Archive: Formula 1

Bobby Fischer Against the World cover

This year everyone has been talking about the Senna documentary, including me. But while praise for Senna has come from F1 fans and non-fans alike, I have been more impressed by another sport documentary from this year — Bobby Fischer Against the World.

Chess may seem like an unlikely game to take to the big screen. But chess comes alive in this riveting documentary about one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.

The term ‘flawed genius’ may be an overused cliche, but if it applies to anyone surely it is Bobby Fischer. The film tells the story of how a variety of factors contributed to a great man’s decline.

The centrepiece of the film is the famous 1972 World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. The individual American took on the might of the Soviet chess system, which had dominated world chess for a quarter of century. This Cold War face-off had as much political significance as chess significance, as is cleverly illustrated through the use of archive news footage.

But the chess itself is never forgotten. The significant moments of the match are explained in a very vivid and accessible manner. I would guess that little or no chess knowledge is required in order to enjoy this film. The world’s most popular board game doesn’t have a sexy image, but after watching this film you wonder why.

But what stays with you is the tale of Fischer’s decline. This is where this film excels over Senna. It is a painfully honest assessment of the downsides of Bobby Fischer’s character. In the Senna hagiography, the driver’s flaws are only ever briefly brought up, and even then it is only to sweep them straight under the carpet.

In contrast, Bobby Fischer Against the World in unafraid to shine the torchlight on the enigma of the world’s greatest chess player who managed to alienate everyone he knew. At times it is painful and embarrassing to watch as a successful man becomes a delusional, anti-American, antisemitic and all-round offensive man.

In doing so, the film paints a genuinely complete picture of one of the 20th century’s most significant figures in sport. Senna, in contrast, only skims the surface.

This week, I have decided to make another attempt at reading more books. I read stuff all the time, but almost all of it is on the web. A few hundred words at a time. Lots of breadth but not much depth.

I have never done much in the way of reading books. Fiction is not for me, so novels are more-or-less out of the question. However, I do enjoy reading non-fiction books. But I somehow never get the time to read them.

Time is the scarcest resource imaginable, and I have a tendency to build these backlogs. Not too long ago I wrote about the huge number of podcasts that are stuck in my backlog (I am just about getting that under control). I also have a small pile of CDs that I bought several months ago and still haven’t listened to, and a slightly smaller pile of DVDs from before Christmas that I still haven’t watched.

The unread books shelf But books are the big daddy of my backlog. I have special shelf just for unread books! Currently, 15 books sit there. Some of them I must have got almost a decade ago.

I think they are perhaps the wrong books. How tempted am I to ever reopen the ten-year-old book about US radio stations that I started but didn’t finish? How about the two political books that I started but never finished? Or the two books about economics that I started but got bored of?

In the summer of 2006, between my second and third years at university, I went on a big drive to read economics books. I had begun to realise that I was struggling at economics, and decided to spend the summer reading less academic, more accessible economics book in an attempt to soak up some of the subject and hopefully become a better economist in third year.

I happened to read a blog post by Greg Mankiw called Summer reading list, which seemed to fit the bill perfectly. After a bit of research, I selected five books from the list and ordered them. Sadly, it took me a year to read one of them. I finished another of them last year. I started one of them this year but gave up, and two others sit on the shelf virtually unopened. (I finished Freakonomics very quickly, but I think I bought that afterwards.)

My lack of talent in economics became clearer in third year, when I performed abysmally. My motivation plummeted. I later bought the Penguin History of Economics, which was on the reading list for the History of Economic Thought course that I took. This, also, has been started but not finished.

For a while, my main plan was to get through these economics books, and the other books in my backlog, before buying any others. But having not done any reading for several months, I had to recognise that this wasn’t a good plan.

Before I completed my degree, I had already more-or-less made the decision not to pursue economics further. I was lucky enough to somehow get a 2:1, but mostly due to the politics courses and my dissertation. It was clear to me that I just wasn’t cut out for economics, even though I planned to maintain an interest in it.

But there was no point in pretending I was going to start reading these books. So I have decided to buy more books on different subjects and start reading them. Last week I acquired seven new books — six that I had bought, and one surprise gift. It’s a mixture of stuff — some about writing and editing, a humour book, some motorsport books that I will probably blast through, and… an economics book.

