Know Your Limits

11/07/2019
FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE

In the worlds of project management and engineering, folk are fond of saying, "If you cannot measure it, you cannot control it." Yet just because one can measure something, it does not automatically mean one should measure and control it.

Governments are especially fond of measuring all sorts of increasingly eccentric items and activities. Indeed they would be quaint and cute for their OCD focus on the most inane of measurements, were it not for the fact that the point of the measurement is usually social control, taxation, or, if the government is really lucky, both. Indeed in the greatest of measuring moments governments can achieve the first two, and get the extra bonus of social brownie points for also doing the 'right thing'. Think the anti-tobacco movement.

Marlboro used to be proudly splashed all over McLaren's cars and overalls. Dollars rolling in for delightful fun at every race. Then came the small issue of tobacco, yes we have measured it, it's killing people.

Government to the rescue! Ban on advertising, adverts actively highlighting the shocking issues smoking can cause, and the tax on cigarettes going up a zillion percent. Indeed, with the loss of tobacco money, the doom and gloom merchants were soon predicting that the total shape of the sport was under threat.

Result?

The government is trying to socially control people, but because it is socially reasonable to try and save people from themselves they score points on both fronts, with the icing on the cake being that the remaining smokers pay so much increased tax on cigarettes that government income from all this social control is still fantastic!

The triple win!

Oh, and for anyone that didn't notice tobacco is still flowing the gold into Ferrari's vaults with much chinking of Champagne glasses and finger food all round...

Funny thing... all the new "destination cities" Liberty are targeting have rising rates of smoking, while the 'traditional' countries are far, far below the levels seen back in the hazy (smoky...) days of the '70's and '80's... plus they still allow tobacco advertising. How fortunate is that!? Coincidence...?

So, for everyone except smokers the current situation is just lovely for one and all. Social kudos and income for governments, with a light dusting of social control, plus the tobacco companies still make money, and plus, plus Ferrari still get sponsorship dollars, oh, and plus plus, plus, the Champagne is still flowing and the corporate boys party on! Good Lord! 10/10 to all concerned for a genius act of measurement and control...

Now track limits. Dear reader, did you not think I was inching towards this topic?

Define the track, measure it. Bound it. FIA certify it. Apply timing devices to it for measuring progress around it to the thousandth of a second.

Measure it all to the nearest dozen atoms if you please.

Then apply fickle, emotional humans in the heat of battle, surrounded by fevered fans and a global television audience. All baying for flat-out awesomeness.

Then to put the bow on top, have the FIA frame it all within a set of rules relaxed enough to allow interpretation to be "in the spirit of the sport" AND utterly prescriptive and crystalline pure in meaning so that no nuance of meaning can wiggle in. Oh, and above all promote tough racing, and have fun... while removing confusion, being fair and flexible, and utterly rigid and repeatable in regards understanding and application.

What could possibly go wrong?

Having in the last article looked at the huge variation in opinion, what we are now pondering is how one's internal model of the world varies to what is really out there. What is reality?

Now here our dearest of friends, Miss Physics you might recall, simply loves to mess with us. Anyone who thinks Miss Physics does not have a sense of humour clearly has never tried to tickle the ears of Schrodinger's cat, hold a photon stationery, or get electromagnetic radiation in general to either be a wave, and only a wave, or a particle and only a particle. And don't get me going on how magnetic fields work (they just do, ok...?).

Yet, us dear silly humans can measure all these things. Measure them well, and in many instances bend them to our will. The entire internet and the devices connected to it are powered by things we can measure (and get charged for...) and yet we do not really fully understand them.

Yet in the heat of the gladiatorial battle that is the delightful contest for position on a race track, two humans are supposed to maintain an innate feeling for all the laws of Physics (not optional), and the rules of the FIA, which are optional and all depend on your point of view.

In this context what is knowing your limits? The great drivers possess a remarkable set of senses mixed perfectly with peak human capability. Schumacher said you didn't need great reflexes to be a great driver because if you were anticipating and driving right you would never have a moment where you needed to "catch" the car. Wonderful advice and no doubt true, while also rather missing the point that at the speed Michael drove, even having spot-on anticipation and driving flawlessly requires one to have the remarkable reflexes to act as required when required to remain on track!

So, innate ability, the focus to refine capability, 'fast enough' reflexes, super-tuned senses, a clear understanding of the rules, the ability to never crack under pressure, flawless spatial awareness, all combined within the spirit of fair play while travelling at speeds up to 97.2 metres per second (318.9 feet per second, dear Ed), not forgetting the ever necessary respect for the laws of Miss Physics.

All of which can be measured within microns and split milli-seconds in the control room, and calculated by the dark arts of the engineers within endless simulations that mimic life without ever being it. Does such precise measurement mean we can or should control to such merciless tolerances in the real world? The human world of struggle and triumph, not the accurate to the width of an atom world of possible measurement?

Knowing one's limits is not just about confirming the width of the track, or the fuel flow limit. Knowing one's limits also means insight and self-awareness to understand what it means to be human, and exist in an imperfect world.

In the days of Nuvolari what happened around the back of the track, stayed around the back of the track. Then radio, then more marshals, then television, then safety, then rule upon rule that could be quantised and measured. No one is arguing against safety, all steps in this direction are to be welcomed and embraced.

We as fans delight when Lewis, Max, Seb or Daniel dance on the very rapier edge of their limits as the car squirms in the braking zone, or impossibly hangs on around the outside of another car through a fast sweeper.

Yes, the car is being pushed, but it is the human in the driver's seat pushing their own capability to their remarkable limits that has us heart in mouth on the sofa, the vicarious adrenaline rushing through our veins. They know their limits, but are willing to tease to the very edge of the possible and then an atom beyond in the hope that in the rare moment Miss Physics blinks, Lady Luck can dash in and ensure the ensuing potential disaster rolls the dice in their favour! A limit found, tested, and survived! Driver moving closer to legend, fans delighted, that day's race praised by generations to come. Delight and wonder in an imperfect world.

Yet the FIA wants this mystic dance on the edge of time, space and the possible to be clean, clinical, without risk, and utterly repeatable time after time in accordance with the prescriptive rule book... within the precise set bounds of the track just as they have painted and endorsed it, regardless of the drivers testing their human limits, and the limits of the laws of Miss Physics.

Is this merciless approach to rigid limits doing the FIA, us or the drivers any good? Can't he FIA take a moment to breathe, become all mindful and in a stunning moment of insight and self-realisation, understand that just because they can measure it and try to control it, should they? Do they really know their limits?

As a sport, and as a society, we would do well to reflect on our personal inner limits, and grow wise in identifying what adds value to our lives when we measure and control it, and what robs us one moment at a time of life's fleeting joys.

Max Noble

Learn more about Max and check out his previous features, here

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Published: 11/07/2019
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