
Frontrunning competitors Jaguar (Great Britain) and Ferrari (Italy) must face the emergent team from German manufacturer Mercedes-Benz, each of whom runs three cars at Le Mans. Two legends of motorsport will alternate in the cockpit of the first Mercedes: British driver Stirling Moss and the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, reigning Formula 1 champion and regarded by many to be among the greatest of all time.
Mercedes has brought their brand new 300 SLR,2 a silver avion, a comic book’s idea of speed. The car sports an ultralight spaceframe, for which the team has invented a unique magnesium alloy, “Elektron.”3
So hip. So modern. So very cool.
It’s quite the achievement for the German outfit, since the Mercedes factory was reduced to rubble by Allied firepower during the war.4 But the company managed to rebuild and return to competition. So here they are again, facing off against the British. In France. Without a hint of irony, local promoters advertised the race as “World War II on the Track.” The Germans have been unsuccessful in their bids the last few years but look ready to win this time around.
Today, however, the silver car doesn’t start.5
No matter. Le Mans is a marathon, and a false start is no obstacle to the superior horsepower and piloting of a major manufacturer. Once Fangio untangles his trousers and turns the engine over, he quickly makes up the time and joins British driver Mike Hawthorn in his Jaguar at the front of the pack. It’s not an overstatement to say the cars are disastrously quick. Nearly a magnitude larger than their predecessors at the earliest race around La Sarthe in 1923, they’re obviously faster to boot. But it’s not sheer speed alone that sets these vehicles at least a generation ahead of their commercially available counterparts. Jaguar introduced disc brakes only two years prior, right here at Le Mans, and dual overhead camshafts became standard after success at numerous grands prix. And, like most road cars of 1955, racecars have no seat belts or safety harnesses. The pilots believe it’s safer to be thrown from their vehicles than risk roasting to death or asphyxiating in a wreck. They are wrong.
Two hours into the race, the leaders start to lap backmarkers, such as Pierre Levegh, a nearly fifty-year-old Frenchman in the second Mercedes, who’s about to be overtaken by his teammate, Fangio. There’s a special humiliation—muted at Le Mans—that attends getting lapped by the lead car, but especially so when that man’s your rival teammate.
The frontrunners round Ford Corner and barrel down Pit Straight, where still spectators clutch the giant signage and crane their necks for a view. Hawthorn swings his Jaguar into the pit lane—which is not separated from the racing line whatsoever—and slows for a stop. This catches out Austin-Healey driver Lance Macklin, who swerves to avoid impact and overcorrects, sending his car into a jag across the track. Levegh’s air brake can’t slow the car quickly enough, and it plows into the back of Macklin’s. From their perch, fans catch the white underbelly of Levegh’s Mercedes as the car lifts in a flash off the ground, glides toward the earthen embankment separating spectators from sport, before it nosedives and careens into a tumble. The momentum ejects Levegh from the cockpit, killing him instantly.
In what is later described as a bright whistle or buzz, the silver car’s heavy machinery launches into the grandstand, catching spectators completely unaware, like buckshot-strafed fowl on the bowl of a pond. Shards of the engine block and belts, transmission, and alloy spaceframe sever limbs, puncture torsos. The car’s bonnet—or hood—spins through the air like a guillotine, decapitating several people. One witness describes the binoculars still strung around the neck of a headless torso. Others just stumble. As the stunned crowd’s keening begins to queue, what remains of the silver car explodes, raining parts of the flaming chassis down on survivors. And, because French fire marshals in 1955 don’t understand magnesium fires, what’s left of the tub smolders for hours.
It’s the worst crash in motorsport history. Eighty-three people are killed. At least one hundred twenty more are injured or maimed.
Mercedes-Benz retires their remaining cars from the race. Fangio never races Le Mans again. The team withdraws from motorsport entirely for the next thirty-five years.
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Armchair critics will scoff at even the insinuation of “motorsport,” since it then stands to reason that drivers be classified as athletes. Heresy! Athletes exert themselves, physically and mentally! They sweat and scrabble on courts, and fields, and pitches, too. They certainly don’t sit in one place for hours on a Sunday morning. Delivered with humor, the derision often entails a pantomimed steering wheel and a punchline about driving in circles, like how hard can it possibly be?
Formula 1 drivers maintain a certain aerobicized form, manicured like greyhounds or gazelles, but they’re also incredibly athletic, so yes, they’re athletes. Often short, as you’d expect with any jockey. Staminous, if nothing else. And extremely streamlined, mentally. They need to be, in order to process like a dozen data inputs in real time, while piloting a vehicle that has more in common with the Screaming Eagle at Six Flags St. Louis than any midsize sedan. (My Subaru even shifts the gears for me!) Information flies at them: bright flags trackside and flashing lights on the steering wheel. Team radio over their earpiece with questions (Ferrari: “Question.”) and encouragement (Mercedes: “Fuck them all”). Lap time on the board and deltas on the steering wheel. Diff and engine modes on the steering wheel. A lot of information comes through the steering wheel.
Drivers use it to steer, of course, but they don’t position it quite how you might imagine. Lay yourself essentially horizontal and grip the wheel like an iPad in front of you. The steering column shoots between your legs and feet, and it’s a foreign feeling while driving, for sure. Like sitting in a bathtub, which is exactly why they call it a tub, protecting the driver’s life in case of impact or collision. In 2018, F1 sought to reduce head injuries and added the halo—a horizontal ring supported by a central pylon, dead center in the driver’s sightline—to much-publicized consternation. Teams came around, and the intervention’s been credited with minimizing injury in many cases and even preventing a number of deaths.
With only a rind of irony, discussion of the cars themselves can (like a lemon) quickly break down. There’s a host of taxonomizing acronyms (KERS, PU, and ICE) and phrasing that’s downright residential: floor damage can disrupt tunnels and fences in the undercarriage. There’s suspension geometry, which teams can play with. Downforce and ground effects, et cetera. Some of these terms you may recognize. Others will be obvious. If you’re like me, you remember “ground effects” from The Fast and the Furious (2001). Of course, everyone knows the movie, or recognizes the franchise, but if you’re old enough, you remember when it came out. So many teenage patrons attempting—and failing—to fishtail and donut in the multiplex parking lot. Underbody neon. On your Dodge Stratus, come on. The energy of that era, its zeitgeist.