Well, I figured that since I liked Freakonomics so much, I would probably actually read Superfreakonomics. Wish me luck. I will keep my LibraryThing thing updated.

The observant among you may have spotted that it is a month since I wrote a post for this blog. It is interesting that I have not even found the motivation to write about the General Election. This is not a conscious decision — I genuinely have not been moved enough to put finger to keyboard.

This is due to a combination of factors. Partly, I became disillusioned with politics a couple of years ago and have not felt the need to write about it for a long time now. But it goes beyond politics writing.

Just now I don’t have as much spare time as I would like. Depending on whether I can borrow my dad’s car or I have to take the bus, I am currently spending between two hours and three-and-a-half hours a day commuting.

The spare time I have left is spent on other activities. Partly, that is finding somewhere closer to my work to move, so that I can build some more spare time into my life. Finding somewhere to live in north east Fife is not as easy as I would like, but I think I am getting closer.

I also lost a lot of my motivation for blogging, and have turned my attention to more relaxing pursuits. After around a ten-year hiatus, I have rediscovered gaming after my truly awesome brother got me an Xbox 360 for Christmas! I may blog more about that in future, but for anyone interested my gamertag is ‘doctorvee‘!

Anyway, the point is that blogging seems like so much hard work in comparison to unwinding pretending you’re Travis Pastrana. Those who follow me on Twitter may know that recently I had a minor bout of blog depression, when I wondered what on earth I should to about that blog I don’t bother to maintain any more. It had become less fun and too hard-going.

The problem was that I had begun to feel like everything I was writing was inflicting readers with something they didn’t necessarily want to read. This was exacerbated when I merged vee8 (my old Formula 1 blog) with doctorvee. I originally separated out the content because I realised that my F1 posts had such a different audience to the rest of my posts.

This was echoed in the responses on Twitter. Some people said that I should continue, although they personally skipped over the F1 posts. Others said that I should continue, although they only ever read the F1 posts.

I found it easy to get wound up about that sort of thing, but at the end of the day no one minds and certainly no-one dies. Part of the reason for merging the blogs again was to help me become more at-ease with that. But I got neurotic about overwhelming the blog with F1 commentary.

The problem was that I had turned this blog into something where I felt as though everything I published had to be a beautifully-written, 1,000+ word long potential Pulitzer prize winner. Quality control is good, but I had gone too far the other way.

My best blogging years were between 2004 and 2006, when I was more prolific, more spontaneous, and more hit-and-miss. The quality was lower, but the readership was higher, and I had much more fun that way.

So this is just a heads-up to say that I will be making an effort to nudge this blog back in that direction again. I have made a few subtle design changes to make me feel more comfortable about that (the main one being to reduce the font size of the post titles to make them less preposterous if I am writing about something frivolous or personal). There may be a few more to come as well — I will probably experiment.

The upshot of it is that there will probably be a change in tone around here. There will probably be more posts, and I will try to become a bit less squeamish about writing about myself again.

But as you can see from this post, I still can’t resist allowing the word count to go sky high!

Thanks to everyone on Twitter and Facebook who offered their support and advice about where I should take this blog.

This the accompanying article to my contribution to this week’s edition of The Pod Delusion. Here you can find videos and links if you want to delve further into the topic.

As you may guess from the title, this article is about motorsport. I do not normally write about motorsport on this website. That is reserved for my motorsport website, vee8. However, I have published it here as it is designed to be of interest to people who do not like motorsport.

You can listen to the full podcast below.


My name is Duncan, and I am a motorsport fan. Is it a bad thing? Am I evil? Do I need to join Petrolheads Anonymous?

This year’s Formula 1 World Championship is coming to an end. The Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships have been wrapped up by Jenson Button and Brawn-Mercedes respectively, and now we have one last race to enjoy before the sport takes a break for the winter.

This has not been an easy year to be an F1 fan. In terms of newsworthy stories, it’s the sport that keeps on giving. But even by F1’s standards, it has been an extraordinary year for scandals.

Bear in mind that in previous years Formula 1 has brought extraordinary enough stories. There was, for instance, the so-called “spying” scandal which led to the sport’s governing body, the FIA, handing the McLaren team a fine of ONE HUNDRED MEELION DOLLARS. Then there was the “German prisoner” sex scandal involving the FIA’s President Max Mosley.

