Bathrooms need mirrors. Telescopes need mirrors. And where would gyms be without mirrors? Street cars need mirrors, too. But what about race cars? Do they need mirrors? Perhaps not.
Not long after the first car took to the dirt roads dominated by the horse and buggy in the early 1900’s, at a time when the dawn of congestion was at hand, street cars were fitted with mirrors. Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500 in 1911 driving a Marmon Wasp that was fitted with a rear view mirror. So mirrors are not new to street cars or racing cars, they’ve been around since the beginning. But do we really need them on a race car?
Crazy thought? Let’s think about it a minute or two. What are mirrors used for when racing? Right now, admittedly, several things. When faster traffic approaches from behind, as is often the case during mixed practice, you’re supposed to see them coming, let them by, not fight them for the corner. If it’s a knock-down, drag-out race, and someone dives inside you as the two of you approach a corner, you’re supposed to see that coming, give way to the overtaking vehicle if it has made it abeam you and “earned” the corner and fight back on the next corner. And of course, let’s not forget how they can be used to block! The guy behind is a tad faster, trying to pass? I see him coming, I’ll just drift over to the left a bit and block his path. Ah, that’ll teach him, I’m still ahead! In Europe, they call it “defending.”
You might also see smoke emanating from your car in your mirrors, telling you something is amiss. And in open wheel racing, some might add that they can see their rear tires in their mirrors and can tell if said tires are wearing in a desired and/or expected manner. And photographers love taking pictures of a pensive driver’s eye’s in their mirrors.
All well and good, so far. Sounds like a critical safety item and something that must be present. However, consider a world where no mirrors were fitted. How would a pass be made? With more certainty, I suggest. The vehicle being passed has no way to know I’m here, so I better get by cleanly and without doubt. Blocking? You wouldn’t know where someone is coming from so wouldn’t know which way to purposely drift across the track. Better racing!
I raced motorcycles for about 5 years in total. No mirrors. If fact, they’re not allowed, period. If you do a track-day on a motorcycle, organizers will require your mirrors be removed or at least taped over. Why? For the amateur track day rider, the view to the rear is a potentially lethal distraction. They can be a distraction on four wheels as well. I once passed another car exiting the famous carousel at Sonoma Raceway, stared with delight at my defeated foe in my mirror and promptly went right passed my braking point for turn 7 and shot straight off the course, looking quite the fool. Luckily, there was room to spare and nothing to hit. No doubt he laughed as he re-passed my wayward car.
Tipping a motorcycle into a corner at speed, knowing it is likely that someone is close behind, is a tip of faith, to a degree. But you know he knows that you don’t know he’s there. So he’ll only be there if he can rightfully claim the corner. Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Sure, misjudgments happen all the time, and bikes come together and mayhem ensues. But it’s not like mayhem doesn’t ensue anyway from time to time with all manner of mirrors fitted on race cars. Mirrors create assumptions. “Didn’t you see me coming?” –a common query during post crash discussion.
Far less blocking goes on in motorcycle road racing, too. Partly, it’s because the bikes take up less space on track, making it harder to become an un-circumnavigatable obstacle. Sure, there’s that. But to a large degree, it’s because you can’t see from where your foe cometh, so you know not where to block, ahem, “defend.”
So something to think about. I doubt old school minds would ever consider such a quantum change in thinking, but I think it an interesting topic of conversation. Perhaps, during driver’s meetings, at the very least, it would be a good idea to suggest that all driver’s approach one another with no preconceived assumptions. Don’t assume you are an image in his/her mirror! I’ll keep using mine, and stay out of trouble, and maybe a photog will find me looking pensive on the grid, eyes filling my car’s mirrors! But take them away and I, for one, would not be phased.
Last weekend; the VARAC (Vintage Automobile Association of Canada) Grand Prix. Over 350 vintage cars and 28 Formula Fords. We managed 5th in qualifying and finished all five races in the top ten, 4th, even, in one race! A fabulous and very, very fast track. Fabulous people and parties, too, as I suppose one should expect in Canada.
Next up, in July, an HMSA (Historic Motorsports Association) event at Mont Tremblant, an iconic track north of Montreal. Should be more of the same; great track, great event, great people. It’s likely a smaller event than last weekend, but a chance to race on another famous Formula One track. Hard to pass up. And I’ll use my mirrors, I promise.