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Interview with Dr. Kathryn Richards from Mercedes AMG Petronas and Dare To Be Different

I’ve been writing for Virtual Racing School since the summer of 2016, and the fifty articles I wrote have covered many areas of simracing, namely concentration and ergonomics, vehicle dynamics and race preparation. But today’s article I find most honourable, because it covers culture in a way that’s much bigger than just simracing. I interviewed Dr. Kathryn Richards, who’s wind tunnel technician of the Mercedes AMG Petronas team, which has won six Formula One titles (and two more coming this year). She’s also a Dare To Be Different ambassador, who’s cause I fully support.

Dr. Kathryn Richards from Mercedes AMG Petronas and Dare To Be Different on women in (sim)racing

What’s the value of nature?

China’s population of 1.4 billion people uses roughly 80 billion chopsticks per year, for which twenty million trees are cut down. Trees have value because they produce chopsticks, and chopsticks are valued as tools for eating food. Like trees, they’re a means to an end, and are valued instrumentally. When a disposable chopstick is used, it’s thrown away. When a reusable chopstick breaks, it’s equally disposed.

A husband or wife is different. Sure, a partner can provide instrumental value by making money or helping in the household, but they have intrinsic value as well. Going for a walk together, receiving a kiss, having a long conversation, those are things of intrinsic value. A husband or wife is, unlike chopsticks, is valued in his or her own right. If he or she breaks an arm or leg, you don’t dispose of him or her (hopefully!).

Following this logic, it seems sensical to assign intrinsic value to nature. I love cycling through the forest, sit on the shoreline, walk through the park, or enjoy nature in its other manifestations, of which there are millions. I don’t do those things because they’re financially beneficial.

Yet nature is often valued instrumentally. Nature provides tourism, which provides income. We cannot cut down the Amazon forest because of the CO2 it absorbs, fishing is limited to safeguard longterm economical gains, and developing countries want (and often receive) money in order to protect forests.

Tony Juniper writes: “We must put a price on nature if we are going to save it.” Well, in 1996, some scientists did that, putting the amount on $33 trillion per year.

But what if trying to put an economical value on nature is a trick question? Try doing the same for a person. What’s the value of your wife or husband? What’s the value of your parents? The question implies that nature is something that can be valued in money alone.

Here are some things to consider; humans cut off from nature tend to be very unhappy, with lack of outdoor time being linked with depression, while on the upside, spending time outdoor is linked with mental benefits (National Geographic: “Nature makes us happy“). Besides, it seems too obvious to list other ‘benefits’ of nature: air to breath, water to drink, resources for food to eat. A healthy environment is the requisite of a healthy economy.

What if nature is the definition of value?

Chasing my girlfriend while cycling through the moorlands of Epe-Heerde, the Netherlands.


The Japanese satellite Kaguya orbited the Moon for twenty months, from 2007 to 2009. I opened some of its footage on YouTube and randomly clicked halfway the video. The lunar surface was whitely brightened by the Sun, which was in full behind the viewpoint of the camera. Then suddenly the blue sphere of Earth rose from the Moon’s horizon, quickly into view. My stomach twisted, with a feeling that a gripping book or song can provide, moved and touched in ones deepest convictions. The Earth quickly moved out of the viewpoint again, as the Sun’s light casted increasingly longer shadows on the irregular surface, darkening the screen.

It’s the same impression as seen by the crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft on December 24th, 1968, when Bill Anders took a photo documented as ‘AS8-14-2383’, which became famous named ‘Earthrise’. Or as provided by the image taken six billion kilometers away in 1990, the Pale Blue Dot, which prompted Carl Sagan’s words: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.”

We usually see the sky as something that’s above us, but we forget that its in all around us. We’re stranded on a small island in the vastness of space, a home we don’t master, as hurricane Irma teaches us.

Humbleness and care for our cage would be appropriate, because this tiny rock is all that we’ve got. A shift of viewpoint as provided by Earthrise is a stark reminder.

Prince in Blue

“Monday morning, December 23rd, 1985. The subway train travelling from Hammersmith to Baron’s Court is filled with people setting out for work or Christmas shopping. Among the latter is an old man of Asian origin. He’s wearing a suit jacket, gilet, tie and polished black shoes. The carts rumble through the humid and warm tunnels as the man’s subtle smile suddenly changes into an expression of pain.” 

“The Prince in Blue” is about the only Thai Formula One driver in history.

