Friday, January 19, 2007

Like a bat out of hell

Among the colloquial expressions from my childhood and adolescence that I've never forgotten, that's one of my favorites. It's a metaphor for moving fast, in the sense of escaping. Back in Grafton, though, it was a silly metaphor, because the only bats we ever saw were so-called flying foxes, which flew no faster than crows. Here at Gamone, I love to watch small bats darting around in the twilight. But they seem to return every few seconds to the same flight zone, as if they were intrigued by the observer (me)... which wouldn't really be an effective strategy for escaping from Hell.

Last night, the bats I watched in the darkness were the automobiles competing in the Monte-Carlo rally.

To reach the starting line, spectators had to walk out of the village of Saint-Jean-en-Royans for a few kilometers, in total darkness. But it was worth the effort. I managed to find standing room alongside the starting enclosure, just behind the automobile about to leave. In the final ten seconds or so of the countdown to the departure, the events are spectacular. The driver turns on his main lights, and the result is a little like lighting up a football stadium... which means that these guys are never actually driving in the dark at all. Then there's a metallic clang as he operates his brakes (I suppose) and starts revving up the motor to a deafening pitch. For a few seconds, the angry beast seems to be straining at the leash, like a Boeing about to set off down the runway. When the vehicle finally takes off, it's truly like the proverbial bat out of hell. The machine seems to hurtle madly from zero velocity to God only knows what fantastic speed in a couple of seconds.

After the first half-dozen departures (including the two superb vehicles of the Subaru World Rally Team, one of which was handled by the Aussies Chris Atkinson and Glenn MacNeall), I scrambled a hundred meters along the grassy drain on the edge of the road so that I could stand on the first curve, from where I had the impression that the automobiles were racing directly towards me, in a blinding blaze of white light. There I struck up a conversation with a spectator whose attitudes, even in the dark, gave me the impression that he knew what the rally was all about. He turned out to be a 34-year-old former Formula-Renault circuit driver from Lyon. Whenever a vehicle flashed past, often accompanied by ear-shattering backfiring (due, so I learned, to poorly-regulated ignition), my neighbor provided me with a rapid analysis of the identity of the machine, the performance of its driver over the opening stretch of two hundred meters that we were observing, and even his judgment on the aesthetic qualities of the noise of the motor. For example, for a certain angle of the dangle of the exhaust pipe, the speeding vehicle emits an unpleasant metallic sound, as if some of its nuts and bolts were loose.

The most interesting thing I learned is that the Monte-Carlo Rally, to a large extent, is a rich man's pastime. At the top of the lineup, a dozen professionals are working for automobile manufacturers (Citroen, Ford and Subaru), but the majority of the 47 entrants are ordinary drivers who have used their wealth and their connections to get into the race. I was struck by the fact that these drivers are in fact behaving in a way that is normally prohibited. They're driving hugely-expensive automobiles at a break-neck speed on narrow winding roads, often on the wrong side, with their headlights full on, and creating an unearthly din. The only ingredient that's missing is a few grams of alcohol in their blood! I remarked to my informed neighbor that the relative lack of publicity stickers on the vehicles had intrigued me. He explained that the overall impression created by a phenomenon such as the Monte-Carlo no longer corresponds to the sort of public image that automobile manufacturers wish to convey.

On the drive home, I had to be careful not to put my foot down too heavily on certain stretches of the dark road. It's a sobering thought to realize to what extent we humans are essentially bright monkeys with an inbuilt gift for imitating things we encounter in the world around us.

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