Ten years later, after I finished my MFA and moved back to Illinois, I enrolled in a part-time Master of Arts in English program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The very first class I took, English 500, carried the titillating subtitle “Interpretations of the Nation-State.” We read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and marveled at the reiterative power of the printing press. We read Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and puzzled over another people’s footsteps in the rubble before us. It was unlike any English class I’d ever taken. We read Partha Chatterjee and Homi Bhabha. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Iconic names, but I can’t actually recall any useful specifics. Kristeva, I think. Deleuze, for some reason?
Until that fall term proseminar, it had never occurred to me that the nation-state, as a concept, could be taken for anything other than granted. That it’s an idea, no different from “cryptocurrency” or “domestic terrorist,” a legitimizing seed in need of reinforcement. And it can manifest anywhere, this reinforcement: on tv, in the news. In our habits and behaviors. But the idea of a nation-state also provides a convenient way to polish the Elektron of theocratic autocracies, or throw spray across the windscreen of hegemons. Like an earthen buffer that purports to divide roadway from grandstand, but instead convenes them, the nation-state remains susceptible to weakening, its embankments pockmarked and blackened by ash, fragile as the bodies that attend to it.
So when Formula 1 came to Qatar and Saudi Arabia at the end of the 2021 season, it wasn’t a surprise. Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, of England, had just scored an enormous upset at São Paulo against his rival, Max Verstappen, the Dutch upstart pretender. The Brit had clawed back a victory after a contentious exclusion from qualifying, a marathon performance during the weekend’s sprint race, and a truly heroic drive on Sunday. After his victory, during the final in-lap, Hamilton stopped trackside to accept a Brazilian flag from a marshal at the exact place Brazilian racing deity Ayrton Senna had done after winning his home race in 1993. Now iconic images of Lewis Hamilton draped in Brazil’s green flag proliferated like wildfire across social media, and he would receive honorary citizenship the following year.
All eyes were on the final three races of the 2021 season, which would culminate at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit. Qatar—on the calendar as a sub for the Japanese Grand Prix, scrapped due to Covid—had all the sportswashing of the World Cup to look forward to in 2022, so F1’s presence there was incidental by comparison. But Saudi Arabia envisioned its investment in F1 as part of a longer-term project. Mired in the embarrassment of the failed Jeddah Tower—a supertall still optimistically listed as “under construction” that has amounted to little more than a sixty-story stump—and struggling to distract the world from Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome dismemberment, the kingdom needed a ploy, one that could materialize with only a few months’ notice, and rinse its image on the global stage through the timeless absolution of sporting competition.
Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, had been on the calendar for a decade. Hugging a scenic marina and snaking beneath a space-age hotel, the circuit was one of several theme parks and tourist attractions developed as part of Yas Island. The scene of many (in)famous showdowns, the track had a tendency to deliver decent racing, if only by dint of the emirate’s shelling out eye-watering sums to host the concluding race of each season. In 2021, with Hamilton and Verstappen even on points—a phenomenon that had only occurred once in the entirety of Formula 1’s sporting history—the tension, expectations, and drama were cranked to eleven. This showdown would be impossible to ignore, drawing over 100 million viewers to the live broadcast.
But I didn’t see any of it live. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not with so much at stake. Not after everything that had happened.
Fate and Fatherhood
Tennessee, USA, 2021
Like so many newly converted fans of F1 in America, I discovered the sport via Formula 1: Drive to Survive, the runaway hit docudrama on Netflix.6 The series follows ten teams as they compete in motor races across the globe7 in what is indisputably regarded as the “pinnacle of motorsport,”8 known for its exotic—and occasionally controversial—destinations, the glitz and glamour of its drivers’ personal lives, a mobbing celebrity attracted to things fast and advertised as exclusive, and, of course, cutthroat competition in the paddock.9 Drive to Survive (DTS) does well to capitalize on the most exciting elements of F1, pitting rival drivers against one another, chasing whispers up and down the grid, and splashing panoramas of seaside skylines of places like Mallorca and Monte Carlo across the screen. But the show’s most engrossing aspects capture behind-the-scenes antics in candid interviews and minimally scripted moments between select drivers and team principals plucked from among the thousands of people employed by the various teams, by F1 itself, and by various media outlets. Referred to collectively as “the circus,” F1 traverses the globe with metric tons of cargo and hundreds of team personnel, constructing and tearing down the paddock’s temporary structures over the course of each weekend to bring the show live to hundreds of thousands of fans who flock to race venues and to millions more viewers worldwide. And the sport seems only to be building momentum. As Christian Horner, the team boss of Red Bull Racing,10 remarks in the Season 1 finale: “Formula 1 is addictive. It draws you in, the characters, the competition, the drama, the theater.” Indeed, the thrill of watching the world’s most talented drivers pilot their own personal rollercoasters at breakneck speeds is rivaled only by the backroom dealings and off-track drama as multiple narratives unfold over the course of each racing season.
Premiering in 2019, DTS introduced audiences to the 2018 competition, during which—spoiler alert—Lewis Hamilton, driving for Mercedes, secured his fifth World Drivers’ Championship by outracing four-time champion Sebastian Vettel who was in a Ferrari. The headline of Hamilton’s victory, just another feather in the cap of the Mercedes team (which had been winning for many years running and would extend that domination into 2019 and 2020), obscures the minutiae that make F1 fascinating. DTS teases out and dramatizes so many subplots and storylines that may otherwise go unnoticed, convincing viewers to care about the characters involved in a sport where the winners can sometimes wrap up a title by a considerable margin. This is all by design.