Driver Spotlight: The Prince in Blue

Fighting a common enemy

The most difficult problem to solve is one that’s invisible or indescribable, a problem in which not everybody believes. It doesn’t have a single cause, but is rather an accumulation of many problems. Such a problem only becomes worse when left alone, and even worse; time is running out. What makes the most difficult kind of problem even more problematic, is that the central authority needed to address it, is nonexistent, and if it’s there it is weak and pushes the required response forward into the future.

There are only two problems in this category of which I can think of. In Game of Thrones’ realm, the White Walkers, also known as the Army of the Dead (“Winter is coming”). And in our own world, it’s climate change (“Summer is coming”). Both ‘enemies’ have the power to change the weather and threat the whole human race, while ‘we’ are too busy with each other, rather than to face our common enemy.

The Targaryen’s, Starks and Lannisters are not that different from our China, India, the USA and Europe. We’ve to make short term sacrifices and put away differences and focus long term. It’s time for collective action, or as Jon Snow said: “We’re all on the same side, we’re all breathing.”

Do you buy products endorsed to you?

Two of my interests merged (advertising and autosport) in a topic on the British Autosport forums — whilst also providing an interest on how layman (or in this case, motorsport fans) explain how much they think advertising influences them. The answer: not by much.

A user asked fellow forummers whether they bought products which their favourite driver or team endorse (in Formula One, both drivers and cars are moving billboards). The responses from the motorsport fans were mostly negative no’s and never’s, mostly ridiculing that they could be moved by something so apparent as a sticker on a suit or chassis. It’s a common theme, one that boils down to; ‘I’m not moved by that‘; ‘I’m conscious’; ‘I make my own choices’.

Yet plain in sight lies the Darwin-esque nature of brands. It’s not an end goal for brands to expose their products to us. Brands expose their products to us because we show them over and over that it works. (There’s a Dutch adage that jokingly says: “I don’t believe in advertising, I only buy the well-known brands”, and a t-shirt on Amazon that says“Advertising helps me decide”.)

Whether brands spend their multimillion advertising budgets on sponsoring is likely the result of extensive target audience research, likely boiling down to the question “Is this effective?”. And so the question: “Do you buy products your favourite driver endorses?” should be met with the same answer that the brands that endorse themselves must have found, which is: “likely.”

Gerhard Berger – Benetton B196 – 1996

Minds of Shanghai

Minds are lonely places. We can never share our thoughts and feelings without translating them into words or actions, nor can we ever look into those of others. The best thing we can do, is to assume that the complex workings of our minds are also present in those of others.

But it is precisely this understanding that helps value Shanghai for what it is, for it is impossible to describe accurately with pictures or words or statistics. Our minds can’t cope with the image of endless repetitions of building blocks, top ten lists of why Shanghai is great, or the statistic of twenty-four million people in a single city.

Understanding Shanghai has to happen in your mind, to connect the pictures and the words and the statistics, to the personal relationships you have with people all around you, and apply those things to the twenty-four million minds.

Shanghai so impressive by the thought about those; the millions of minds that use mobile apps to communicate, order, and pay; the minds that roam the clean parks and streets; the hedonistic minds that shop and consume; the peaceful minds that follow Chinese conformity; the minds that combine the modern Western lifestyle with the thousand year old Chinese culture; their grand dreams and fears, mundane doubt about lovers and breakfast.

It is all of this that makes Shanghai what it is, rather a modern wonder of human ability than an anonymous statistic used to describe a metropolis.


What sport says

This week, a political party in Catalunya, Spain, labelled grid girls as the reducing of woman to lust objects, and announced its intention to ban these girls from the MotoGP and Formula One events that are held in Catalunya each year.

In a discussion on Reddit, the common reaction was that the girls have to decide for themselves whether they wanted to have this scarcely clothed job or not. If most of them seem happy with the job, why ban it and limit their freedom? It’s hard to argue with that logic, although it misses the bigger issue.

This proposed ban isn’t so much about individual rights of the girls that choose to exercise this profession, but rather what international sporting institutions wish to tell about the role women should have in male dominated sports, and that this role can be more than wearing scarce clothing and holding umbrellas for male athletes.

Gridgirls are by far the cringiest aspect of top tier motorsport, a heritage from a forlorn era of traditional roles. And while many institutions around the world are promoting equal opportunities for women, the FIM and FIA, who organise the MotoGP and Formula One races, choose to turn a total blind eye and stick to old gender roles.

Staying stuck in the past is hurting cultural change, as the biggest barrier to women entering motorsport, whether it’s as a driver or engineer, isn’t actual liberty to do so, not financial and obviously not biological. The biggest limit are the roles imposed on us by culture. And right now, we’re telling our children that a woman’s role is to be an ornament.

