I have been watching Formula One for more than a decade, but it doesn’t feel like so many years. In 2001, when I was in Class 10, the all-important Board Exams were looming upon us and we were given to understand that unless we outshone everybody else in the country, there was no hope for us ever. (This notion was to be repeated several times in the next few years, as I realised later, preparing for more exams.)
I probably needed something to cling to then: something to look forward to and assure me that all was well with the world, there were people competing in a crazier arena than our own, putting their lives on the line for sporting glory. Formula One came into my life at the right time. I had always enjoyed sports on TV and in the newspapers, but there was something indefinably attractive about F1. Perhaps it was the whole controversy surrounding its status as a sport, the glossy machines that came out on picturesque circuits for nine months every year, and the manner in which the hardiest of them could bounce back after the most horrendous crashes. There was a thrill in the noise of the engines and in the buzz on the circuit before the start of the race. Steve Slater’s voice, pulsating with infectious excitement, prepared you for the five red lights to go off; you put aside everything else you were doing and with your heart leaping into your throat and fervent prayers on your lips, hoped that the drivers you were supporting made it through the first few corners without incident. You also hoped that the drivers who threatened your peace ended up beached in the gravel or with their nose-cones firmly stuck in the tyre wall as soon as possible. You wanted your rivals to take each other out, get involved in ugly battles that ensured a smooth field for “your” team. There was such a strong sense of ownership, you felt you had wagered all your own money on the fortunes of your team. You hung eagerly on the words that were uttered during post-race press conferences and eagerly scanned the sports page every morning for the odd F1 snippet that was generously bestowed on you by editors who had other, more important sports on their minds on weekdays.
But I should be lying if I said it was the sport alone that drove me to fall in love with it. There was one single reason why I was so devoted to Formula One: Michael Schumacher. Those were the heady days of his reign. Winning the championship in 2000 and giving Ferrari its first title in twenty years, Schumacher had apparently accomplished some sort of miracle. The Hindu carried a picture of him celebrating with his teammates, all in red wigs. Watching the podium ceremony with my father, I was taken in by the champagne-spraying ritual and the ecstasy in the team. For some petulant reason, when Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen were mere names a few months earlier, I had whimsically chosen to support the Finn. But by 2001, I had sorted things out and my priorities were clear. Michael Schumacher was the man to support and to worship. I read every scrap of information about him I could lay my hands on, learnt the name of his birthplace, and looked forward eagerly to Sundays when he would execute his trademark leap on the top step of the podium. I wanted to be as much like him as possible. Perfect, clinical, superior to everyone else. It didn’t matter that his tactics were often questioned; I took them as an inevitable part of the sport. We had tests at school every Monday, and on race weekends, I’d study hard in the mornings (remember the good old days of the Europe-heavy F1 calendar?) so I could watch the race in the evening without anything on my mind. And because in those years, Schumacher was almost sure to win, I knew it would take me a little while after the race to settle down to my books again.
These “victorious” Sunday evenings helped me through much. Monday morning blues were obliterated by the prospect of a long news report to be pored over, pictures to be cut out for my scrap-book. A copy of Overdrive featuring a Schumacher interview, and a scarlet Ferrari F1 calendar, both courtesy of one of my father’s colleagues, transported me to cloud nine. The walls of my room were plastered with F1 posters and I didn’t have room for any other distractions. The torrid years of preparing for the engineering entrance exams in an atmosphere that resembled a prison cell in many senses, followed by four years of engineering college, I was helped and kept motivated by F1. There was so much to be analysed and written about: I filled my diaries with my own race reports, taking care to note down the lap numbers on which incidents had occurred accurately. All I ever wanted then was to watch just one Formula One race live- and then perhaps be on the Ferrari pit wall someday. It seemed like too much to hope for, but now that one of those dreams has come true, I might as well push for the other one as well.
I have spent the afternoon reading James Allen’s biography of Michael Schumacher and recollecting the early years of my F1 madness. My friends had much to put up with; they would come over on the race Sundays when I refused to budge from home, listen to my excited accounts of Schumacher’s history and his unparalleled talents, and tolerate my angry outbursts against Juan Pablo Montoya. It wasn’t always easy being the only Formula One fan in my circle, and my jubilation at running into Bernie Ecclestone was a tiny bit punctured when a friend asked me what I saw in that elderly man. But you shrug at these things and move along. You celebrate the start of a new year in March and continue to plan your activities so that they don’t interfere with the F1 season. Because, despite the lack of historic rivalries and of Michael Schumacher, there are other champions in the making, drivers to be supported or jinxed, and Ferrari to be willed towards another World Championship.