The drivers who pilot these 3.0-liter 800-hp 1,320-pound rolling missiles are an elite (Michael Shumacher makes about $32 million a year as the lead Ferrari driver) but sullen lot, giving away autographs as freely as they do thousand-Euro bills. Most make Russell Crowe look as giddy as Pee-wee Herman. For Americans, the drivers come first. "Ricky Rudd's my man," a Winston Cup fan will say. Or Mark, or Rusty, or Jeff. Whether they're driving a Dodge, Ford, Chevy, or Pontiac is important, but we like to think that American racing is athlete versus athlete, not a battle of countries and corporations. Before each Winston Cup race, the drivers are paraded around the track, each in his own signboarded convertible alongside his own local beauty queen. At an F1 race, the drivers are crammed onto a single flatbed.
Much English, German, and Italian national pride is at stake in F1, which is amusing, considering that most of the cars, including Mercedes and Renault, are made in England, and Toyota's new car and engine are both made in Germany. What you really see at play is the enduring power of class. Grand Prix racing reflects Europe's near-universal class condescension. Polo seems positively y'all-come-on-down by comparison. The commoners sit on bleachers, and the pits and paddock are for the lords and ladies. My temporary Paddock Club "membership" at Imola cost my hosts nearly $4,000, I learned, but even with four grand, you couldn't buy your way in. Unlike Winston Cup's buy-'em-at-the-gate paddock passes, you'd have to be invited by a team or sponsor.
At an F1 race, celebrity-sniffers congregate around the impenetrable, electronically controlled Paddock Club turnstiles, hoping for a glimpse of a driver returning from a brief, painful PR appearance in a sponsor's hospitality suite, for that's the only way they'll ever see one up close. As I came out of the Club on the afternoon of qualifying, a group of Italians pointed at me, clapped hands to mouths, and jabbered excitedly. Somewhere, apparently, a white-haired ancien from the days of skinny-tired, front-engine Grand Prix cars also wears Harry Potter glasses and a goofy-looking Tilley sun hat. Knowing F1's rules, however, they didn't ask me for autographs.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.