THE RACER sat there strapped into his seat and smiled. The sun was out high and pouring down in hot splashes across the opening grid. Looking forward all he saw over the black and gray of the car front was sheet gray of pavement, smooth and long before the first turn. The Finn sat there and knew how beautiful it was when there was no one in front of you and no exhaust and no smoke. It was beautiful and sprawled out in front of him and it was yours, he thought, and yours for the taking and very truly pretty. It was the first time the racer had stopped sweating all weekend.
The short finishing straight of the start led into a quick slight right hander that you could take at almost one hundred ten miles an hour. He was a fighter pilot sitting still strapped in his seat. His hands pushed through his warm gloves and clutched the wheel tight and he thought how he was really a fighter pilot on a battleship somewhere in the open grey sea ready to launch off and take on the whole world in front of him.
The whole world wasnít in front. It was a small, thin strip of pavement that ran through the trees for fifty three laps. Now he was working through the track and not feeling the heat or the sun beating on his helmet or hearing the fans shouting in the stands. The start would be gone very quickly and the first turn was on you, you in there at over one hundred eighty and then clicking down one gear to make it stick. He could feel the heat in his temples and the rush of the short right hander. This is the turn where a good driver named Damon Hill spun out of control six years ago. This racer wasnít thinking about that though.
The corner was important and he worked it solidly in his mind as it led onto the longest straight of the many straights and clicked up and up on the gears, hearing the throttle rip underneath him and the wheels stick hard as the brakes cooled over the sixteen seconds and the engine pushed to two twenty. He thought hard. From two twenty he stomped firmly on the brakes, hitting them extremely smoothly and flicking his left hand thwick, thwick and the bleep of the gears popped down and then down and like thwick, thwick, thwick until he felt second gear and his chest pull back hard down into seventy miles an hour. This was the first chicane. He saw it clearly. His hands twitched to the right and then adjusted rapidly, pulling right, right and then straightening to the left into the middle of Jim Clark. Jim Clark was a good driver too and he died here in a Formula 2 race in 1968. It was a shameful and stupid thing to lose a great driver like that. He wasnít thinking this though as he twitched back left hard and clicked up and saw himself alone and the track his, wide and open.
In the stands the last of the people were sitting down and waiting for the start. Hockenheim was always a very fast track and the Germans loved it that way. It was fast and loud and hard on the engines and you had to push hard all the way through it until the tight turns at the back end. The Finnís teammate was in his car too. This Scottish teammate was also thinking about the track. He was working the back end though and almost done. Then it was the podium and the champagne and the hats off and then the smile. That would be the only time the Scot would crack a smile. The sun was baking the cars on the hot pavement and the engineers were unplugging their computers from the cold engines and running back to the pit walls.
The racerís wife was behind the pit wall. She was back inside the paddock sipping on a cold tea. She was Finnish too and looked beautiful and shining and smiled at him from behind the wall and waved. He didnít see her nor think about her. He wasnít thinking about the new baby on her lap either. The track was getting worked hard under him and he pulled hard out of the second chicane. It was full throttle here. He was cool now like the brakes and had worked smoothly from the chicane, dropping his right front tire on the line he picked going in and straightened out in a good rhythm, thwicking up fast from second to fifth then sixth and seventh for fourteen seconds, topping it at two hundred ten. The curve was worked well, and he smiled in his seat and pushed on. This Ostkurve was where Patrick Depailler killed himself in testing before the 1980 grand prix. This was known to almost all of the drivers. He knew it. He didnít think about it now.
He was already onto the hard breaking of the next chicane, slowing like a punch in the chest quick and hurting and knocking your breath clean out. This was a great one, he thought. This was Ayrton Senna and you flicked down and down and down, down, down like five quick, clean trigger pulls on a handgun and shot hard at seventy miles an hour. Outside his helmet, the trees were swaying softly in the wind. The people packed the stands and now the magazine and newspaper critics from the papers had arrived to their seats. The website writers were there too. They sat a little further off and taking notes down in their Palms while looking over the grid hard, they scribbled down all the quirks they could find. All the writers looked over the managers and the directors and wrote down interesting things like what the practice laps showed or which manager was with what model . Then they looked into the pits and tried hard to figure it all out. Some of the newspaper writers had it too. But most of them had no clue and sat there with the fans next to them and thought about just how much better they were than the fans anyway. The critics always made sure to get that part.
The critics had been on the Finn good all year. Since he crashed in Australia they had been on him hard. He wasnít quick, they wrote. He didnít have it up there, they reported, and then they told the news to the world that he should think long and hard about retirement. The writers had found the new wonder boys, a group of talents in their early twenties who could replace him. They were moving up strong on the Fighting Finn, they wrote. That is what they used to call him in the papers. He had stopped reading papers after Australia and never watched the tapes of the races.
