Burning RubberLaurence Edmondson February 17, 2010
Writing a book on the history of Formula One is an unenviable task, and to get it right is near impossible. The problem comes in trying to maintain an entertaining narrative over a period spanning 60 years, in which the sport has become nearly unrecognisable from its origins. Add to that the potential to get bogged down in endless statistics and painfully boring technical data, and there is the danger of producing the dullest book since Haynes published its manual for the 1980 Austin Metro. However, in Burning Rubber Charles Jennings has managed to avoid all the major pitfalls and create a genuinely enjoyable and easily readable complete history of F1.
As the author of Up North, Travels beyond the Watford Gap, a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the North/South divide in British society, Jennings approaches the sport with refreshing wit and cynicism. But that's not to say the book is a piss-take, it is in fact well researched and packed with insightful anecdotes. Its strength, as the title suggests, lies in the speed at which it rattles through F1's history. In the first two chapters alone it covers the birth of the motor car, the advent of racing, the legend that was Tazio Nuvolari, two world wars and the creation of the Formula One world championship. By focussing on key characters rather than championship statistics (all of which are laid out in the Appendix should you need them), it draws the reader in by leading with a human element. Even the chapters on the more sterile modern era are dealt with in a brisk and entertaining manner and are interspersed by quotes from Nigel Mansell, who Jenning's aptly describes on one occasion as, doing his best to "impersonate a damp fog".
But most readers will find the earlier decades of more interest. From the cross-dressing BRM boss Raymond Mays to the massively overweight Mercedes mastermind Alfred Neubauer, there are enough characters to rival any soap opera and Jenning's plays on all of them. The cars and the technological evolution are also examined but only on a relatively basic level to ensure the speed and rhythm of the book isn't lost. But it is the analysis of some of the better known F1 stars where Burning Rubber really earns its cover price. Rather than just listing them all as heroes, it looks at the flaws in their personalities, and in the case of James Hunt and Jim Clark explores the fear they held for the very sport they dedicated their lives to. However, for the most part it is light-hearted and there is no F1 icon too big to escape Jennings' satirical cynicism. Even the highly respected F1 journalist Dennis Jenkinson, who is usually highly revered by fellow writers, becomes a target at one point, and is referred to as a "chipmunk in tweed". But it's Jenkinson's hero Gilles Villeneuve who makes for one of the most interesting chapters. Jennings avoids waxing lyrical about the Canadian's superhuman driving skills, instead focussing on Villeneuve's defective personality.
"Viewed rationally, of course, there was something not quite right about Gilles Villeneuve. This is true of many (if not all) top sportsman, one way or another, but in Villeneuve's case it is hard to escape the conclusion that he was a natural, both in the sense that he was naturally gifted as a driver; and that bits of his personality were defective, or had simply gone missing."
It's an interesting take on such a highly regarded driver and typical of the style of Burning Rubber. But it's this flippancy, combined with the inevitable glossing over of some of the finer details in F1's history, which might leave some F1 purists a bit cold. Moreover, really serious fans of the sport probably won't learn a huge amount of new information from the book. But its charm is not in the facts and figures but the way in which they are told. It casts a different perspective on some of the greatest stories of F1 and does so with a sense of humour.
For anyone new to F1, this is a must have that will undoubtedly enhance your knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport. And for those who know their FISAs from their FOCAS and their Nuvolaris from their Neubauers it'll offer, at the very least, an alternative viewpoint and an entertaining read.
Title: Burning Rubber
Author: Charles Jennings
Published by: Quercus Sport
Laurence Edmondson is an assistant editor on ESPNF1