This year cranked up the scandal ever-further. Even in the first race, a major scandal blew up when Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren team were caught lying to the race stewards.

It also emerged this year that the Renault team had colluded with its driver Nelsinho Piquet to deliberately crash his car to hand an advantage to his team mate Fernando Alonso in last year’s Singapore Grand Prix. This endangered the life of Piquet and of other drivers and spectators.

In the past year, two major manufacturers — Honda and BMW — have pulled out of the sport, with persistent rumours surrounding the commitment of the other manufacturers. Moreover, almost all of the teams threatened to break away from F1 to set up a rival championship, in protest at the way the sport is governed by Max Mosley and the FIA.

The governance of the sport may change this week, as Max Mosley is stepping down as FIA President. The election to replace him is taking place today, on Friday. This actually may have more widespread implications than many realise.

Even though during last year’s sex scandal Max Mosley was persistently described by the media as “F1 boss”, the job of FIA President goes much further than that. The FIA has significant sway over road safety issues and effectively represents car users on the world stage. If you are a member of the AA, the RAC or even the Camping and Caravanning Club, you are represented by the FIA.

Clearly, this year there has been a lot going on in the world of motorsport. While cynics point out that, for the sport’s commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone, any publicity is good publicity, this all served to further discredit a sport which isn’t exactly the most popular among some. Formula 1 is seen by many as a sport which is dangerous, environmentally unfriendly, the personification of greed — and perhaps even sexist.

No doubt there is an element of truth to some of these accusations. So, how does this sit with me? I am a massive fan of motorsport, but I have liberal political views and a concern for the environment. Do I lack principles? Is F1 a guilty pleasure for me?

I actually see no reason why it should be. Some motorsport fans are unapologetic about their passion, and they see no reason to dress it up as anything but an extravagant bit of fun. But I see motorsport as a positive force that has a lot to contribute to the world.

Yes, Formula 1 is dangerous. This year, one driver, Felipe Massa, had an horrific accident when he was struck on the head while travelling at 170mph by a spring as heavy as a bag of sugar which had fallen off another car and was bouncing around on the circuit. He was lucky to have suffered no long term damage. The spring destroyed his helmet, but if it had hit him at another point he could have lost his sight or even died.

Sadly, one Formula Two driver was not so lucky. Henry Surtees was killed when he was struck on the head by a tyre which was bouncing around on the circuit after it had detached from another car in another accident.

While a ticket to a grand prix states in large letters, “motor sport is dangerous”, such accidents are mercifully rare in top-line motorsport these days. Major injuries are rare, and the last fatality in Formula 1 was in 1994. Believe it or not, more than 2½ times as many people have died while competing in the Great North Run than have died in F1 since 1981, when the Great North Run began.

But this year’s events in motorsport show that complacency should never set in, which is why improvements in safety are always being pushed forward. Perhaps the real scandal though is that, despite the increasingly safe environment that professional racing drivers face, 1.3 million people still die on the world’s roads every year.

F1 technology can play a major role in reducing the number of accidents on public roads, and already has done. In 2007, one F1 driver, Robert Kubica, survived a 75g impact with nothing more than light concussion. The materials that make an F1 car so safe are exotic and expensive, meaning that the opportunities to help make road cars safer using F1 research are a bit limited.

But electronics such as ABS and traction control are commonplace on today’s road cars. Such technologies unquestionably save lives all the time, and their development was helped by early applications in racing cars.

The money that flows through F1, and the high-stakes nature of the competition, make it a great test bed for important technologies that improve our daily lives. F1 is an R&D powerhouse.

There is currently an exhibition in the Science Museum in London called Fast Forward, which showcases twenty instances of F1 technology improving the lives of others.

Included on display are high-tech tyre pressure indicators which alert drivers to a developing puncture before it becomes dangerous. Then there are F1 materials being used to help protect troops in Afghanistan from bullets and explosions. Slip-resistant boots based on F1 tyre technology for people who work in slippery environments, thereby reducing injuries in the workplace, are also on display.

A bit more down to earth is the gadget that can stop your central heating system from becoming clogged up with rust and sludge, thereby reducing energy consumption in the home. Hospitals have even analysed mechanics’ behaviour and procedures during pitstops in order to improve the speed and accuracy of medical teams.