The show’s genesis is a direct result of F1’s acquisition by Liberty Media, a U.S.-based company eager to break NASCAR’s exclusive stranglehold on the fandom and fortune of American motorsports. Co-produced by Liberty and Netflix, the show has succeeded by almost every measure. While Netflix remains notoriously cagey with hard numbers, related stats verify the return on F1’s investment in DTS: ballooning attendance at race venues, for one, and unprecedented increases in cable viewership. Ultimately more important than the number of eyeballs on screens is the skyrocketing compensation F1 receives for tv rights. Until 2021, ESPN paid $5 million per year to broadcast F1 races. In 2022, that figure jumped at least fifteenfold to a reported $75 to $90 million per year.11 Attendance at live events also pulls in no small amount of cash, for promoters and venues alike, with ticket sales for three-day passes for places like Miami and Monaco easily entering the mid–four figures. This year’s Las Vegas Grand Prix in November—a new addition for 2023—will see Liberty itself serving as the promoter, pocketing every penny from the event, much to shareholders’ delight.
This is likely as good a moment as any to cop to the full extent of my newfound F1 fandom and to disclose my own personal biases. It’s difficult to overstate the truly transformative impact the show and the sport have had on my life.12 I changed my Twitter handle to “Lewistan Milton” in a nod to the name of my favorite driver. Got kicked off Facebook for doing the same. Don’t care. I subscribed to F1TV (Pro!) so I can view decades of footage whenever I want, and I’ve rewatched select races and moments a truly stupefying number of times.13 I cannot stop buying merch. It started with one Lewis Hamilton tee shirt, all lightning bolts and gigantic neon font. My wife said it looked like I bought it at a gas station. She’s not wrong, and I love it. On race days, my child and I sport matching neon caps emblazoned with Mercedes symbols. I listen to F1-related podcasts while driving, dishwashing, snow-shoveling, out walking; whenever I can manage. It’s become almost a vocation.14
While I don’t expect Drive to Survive will have as profound an impact on everyone, there’s an awfully good chance that you, reader, will learn of a friend or loved one’s newfound interest in F1 within the next calendar year. Maybe you already have. Most likely, it will be someone you’d never expect. They will almost certainly have discovered the sport through DTS, and their newfound affinity will have almost nothing to do with cars or tracks or the competition per se. They will instead be drawn to the cast of characters who navigate the many storylines highlighted—and, in some cases, manufactured—by Netflix.15 In that sense, the secret to DTS’s success is no different from almost every other sports narrative ever conceived: everyone loves a good underdog story.
Take for example Daniel Ricciardo, one of the first people we meet in Drive to Survive. The show opens with the happy-go-lucky twenty-eight-year-old Australian careening around the rolling outback of his family farm on dirt bikes and four-wheelers, his infectious smile and penchant for podium shoeys (whereby one chugs champagne from a freshly used racing bootie) providing a refreshing reprieve from the very serious men invested in the very serious business of Formula 1. But throughout season 1, Danny Ric struggles to outshine the rising star of his twenty-year-old teammate, Max Verstappen, Red Bull’s new golden boy.16 Ostensibly, drivers compete together to win as many points as possible for their team, but teammate dynamics in Formula 1 are notoriously tricky. It’s up to team principals, like Red Bull’s redheaded Christian Horner,17 to manage drivers’ outsize egos, and they have many tools at their disposal: contrasting setups and strategies; staggered development schedules for each car; private and, occasionally, publicized dialogue; and, when necessary, explicit team orders. Before DTS, the viewing public remained largely ignorant of these intrateam dynamics, but the show has thrust not only Horner, but also his questionable cadre of advisors into the spotlight. These include Helmut Marko, a moderately successful former racing driver (he won Le Mans in 1971) and politically incorrect septuagenarian who runs the driver development program,18 and Jos Verstappen, failed F1 driver and father to the aforementioned Max.19 These men inculcate an atmosphere that coddles their golden child—even after he brake-checks Ricciardo at Baku and causes the two to collide, ruining both of their races—that to this day makes the team inhospitable to any other driver’s ambitions. At the end of the 2018 season, after three years of struggling against Verstappen’s inevitable takeover of the Number 1 role at Red Bull, Danny Ric makes a surprise exit to join French manufacturer Renault.
It’s a coup for Renault: the company had supplied engines to Red Bull, but terminated their contract after the relationship soured. In one of Drive to Survive’s more widely shared clips, Renault team boss Cyril Abiteboul, a hirsute fortysomething with kind eyes and a wry smile, quips to Christian Horner that his team “needs a driver and an engine.” This leaves typically quick-witted Horner uncharacteristically speechless. It all bodes so well for Ricciardo and Renault, this cynical switcheroo, the promise of a new start, of new beginnings and greener pastures. Et cetera. That is, until Ricciardo crashes out in the opening lap of the 2019 Australia Grand Prix, the first race of the year and Ricciardo’s home race.
The embarrassment defines the trajectory of Ricciardo’s time with the team, which does not immediately go downhill so much as it slips into a steady, uncorrectable slide into the barriers of his new team’s limitations.20 After 2020, Ricciardo again jumps ship rather abruptly, switching to McLaren for the 2021 season, only to play catchup to teammate Lando Norris, a British-Belgian dual citizen over a decade Ricciardo’s junior who is known as much for his Twitch streams and hobbyist photography (@lando.jpg on Instagram) as for his unrivaled command of the car. Despite pulling off a fortuitous win in 2021—the last of Ricciardo’s career—new aerodynamic regulations for 2022 see Danny Ric fall even further behind Lando, and by midseason McLaren announces Ricciardo’s replacement, fresh-faced fellow Aussie Oscar Piastri, which leaves the elder Australian without a seat for 2023. The announcement of an early departure can be a death knell for a driver’s motivation, and Ricciardo spends the remaining races languishing in miserable defeat.
