Clarkson on: competitiveness
By nature, I’m a competitive man. But nurture has taught me that trying to win is a complete and utter waste of time.
I learned, at the age of 13, that I was no good at any ball game. My limbs were already so long that by the time the neural signals arrived at my hands and feet, the other team was already in the shower. Often I’d find myself on the football pitch, lashing out at a ball that had been bowled in a game of cricket four months earlier.
I’m not much cop at cerebral games either. The other day, I was beaten at chess by an opponent who kept asking which way the bishops go. It was humiliating frankly.
Of course, the upside of losing is that it’s so much easier to get your face right. Win, and you’ve got to look magnanimous and proud without being smug. That’s hard, even for a classically trained actor such as Alec Guinness. Actually, it’s especially hard for him because he’s dead, but you know what I mean.
Losing, though, is a piece of cake. You can shrug and play the fool, which comes easily. Especially if you’ve had as much practice as me.
I had my losing face prepared as I flew to Germany the other day to conduct a frankly preposterous experiment for the TV show. I was to try and get Jaguar’s new diesel S-Type round the Nürburgring in under 10 minutes. This would mean averaging 78mph, and I can’t even do that on the M40 where there are no corners.
A really fast car, a Ferrari Enzo, for instance, driven by someone with the cojones of a bull elephant and an intimate knowledge of this 13-mile track can get round in about eight minutes.
I didn’t have a fast car, but I did think I knew the track. You see, 20 years ago, I spent a week there as the BMW car club’s guest. We were taught the correct line through each of the 147 corners and then, on the final day, were invited to do a flying lap on which we would be judged for speed and style. 199 took part, I came 198th, and that’s only because the bloke who came last crashed. My losing face got a work out that day.
However, on my first exploratory lap, I couldn’t remember any of it. My instructor, Sabine Schmitz, was distinctly underwhelmed. Sabine was born in Nürburg, holds several lap records and reckons to have been round 15,000 times. She knows the place better than anyone.
“You are not 100-per-cent talent free” she said. “but you are the laziest driver I’ve ever seen. I’d say you are 80-per-cent talent free”. When asked if I could get the Jaguar round in under 10 minutes, there wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation. “No” she laughed.
And then a strange thing happened. Instead of gurning at the camera and maybe doing some kind of Eric Morecambe deliberate trip as I walked to the car, I felt a hot prickly surge of adrenal soup course down the back of my neck. I felt, for the first time since I was 11, competitive.
“My first solo lap showed however that determination is no match for an absence of talent”
My first solo lap showed however that determination is no match for an absence of talent, a lack of track intimacy and a car with a turbocharged paraffin stove under the bonnet. I went round in 10 minutes and 26 seconds.
My next lap was perfect. I kissed apexes softly, applied the power smoothly, braked to the onset of anti-lockery and as a result, powered across the line in 10 minutes, 20 seconds. I couldn’t believe it. Perfection had resulted in a saving of only six seconds; where was I to find another 20?
As it turns out, I wasn’t. Because the ’Ring is technically a public toll road, and because it was a weekend, the place was packed with speed tourists who’d paid their 12 euros and were either in my way or up my chuff, trying to get past.
Then there were the bloody bikers who swarm past on the straights and despite a lot of leaning, and sparks, go through the corners at a speed that can only be called glacial. What’s more, they crash all the time which means the track has to be closed while the emergency services hose their remains into a drainage ditch or culvert.
When it reopened, so many cars were out there, it felt like I was doing the M25 on acid. My lap time fell to 11 minutes, and then another biker fell off and by the time they’d hosed his body – yes, he was killed; the eighth this year – into the woods, time was up and the barriers were locked down for the night.
I spent the evening poring over maps, so that the next morning, I bounded out of bed, full of confidence. Only it had rained. And on the fourth corner, my confidence, along with the rest of me, and the car, spun off onto the grass.
I wasn’t alone. There was some poor disabled bloke in one of those BMW MZ3 bread van things who buried the nose in the Armco and moments later, a Ferrari 355 I was following went off hard too. It’s not a good idea because your executors are made to pay for repairs to the crash barrier – at £400 a yard.
Annoyingly, I still couldn’t get the track hooked up in my head. Much to the consternation of those behind, I was still braking and changing down into third on some crests, only to find the track was straight for another three miles. And conversely, I was barrelling over others, only to find myself at a hairpin bend that I could have sworn wasn’t there last time around.
Then the bloody car broke down. I slammed it into second at, ooh about a hundred, and a warning message came up on the dash saying, ‘I don’t think so, matey’. The rest of the lap was done in emergency, limp-home mode.
With no real damage, and the computer reset, I went out again, trying to remember the track, trying to stay out of everyone’s way and trying to remember that, because I had a diesel, corners, even tight ones, had to be done in third or even fourth. I had to use torque, not power. I had to use my brain too and I was getting very tired. But still my lap times refused to drop below 10:10.
And then, with half an hour to go before I had to fly home, I decided dying was better than failure. So I went out there and started head-butting the kerbs rather than kissing them. I was so fired up that, after overtaking a Finnish Porsche 968, I went off the track completely and never even lifted. The result, verified by time-coded onboard cameras, was a 9:59.
I’d love to say I was calm and dignified. I’d love to say there was much grace and decorum when I told the instructor. But I’m afraid I went to pieces. I beamed. I screamed. In a haze of ecstasy, I completely lost the plot.
For the first time in my life, I’d achieved a goal. I was a somebody; a driving god and, boy, it felt good. But it didn’t last. Sabine then climbed into the car and on her very first go, went round in 9 minutes and 12 seconds. Situation normal then. I lost.
This article was first published in December 2004.