The Austrian Grand Prix Did Not Take Place
At the bottom is us. We tune in, log on, turn up, shout out. More often than not, we log on and turn up and shout out at each other; it’s what we do now, how we come to make our voices known. Sometimes it’s fun, some (very rare) times it’s educational, but mostly it’s just a pressure release valve we unwind to make sense of our senses, to craft the inevitable human flaw of narrative for ourselves, to try and understand why we feel the way we do. It’s hard work, living. But you, me, we all go on doing it anyway, tuning in because sports are a relief from the rest of our embattered lives and because logging on, turning up, shouting out at what we can’t control is, in its own way, a liberation we’re only inching toward. For now.
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Then there’s the media class — or that’s what “then” would normally be, except did you know MotoGP has been restricting journalists and banning them from the paddock, from circuits during the course of this pandemic? It’s true: Paddock beat veterans like Mat Oxley and David Emmett and Tammy Gorali and Simon Patterson, many living off the fruits of their labor as freelancers, are forced to ask riders and team managers their questions via glitchy Zoom meetings while anyone with two eyes that halfway worked could see the grids at Jerez, at Brno, at the Michelin Red Bull Ring (or Red Bull Ring, or Spielberg, or A1-Ring, or Zeltweg, or Österreichring, or whatever the fuck they’re calling it now) were full of inessential workers, VIPs and other assorted human stains in bad fashion glaring in the sun like crass excess. None of the journalists I follow are happy about watching promoters of the Misano circuit announce that they’ll be allowing for 10,000 spectators a day to come through the gates when the remnants of this circus turn up in mid-September. Hell, even Matthew Birt and Steve Day, guys authorized to be there by official decree, are still separated by a glass panel and lead a lonely life these days (credit Oxley for the idea to interview them). But them’s the rules and this is how it has to be and so they go on trying to get quality answers to lingering questions and find some semblance of truth to what happens on track for the rest of us locked away back in our homes.
The thing that sticks out to me most from the Austrian Grand Prix was Keith Huewen’s real-time commentary in the immediate aftermath of Hafizh Syahrin’s violent Moto2 crash. Keith was pontificating before the official announcement from trackside that Syahrin was alive and conscious, suggesting (correctly) that there would be no replay of the accident unless we knew Hafizh was gonna make it. Once the replays started coming during the red flag period, there was an almost audible sigh of relief from Huewen (who I have to say has meshed really well with Michael Laverty for Moto2 broadcasts and with Neil Hodgson for MotoGP; BTSport have figured this out). In this way, TV — perhaps media’s most baldly opportunistic form — was responsible. That’s not usually the case.
I read this quotation from Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place the other day and can’t seem to get it out of my head, so I’m putting it here in full:
“By the force of the media, this war liberates an exponential mass of stupidity, not the particular stupidity of war, which is considerable, but the professional and functional stupidity of those who pontificate in perpetual commentary on the event: all the Bouvards and Pecuchets for hire, the would-be raiders of the lost image, the CNN types and all the master singers of strategy and information who make us experience the emptiness of television as never before. This war, it must be said, constitutes a merciless test. Fortunately, no one will hold this expert or general or that intellectual for hire to account for the idiocies or absurdities proffered the day before, since these will be erased by those of the following day. In this manner, everyone is amnestied by the ultra-rapid succession of phony events and phony discourses. The laundering of stupidity by the escalation of stupidity which reconstitutes a sort of total innocence, namely the innocence of washed and bleached brains, stupefied not by the violence but by the sinister insignificance of the images.”
I don’t count people like Emmett or Oxley among this bunch, as they all seem to be acting as ethically as they can. But I am, of course, ignoring a class of “journalism” privilege here. I am also ignoring a large Italian and Spanish pundit class that thrives on yellow journalism.
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Then there are the riders, the people we pay to make the magic. There was plenty of that to go around the Styrian hills on Sunday, that’s for sure. The obvious poetic justice came by way of Andrea Dovizioso’s Saturday announcement that he was not going to wait for Ducati to decide on his worth, followed by an impeccably judged win on Sunday over Joan Mir, who wrung the neck of the Suzuki’s inline-four to sneak past Jack Miller for second and his debut podium (Miller is taking over Dovi’s role as Ducati’s #1 for 2021, by the way). There was Brad Binder’s remarkable ride to fourth. There was Fabio Quartararo’s face-saving eighth from the very back of the grid. After three straight DNFs, even Iker Lecuona was able to bring it home in one piece.
But what most people were talking about, even the riders themselves, was the collision between Johann Zarco and Franco Morbidelli. Long story short, Zarco got a better run out of the first corner and used Ducati power to pull alongside Morbidelli’s Yamaha. The straight up to the hard 60-degree Remus righthander isn’t actually straight; a kink on the approach means that if you just keep the bike tilted slightly to the left, you’ll still wind up on the right side of the track. So when Zarco and Morbidelli approached Remus at something like 190 mph, Zarco thought he had the line and let his bike move over a little more than usual — trouble was, Morbidelli was still there. Contact occurred and, well, you can watch it for yourself and decide.