In a talk show clip I can no longer locate on the internet, I could have sworn Daniel Ricciardo describes the handling of F1 cars as like being “on rails.” He wasn’t the first to describe this sensation using that language; it’s a fairly common expression in F1 media, but it took me forever to imagine how that must feel: even screaming along at two hundred miles per hour, it’s as if the vehicle adheres to a predetermined track, the way a train or trolley would do. Think about any time you’ve carried too much speed through a turn in your road car, how your weight shifts slightly away from the direction of travel. Now imagine not only maintaining that precarious balance for a physically demanding ninety minutes or more, but also constructing optimal lines for every pass around the track. The most accurate comparison is to a rollercoaster, one drivers must build in their minds and execute with their bodies, hoping to everything holy the car responds the way they want through every twist and turn. It strikes me also as an appropriate metaphor for fate.
Late in November 2022, after the racing season has concluded and Netflix has packed up its cameras, in a twist perfectly befitting the rollercoaster fortunes of Formula 1, Red Bull announces that Ricciardo will join the team as its “third driver” for 2023, a reserve role that involves simulator work, test drives, and promotional engagements. Unhappy to serve as the Number 2 a few years ago, Ricciardo returns to the team that fueled the promise of his early career. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son for today’s F1 audience. When viewed through that lens, it makes Ricciardo’s return feel almost inevitable.
The high-stakes game of musical chairs that drivers play in committing themselves to growing with a team or, say, jumping ship for the next big payday can result in made-for-tv underdog moments. Take Pierre Gasly, for example, a French driver who found himself promoted from Toro Rosso (Red Bull’s sister team), only to squander his time as Red Bull’s #2 driver, and unfortunately then be demoted back to the rebranded Alpha Tauri (Red Bull’s sister team). But when Gasly picked up a surprise win in Italy, his first and—as of this writing—only hoisting of a first-place trophy on the podium provides an image that’s easy to appreciate as poetic: clouds of green, white, and red confetti absolutely plaster the champagne-soaked victor as the rousing overture to Bizet’s Carmen plays for no one in the stands—no one really near him at all—empty as everything is due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Or take Sergio “Checo” Perez, the only Latin American on the grid since 2018. The Mexican competitor drove Pepto Bismol–pink cars for the Racing Point team until Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll acquired the team from its previous owner, Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya, who found himself facing indictments for fraud and money laundering. Stroll had purchased the team to give his son, Lance, a seat on the grid. Remarkable only for his bushy eyebrows and noticeable absence of anything resembling a personality, Lance figured into his father’s plans to rebrand the team by partnering with luxury automaker Aston Martin and bringing Sebastian Vettel over from Ferrari, ejecting Perez from his seat for 2021. Facing an uncertain future heading into Bahrain for the last race of the year, Perez pulled off a miracle drive, recovering from last place to secure victory, his very first. The performance landed him the much-coveted (if precarious) second seat at Red Bull.
If the fates of Pierre Gasly21 and Sergio Perez illustrate the tidal pull of F1’s most influential teams, certain dramas prove too perfectly tragic, too unbelievable even for Netflix to architect. Consider the curious case of Charles Leclerc, a trilingual, boyishly handsome Monégasque whose career arc and biography very much appear to be haunted by a kind of curse. Growing up in Monaco, Leclerc took the nickname “il Predestinato” in the Italian press, even as he pursued a career nevertheless beset by setbacks superstitious in nature. Working his way through the formula feeder series, Leclerc lost his godfather, Jules Bianchi, a Marussia driver who crashed out at Suzuka in 2014. In 2017, Leclerc’s father, Hervé—who had raced in Formula 2 in the 1980s and ’90s—died prematurely after a long fight against cancer. Only four short days after his father’s death, Charles won the feature race for Formula 2 at Baku, and it wouldn’t be the last time tragedy foretold victory for Leclerc.
At the 2019 Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps, Leclerc’s childhood friend Anthoine Hubert suffered a horrific double impact collision during the F2 feature race and died of his injuries. With rip tonio adorning the back of his steering wheel, Leclerc landed pole position in qualifying and maintained a commanding lead to win his very first F1 race that same weekend. When interviewed by DTS, Leclerc tells the camera crew in an English inflected with French and Italian: “Everything that is danger, I forget it.” Such brazen confidence and bravery in the face of peril can be equally alluring, heartbreaking, and terrifying. It also pays off. At the next race, the 2019 Italian Grand Prix, Leclerc wins again, becoming the first Ferrari driver to do so since Fernando Alonso. Celebratory scenes of the crimson-clad tifosi (Italian fans, but literally, those infected with typhus; acting feverish) waving bright yellow prancing-horse banners make for some of the most rewarding moments of F1 fandom.22
But the most promising storyline of Leclerc’s career—that of the hometown hero’s long-awaited victory—continues to prove elusive. It’s a big deal when a driver wins their home race, a bigger deal yet when that race is one of the most coveted wins on the calendar, a jewel in the Triple Crown of Motorsport, together with the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But fate has not looked kindly on Charles Leclerc in the tiny principality he calls home. In 2018, the brakes on his Sauber failed, causing him to collide with another driver and retire from the race. In 2019, he caught a tire puncture and again had to retire from the race. In 2020, Covid restrictions meant the race had to be canceled for the first time since 1954. He failed to start the race in 2021, after binning it during a final qualifying run. And in 2022, he crashed three-time champion Niki Lauda’s iconic 1972 Ferrari during a demonstration run, before losing out to poor strategy during the race. The guy can’t seem to catch a break, which is a funny thing to say about a gainfully employed twentysomething who earned a reported $22 million bonus for finishing second in the 2022 Drivers’ Championship. Charles may very well be a title contender in 2023—I hope that’s the case, if only to shake up the monotony of Red Bull’s newly reclaimed dominance. But more than that, I desperately want Charles to win at Monaco. It’s been so tantalizingly long in the offing.
Undeniably, there are only a few drivers whose singular influence on Formula 1 resonates across generations. Standing above the rest is the career of Michael Schumacher, a legendary German driver who reconfigured the role of F1 pilot from that of a stereotypical daredevil blessed with enough pluck and aplomb to pull off performances that border on suicidal. Instead, Schumacher drove with calculating ruthlessness and led Ferrari to five consecutive titles in the early aughts (a record), for a total of seven championships across his career (also a record23), and he retired from Ferrari with a record number of wins, pole positions, and podium finishes,24 as well as most fastest laps (still a record). In 2007, his replacement at Ferrari, the Finn Kimi Räikkönen, continued his legacy by winning the championship, albeit by a single point.25
After a brief hiatus, Schumacher returned to F1 in 2010 as a driver for the fledgling Mercedes team, the culmination of the company’s long road back into competitive motorsports. According to interviews featured in the 2021 documentary Schumacher, also on Netflix, the opportunity at Mercedes afforded Schumacher a chance to build another team from the ground up, much as he had with Ferrari. Despite his enthusiasm and the novelty of his age (Schumacher turned forty-three during his last year with Mercedes), the effort yielded only one podium finish over the course of three years, and Schumacher again retired from F1.26 The following year, after a record-setting career piloting the fastest racecars on the planet around the most challenging and prestigious circuits in the world, Michael Schumacher suffered a catastrophic head injury while skiing an off-piste portion of the Méribel slopes in the French Alps. He has since disappeared from public life and is widely believed to be severely incapacitated and possibly in a vegetative state.
Mercedes went on to win the next eight Constructors’ Championships in a row.
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As a writer, I can appreciate what it means to leave a mark on a field of interest, to extend one’s influence beyond the page and the screen, to be remembered and admired, to have one’s ideas reiterated through the discourse, whether online or in print. Or rather, I can imagine what it must be like. Poets tend to occupy a relatively niche corner of mainstream culture, unless we pen a particularly compelling memoir, perform at a presidential inauguration, or lean into the compact lyrics of influencer poetics, which, let’s be honest, yours truly aged out of that demographic before Instagram was really a thing.
But as a poet, I’m drawn to the image of the racetrack as a metaphor, its predictable but still surprising sequence of turns and straightaways, the ever-present threat of error or overtaking, and a necessary reliance on other people to provide insight and guidance, as we rocket through lives that seem only to be passing the more quickly by. The metaphor is useful also for the unavoidable interruptions encountered along the way, which I have grown to embrace as not only unpreventable, but welcome. Because if fate lays down the rails of one’s life, thank god for fortune’s derailings, those chance encounters and unexpected redirectings that upset the order of things. These derailings can arrive seemingly out of nowhere, like the abrupt isolation of a global pandemic, or they may manifest in ways you thought possible to anticipate but could not actually imagine, like the end of the world or the birth of a child.
And as a father, I have to question this newly manifested obsession of mine, whether it’s truly a newfound passion, or just a distraction, an outlet for all the anxiety and uncertainty of parenting during a pandemic. But whether my sudden fascination with F1 proves to be a passing interest or the beginning of lifelong fandom, the time spent watching racecars with my child in matching kit, her Hamilton doll deteriorating from touch, is time I’ll never regret or get back. Because she is fated only to age, god willing, and this certainty has led me, for the first time in my life, to consider the question of legacy. How will my child remember her father? What obsessions and impulses, what fixations will she inherit? How will she move through these, and through me, and find her own way in the world?
Schumacher’s child was with him that night, on the mountaintop. His only son, Mick, had accompanied him on that fateful ski run, no doubt expecting a different outcome, a sporting experience, certainly unprepared to call for help, to cradle his unconscious father until the medevac arrived. He could not have known his entire relationship with his father would be upended in a matter of seconds, his world shaken to its most primal core.
And yet, Mick has followed in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a career in racing right into F1. But it has not gone as planned. Introduced as a rookie in 2021 with the backmarker Haas team, Mick struggled even to best his teammate for one season Nikita Mazepin, the son of a Russian oligarch, who was just abysmally bad. Like dangerously so. In his second season, Mick totaled the car enough times to threaten the team’s financial solvency, and finally Haas confirmed that the younger Schumacher would be without a seat for 2023, his career cut short before it really had a chance to take off.
But late December 2022 delivers another twist you can’t script: Mercedes announces Mick as a reserve driver, welcoming him into the family. It’s been a long while since a German driver signed to a German team. It’s uncanny to look at pictures of the elder Schumacher in Mercedes garb at the end of his career, juxtaposed with photos of his son, in the same exact outfit, squinting his eyes as the long shadow cast by his father starts to fade, with no idea what his future may hold.
The Worst Incident in the History of Motorsport
Yas Marina Circuit
Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2021
Like I said, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the live broadcast, not after Hamilton’s late-season comeback. He’d won three races in a row: Brazil (monumentally), Qatar (breezily), and Saudi Arabia (contra the on-track [and podium] antics of a petulant Verstappen27). Any modicum of measured interest evaporated into breathless entreaty to the racing gods.
Thumbing rosary beads like an abacus, I decided instead to stream Verstappen’s onboard,28 endlessly refresh the F1 subreddit, and frantically text my only friend even remotely aware of the stakes. I paced my kitchen, guzzled coffee and Clif bars. A storm-portending cloud of anxious energy fouled up the apartment. My wife walked past to the bedroom, screwed up her face, and said, “Jesus Christ.”
Poised to ride along with Max Verstappen as my laptop’s POV, I clutched a mug with a crab enjoying a cigarette under the words life is relentless as Verstappen embarked on the formation lap. No gunfire anymore, of course. And this time it’s the mechanics who scramble away from where the cars will be, like really hoofing it with racks of computers and tyres back into the paddock. The POV warms up on a single lap around the track, then stops. Five lights on. (It’s a moment Netflix dramatizes especially well, hits of woofer with each red illumination.)
All five off.
And I watched in jaw-dropped disbelief as Hamilton flew by Verstappen off the line, as if it really were so simple. Max mounted a clumsy attack at turn six, but Hamilton commandeered the lead from the jump. After pit stops sorted themselves out—and a stubborn defense by Sergio Perez in the number two Red Bull—Verstappen trailed Hamilton by nearly twelve seconds, an actual eternity in F1 time. The race was all but over.