But how about the environmental impact of this gas-guzzling sport? I must say that my view is that rather too much is made of this. That is not to say that Formula 1 does not a significant environmental impact — it does. But emissions from the F1 cars themselves are actually a drop in the ocean. The racing itself does little environmental damage.

What is really damaging is all the travelling that teams, the media and fans must do in order to attend the races. The good news on this front is that F1 is carbon neutral, and has been since 1997. The FIA Foundation, the charity arm of the FIA, has taken into account not only emissions from the F1 cars and the travel of the teams, but also the transport of the fans that attend the races.

But any activity that involves being somewhere requires travel. F1 is a global sport, so there is a lot of global travel involved. But otherwise the sport actually seems rather restrained. In just 17-or-so races, a World Champion driver emerges.

Compare this to another competition, say the English Premier League in football. To come up with a mere national league-winning club, 380 football matches must be played, with all the travel this entails too. In comparison, F1 looks positively restrained.

Maybe that is an apples-and-oranges comparsion. It is just as well, then, that F1 technology also looks set to pave the way towards a green future. Formula 1 has the potential to help greatly reduce energy consumption. Refuelling during races will be banned from next year, shifting the balance more towards fuel consumption rather than raw power.

Another major initiative is the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or kers, which the FIA finally legalised for this season. Kers is a system which harvests the kinetic energy that is dissipated under braking and would otherwise be wasted, and re-deploys that energy into the powertrain.

This technology has had a rather troubled birth in F1. The systems have been too expensive for teams to develop in the current economic climate, and it looks as though kers may take a back seat for a few years. There is also scepticism over whether kers as it is applied in F1 is actually relevant to road cars.

But one team, Williams, is adamant that its flywheel system will find a large variety of applications in the real world. The team says that its energy recovery system could improve road cars, vehicles used in mining, rail systems and “anything that moves”.

(For more on this, I highly recommend the recording of a Q&A with the Technical Director of Williams, Sam Michael. I was lucky enough to be invited along to the Williams F1 factory earlier this year along with a number of other web journalists and bloggers. The excellent Brits on Pole website has fantastic coverage of the visit.)

Plans continue to gather pace on this front. On Wednesday, the FIA outlined its plans for a green future of F1 (PDF). This includes a plan to make motorsport a competition based more on efficiency than raw power, and a stronger focus on energy recovery technologies.

The FIA also plans to introduce its own carbon neutral scheme, including offsetting its regulatory presence. It may also make carbon offsetting a condition of involvement in a championship.

So there you have it. Motorsport is a force for good in the world. Not bad for something that is hugely enjoyable. My halo is in tact.

You may know that I run a Formula 1 blog called vee8. It’s just one of a number of websites I am now running. It’s a lot to have on my plate and recently I have been looking at ways to save time.

Last week I asked my readers if they thought I should continue with the daily roundup of F1 links. I was bowled over by the overwhelmingly positive response. But I was still unsure about constantly using the same few sources all the time.

Websites dedicated to Formula 1 tend to be very good for day-to-day gossip and news. They have a very good feel for what is going on generally in the F1 world. But occasionally a major media company, which doesn’t necessarily churn out a great deal of F1 content, will get a big scoop. In fact, I can’t think of a quality or mid-market newspaper which doesn’t, from time to time, have interesting stories that the dedicated F1 sites have missed.

In an attempt to try and catch these stories before reading them elsewhere, but without getting overwhelmed with boring, samey or irrelevant stories, I decided to try and construct a Yahoo! Pipe. My idea was to pull in the F1 feeds from a wide variety of media websites, but filtering out stories containing words like ‘Hamilton’ or ‘Button’ so that I didn’t get overloaded with nationalistic puff-pieces.

Unfortunately, this is proving difficult. Most media websites are simply unwilling to supply me with the content I want. Honourable exceptions are guardian.co.uk (which even has a feed dedicated to Lewis Hamilton, for all your stalker needs), the Telegraph and (amazingly) the Daily Express. Other websites’ approaches towards RSS are disappointing.

