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Jacob Sweetman: Speeed kills

The AVUS racetrack is a relic of its sporting history – a speedster’s wet dream. In the week of Dan Wheldon’s death, we think about what people do to go faster and faster.

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Photo courtesy of the Bundesarchiv (Brodde)

Some call themselves “petrolheads”. And if they weren’t already deemed lonely, technology crazed losers with penis issues, then the rise of the BBC’s excruciating Top Gear as one of the most popular TV shows in the U.K. has at least given the motor racing fan a public forum. Unfortunately one graced with a lack of charm or wit that would make Margaret Thatcher pine for the stage, such is the ease with which one can apparently receive laughs nowadays – but it is a forum no less.

Despite the fact that I am obsessed with men kicking and throwing balls around, I have never understood the attraction to motor racing. I can see that there may be a hidden beauty in these ultra-refined, sleek-as-fuck machines tearing around at unfathomable speeds, but it always seemed to be a bit like…. well, it always seemed just a bit like a load of blokes driving around in cars really fast.

But there is more to it in than that and the terrifying reality of what these guys (and they are almost always guys) do was hammered home at the weekend as Dan Wheldon’s crash in Las Vegas was beamed around the world. One is not accustomed to death on the field of play. It is still impossible to try and equate the horrifying scenes to anything else in the real world.

Ayrton Senna’s crash at Imola is lodged in the memory due to the unreality of the slowed down version that was played on a loop for weeks after. It was like the Zapruder film, as experts tried to work out how a man so glacial in control at these speeds had suddenly lost it. Back and to the left.

It takes balls of steel (and they are almost always balls) to be at floor level in a lidless machine travelling at any speed. But at hundreds of miles an hour?

I can’t comment on the weekend’s accident. I know that a lot of people are seriously shaken up by the events, and it must be a huge psychological blow to a guy like Sebastian Vettel, Germany’s two-time Formula 1 World Champion, to have to even accept the possibility of it happening anywhere and to anyone. He knows he is in one of the most dangerous sports in the world. He doesn’t need it repeated.

That most unflappable of men, Michael Schumacher summed it up when he said “We always talk about how motor sport is so much safer, that no-one needs to lose their life nowadays, but even now that is still wishful thinking.”

They must be shaken. But the thing is motor racing is a lot safer than it used to be, and if you are driving out of Berlin past the Funkturm there is still a reminder of how far it has come. That stretch of the A100 Autobahn still runs alongside a formerly grand terrace of seating – the remains of the AVUS racetrack, which for a while was the fastest in the world – bar none. In 1937 Herman Lang clocked an astonishing average of 260kph on a lap of the circuit.

It had been remodelled primarily for speed as the Nürburgring started hosting the biggest races. The AVUS was a weird track that was long and thin, with two huge bends. Lang’s record time came in the first year that saw the new North Curve of the track, an insane brick-built bend that was banked at 43 degrees. It wasn’t called the wall of death for no reason. German motoring giants like Mercedes were working on new aerodynamic cars that would fly around such a track, almost literally. There were no safety features on the north curve. Just the skills and fearlessness of the drivers.

It is now merely a stand in limbo with a hotel and restaurant next to it, the banks have long gone, but one can be sure that there is a certain type of BMW driver that will still hare past it on the way out of the city imagining himself as one of the greats. But he will be missing the point entirely.

Feats of speed should rarely be anything other than feared and respected. Dan Wheldon knew what he was doing in his 21st century car on a 21st century track, he was a successful racer. But he also knew the risks inherent in what he was doing. It’s a hard game, speed.