It’s worth asking; what’s the point of sport? For sure it’s entertainment, but sports can also be an inspiration for life, educative in how to overcome obstacles and achieve great things. It is this why we should be more conscience about the lessons we let sport teach to our children, whether they’re boys or girls.

Jenny Tinmouth, photo by Rob Clenshaw


Does the quality of your life come from the quality of your decisions? Or, does the quality of your decisions come from the quality of your life?

At first this seems like a chicken-and-egg kind of dilemma, a search for causality. But the present day mantra lays heavily on the former; decision making is the ultimate solution to problem solving, and — either through discussions, strategies, or careful calculations — it leads to good decisions, which in turn leads to a good life.

This is reasonable, but the latter part is equally true. We rarely focus on the interdependance of our decisions. But a good life leads to good decisions. An enthusiastic life leads to enthusiastic decisions, and an angry life leads to angry decisions.

The answer thus seems overly simplified; if you wish to make the right decisions, live the right life. Good decisions flow from good decisions. The opposite is also true; live the wrong life, and every decision taken will be wrong, even the smallest ones.

This explains how, in general, poor people make poor choices; spending more time behind the television, spending less time with friends, and eating less healthy. Poor people aren’t poor because they make bad decisions. They make bad decisions because they are poor.

But the connectivity of decisions is also visible in positive examples, for instance when people start exercising to stay fit. Often, also their diets improve, because they appreciate the feeling of losing weight or feeling fit. As a result, they become more self confident, and dare to socialise more. As a result, they become happier and the quality of life improves.

Accomplishments like this are the result of holistic solutions, not singular decisions. Football teams don’t win just because they have a good goalkeeper. And armies can’t win with soldiers that don’t have their bellies full.

The famous chess player Garry Kasparov was once asked by a journalist how many moves ahead he could think. The people in the room were probably expecting a huge number, one that would explain the brilliance of Kasparov, but he simply replied: “There is no answer for that. The main thing in chess is not how many moves ahead you can think, but how you analyse the situation.”

If the journalist thought that Kasparov was a good chess player because of the many decisions ahead he could make, then Kasparov’s answer proved he was a good chess player because his skill allowed him to handle each new situation. In other words; it was not his good decision making that led to his ability to play chess, it was the other way around.

All this means that focusing on individual good decisions could be less productive than laying a foundation for good decisions. It’s not acts, it’s habits that raise quality of life.

And while the goal of chess is straightforward, life itself doesn’t come with any objectives. But when people know what they want to achieve, know what they want to be, they’ll find out how. They’ll endure. Bad options disappear and good decisions become obvious, prompting more good decisions. Life becomes wholesome, reason becomes automatic.

Image by Tom Anders Watkins

Moral creativity

When we’re young, we understand that insects eat plants, that small predators eat insects, that big predators eat small predators. We understand that all of life is connected, that tadpoles become frogs, that rain turns to clouds to become rain again. When we’re young, we think about ourselves in unlimited impossibilities, how we’ll become fire fighters, singers, astronauts, or more likely, all of those.

Yet when we grow older, that unlimited imagination disappears. Instead, we accept how things are, what is told to us. We divide the world into work and personal life, so that can look at the evening news from afar, without having the need to feel responsibility. We look for cause and effect, and categorise everything neatly, so that we can solve problems one after the other one, or pick up the ones we feel good about.

Yet when we look at reality in neatly organised pieces, we fail to see the dependence of everything with everything. The biggest challenges of our time, climate change, poverty, and political unrest, are all interwoven in a web of causes and effects, and don’t have a singular cause or solution.

The new generations carry lots of talent, knowledge, and experience, as well as the ability to change the world for the better. The new generations are smart and creative in the things they do, hence it’s a pity seeing this ability so rarely being applied to life or work causes; the bigger picture. Many youngster arrive at work and play by the rules of their seniors, more duty bound than passion filled.

Ask yourself; ‘How do you want the world to work?’, and ‘How is my work contributing to that?’, and ‘Should I be doing what I’m doing right now?’ Make that the new zero.

When you have a mission in life that goes beyond paying off student debt or mortgage, that’s when you can develop your style, your unborrowed vision, your creative morale. It’ll make progress for yourself, your employer and all of us together, undeniable.

It’s a much richer life, even if it may make you poorer money-wise. Finding your creative morale is a search, but once you’ve found it, it’s as immersive as falling in love. So give shape to yourself, it’s too important to let others do for you.

Photo by Roberto la Forgia.