This book project was offered to me in August 2020, when I was in Sicily and like everyone, found myself in that momentary lull between waves of the biggest pandemic to hit humankind in a century. And, as many readers of this blog will know and be able to relate to themselves, I had one part of my life absolutely wiped out by the pandemic: Performing music and doing my other theatre-related activities in public. The performing arts, as everyone knows, were amongst the worst hit – well, of course, not to mention the restaurant industry, the travel industry, airlines and airports, etc. – since to perform in public was one of the easiest and most natural things to ban. And rightly so.
But that left me, like so many musicians and actors and performers, feeling as if we might not be able to breathe if we came down with Covid, but we were not able to breathe without our moments on stage, either! Fortunately for me, I had spent decades of my life devoted exclusively to my other passion of being closed up in my room – or a media center or newspaper office – and writing. Living through words. Living in the mind and not in the outside world or on a stage.
So when in August 2020 I was offered this opportunity of writing a book about Formula One for Assouline’s most prestigious collection – the Ultimate – in the series known as “The Impossible Collection,” I didn’t just jump at it, I instantly stopped feeling any regret, pain or other horror for losing that other aspect of my life, consisting in performing on stage. Here was a fabulous project offered to me by Assouline that thrived off the lockdown isolation as it required intense concentration, research and writing at just the very moment that the second wave of the pandemic came to hit us.Suddenly, I came entirely back to life thanks to this project. I also felt a huge sense of responsibility: The task was much bigger than I expected when I said yes. I had to come up with the 100 greatest, iconic, most important, “impossible” moments of Formula One over 70 years. I had been hired for my experience of more than 20 years covering the series for the International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times, and I realized that I had a responsibility for a big book that would sell for 920 euros, and/or $995, not just for an article on a piece of paper that would be used to wrap up fish the next day! My choices of moments have to be as close to perfect as possible.
Responsibility of Choosing the Impossible Moments for Formula 1: The Impossible Collection
It’s not that I doubted my ability to choose those moments. But I knew that Formula One is a series that has millions of fans who are not only passionate, but are often just as knowledgable as many of the journalists who cover it their whole lives. I also knew that any choice for a great moment that I made would also leave out several other possibilities that some other journalist or fan might feel very passionate about and cry foul!
“HOW could you not put in THIS moment!” they might say.
But that is also when I decided that, in any case, any list of 100 moments over 71 seasons that anyone made would have to have an element of personal preference or style to it, and I would have to assume that. Still, it took months to make the final choice of 100 great moments. I narrowed an initial selection down to 150, and then began eliminating, or at the suggestion of my editors at Assouline, in some cases, joining moments together – such as when I did only one moment for the two times that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost crashed into each other at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka in 1989 and 1990, thus drawing their championship duel to a close.I also said to myself that it would be absolutely necessary in a series like Formula One to include in the great moments not just sporting moments, but technical ones – the introduction of the Ford DFV engine in the 60s that would dominate for so many years, or the first rear-engine victory, etc. – as well as business advances or reversals, new venues, etc. Formula One has so many different aspects to it, that it would be impossible to do it justice while focusing on just one part of it.
While it was easy to make my first list – I started by working off the top of my head, then I went through several histories, timelines, collections of statistics, etc., to make sure I missed nothing that I might have overlooked – the most difficult thing was really what to cut out of the list. So many things had to go at some point. It was with great regret, for instance, that I did not include Jean Alesi’s sole victory in the series when he drove his Ferrari to win the Canadian Grand Prix in 1995 after Michael Schumacher, who led all but the last 11 laps of the 68-lap race, had to make a pit stop to change his steering wheel, and could not engage the gear, and so handed the lead to Alesi, who kept it until the checkered flag. It was a hugely dramatic moment during a season dominated by Schumacher, and involving the two teams that would exchange those same two drivers for the following year. (Schumacher went to Ferrari the following year, while Alesi and his Ferrari teammate, Gerhard Berger, both went to Benetton.)There were countless moments like this that I loved, that were big, important, but it was impossible to use them all. One of the ways that I chose moments, in fact, was to try to choose them for their larger effect on the series. That applied especially, for instance, with the moments that involved fatalities. The early years were so full of fatalities, and each was as tragic as the other. As time went on and safety improved, there were fewer and fewer. But still, while I did not mention the death of Elio De Angelis in 1986 after a testing accident, I could not, clearly, avoid talking about the moment involving the death of Ayrton Senna (with Roland Ratzenberger having died the previous day) at Imola in 1994. Nor could I avoid talking about the death of Wolfgang von Trips and the 15 spectators at Monza in September 1961.