Victory at Abu Dhabi would seal the comeback win streak, deliver Hamilton his record-breaking eighth world championship, match the record for consecutive titles,29 and secure his place as the undisputed GOAT, statistically speaking. It would also set the stage for Hamilton’s eventual retirement, with young Brit George Russell set to herald a new era at Mercedes.
Hamilton’s tenure had marked an unprecedented run of success, made all the more remarkable by his own underdog story: his dad’s not a billionaire, nor ex–racing driver, as is the case for nearly half the grid. Hamilton’s father, Anthony, worked three and four jobs to support young Lewis’s career, where theirs was often the only Black family at karting events and feeder series. Even after Lewis had found success as the only Black driver in F1 ever,30 bigots and denigration followed. In 2008, Spanish fans showed up in blackface to Barcelona. In 2016, Derek Warwick, a steward at the decisive 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, praised Max Verstappen as the “great white hope.” In 2021, Nelson Piquet, disgraced F1 champion and father to Kelly Piquet (Max Verstappen’s partner), used the Brazilian equivalent of the n-word to describe Hamilton. Even in 2022, Dutch fans burned Lewis effigies and Mercedes merchandise, and a fire marshal at Saudi Arabia, charged with extinguishing a life-threatening blaze should it engulf a car, tweeted his wish that Hamilton suffer a fiery accident on track. And that’s only to skim the bot-infested cesspool of F1 Twitter, which has become polarized and radicalized into increasingly inflamed silos.
It would be easy to buckle under the hate, or lash out, easier still to withdraw from the spotlight. But Hamilton has only doubled down, using his broadening stardom to stand up (or take a knee) against racism and bigotry, especially after the murder of George Floyd. In 2020, Hamilton took to rocking tee shirts on race days with increasingly blunt messaging, from the familiar women’s rights are human rights, immigration is a good thing, and science is real, to a provocative call to arrest the cops who killed breonna taylor. In 2021, he collaborated with George the Poet on lyrics for a new line of tee shirts. He bought a table at the Met Gala for up-and-coming Black designers. He wore progressive pride flags on helmets at Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, in response to those countries’ regressive human rights laws. In these moments of transcendence, when an athlete or icon or figure steps out of their daily racing overalls and into the limelight’s unrelenting scrutiny to profess a just cause, we—as fans and laypeople—can maybe also take a moment to consider the time we have lived in this life, our actions and behaviors, our impact and our legacy.
It may not seem like much,31 the signaling and visibility, but it’s been enough to get the attention of higher-ups at the FIA. In December 2022, under the leadership of Emirati Mohammed Ben Sulayem, motorsports’ governing body officially banned “displays of political, religious and personal statements,” effectively muzzling the grid’s most vocal proponent of equal rights. As if hosting races in Saudi Arabia or Qatar or the USA isn’t an overtly political act in its own right. Perhaps the time had come to migrate his celebrity activism into more receptive environments. Hamilton would spend another year or two in F1, maybe negotiate a financial stake in the Mercedes team per se, pass the mantle to Russell, step further into fashion and activism, acting, and philanthropy, and influence the future.
But come lap fifty-three of the Abu Dhabi GP, who should collide attempting to overtake but young Mick Schumacher in that absolute tractor of a Haas and Nicolas “Goatifi” Latifi, the son of another Canadian billionaire. The crash brought out a Safety Car with only five laps and counting.
At this point, I stopped watching. Safety Cars slow the pack into a holding pattern and allow marshals time to remove the vehicles and clear debris, but that’s not why I untethered myself from the action. Rather, my wife and child were headed out the door, bundled in puffy coats and knit snowcaps, winter in Chicago as it was, and the least I could do was to carry our squirming toddler down four stories of recently salted stairs. Jacked on caffeine and suspense, I fluster my way into a jacket and sandals, clutch my child like a crab on its last square, hustle down each flight, and curse the gods of residential development for the invention of the walk-up. I stuff my child into her car seat, mutter a rushed farewell, and fumble with my phone to check for a text from my friend. Just six short minutes after our last exchange, I receive only this for an update:
what just happened?
If it’s true that certain historical events come to define the backdrop of our lives—to color the play-by-play of our everyday—it’s equally true these events can arrive unexpectedly, despite appearing almost inevitable in retrospect. The presidency of Donald Trump, for example. The onset of Covid. September 11, 2001, I suppose, but that one hits differently. I was in high school, naive and pre-political. (More recently, Kanye’s stochastic antisemitism, but that’s a topic for another essay.) The theft of Lewis Hamilton’s eighth world championship ranks right up there in my pantheon of WTF moments, a derailing that wouldn’t even have registered six or twelve months prior, so swift and so complete my newfound conversion to #TeamLH.
The short of what transpired in Abu Dhabi: FIA race director Michael Masi interpreted his charge liberally, shall we say, by resuming the race on the very last lap. In doing so, he ignored at least two regulations:
1) only the lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen were allowed to unlap themselves (it would have taken too long for all eight lapped drivers to do so)32
2) racing resumed one lap earlier than it should have (marshals had only just removed *themselves* from the track, and an additional lap was meant to transpire)
The result: Max Verstappen bullied Hamilton before the official restart,33 passed him on tires better suited to overtaking, and sailed to the finish line. Masi’s actions, no question, made for a more thrilling race, much to shareholders’ delight.
