Driving fast is both a craft and an art. It takes total concentration to keep a temperamental racing car on the knife edge of the laws of physics and it takes athletic stamina to sustain the mandatory hours of intense effort. On an empty track, all good drivers can set successive lap times that fall within a few tenths of a second, but doing so in close competition takes another level of mental and physical dexterity – fast hands directed by fast thinking reflecting fast judgements. Successful racers aim to establish control – of the tyres’ available grip, of the pace required to be a contender, and of their adversaries’ commitment. A strategic driver can slow the tempo of a race by running comfortably in third, timing his charge for the chequered flag, or he can crush an opponent’s confidence with a tough overtaking move and then push hard to open up a discouraging gap.
Winning comes from wanting, and no one wanted to win more than I did. I confess that winning was the best feeling I ever had, in any part of my life. It was the narcotic I craved and I willingly risked health and viability to taste it. When the car, the track and I were perfectly aligned, the sensation of completeness was so exhilarating that I craved more of those addictive moments. As clichéd as these driving platitudes have become, ‘feeling in the groove’ or ‘in a zone’ or ‘at one with the car’ were heady experiences when authentic. This was especially true when competing against the world’s best drivers in the world’s fastest racing cars on the world’s most challenging tracks.
Naturally, there are differences among the top professionals of every era, but in mine it was rare that any single driver dominated all aspects of the sport. If one excelled in the rain, another might be better at dealing with traffic; the master of pre-race set-up might be less effective at getting the most out of a compromised car. Over a season, these differences averaged out and, on balance, the variations among my professional peers were relatively small.