I could not, either, avoid moments that included the great records, Schumacher’s equalling Juan Manuel Fangio’s 5 world titles in 2002, and then beating that record. And how satisfying and beautiful it was for the book to end on the note of Lewis Hamilton equalling Schumacher’s record of seven titles – and beating his number of victories – in the final season that the book covered, 2020, which was unfolding as I wrote it.
Catharsis in Writing the Introduction to Formula 1: The Impossible Collection
It was the work on the moments, both selecting them and writing them – in all their minute detail – that would make up the biggest part of the job. When I took on the project, I had thought it would be the writing of what became a 65-page introduction – with lots of photos – that would be the hardest part. In fact, the introduction was probably the most fun part to do, as I saw it as an opportunity to sum up and focus all of my knowledge about Formula One accumulated over a lifetime of being a fan – the first race I attended was the first Canadian Grand Prix, at Mosport in 1967 – and nearly a quarter century of writing about it professionally. So in a way, the introduction – that even went into the previous era of Grand Prix racing, starting with the precursor auto races sponsored by the founder of my former IHT newspaper, James Gordon Bennett Jr. – was even cathartic, in a way.
It was an incredible bit of unexpected icing on the cake when after I submitted the completed book to the editors, I learned that both Jean Todt, the president of the International Automobile Federation, and Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of Formula One, had written forewords to the book. What an honor. (But just as great an honor was my having been the writer that Jean Todt recommended to do the book when Assouline asked for his advice on who to call.)
When Formula 1: The Impossible Collection Finally ArrivesBut the day my advance copy of the book arrived – all nearly 10 kilograms of it – that was when I saw the reality that I could never truly have imagined for a book that is an absolute “bijou” as the French say for a jewel, and I could see immediately not only why it was being sold for 920 euros, but that it seemed worth much more than that in the paper and hand craftsmanship alone. Printed at a luxury quality printer in Milan (called Grafiche Milani, a favourite of Jimmy Page) and many of the photographs – the photographic research job, as well as many of the photos themselves, was done by Bernard Asset, a top F1 photographer, while the final choices of photos and images was done by Martine Assouline, of the husband and wife team that own the company – were separately glued to the pages. The cover had a soft feel to it, and a wafting sent of the printer’s workshop came emanating from the box when I opened the book package. Astounding!
By the time the book was completed, and published in May, I had begun to think about playing music again, and I was, in fact, able to do so at a few places, as the pandemic died out a little where I live, and the vaccination process began – I got my second one at the end of May – and then I returned to Sicily, where I was able to perform a couple of times, as I have done back home in France since then.
On the other hand, I have also been working all out on another book project in recent months, which I will also only announce when the time is appropriate! (I’m entering a virtuous cycle here!) And again, I can thank this new project for taking me through the third wave!!!
The book “Formula 1: The Impossible Collection,” is available around the world in both Assouline’s own stores, as well as some select shops. It is also available to buy online at Assouline’s site.
Great Press Coverage of Formula 1: The Impossible Collection
Actually, I said the cherry on the cake were the two forewords, but there was another aspect to doing the book that I had not expected to this degree, and that was great coverage by some of the world’s top magazines, some of which involved several interviews with me…that once again showed me how difficult it can be to be on the other side of the journalistic table, as the subject of the interview rather than the interviewer!
Here is a list of links to a few of the major interviews and reviews of the book, so you can click on any one of them to read the review or interview:
The book was reviewed or promoted in many, many other parts of the internet, on many different kinds of sites, making me realize there is a landscape out there for talking about books and products of a size and kind that I had never even suspected existed (the landscape I mean, not the size of the books!). And so it was a fun, learning experience all over to have been blessed with this not impossible dream of writing a book about Formula One’s impossible moments for Assouline.