The long of it’s not actually much longer, except that racisms so often work in these ways: regardless of whether Masi wanted Max to win, regardless of his own personal history of prejudice or allyship, regardless of what he himself believed or desired, the result of his action was to disadvantage a Black athlete. Full stop.34
The only take: it’s not impossible that Verstappen could have made his way around every lapped car to take the win. And what a win it would’ve been! A mighty performance for a perfectly deserving champion. Instead, Verstappen’s first title carries an enormous asterisk like an albatross around his place in the record books. Even so, he’s really not even to blame. Hamilton said he’d have done the same, had the roles been reversed. But for a Hamilton stan, it’s hard not to pray for Verstappen’s comeuppance. And it brings out the worst in me, this standom. Online, I find myself liking the most inflammatory content, and I’ve grown defensive in person. I don’t take the joke when my wife calls Sunday’s race a “game” or “match.” Like obviously.35
So after the winter break, when Hamilton broke a self-imposed social media silence and returned to F1 for 2022, and when, during the season opener in Bahrain, both Red Bull cars suffered mechanical failures and had to retire near the end of the race, it allowed Hamilton to take third place and assume a spot on the podium. Again shouting in my kitchen, this time in exultation, it couldn’t help but feel like a certain harbinger of Hamilton’s inexorable vengeance.
But it wasn’t meant to be. The 2022 season stumbled before it even began, with the Mercedes car, the W13, suffering a debilitating design flaw that caused it to “porpoise,” a phenomenon best described as a rhythmic bouncing painfully similar to the movement of its namesake cetacean. Unfortunate images of Hamilton emerging from the W13 clutching his back after one particularly bad ride could only remind the world that the thirty-seven-year-old deposed champion is the second oldest driver on the grid, behind only Fernando Alonso.
It only gets worse. Hamilton fails to start on pole or clinch a win for the first time in his sixteen-year career, a stat that’s equally astounding and deflating. His new teammate, George Russell, outscores him over the course of the season. Verstappen even laps Hamilton at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Italy, and Verstappen, with gold boots and a number 1 on his car, takes his second title easily, with four races yet to complete. He wins three of those remaining, setting a record in the meanwhile for most race wins in a single season.36
In other ways, too, 2022 proved exceptional. Russia invaded Ukraine, which led to the replacement of disproportionately untalented Nikita Mazepin at Haas with the Dane Kevin Magnussen. Yemeni missiles struck Saudi Arabia within camerashot of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, causing a drivers’ meeting late into the midnight hours about whether to proceed with the race. A surprise tsunami threatened to cancel the race at Suzuka.37 Only a month before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and stripped rights from half the country’s residents, F1 inaugurated a new race in Miami, complete with fake sand and artificial marina, in the NFL Dolphins’ parking lot. Hamilton’s unfortunate season felt like a perfectly underwhelming way to underscore such a succession of unfavorable events. Like stepping onto a ride promised to be the Mine Train at Six Flags St. Louis, but it turns out to be only a park tour.38
But at the last race of the year—the scene of the crime—at the Yas Marina circuit, Hamilton and Verstappen again cross paths. Verstappen battled Charles Leclerc, briefly, for title contention early in the season, and commentators noted the space and patience Verstappen afforded his rival. But at the 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Verstappen can’t help but charge into Lewis in his Mercedes, forcing them both off track. The entanglement harkened back to the hot contest of the previous year, while perhaps offering a hopeful promise of things to come in 2023.
1. How silly that a twenty-four-hour endurance race begins with a little sprint to the car.
2. The car would become the DNA source for the SL 300, voted “Best Sportscar of the Century” in 1999. In 2022, one of two 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupés sold at private auction for $142M. The other remains on display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
3. Unlike its competitors, the Mercedes also employs an air brake: a rear wing that works like a reverse drag reduction system (DRS).
4. At the height of production, “almost half of Daimler Benz’s 63,610 Daimler Benz employees were civilian forced labourers, prisoners of war or concentration camp detainees.” That’s right from the company’s webpage on “Daimler-Benz in the Nazi Era.”
5. Fangio has caught his pant leg on the gear shift, I’m not kidding.
6. On January 6—the day of the Insurrection—my small family packed up and drove south to stay with my partner’s parents in Knoxville, Tennessee. We’d done the same in March of the year previous, albeit under the sudden uncertainty and urgent duress of an epidemic that quickly transformed into the pandemic we like to pretend is already in the rearview. The plan this time was to ward off the most depressing months of Chicago winter by (once again) relocating south. Because mine is the characteristically spasmodic back of a geriatric millennial, I found myself sleeping on a super firm air mattress for the duration of our stay, whiling the waning hours of each day in that quintessentially twenty-first-century ritual: I logged into a Netflix account I do not pay for myself.
7. Of twenty-four races provisionally scheduled for 2023, seventeen take place in the global north. Of the seven races run in the global south, four will be in oil-rich theocratic monarchies in the Middle East. China, Mexico, and Brazil host the other three. Not a single one takes place in Africa.
8. More accurately, the “highest class of international racing for open-wheel single-seater formula racing cars sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).”
9. Spectacular, unavoidable crashes also constitute part of F1’s allure for a particular subset of its fandom. I don’t count myself among them and think it’s a weird choice to use crash footage to promote the Las Vegas race of 2023, for example, as I’ve seen circulating on Twitter, especially with the ever-present risk of dismemberment and death on track.
10. Yes, that Red Bull.
11. And that’s just in the U.S. F1’s audience in 2020 reached an estimated 1.55 billion. That’s nearly one in every five people on Earth.
12. Made all the more remarkable by my nearly four-decade track record as militantly apathetic with regard to professional sports. Even as a kid, I stood goalie in my six-and-under soccer league because I found the ping-ponging gaggle of bodies back-and-forth across the pitch completely pointless to keep up with. During my younger brothers’ matches, I forewent the fieldside lawn chair, preferring to kneel on the floor mats of my dad’s Dodge pickup, the next novel in The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks series propped on the seat in front of me, Capri Sun and fruit snacks nearby. Until now, the greatest extent of sport fandom in my adult life has been bingeing Michael Jordan highlight reels on YouTube, a practice fueled by nostalgia and proximity to the franchise (having grown up in Central Illinois, a corn husk’s shuck from the bright city lights of Chicago). So my almost-overnight, all-consuming, profound conversion to a fan of F1 has come as a surprise to friends and family alike.
13. Notably, the 2021 Brazilian Sprint, a kind of mini-race that takes place between qualifying and the feature race, introduced by Liberty to squeeze every drop of excitement out of race weekends.
