Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Art and Aesthetic of Driving

I saw the movie Rush on TV last weekend, while Narendra Modi was orating in Madison Square Garden in New York. The movie is about the Formula One racing – particularly the contest between two drivers, Niki Lauda of Austria and James Hunt of England. Racing is the only thing they have in common – their characters are diametrically opposite.

James Hunt is a womanizer, aggressive, muscular, handsome, utterly contemptuous, a bag of testosterone that artists decry in life and celebrate in art.

In one scene, Lauda is given a lift by a woman, Marlene. He hasn’t told her that Ferrari just signed him up. He makes remarks about various aspects of the car. When the car breaks down, she tries to use her sex appeal to get a lift. A passing car stops – not for her, but recognizing Niki Lauda – and they ask him to drive their beat up old car. This is how Marlene discovers who he is. “You cant be a Formula One driver,” she says. “They have long hair, they are sexy, shirts open upto here...” she pauses. “Besides, you are driving like a old man.” Lauda merely smiles!

“Why don’t you drive fast?” she asks.

“There is no need to drive fast,” he retorts. “It increases the percentage of risk. Right now, there’s no reward, no incentive.”

Lauda’s reply is astounding, for any driver. Formula One driver, it is totally unbelievable.

In the brilliant cinematic moment, that every race fan waits for, Marlene challenges him, when he calmly asks, “Why should I drive fast?”

“Because I am asking you to.”

It’s brief, all cuts and flashes and sound effects, but for the next few seconds of film, there’s shifting of gears, the roar of the engine and the uncontrolled excitement of the guys who gave Niki Lauda a lift as he careens their ordinary car through the Italian country side. And Marlene for the first time, discovers acceleration. We have seen far better scenes of car racing, and some terrific driving and road stunts, in movies like Ronin or Iron Man, with far larger budgets. Considering how much time is devoted in movies to races and chases – in bikes, cars, planes, trains, boats etc., the general opinion is that driving fast is the ultimate skill on the road. It is exactly this aspect, and that of living fast, that the movie’s other character, James Hunt displays.

In this context, it is utterly amazing, that the philosophy of driving as espoused by Lauda, actually made it to a film on car racing! I have only known about Lauda’s name – and all I have seen of car racing is mostly Formula 1 or CART on TV. Other races like Nascar, Le Mans etc don’t interest me, and bike racing rarely does either.

Alistair MacLean’s The Way to Dusty Death is a terrific book about the racing world, is a terrific read. But it is a crime story and about racing, not driving. Reader, if there are any books you know about driving – please let me know.

Lauda’s philosophy is about driving. Anyone who takes pleasure in driving a car, derives pleasure in how it responds, how it growls, how it takes curves, the feel of accelerational gravity, how the car eats tarmac, how it glides smoothly sideways, the pleasure of overtaking a whole bunch of cars, the recognition of other drivers or the mild envy or admiration when they see you do something special on the road – such a person knows the pleasure of driving, not just the pleasures of the scenery on the road. Few of us ever drive a racing car or on a race course. For those few of us lucky enough to have driven a sports car, with an engine that can growl and squeal and slice through the wind and delight and exhilarate and put a grin on your face, philosophy is something that you place in the back seat, assuming your car has a back seat.

But : it isn’t really – when you come up very quickly on the tails of a much less powerful car, and its driver pulls over in fear or irritation, you know you have done the wrong thing, the road is not a race course. That philosophy, Do no harm, is part of the basic principle of driving. 

For most of us driving is a skill. For professionals like cab or truck or bus drivers, it is a craft. I wonder whether professional drivers have developed a sense of art about driving.

But truly, truly, truly, for those who enjoy driving, it is an art, and it has an aesthetic. The aesthetics of the art of driving varies from person to person, car to car, place to place, perhaps even with age and company and music and mindset.

1 comment:

  1. Story unfolds so well and Lauda's philosophy is cool. :)

    The article reminds me of what I saw of the bus/van drivers of the mountains on a tour to Spiti a few years ago. Until then, I had thought driving is an art. But our van driver showed us it's a science as well. At those narrow bends where the slightest miscalculation can knock us out of this world in a second, the way he maneuvered the vehicle, I thought these people have a sense of physics deeply inbuilt in them. And how many such bends!!!
    A thought that these skills don't get remunerated as much did hurt. But his innocent smile made up for it and his loud Punjabi songs (without which he said he can't drive), eventually grew on all of us too. A sweet memory, that I cherish to this day, of the driver, his art or science - whatever one may call it and those loud songs. :)