The Formula One season’s endgame began on the night streets of Singapore. There were no surprises, only time and the occasion to reflect on the strange and beautiful season we’re witnessing. Warning: spoilers.
I found myself in the vicinity of a young man two weeks ago. He was standing a few feet away, his limbs thin and delicate, and he faced a wall of cameras with a brave, nonchalant smile. He was wearing jeans and a navy blue polo shirt, I was wearing a white shirt and gray wool trousers, and we didn’t know each other, but I happened to know how he’d spent his afternoon two days before. He had put two wheels of a Formula One racing car on the grass at Monza and passed Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari like a man possessed. His name was Sebastian Vettel. I stood very still and watched him. He was on stage with a Japanese businessman, introducing a special edition of the Infiniti FX50 named after him.
“You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard,” David Foster Wallace wrote in his July 1996 article “The String Theory”, which is about a professional tennis player named Michael T. Joyce and “the physics and metaphysics of tennis”. Joyce at the time was ranked 79th in the world, a tragic combination of impossible skills and complete, hopeless anonimity. Standing there in Frankfurt, I was invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be the best in the world at something. At Formula One. I tried to imagine; it was impossible.
Sebastian Vettel in 2011 is not exactly human. In these weeks, he is an alien perfection of a racing driver, completely, ridiculously untouchable by a grid which includes a handful of frighteningly good racing drivers. Try to imagine what it would be like to be the best in the world at racing a Formula One car at the age of 24. He started the race from pole position, he was leading by seconds at the end of the first lap, he at one point built a 9-second lead over one lap after a safety car period necessitated by a clumsy Michael Schumacher launching his Mercedes into the air than into a wall off the back of Sergio Pérez’s Sauber, then toyed with Jenson Button in the closing laps and won the race, his 19th. He needs one more point to become world champion.
Singapore is a very strange race. At times, it feels like a dreamy interlude between the visceral shock of Spa and Monza in September, and Suzuka and Interlagos later on in the season. The BBC’s editors had the good sense to launch the race broadcast with a visual paraphrase of the fantastic Volkswagen Golf advertisement from 2007, which shows a series of night cityscapes set to Dylan Thomas’s radio drama Under Milk Wood. It’s a play on the eyes, because Singapore is a very visceral race, two hours at night in a savage, equatorial atmosphere, but the heat and the humidity don’t show on screen. What you see is racing cars come alive, their speed somehow even more real than during the day, skipping along the bumpy streets like aliens in shiny exoskeletons run amok.
What’s really interesting is what will happen when the structure and dominance of the Red Bull team wanes. Because Sebastian Vettel is, of course, not an alien overlord but a 24-year-old German kid in an Adrian Newey car. How will he react to an inferior car? Will he whinge and throw tantrums like Lewis Hamilton in 2009 or will he transcend it like Michael Schumacher in 1996? Or will he fade into its mediocrity?
There are years like 2011 in Formula One but it was hard to imagine one happening again with current levels of reliability and with the current level of talent. It’s not the nail-biter of 2010, more like a tranquil study in perfection.
The drivers’ championship campaign will officially conclude on October 9 in Suzuka, then there will be four more races, then it’s all over. Enjoy. And try to imagine.
Illustration by Peter Orosz. Gallery curated by Natalie Polgar. Photography by Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Vladimir Rys/Getty Images, Paul Gilham/Getty Images, Chris McGrath/Getty Images for SSC, AP Photo/Terence Tan, Ker Robertson/Getty Images, Formula One and AP Photo/Toru Takahashi