In the aftermath, riders were vocal. Already unusually edgy this year thanks to a condensed season (Binder and Miguel Oliveira in Jerez, Zarco and Pol Espargaro in Brno, Danilo Petrucci and Aleix Espargaro on Saturday and Pol and Oliveira on Sunday in Austria), Morbidelli was quick to call Zarco an assassin, Pol thought his refusal to make amends with Johann before Austria was justified, and even Valentino Rossi — who never looked more his 41 years than when he returned to the paddock after seeing Morbidelli’s bike flash before his eyes — gave the Frenchman a talking to for what, to my eyes, looked like another racing incident that for the second time in two weeks Zarco just happened to be involved in.
The riders are eating each other alive. It makes for clicks and a good spectacle, if that’s how you like to view the world. Judging by the numbers the crash’s video have done and how it even briefly managed to trend on social media, there are plenty of us who do.
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What the more responsible journalists immediately highlighted was that this goes beyond Zarcolepsy or Morbidelli’s desperation to regain the place amid Yamaha’s lack of top-end speed or Freddie Spencer’s largely mismanaged Race Directorship (featuring Bill Cumbow and Ralph Bohnhorst, while we’re naming mames) that summoned Petrucci and Aleix Espargaro and Oliveira and Pol Espargaro and Zarco and Morbidelli to the floor the Thursday before the second Austrian race this Sunday to explain themselves and resolve the dispute, as though a meeting could do such a thing. It’s not really the riders we should be talking about.
Here’s video comparing the 2002 Formula 1 Austrian GP alongside the Zarco/Morbidelli crash. MotoGP hadn’t raced in Austria in a couple of years at that point, but it’s interesting to note what changed in the intervening years — that is to say, nothing. Nothing changed. Despite all the advancements in bike technology and how much faster these 1000cc bikes are than that comparatively primitive first generation of 990s, no one thought to check the track for modifications. And it’s not like there aren’t people out there who’ve been thinking through solutions.
So, who’s to blame for that? Who wasn’t willing to lay down a little extra dosh to ensure the track was as safe it could be before the outcry? And if there’s only so safe you can make a track like the Michelin Red Bull Ring, then why is MotoGP even going there in the first place?
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Here’s a story I read awhile back. Maybe it’s relevant, maybe it isn’t. Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull cofounder and CEO, Austria’s richest person and the 141st richest human on earth, potential Identitarian, was a supporter of motorsports early on. I can remember that long before it was a trashy Euro college staple paired with vodka and long before I forever associated taurine with bull testicles, I first learned about the energy drink ahead of the 1995 F1 season when Red Bull, then only eight years old as a company, was Sauber’s primary sponsor.
So they supported Sauber, a midfield effort, throughout the late ‘90s and eventually set up a junior team for F3000. Enrique Bernoldi was the favored son there, racing for Red Bull Junior Team in 1999 and 2000. Ahead of the 2001 season, Red Bull was adamant that Sauber promote Bernoldi to F1 — but team principal Peter Sauber, a guy who’d helped launch the careers of Karl Wendlinger, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Michael Schumacher, insisted on signing Kimi Raikkonen, a young Finn who’d competed in only 23 international races and didn’t even have the required FIA Super Licence needed to drive in F1. Raikkonen got the nod against improbable odds and went on to score points in four races his first year. He was at McLaren-Mercedes in 2002 and won it all with Ferrari in 2007. In 2020, he has returned for a second season with Alfa Romeo. Who knows when he’ll quit for good.
Bernoldi landed at Arrows for 2001, where he scored no points in 29 races over two seasons. Red Bull withdrew its sponsorship for Sauber at the end of 2001. It’d be eight years before Sebastian Vettel delivered Red Bull a championship, this time under its own team direction.
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Everywhere is the same: Gather at the monument, at the corner, at the park, and march until we hit a wall. Push and pull, a literal tug o’ war in the streets and down the alleys between those who’ve chosen an ostensibly noble pursuit — defending the laws which we the people supposedly have made for ourselves in order to function as a society — and those now pushing back on its limitations, on its intrinsic flaws, its failures of good faith. To say it’s been interesting watching the politics of this summer unfold amid a quarantine cloud and socially distanced disobedience treats the actions of thousands of people, instigator and victim, protester and police, mayor and hood merchant alike, as if they were a culture growing in a Petri dish you observe with a microscope, which is too glib for the sense of change a lot of people feel is afoot. Pick a city — Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Kalamazoo, it doesn’t matter — and the air is fraught with tension, the sense of a reckoning long overdue. Scared cops teargas angry youths. Rubber bullets comingle with real ones. Walls of riot shields guard a Nordstrom’s entrance. Blue lights block off roads, reroute traffic to protect a mayor’s residence. The usual cicada screams compete with helicopters hovering overhead. My block, my hood, my city is right. Yours, too, maybe.
But it’s not really about the protesters, about the police, about looting and riots. It’s not really about riders sniping at each other across Twitter and in the closed forum of a Zoom media debrief. It’s about systems and hegemonies. It’s about the top. It’s about power, and power is about relationships, and relationships compose power. But it’s so easy to take your eye off that ball when there are so many forces nudging you another way, isn’t it?
We can’t turn away from violence, so we eat up, too. We are eating each other alive. But if this summer is an indicator, we’re going to run out of each other to eat eventually. We’re conditioned to consume, and boy, how we are hungry.