‘It’s impossible I hit the wall. The wall moved’

This is a brilliant story from the classic days of F1. I love it because it shows both the incredible precision and relentless consistency that an expert at the top of their game can bring to their chosen profession.

In this case, the expert was three-times F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna.

Pat Symonds, technical director, sat down with Ayrton after the 1984 US GP and spoke about Senna’s weekend

“It was very hot and a terribly difficult race. Ayrton had a bit of a mixed bag: he’d qualified all right, thought the car was Ok. He spun early in the race and had to work his way back, but was heading towards a reasonable if not stunning finish. Then Senna crashed, damaged a wheel and broke a driveshaft. After the race he was distraught and really couldn’t understand how he’d hit the wall. We were sitting talking, debriefing, and he said: ‘It’s impossible I hit the wall. The wall moved’.”

Symonds continued, “I said, ‘Yeah, sure it did…’ They were huge great concrete blocks…But he was so insistent, and I had so much confidence in the guy, that I said, ‘Ok, we’ve just got to go and look at this’. I did think he was talking bollocks but he needed to go and see it. So we walked out to where he’d hit the wall and do you know what? The wall had moved. It was made of the great big concrete blocks that they used to delineate the circuit, but what be happened was that someone had hit the far end of a block and pushed it, which made the leading edge come out a few millimeters. He was driving with such precision that those few millimeters, and I’m talking probably ten millimeters, were enough for him to hit the wall that time rather than just miss it”.

“That really opened my eyes. I knew the guy was good but that really told me how special. Not just the driving but this conviction, the analysis and then the conclusion: I cannot be wrong, so the wall must have moved. Everyone else would say, ‘Bollocks, how on earth did I do that? ‘But the conviction he had was just staggering. And he was right”.

I was watching the race that weekend when Senna crashed and died at Imola in 1994. The whole weekend was a succession of disasters, from Barrichello’s crash during Friday practice, to Ronald Ratzenberger’s death on the Saturday, then Ayrton himself during the race, and Michele Alboreto’s Minardi losing a wheel in the pits and putting four mechanics in hospital as a result.  It really ways “the blackest day for Grand Prix racing that I can remember” as Murray Walker said.

To Read: ‘Britain’s War’ by Daniel Todman

I find that no matter how many books I read on the second world war, there’s always something new to discover, usually the result of a fresh perspective on old facts. Daniel Todman’s dual volume work on Britain’s War looks well worth adding to the ‘to-read’ pile:

.. historians of Todman’s generation are right to move on beyond triumphalism and to speak to the times in which we live today. For Britain’s role in the world is now nothing like what it was before Hitler invaded Poland, when the British empire comprised a quarter of the global population. Thus there were really two wars: one against the Nazi threat to the whole of Europe and the other to protect the British empire, most crucially in Asia. Broadly speaking, the first of these wars proved to be a moral and military success; the other turned out to be a failure. And in each case it had needed the intervention of the new superpowers, the USSR and the US, to retrieve the British from embarrassment.

Baldly put, this is the frame for the story as Todman tells it. However magnificent Churchill appeared in his commitment to saving Europe, the futile war to preserve the British empire mattered to him fully as much. Hence the searing impact of the sudden fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942, exposing Churchill’s naive illusion that because this island port and naval base was always called “a fortress”, it was one that could withstand a siege. Todman’s comment elsewhere that Churchill was a “man who liked to make big plans on small maps” captures some of his frailty in formulating grand strategy.

I think it reveals a lot about the post-war British mentality, and rhetoric you still hear today – the myth is they won *both* wars. Should be an interesting read.

Also, interestingly, it would seem that designating something a fortress is always a bad idea for anyone left in it, Churchill was evidently as guilty of that as anyone else (‘Gilbraltar of the East’ (US loses Corregidor to Japan), any number of ‘festung’ designations thrown out by Hitler (Stalingrad, Breslau…), Eban-Emael (Belgium), and of course, the Maginot Line (although it was more a defensive shoulder than a fortress in reality).

50 Years since Apollo 13 – Lessons in leadership and planning


In approaching this crisis, their delegation of authority and deference to expertise is almost total. In the face of high-stakes scenarios, it is tempting to wrest control from more junior colleagues. But in 1970 the approach of mission control was quite different. They empowered their most junior team members, giving them total ownership of their specialist stations. They would interrogate their recommendations but not second-guess them. It is a lesson that industry and wider society has largely failed to heed.

Also, they had already planned, tested and created procedures for several of the scenarios they now had to face. Improvisation was kept to minimum, because plans made in the heat of the moment are often flawed.


The Great Pyramid Looked Really Great

Back in the day it probably looked absolutely amazing in it’s polished limestone facing:

” The current outer surface of the Great Pyramid at Giza is made of rough limestone blocks, colored a dark sandy brown from hundreds of years of pollution and weathering. But when it was first built, there was a smooth layer of fine white limestone on the outside of the structure, all cut to the same angle and polished to a shine so bright it almost glowed. “


Margaret Hamilton: Pioneer Software Engineer

Enjoyable, if brief, interview with Margaret Hamilton, who lead the software team for the Apollo moonshots. I can’t help but notice how few men are ever asked how their lives as parents ever collides with their work.

