Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, April 8, 2000

Drive, They Insist

But Knowing the Limits Is Crucial

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - While most sports are about trying to exceed the limits, the drivers and mechanics of Formula One are more aware than usual that car racing is about trying to stay within the limits.

This is not only because a McLaren-Mercedes car was disqualified at the Brazilian Grand Prix two weeks ago for a front wing that was two millimeters (.08 of an inch) outside the permitted limit.

It was at Imola, where the season begins its European leg at the San Marino Grand Prix this weekend, that Ayrton Senna died six years ago while trying to push his car beyond the limit.

''Sometimes 90 percent is good enough to win,'' Senna once said, ''and sometimes 100 percent is not good enough.

''If it takes 200 percent to win, then I will put up with it. It's in my nature to look for more. The challenge is to win, and that is my great motivation, even it if means going over the limit.''

In his 1993 autobiography, ''Vive Ma Vie'' (Live My Life), Alain Prost, the quadruple world champion and Senna's greatest rival, tried to define what, aside from the desire to win, made drivers flirt with the limits.

''When we drive,'' he wrote, ''danger, speed and risk provoke an increase in endorphins in the brain. We become 'drugged' and fall into a euphoric state.

''We cannot control this state of ecstasy,'' he continued. ''I occasionally found myself leading races on some of the most dangerous tracks and telling myself: 'Slow down, you've got a big enough lead.' But I went faster and faster, certain that I had lifted my foot from the accelerator. It's a rare state of grace, an extraordinary voluptuousness.''

Prost had nevertheless, after a serious accident in his first year in Formula One in 1980, decided he would drive at 90 percent of his capacity and find the rest of his speed through the development and setup of the car and adjustments of his racing line.

But drivers also develop, mature and undergo changes in their appreciation of what constitutes their own limits. Most young drivers start out thinking nothing can happen to them. But even as they age and become aware of the dangers, their confidence in their skill may grow and in turn lead to driving ever closer to the limit.

Senna, a triple world champion, died at age 34. Both Jim Clark, a two-time world champion, and Gilles Villeneuve, often considered one of the greatest drivers, died in racing accidents at age 32. Antonio Ascari, one of the best prewar drivers, and his son Alberto, a two-time world champion, both died at 36 -- Antonio at the French Grand Prix in 1925 and Alberto at Monza in 1955.

Michael Schumacher, 31, broke his leg last year at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and considered quitting. In an interview Sunday with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Schumacher said the accident had ''opened my eyes about several things'' and added, ''I feel more free in my head.''

Although last month he said he did not fear dying in a crash, in December he said he would consider quitting if some talented young driver came along to push him too far. ''Because then you may try to extend your limits to keep up with what he's doing,'' he said. ''And that can be dangerous.''

If they go beyond the limit, drivers exclude themselves. When a car is built a few millimeters beyond the limit, the race stewards exclude the car, as has happened to cars in three of the past four races.

''This is a high-tech sport where people are always going to go to the limits to get maximum performance,'' said Max Mosley, president of the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body. ''When they go over those limits, then we have to exclude them.''

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