Times Online doesn’t appear to have a dedicated Formula 1 or motorsport feed. It has a Sport feed. Confusingly, rugby and tennis get their own feeds. But no other sport does — not even football. The rationale behind this isn’t very clear, and having seen that two sports do have their own feeds, I feel like going on the hunt for the others. But they aren’t there. Strangely, the rugby and tennis feeds are displayed completely separately, not as a sub-category of sport.

FT.com doesn’t have any sport feeds at all. I suppose that is understandable in a sense, as the FT is due to cut back its already rather scant sports coverage. But it does mean that I will miss out on the F1 stories it does have from time to time.

The Daily Mail website lumps Formula 1 content in the ‘other sports’ section. This has its own RSS feed, but unfortunately it is shared with tennis, horse racing and, er, yet more ‘other sports’. I somehow doubt that fans of any of these sports will find this RSS feed particularly useful, unless by some fluke they are a fan of all of them.

Daily Mail RSS feeds The paper is, however, happy to cater for the niche needs of football fans. 28 separate football clubs have their own RSS feed. More creepily, the Daily Mail offers dedicated RSS feeds containing the latest news on a number of different celebrities, for the stalker in you. Quite good for stained raincoats, but not so good for anoraks like me.

These websites are surely missing a trick. It shouldn’t be a problem to provide RSS feeds for any topic, no matter how niche. WordPress certainly offers this functionality, and every category and tag has its own RSS feed. But some websites’ approaches to RSS feeds seem arbitrary at best. It seems particularly inexcusable in this increasingly long tail-aware age.

Presumably newspapers want people to read their content. But some of their websites are sticking to the old model of content delivery — chucking it all in one place and making its readers browse through everything until they come across an article they’re interested in. That was all very well when the most efficient way of disseminating news was to print it on a dead tree. But that was last the case at least ten years ago.

Now we have more efficient and cost-effective ways to get to the information we want, but newspapers seem dead set on not offering them to us. Bandwidth isn’t an excuse. guardian.co.uk not only offers RSS feeds for a huge variety of topics, it offers full RSS feeds for them. Plus, with a nifty bit of URL hacking, you can access highly specialist RSS feeds that aren’t even advertised at all.

So why are some websites still asking me to subscribe to an “other sports” feed filled with a baffling mish-mash of unrelated stories? What makes the editors of these websites think that I am going to hunt down their F1 content by spending my time trawling through their badly designed website all the time, or read through a thousand RSS items that don’t interest me?

The thing is, someone looking for niche content is probably more likely to subscribe to an RSS feed. This is specifically because they don’t want to go through the entire site’s content. Yet these websites only supply RSS feeds containing a large range of the content. For the content consumer, this doesn’t save much more time than visiting the website.

If these websites offered an RSS feed for F1, they would be guaranteed at least one reader — and then more when I link to interesting articles from vee8. As it stands, I am tearing my hair out and finding it easier not to think about these websites at all.

This is something that I mention over and over again, but it is a fact that one of the most common things people say about my blog is along the lines of, “Of course, I skip past all of the F1 posts.”

Those people would be doing a lot of skipping this weekend. The F1 season reaches its climax tomorrow, and the repercussions are sure to continue into the weeks ahead.

Just in time for the end of the season though (!) I have finally set up an RSS feed that contains none of the F1 posts! I created it using Yahoo! Pipes. Unfortunately, I can’t work out a way to make it a full feed. No matter what I try, it always comes out as a partial feed. This goes against my principle of being in favour of full feeds, but it’s better than nothing.

So if you like this blog but can’t stand F1, grab the doctorvee F1-free feed here.

I’ve been pondering this issue for at least a year now. There is still a bit of me that is tempted to completely remove the F1 content and create a separate F1 blog. I’m not too keen on the idea on the one hand. The F1 posts have become part of the character of the blog, and most importantly it would be a bit odd for my personal blog not to contain anything about one of my main interests.

I’m not sure a separate blog would be able to punch its weight either. It would be a bit difficult to justify setting up a separate blog if I am only going to post intermittently to it (my plan would be to post little, if any, more than what I already do).

Also, maintaining yet another blog would be rather time consuming. Imagine that — whenever a new version of WordPress came out, I would have to upgrade it for three blogs! Just the one is hassle enough.

However, come the start of next season I should hopefully have a bit more time on my hands. And I am still too proud of the ‘vee8′ name to let it go unused!