Q: Did your life as a software engineer and a mother ever collide?
A: Often in the evening or at weekends I would bring my young daughter, Lauren, into work with me. One day, she was with me when I was doing a simulation of a mission to the moon. She liked to imitate me – playing astronaut. She started hitting keys and all of a sudden, the simulation started. Then she pressed other keys and the simulation crashed. She had selected a program which was supposed to be run prior to launch – when she was already “on the way” to the moon. The computer had so little space, it had wiped the navigation data taking her to the moon. I thought: my God – this could inadvertently happen in a real mission. I suggested a program change to prevent a prelaunch program being selected during flight. But the higher-ups at MIT and Nasa said the astronauts were too well trained to make such a mistake. Midcourse on the very next mission – Apollo 8 – one of the astronauts on board accidentally did exactly what Lauren had done. The Lauren bug! It created much havoc and required the mission to be reconfigured. After that, they let me put the program change in, all right.

Children do make good testers – no fears about pressing the wrong buttons! Also, reassuring to know that even the ‘well trained’ make mistakes.

Catholic Adoption

In the news, more adoption issues in a case that further illustrates the attitudes and social mores of catholic Ireland as detailed in The God Squad. The fudged adoption papers, un-vetted placement, obfuscation and misdirection of the supposed Sisters of Charity is sadly unsurprising yet still awful to read:

His client became pregnant shortly before her 21st birthday. It was then arranged for her to travel to Ireland, for work experience and she ended up at a house in Clontarf in Dublin through the St Patrick’s Guild, which was run by the Sisters of Charity Nuns.

Counsel said she gave birth to a boy on 13 March 1961 at the Marie Clinic in Clontarf.

She was “sternly warned”, not to touch the newborn as it would be “bad for the child”, who was to be put up for adoption.

However she defied this warning, counsel said, and baptised him with holy water she had in the home in the hope that someday she would find him.

Shortly afterwards she was taken away and signed various forms consenting to the adoption. Counsel said the form was “false”.

Counsel said the documents she signed were legal nullities and had none of the normal safeguards required.

In addition, counsel said the contents of the form about the mother’s details were fudged and lacking in detail.

Counsel said that over the years his client, following her marriage and the birth of her other children, made visits to Ireland in attempts to get information about her son without much success.

She was brushed off by the nuns she dealt with at the Guild, it was said, and a person who worked at the place where she gave birth to her son suggested the boy was among those infants who went to the USA.


The week that contained years

Lenin once said that “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

This has been one of those weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a sense of compressed events; news breaking like waves. The fallout from this week will last years.


Politically, most of the action, or perhaps inaction, has been in the Westminster parliament (and I feel a strong need to  differentiate between components of the UK now given that the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is playing a blinder).

In some ways the real decisions are being taken outside of Westminster. The U.K. Government has disappeared into a Tory leadership fight that could shatter the party in two. The only decision they’ve taken is not to invoke Article 50 yet.Sturgeon and Juncker. The future is now?

As for the pretenders to the throne, Boris Johnson, after staring the future in the face, suddenly remembered that his number one priority is Boris and quit. Allegedly he was stabbed in the back by Gove, but I suspect he was looking for an excuse to go since he won the referendum he didn’t want to win. Gove has thrown his hat in the ring, in a surprise move given that he always denied any aspirations in that direction. Meanwhile, Theresa May, who wants to drop the Human Rights act, sounds like she’d use EU citizens in the UK as some sort of bargaining chip, no guarantees until she negotiates with the EU. A fair point but hardly helpful to the rising number of people facing rascist abuse on a daily basis. Now the race seems to be how right wing the Tories can go to prevent UKIP eating their lunch. The (disgraced) Liam Fox (those two words are indelibly associated in my head now) has also put himself forward.

So where’s the opposition been? Labour, amazingly enough and at a time like this and all, has suffered a leadership challenge, and nobody really seems to know what is going on at all. Sort answer here is that while entertaining, there’s no official opposition in the UK right now.

There’s been a special session of the EU parliament on Monday, where Farage was roasted and Alyn Smith gave a rousing speech to standing ovation that exhorted Europe to stand by Scotland (which voted remain). Somewhat ominously, Marine Le Pen made great mileage out of the referendum result. Europe is under pressure like never before – suddenly the European project needs to defend itself, which could be the making of it. It’s had a somewhat easy ride since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In a surprise turn of events, Farage has resigned from leadership of UKIP. I don’t think there’s anyone of substance left to resign from something anymore in the UK.

Most of Europe is either quietly trying to work out what the hell is going to happen in the future, or strongly suggesting that the UK ‘press the button’ on article 50 and get on with it.

In an interesting change to Irish foreign policy (we were strictly neutral Untitledduring the first Scottish independence referendum), an Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke on behalf of Nicola Sturgeon at the full 28 member heads of state summit this week, the first since Brexit. This move drew fire from the Spanish, wary of any Catalonian moves in a similar direction to Scotland, and from the Scottish and English Tories (and UKIP, as you’d expect). We are probably aiming to capitalise on the goodwill Scotland has in Europe just now, but traditional Irish Foreign policy has been to support other small nations. Significantly, this summit was followed by an informal meeting of the 27, the UK is already being left out in the cold.

The impact on Northern Ireland, the peace process, Scotland, Gibraltar and so on seems to have been forgotten or ignored by the mainstream in the UK. England is turning in on itself, we may yet see the breakup of the U.K. Perhaps this is the end stage of the long retreat from empire – after the First World War the Empire shrank, up to the Suez Crisis in ’56, when the UK finally had it spelled out to them that they were no longer a Great Power, able to dictate events on the world stage. I think this is the greatest existential crisis to hit them since. The rump of empire was finally lost in 1999 with the return of Hong Kong to China. Now, if Scotland leaves, England will shrink back to being England once more, for the first time in the 309 years since the Union with Scotland in 1707.

David Low, 1940,
“Very well, alone”

Some week.