Formula 1 Kills Me

Driving to survive and the art of despairing of your own ability.

Ken Sundet Jones / 4.5.22

Before my junior year of college, I spent five summer weeks with my grandparents and my Onkel and Tante in the Black Forest of Germany. It was my first time abroad with non-English-speaking family, having to communicate solely auf Deutsch. A day after arriving, my cousins Frank and Roland packed me into their sub-compact to take in the German Grand Prix. It was a weekend of sleeping in the backseat at a rest area, staving off stultifying boredom by reading a Robert Ludlum thriller in the stands, feeling the engines’ roar in my chest, and understanding not a single thing about Formula 1 racing. Vroom-vroom, huh?

Thanks to Netflix and a theological education, I now know everything needed about Formula 1 cars, teams, and drivers: on the surface, the action on and off the track is about engine rpm’s, aerodynamics, drivers’ hand-eye coordination, and weather conditions. But what it’s really about is life under the law. “Formula 1 is a hostile environment that will judge you every day, and that gives it a huge intensity and pressure.” Toto Wolff, principal of the Mercedes auto racing team speaks the truth. I spent spring break bingeing Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive and was reintroduced to my German cousins’ grand passion.

God gives us the law as a gift that becomes more like a poison pill. The law shows God’s deep care for us human creatures and the rest of the vast cosmos by bringing safety, security, peace, and good order. From the Newtonian physics of calculating the acceleration of a rocket to my quick calculation that determines how hard I need to hit my brake pedal at a four-way stop, the law is at work in our every action. It’s all well and good until we listen to the law’s promise to deliver us if only we enthrone it as the epicenter of our lives.

Formula 1 racing contends with the law as a tool for accomplishment. If you’re a fan of speed, power, and virile drivers, F1 (the sport, not the key on your laptop’s uppermost row) fulfills the promise of the law. The achievements are great. The teams at Mercedes and Ferrari (and even lowly Williams and Haas) build brilliant machines with incredible precision and microscopic tolerances. Team management pulls together the best possible group that sponsorship money can afford and expects a significant return on investment. The engineers are guided by the physics that holds the structure of the cosmos together (the natural science side of God’s law). The drivers, too, face the facts of physics: course conditions, debris on the track, and their own physiology.

When it all comes together, it’s a glorious spectacle: watching the twenty cars line up behind the pole and hearing the drivers rev their engines in anticipation of the lights signaling the start. Feeling the combination of the deep bass rumble and hearing the screaming whine as the racers streak past your spot in the stands. Gasping at near collisions that drivers’ skills and experience take them through with split-second timing. Cheering your favorite team and driver as the win a place on the podium.

But Formula 1 is not all spraying champagne on the podium, bearing the moniker of winner, and sponsors lining up to throw millions of dollars your way. That’s reserved for the small minority. For most, though, Formula 1 means watching competitors bask in other’s glory, being regarded as a loser, and having to scratch out a competitive vehicle using the racing equivalent of an abacus and duct tape. It’s work at best, and more often something that kills you. Literally.

One of the all-time great drivers, Jackie Stewart, said,

Death was something we all learned to live with. We learned things you couldn’t possibly have known before, like where the best international undertaker was in any country we raced in. A lot of airlines wouldn’t carry coffins on commercial flights. You ask me what it did to me as a man? It did … nothing. Other than to give me the necessary chemistry to dilute the grief and continue to race, I suppose. To be the total person at that time was a very big challenge.

In other words, Formula 1 demands total allegiance and constantly grinds down your humanity. In his 1518 “Heidelberg Disputation,” Martin Luther argued that “The law says “Do this’ and it is never done.” It’s a variation on Paul’s argument in Galatians that allegiance to works of the law cannot possible bring justification, because you can’t ever do enough or be perfect enough. Our sacrifices will always more closely resemble Cain’s than Abel’s. We can’t get it done.

That’s the big revelation in Formula 1: Drive to Survive. No matter how precisely-honed your engine is, it will fail. No matter how capable a team you assemble, the weak link will always become apparent. No matter how well-practiced your hand/eye coordination, no matter how many times you’ve stood on the podium, no matter your place on the Mercedes or Ferrari team, it will end. Someday, assuredly. Somehow, quite possibly in the death Jackie Stewart claimed he’d learned to live with.

Formula 1 drivers bask in many accolades and, we can surmise, have plenty of opportunity for nocturnal post-race activities. If they scramble hard enough and convince the powers-that-be that they’re worth the layout of cash, they may gain a high pole position, perhaps win a few races, or even be named a world champion driver. But it’s always a losing bet. Like in Las Vegas, the house always wins.

Lewis Hamilton is the 37-year-old driver for Mercedes who rank as the all-time greatest. He’s tied with Michael Schumacher for most world championship titles and hold the records for most pole positions, most podium appearances, and most wins of Formula 1 races. Yet beneath the glory is a long, hard slog. Competitors are constantly and literally in his rear-view mirror. His fellow Mercedes driver, George Russell, wants to beat him. And, if he doesn’t just fade away into retirement like “Schumi” did, there’s the ever-present possibility that he’ll finish racing like another all-time great Ayrton Senna did with a fatal crash into the track wall.

If Formula 1 teaches anything, it’s the art of despairing of your own ability to cobble together the life you so desire. And on that count, I can compete with Hamilton and Schumacher and Senna. I’m an expert at encounters with death at the law’s hands. Some days I land on the podium of despair. There have been times that I even thought Job could see me in his rear-view mirror. I know the law’s demands, and they kill me. I can cry out with Paul, “Who will rescue me form this body of death?”

At the moment that I crash and burn, the law no longer has power over me, for there’s one who is the end of the law. He doesn’t have the cash to give me a better vehicle than this 62-year-old body to drive. He holds no power. He doesn’t even have a goofy Pepto-Bismol pink Force India race car. All he has is his own crash-and-burn on Calvary. And my literal and figurative death on the track is the exact place Christ meets me and pulls me into a whole new racing circuit.

It’s a switch from Formula 1 kowtowing to the law to a new life of liberty. Christ puts me, an awful driver, behind the wheel of a priceless, indestructible vehicle, bought and paid for at his great expense. It’s no longer a competition. I can no longer lose. I get to rev the engine and say, “Let’s see what this mofo can do.” It’s going to be a heck of a drive.

 

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