In the team briefings he closed his eyes on the inside and watched without looking and thought without really thinking and it didnít matter anyway he told himself. You crashed and it was hard. It hurt and it hurt badly in the hospital. It hurt for a while but it was over now. You have been there before, in the hospital, he had told himself, and you lived through it. It was really nothing. You had been there before and won again, so that meant it was nothing. It was nothing like losing was nothing when you drove hard. Not finishing was something, but then again, that was never the driverís fault most of the time. So this thing had been nothing for eleven races.
Now he was thinking of nothing as he worked out of the chicane of Ayrton Senna. From second gear he twitched his right middle finger back towards his chest. He pulled it again and again and was out running strong. This was the final straight. The gears popped smooth and tight. Ayrton Senna had crashed. Even the great Senna had crashed once or twice. Three times maybe. Yes, even he had crashed, the Finn told himself now as he continued to put together the work. He had crashed too. Even Senna. He was from Brazil and put together a string of drives that every racer watched closely with their hearts inside their eyes and hated in their heads because you could not understand them enough to love them. He was the one you would always remember and tell your son about when you took him to the track and he saw the new but never as brave drivers. That was Senna and this was his chicane. It was his and even he had crashed. Not every drivers gets his own chicane. No, it is a rare and wonderful thing to have your own turn. It is better than a museum or a library or a shrine of any kind. Senna has his own chicane.
Then the Finn remembered that even Senna had crashed. It slipped in his head that Senna had crashed and he had died. His car had smashed violently and very stupidly and horribly into the wall at Imola. That isnít what killed him though. The crash is never what kills you. It didnít kill the good American this past February on the last lap in his solid-looking tank of a NASCAR. They still didnít know what killed the American. They knew about Senna though. His face had pushed into the cracked steering column, a metal rod driving straight through his helmet.
Now the racer was back at over two hundred miles in his mind and there is no time to think of crashes at two hundred miles an hour. This is what he was telling himself as he sat there and started to feel the sun burning his head. The straight wound down to third gear and one hundred miles an hour. There is no time to think of it at one hundred either he told himself. But he was thinking it. It was there again and he thought about trying to not think it. He swallowed it down hard but it was still there. From Agip to Sachs down at sixty miles and the immediate double right-handers of Elf and Opel. It was there and the track was ruined as was all of his good work.
It had cracked his helmet. The helmet was cracked right through. The hospital hadnít been bad but the helmet was awful, seeing it cracked through the next day. It reminded him of the accident he had at Adelaide many years ago when he couldnít move and it all came rushing late that night in the hospital when he woke up sweating hard, seeing the wall and feeling the hard shove in his chest, the braking with no control sliding across the field and the harder punch pushing into his chest and him there and nothing to do but brace and grit his teeth, then the loud smack as he slammed head on into the wall and then nothing else was there. That night in the hospital had been very dark and cold in the room. He saw the moon through the window when he woke. It was whole and white and clean. The room was black and his sheets were soaked all the way through. He had sat up in the bed and watched the moon till it was replaced by the bright morning sun
The starting lights were going up now. All the fans went quiet. The second light was on. The hands in front of him twitched on the wheel. He looked out over the black and grey slope at the glistening pavement in front of him. It was thin and quickly disappeared into a blur. He looked at the tires. They were real and hard. He tried to feel his fingers but couldnít. The third light was on. The engines behind him were revving up and the roar was giving the stadium what they all came to feel. He couldnít feel or hear a damn thing. So he sat there and waited. The final light went on. That is when the sweating began. It was pouring thick down his back and face, sliding cool and wet down between his cheeks and the helmet pads. It was nothing, it was nothing, it was nothing, he yelled in his head. Ei mikššn, he knew. Ei mikššn. The auto, the maailma. All was ei mikššn except for the rotu, he told himself. Ei mikššn, he told himself. Ei mikššn, ei mikššn, he heard it roll around in his throat. Itís nothing, itís nothing, itís really nothing and the light is here. Itís nothing and you are here now. Itís nothing and sweat doesnít mean a thing. It was all nothing. He thought this now as the five start lights went out and he launched off the battleship into the grey open sky, his mind blank and empty as the twenty-two engines ripped hard and he couldnít hear a thing.
Thirteen laps later the Finn pulled off the track. The engine was gone. It overheated on the long straights. After snapping off the belts, he removed the steering wheel and climbed out, put the wheel back on and taking off his helmet tried real hard to look upset as the cameras clicked away.