14. I’m positive the toll of social distancing during the pandemic on the fervently observant—like myself and my tiny family—drove others too to seek something, anything, to feel connected to other people. I’d been primed by a few years of tuning in to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, split-screen desktop, laptop, and tablet all streaming different live feeds and feeding me data over the course of a solar day of on-track action. Watching the onboards as sun rises at dawn local time is an otherworldly experience at 2:00 am Central that served as my gateway to motorsport, in retrospect.
15. In more than one instance, the perpetually online fanbase of F1 has shown that radio messages and video footage have been mixed and matched to amplify rivalries or create drama that doesn’t really exist. A bit disingenuous? Sure. But anyone who thinks reality shows don’t occasionally twist facts into fiction is fooling themself.
16. Red Bull achieved its first run of unparalleled success with an earlier prodigy, German wunderkind Sebastian Vettel, who won four championships in a row between 2010 and 2013.
17. Horner, who is married to the pop musician formerly known as Geri Halliwell, has a reputation among detractors as a grade-A bellyacher, and it didn’t take long for F1 Twitter to christen him “Whinger Spice,” which is just *chef’s kiss*.
18. When Red Bull fired Juri Vips, a junior driver who used the n-word in a livestream, Marko blamed English media and not, you know, the Estonian’s casual deployment of the reprehensible slur.
19. Over the course of his son’s life, Jos Verstappen has been charged with assaulting a man at a karting track, assaulting Max’s mother, assaulting an ex-girlfriend, and attempting to murder the ex-girlfriend by running her over with his car. He also abandoned his young son at a gas station after a karting event when Max failed to perform.
20. Renault (now Alpine) hasn’t really been a serious contender since Fernando Alonso won back-to-back championships with them in 2005 and 2006, and Ricciardo fails to correct the team’s losing course, scoring only two podiums during his tenure.
21. For 2023, Gasly will join fellow Frenchman Esteban Ocon at Alpine, the rebranded Renault team, an outfit fully owned by the nationalized French carmaker. This Gallic duo will perhaps signal a resurgence for French people in the sport, a new level for their nation’s participation, and an undeniable stake qua their state’s financial investment.
22. Not all footage is available via Netflix. But for $10.00/month (plus international payment processing fee), F1TV Pro is easily the best deal for a streaming service on the planet. Consider the sheer volume of output: every race weekend consists of three practice sessions, qualifying, and the race itself. Each of these events includes two broadcast feeds—one produced by F1 itself, and the international feed, which includes commentary by Sky Sports—two data feeds (live timings and a GPS map), and onboard footage from all twenty drivers. This means that every hour-long session generates twenty-four hours of coverage, with the total viewable content adding up to nearly a week’s worth of content over the course of a single race weekend. (This doesn’t account for pre- and post-shows produced by F1, nor does it figure in rain delays or red flags for safety to repair a barrier, but you get the idea.)
23. Tied now with Lewis Hamilton.
24. Records since broken by Hamilton.
25. That year the rookie Lewis Hamilton raced his McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso to a perfect draw, resulting in Räikkönen’s winning the championship by that solitary, fortunate point.
26. To be replaced at Mercedes by Hamilton.
27. Verstappen brake-checked his rival, causing a minor collision, only to lose the lead anyway and finish in second place, a result he protested by storming off the podium before the champagne* shower and customary photographs.
*Sugar water in Saudi Arabia.
28. Onboard footage from F1 cars is unlike any other angle in professional athletics. Basketball players don’t have cameras in their sweatbands, nor baseballers in their bats. But you can watch every spin of the wheel, every turn of the dial, every button and adjustment an F1 driver makes. More or less.
29. Currently held by Michael Schumacher.
30. People overlook Pascal Wehrlein (2016–17), whose Mauritian heritage carries at least as many colonial complications as Anthony Hamilton’s Grenadian birthplace.
31. Hamilton also donated £20M to social justice initiatives in 2022, making him the fifth most charitable person in Britain, according to The Sunday Times.
32. This disadvantaged other drivers, as well. Lapped cars are obliged to yield space for an overtaking frontrunner, sure. But they’re racing each other, after all. The three disallowed from unlapping—Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll, and none other than future Mercedes reserve driver Mick Schumacher—saw their races compromised.
33. Verstappen’s car placement, nosing ahead of Hamilton before the restart, was banned for 2022. It wasn’t the first time a rule’s been instated in response to Verstappen. Rules against hurtling the car into a corner in yield-or-crash attempts to overtake were also enacted for 2022, in response to Verstappen’s bulldozer style. After he entered the sport at a bushy-tailed seventeen, the FIA raised the minimum age to eighteen. They also banned moving under braking in response to Verstappen’s signature aggression. It’s notable that the driver who dethroned Hamilton (who had to live by the rules, lest detractors gain traction against him) has had to push and break so many rules along the way.
34. It’s not just an issue of racism; it’s a question of legacy. Masi fucked all those stats in the earlier graph, but I suspect #TeamLH cares more about that than even our namesake himself.
35. It’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, this new fandom. I stayed up late nights watching the entirety of the 2007 season, Hamilton’s rookie year, telling myself it was to prepare for this writing. Was it research? distraction? an excuse to escape the demands of the everyday? all of the above? none?
36. A record previously held by Red Bull’s last great hope, Sebastian Vettel.
37. Extreme wet weather events have already caused the longest race (by time: 2011 Canadian GP) and shortest race (by distance: 2021 Belgian GP) in F1’s history. Expect disruptions to continue as F1 pushes toward a budget-breaking, carbon-intensive, twenty-four-race calendar.
38. In reality, the memory’s inverted: ten-year-old me thought my family was boarding a train to tour the park (the long line and wait time should’ve been clues enough). Turned out to be the Mine Train, and it took until high school, right around the time Fast and the Furious was released, for me to overcome my fear of rollercoasters.
*An essay-review of Formula 1: Drive to Survive. Created by Formula One and Netflix. March 2019–, on Netflix.