Opinion: Is F1 too fast for bookworms?

Literary fiction should, in theory, be a natural fit for motorsport and Formula 1 in particular, yet F1-themed novels have struggled for mainstream recognition. Kate Walker investigates.

Opinion: Is F1 too fast for bookworms?
Rush Movie Poster
Aki Hintsa and Oskari Saari: The Core – Better Life, Better Performance book cover
Ayrton Senna - 1985 Estoril
The cover of the Jade Gurss book
Fernando Alonso, Ferrari with a large book
Book Stand
Ayrton Senna - 1993 Adelaide
Speed of Life book cover
Rush Movie Poster
Ayrton Senna - F1 1994 Tribute
Presentation of the new book entitled 'Ayrton Senna -- Through My Eye', by noted auto racing photographer Paul Henri-Cahier
Launch of Ferrari official book 'Formula Ferrari': Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher and Jean Todt
Michelin Chef Alfonso Laccarinos book

Until Asif Kapadia’s Senna documentary and the Ron Howard movie Rush were released in quick succession, it would be fair to say that Formula 1 didn’t have the best record in the movie theatres.

Part of the problem has long been the tightly-controlled rights to the sport, and the need to have official sanctioning of anything approaching inside access - particularly where cameras are concerned.

But the world of fiction is free from such constraints. No-one controls the broadcasting rights to a writer’s imagination (or, at least, not yet).

Despite this, and despite the opportunities that F1 affords for exotic locations, bitter rivalries and thrilling daredevil exploits, novels set in and around the sport have never really captured the public imagination.

There is however a precedent for a niche sport achieving mainstream literary success: the world of horse-racing, via the novels of Dick Francis.

A former steeplechase jockey, Francis wrote more than 40 international best-selling thrillers set in and around the other kind of paddock. Popular fiction rather than literary masterpieces, Francis’ novels sold more than 60 million copies in 35 languages.

So why have Formula 1 novels - and motorsport novels in general, for that matter - failed to take off in quite the same way?

F1 rich with source material

The popularity of the thriller and action genre shows there’s a reading audience receptive to tension being ratcheted up with words, not images, and a well-written battle between two cars should theoretically be no less dramatic than a description of hand-to-hand combat.

Irrespective of genre, what matters to fiction readers is characters they care about, both those to be loved and those to be loathed.

Formula 1 is rich with such characters, and novels centred on the sport can mine teammate rivalries, political manoeuvring, and simple competition to manipulate a reader’s emotions. The material is there, ripe for exploitation.

One man out to bring thrills to F1 fiction is Toby Vintcent, whose second novel Crash is published in June. A review copy showed the book to be a pacey and timely character-driven beach read, a tense thriller focused on local corruption and power politics at the maiden (fictional) Moscow Grand Prix.

But it also revealed one of the key problems with bringing F1 to the general public - the sport’s increasing technological complexity and use of jargon that fans are used to absorbing.

While clearly written and necessary to the ‘Joe Public’ reader, Vintcent is forced to explain concepts and components like telemetry and a limited-slip differential, so that the plot can be advanced.

And although Francis’ racing thrillers were written with an insider's knowledge, a horse with a broken leg is far easier to explain - and for the reader to visualise - than technical troubles buried under the bodywork.

But even that doesn’t fully explain F1’s lack of traction in the fiction market.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, when the cars’ technology was simpler to explain to a layman, the audience for F1 novels remained relatively small, despite publishers’ efforts to capitalise on the ‘derring-do’ aspects of the sport, using current drivers to author racing books.

Graham Hill is the author of The Torella Tigers, a motor-racing novel ‘told to Robert Martin’, while Mike Hawthorne wrote what was to have been a series of racing novels aimed at young male fans of the Biggles series, based around the adventures of one Carlotti Smith.

Hawthorn died after the second book in the series was completed, and both have long since disappeared from print.

Too risky?

A Google search for ‘motorsport fiction’ brings up a selection of novels centred on F1 and sportscar racing, and while reports of the quality of each vary, even those rated most highly by their readers have only ever managed to reach a niche market.

The issue appears to be one of marketing. When Vintcent published his first novel, Driven, in 2015, it was well-reviewed by specialist motorsport outlets but largely ignored by the mainstream press.

With limited space now given to book reviews in national newspapers, those selected for review are largely highbrow works of literary fiction or novels by previously established best-selling authors.

Motorsport can offer neither, and without the opportunity of mainstream media exposure publishers are understandably wary of losing money to poor sales.

It’s a vicious circle - motorsport fiction won’t get exposure without investment, but nor will the genre secure investment without exposure. Even fiction is under-exploited media in Formula 1.

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