Porsche Motorsport: »There Is No Plan B.«

Aksel Lund Svindal, as one of the world’s most successful alpine ski racers, only wants to go through corners. And fast. FIA World Endurance Champion Neel Jani agrees, though he doesn’t mean skiing, but motorsport. On the sidelines of the GP Ice Race in Zell am See, we spoke with them about precision, heroic stories and the importance of television images.
Text Matthias Mederer, Nadine Hanfstein
Photo Matthias Mederer, Keno Zache

What is the fascination of your respective sport?
Aksel Lund Svindal: Where to start? In skiing, first of all it’s the relatively simple equipment you need to ski down a slope. I don’t think that motorized we’d be much faster. The nice thing is that you actually only want to do curves. Anyone can go fast straight ahead. But doing curves and going over bumps at high speeds is what makes skiing so appealing. Not only can you take the speed with you into a curve, sometimes you can get even more speed coming out of it. Curves are also what makes motorsport, or driving in general, so special. Drag racing, which is only about going straight ahead, is not so interesting for me.

Neel Jani: That’s also the exciting thing for me about both sports. It’s always about finding the line, which ultimately results from speed and g-forces. It is even possible to calculate the perfect line, through in both cases you just don’t have the time to do it. You have to feel it. That’s something that naturally develops over the years, both in skiing and in a racing car. In fact, we ask ourselves the same questions: When and how much do I brake? When do I turn? When do I let go? When do I come out of the turn? Or in skiing: when do I point the skis facing downhill again?

So it’s about precision at the limit and under enormous time pressure?
Jani: Something like that. Preparation is very important. Before a race, we always inspect the track, look at each curve from the entrance as well as from the exit.
Svindal: And although everything in a race happens very fast and you have to make quick decisions, you somehow see the line. Even in the snow where everything is white. You’re always a good deal ahead mentally. You notice this especially when something unforeseen, when a mistake happens, for example when you fall.
Jani: It’s exactly the same in a racing car. If an accident happens or you lose control of the car, you’re surprised at first, because you’ve already gone through the curve in your head.

Still, there are always unforeseen things. How much improvisation does a good racer need?
Svindal: There’s a plan A, but no plan B. The goal is always to get back to plan A as quickly as possible. Little things always happen. Braking and going back to A is actually not an option.
Jani: You basically live with anticipation – that works eighty, ninety percent of the time. Ten to fifteen percent is improvisation because everything is always in motion and extremely fast. In the true sense of the word.

»The goal of the sport must be to write heroic stories. And that only works if you get back up and win after falling down.«

In skiing, there are usually only one or two runs. In racing, there are lots of laps, and the track is always the same
Jani: That’s not quite true. The track changes from lap to lap. Most of the time it gets faster. In Formula E this can be extreme as it is an improvised street circuit. The grip level increases from lap to lap. At the end of a day, a course like that can suddenly be thirty seconds faster, like in Saudi Arabia, for instance. Though that’s an extreme example.

How much experience does the skier Aksel Lund Svindal have driving a car on a racetrack?
Svindal: Not much. I’ve driven many miles in a car, but only a little on the racetrack. But when I go to the racetrack with friends, I notice that I learn a lot faster than people who don’t do sports.
Jani: Because you’ve got a feel for it.
Svindal: Right, especially a feel for the line. Of course, we don’t have a steering wheel, gas or brake in skiing, so I always have to learn a lot in this area, but I have a feel for the line in my blood.
Jani: You’ve been to Le Mans twice, right?
Svindal: Right. And I stayed at the track the whole time, sleeping only around an hour during the entire twenty-four-hour race. I’ve been to a lot of Formula One races, but Le Mans is something special. The duels on the track, with the opponents, the speed difference between the prototypes and the GT cars. Of course, these are things that we don’t have in skiing.

What makes these events so fascinating for spectators?
Svindal: I think it’s the stories. Both Le Mans and Kitzbühel are extremely traditional races, and of course a lot of stories – including heroic stories – have been written in this long time. The races that have taken place here are full of drama and incredible victories.
Jani: People know these races. If you start talking about the FIS World Cup or the LMP1, lots of people won’t know what those are. But if you tell them about Le Mans or Kitzbühel, they immediately know what you mean.

What makes a hero a hero?
Jani [to Svindal]: When did you fall in Kitzbühel?
Svindal: At the finish?
Jani: Yes.
Svindal: 2016.
Jani: Skiers have these spectacular falls. It looks brutal sometimes. But the skiers often get up again, waving at the camera. This is a psychological “wow” effect for the audience. The slopes provoke these mistakes. But it is precisely this facing the danger, the getting back up again, that defines the hero.
Svindal: It’s the ability to deal with failure. It is dangerous. There are always accidents with broken knees. And in the worst case, someone dies.

So a hero is someone who comes face to face with death?
Jani: It belongs together somehow.
Svindal: The most important thing is that after an accident I don’t just say “Shit happens!” and keep going. I have to analyze why it happened. The goal of the sport must be to write heroic stories. And that only works if you get back up and win after falling down.
Jani: Hermann Maier’s crash in Nagano in 1998 is a good example.
Svindal: His fall is an example of the impact of television images. The crash wasn’t that serious, but it looked really horrific. The camera was on the side of the run. Hermann came out of the curve, flew across the screen, but landed in the snow. There are falls that look far less spectacular but have more serious consequences. If someone is picked up by helicopter, that’s not good for the sport. Then there’s no hero. The best thing is a fall like Hermann’s. The spectators immediately see that he’s still alive, he’s moving and after a few days he comes back spectacularly to win. That is what we need.

Why do we need that?
Jani: I think it’s about seeing something that not everyone can do. Not all of us can race the Streif in Kitzbühel like the downhillers do. And hardly anyone has the chance to drive twenty-four hours in a racing car at Le Mans. And the few who do have to go to the limit.

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