30 October 2019

Being positive

Not everyone subscribes to GrandPrix+ magazine and so cannot read the in-depth stories that we run about the world of Formula 1.

In the last issue there was a great insight into Lewis Hamilton's thoughts about the environment, putting the quotes into perspective. When you do that you get a much more coherent picture of what Lewis was saying. Similarly, you can read a column I write called "On The Grid", which allows me to express my feelings about the sport at each event. Column-writing is not very different to blogging, but I don't use the same columns here and in the magazine. I pick a different subject. I have had a great deal of positive feedback about the column I wrote in Mexico and I would like to share those words here on the blog, on this one occasion. The column was called "Things were not better in the past".

We live in troubled times, or at least we think we do. A recent survey by political scientists at the University of Michigan, the Université de Montréal, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that people across the world find bad news more interesting than good news. The survey was based on 1,156 respondents in 17 countries, across six continents, and showed a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to video news content. The people being surveyed watched seven randomly ordered BBC World News stories on a laptop computer while wearing noise-cancelling headphones and sensors on their fingers to capture skin conductance and blood volume pulse.

In other laboratory experiments it was found that people can hit a button faster when responding to negative words, rather than positive ones. The word “bomb” gets a quicker response that the word “baby”. The theory is that humans have evolved to react more quickly to potential threats and paying attention to negative news is generally a more effective survival strategy. Thus, the argument goes, reports about sudden disasters are more compelling than slow improvements. You never turn on the news and hear a reporter saying: “I’m live from a place where war has NOT broken out”. Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes kill far more people but are rarely mentioned.

In a world where news has become a money-making industry, the goal of publishers is not to report accurately, but rather to get higher ratings, or more hits. In the United States they have an expression for this: “If it bleeds, it leads”. Journalists used to report the news in a fair and balanced way, with integrity, but today news-gathering is being sensational, interviewing victims and their families. It’s about ratings and the advertising revenues that comes from them.

The reason I ruminate on these matters is twofold: firstly, it’s fascinating stuff; and secondly because Formula 1 suffers from incredibly negative coverage, even when the sport itself seems to be doing pretty well. It’s a concept that I have been trying to understand for a few years now. Formula 1 is a world of positive people, always pushing forwards, always looking ahead. The only reason they look backwards is when they analyse things that have gone wrong and learn from their mistakes. There are a few who believe that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, but most believe that things will work out in the end. That doesn’t mean they don’t complain and criticise, but they are not bogged down in negativity. They don’t think like victims. They live for the day - and for the future.

One of the things that I have noticed over time is that so many media and race fans are lost in nostalgia for F1 in earlier ages. Some think of the 1960s, others of the 1980s. Things were always better in the past, or so they think. That is not true in the F1 paddock. If you live in the past in F1, you lose and you are gone.

When I hear people say that Formula 1 is not like it used to be, I disagree. It’s different, sure, but in the overall scheme of things it’s better in so many ways - and it is getting better still with each passing year. Yes, perhaps there are too many races, and drivers do not show their true character as much as they used to, perhaps there is too much emphasis on safety but, in the overall scheme of things, the past was not better. This point was made to me, years ago, by the 1967 World Champion, Denny Hulme, who I had the great good fortune to get to know quite well.

“We used to race anywhere and everywhere,” he said. “We didn’t take any notice of the trees, power poles and rocks. We just raced. If you looked back now you’d say we were bloody stupid, but we didn’t know any better. Now we have the most incredibly hygienic circuits you have ever seen. Some people criticise them. They say it’s terribly boring motor racing. Yes, compared to the old Nürburgring, I suppose it is. But it’s better than going to a funeral every Tuesday morning.”

Idealizing the past and being negative about the present is a waste of time because nostalgia is a warm and fuzzy version of reality, rather than the real thing. Woody Allen highlighted this in his wonderful “Midnight in Paris”in 2011 in which the lead character, Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson), finds himself transported back in time to the expatriate artistic circles of Paris in the Roaring Twenties, meeting such literary luminaries as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. In his visits to the Twenties, he meets the seductive Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard, who explains to him that she believes that life was better in the Paris of the Belle Epoque in the 1890s. They travel together back to that era and encounter great artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, but they find that Gauguin is nostalgic for the Renaissance, which itself was an expression of a longing for an idealized past in the age of antiquity.

Understanding that the past is not really better than the present, Pender is able to return to his modern life and sort out his problems by freeing himself of fear and negativity and he ends up looking to the future, personified by Gabrielle, an antique dealer played by Léa Seydoux.

What F1 media forgets in its nostalgia and negativity is that they are living the dream and that the millions of people around the world who read their words don’t want to be told how bad things are. They want their dream of F1 to be a positive place. Perhaps the lure of bad news still exists - it’s apparently in our DNA - but we will all be better off if we look at the positives and not always look for crises and fights, crashes and scandals.

We should embrace and enjoy the moment with great characters such as Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo. We should appreciate the strange monosyllabic icon who is Kimi Raikkonen and we should be excited by the new generation, rising up to battle the big stars - and one another - moving this great sport on to a new era, which will be different, but no less fascinating...

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