Mercedes Pit at the 2017 Australian Grand Prix – photo by Richard Jones
Modern writers have often exploited the drama of powerful machines. In the 1890s Emile Zola, in La Bete Humain, used steam trains to symbolise the human passions of people living on the line between Le Havre and Paris. Steam trains fulfilled a similar purpose in Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, roaring by in the night, making manifest powerful emotions in the souls of ordinary English men and women.
In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby drives a cream coloured Rolls Royce with a windscreen mirroring a dozen suns. This is a car conveying Gatsby’s supremacy as well as conveying him from A to B.
Aircraft play major roles in many modern thrillers, adding a sense of power and glamour to stories by the likes of Frederick Forsyth and Tom Clancy.
Scene from Brief Encounter
While these machines express drama, technical progress over time leads to greater efficiency, more power, and ironically, less drama. People think of a steam train as romantic because it gives a visual and audible display of power. A steam engine ready to leave a station, hissing, burbling and smoking, appears to be working hard just standing still. Modern locomotives turn all that wasted energy into efficient movement, with the result that they are not as theatrical. Modern locomotives are a step forward in power, but tell less of a story because we cannot see the power.
The sport of Formula 1 motor racing is facing a crisis for just this reason. The future for car technology is clearly electrical. Hybrid technology is already widely used, with fully electric cars ready to break into the mass market. This is a problem for motor racing, which as a form of dramatic entertainment has not only to use energy, but also demonstrate it. Formula 1 has always been a place to push the boundaries of automotive expertise, until it reaches a point when that expertise becomes quiet and undemonstrative. It is more difficult to create a narrative of sporting drama out of efficient, silent electric engines, than from howling V10s.
A Formula E electric racing car
No doubt, elements of motor racing will stop technically. Parts of the sport will remain in a nostalgic past, with fans taking their place alongside steam train enthusiasts. For the most part, however, it will make no sense for motor racing to stand still while cars in general move forward into an electrical future. The sport will have to follow wider trends, just as trains moved on from steam. Fortunately, most people watch motor racing on television or some other electronic device, where noise doesn’t really register. Maybe a dominant electric series will find its place in a world of electronic media, using communication technology to express drama in innovative, immersive ways.
The moral of this tale is that technical development prioritises efficiency: narrative development prioritises wasteful drama.