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August 06, 2007

The Mixed Message

fahungr07.jpg The Hungarian Grand Prix took place yesterday at the Hungaroring. It was a debacle for the reputations of Fernando Alonso and of his team, McLaren-Mercedes. It was also a subtle kind of catastrophe for Lewis Hamilton, Alonso's team-mate and the race-winner. There are three possibilities. 1) You know what happened, in which case you don't need to be told again. 2) You don't care what happened, in which case you don't want to be told now. 3) You have just come out of a long trance, in which case you probably need to read a few of the post-practice and race reports to find out in detail about how the race weekend played itself out. Whichever possibility fits your own circumstances best, you certainly don't need an F1-loving literary critic to walk you through his own opinions about the ins-and-outs of the ways in which the Hungarian GP evolved. It is enough to say that in the aftermath of Hungary, Lewis Hamilton's ever-present "Mr Nice" smile looks greedier and meaner than before, while "Mr Ethical" Alonso suddenly seems like someone struggling against a competitor who, amazingly, in his first season in Formula One, has panicked and unbalanced the World Champion in a way that Schumacher never did.

The comments earlier this season of Pat Symonds, the Director of Engineering at Renault, who guided Alonso to two world championships with the team (in 2005 and 2006), about Alonso's susceptibility to self-doubt when he is beaten by his teammate suddenly look extremely pertinent. After defeats in battle by competitors from outside his own team, Alonso has always been able to bounce back and emerge the war's victor. But it seems that by reason of some curious psychological frailty, he is less easily able to do this against a teammate.

An old-fashioned patriarchalism is manifesting itself too. Alonso's only reward for doing what no one else was able to do, dethroning Schumacher, may look to him at the moment not like a few years of dominance but merely his own shockingly sudden dethroning by an even younger man. J. G. Frazer's account in The Golden Bough of the rites of succession to the sacred guardianship of Diana's sanctuary at Nemi gives as decent an account of the underlying dynamic as any: "Down to the decline of Rome a custom was observed there which seems to transport us at once from civilisation to savagery. In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary."

In general, it always seems interesting to me to watch someone dealing with adversity. The potential loser is a more complex and sympathetic figure than the likely winner. In this instance, though, I find no pleasure at all in watching what may (it is still too early to tell) be happening. I still haven't lost my faith in Alonso's ability to emerge on top. But I feel some of that faith ebbing disconcertingly away. Perhaps one response would be that this is a universal and necessary process: iconic, two-dimensional heroes gradually must mutate into three-dimensional humans. That is true. But, however "enlightened" and "reasonable" one might consider oneself, at a pre-rational level in the mind, old illusions (or delusions) die painfully and slowly, like a terminally ill patient who nonetheless clings desperately and in agony to the life which is trying to shut itself down.

In this instance, I'm not at all sure that I really want to witness someone still so young and successful arduously becoming more "human" and mortal. Amongst other things, it must mean that, as a man in his forties, I need to grow up really, really fast. And, now that we're on the subject, fellow devotee of something or other, how about you?

Posted by njenkins at August 6, 2007 08:21 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins