Octane and Algorithms

Joe Sherman

Later that night, a weird thing happened: A meshing of the real and the surreal only possible in a place like Monaco. Out of an SUV just ten feet from me slid Flavio Briatore, Italian playboy, banished F1 majordomo, a living monument to criminal pleasures surrounded by a scrum of bodyguards. Briatore was bound, no doubt, for the VIP party at the Billionaire Club on the roof of the Fairmont. After all, he owned the club, this bloated sybarite who had tried back in 2008 to fix the Singapore Grand Prix with a planned crash. He'd been the manager of the Benetton-Renault team. An indictment followed the unsuccessful attempt, but Briatore was never prosecuted.

The party awaited, a dance floor, bottles of Grand Cru champagne. Maybe J-Lo, Will Smith, or Paris Hilton -- all rumored to be in town -- would show.

Briatore slipped away into the humid night, but the wake of the mini-scandal he initiated still lingers. A big fear of gamblers everywhere -- off-track, online, on-site -- is a rigged outcome. A dopamine hit for cheats. There's a new type of gambler about. One who sees technology and data as a sort of all-encompassing oracle. Facilitated by the Internet, boosted by market-driven thinking, and rarely spotted at a track, his heart rate is ticked up by the order: "Gentlemen, start your gadgets!"

By Saturday, I found myself hopelessly adrift in this new realm, watching the qualification sessions in a dark room via F1 live timing and finding it oddly exciting. Having walked the circuit the day before, I could visualize the three sections: turns, pitches, dangers, delights. The Fairmont hairpin, with its banner for the Billionaire Club, fluttered in my mind. I could still smell the sea-scented air in the tunnel.

Numbers swirled: lap times, gaps behind the leader, gaps between cars, overall ranking, times through sections. Here was a new brain sandwich I'd never partaken of before. Briefly nutritious, it soured when Grosjean fell back in the pack, sweetened when his numbers improved. "Monaco is all about qualifying," the F1 vet Button had said. "It's very tricky to overtake here." So Grosjean needed to do well and get slotted at the front of the grid.

The times on the screen were dizzying. The screams of the cars echoed deep in some primal canyon of the mind (not hard to do when an engine like Renault's RS27 V-8 can hit 18,000 rpm). At midstage, the top-ten drivers were separated by just 0.4 second. The final ten minutes of qualification were riveting. Grosjean had the pole for Lotus with a 1:14.639 lap, then lost it to Mercedes' Nico Rosberg. In the final two laps, there was a kind of frenzy: with lead changes, commentary beside the numbers.

Then it was over. Michael Schumacher, the forty-three-year-old Formula 1 legend, had won the pole, Red Bull-Renault's Mark Webber was second, Rosberg third, Hamilton fourth, Grosjean fifth. Penalized five slots on the grid for an accident at the previous race in Spain, where Schumacher misjudged distance and crashed into the car in front of him, the pole winner would start in sixth place, right behind Grosjean.

That was worrying. Schumacher and Grosjean had each crashed a lot this season. Good gamblers watch for patterns. And this was Monaco, a circuit made for accidents.

Sitting in the gloom, computer off, I wondered what I was doing. Watching a live feed, thinking of more bets when I could actually be on-site, enjoying the thrills in real time. This aging gambler's brain, high on F1 images and data, kept flashing. I stepped out into the sun. It was calm, quiet. There was the Mediterranean Sea. Race day finds me on the back of a motor scooter because of a train strike. We pass through tunnels and by the sea. It's calm, but rain is in the forecast. Dino swerves to a stop, drops me amid the madding crowd: guys in funny hats, doll-faced TAG Heuer girls with umbrellas, Monaco cops blowing whistles and miraculously keeping everything moving.

In the Mercedes hospitality suite, I watch the start on tandem screens, one showing the cars, the other live-racing data. I've become hooked on this mental sandwich.

Starts are always perilous, and Monaco's especially so. Grosjean's is terrible. Not 100 yards into the race, he gets hit. Schumacher made a daring move to get by him. The rookie driver's left rear wheel shears off as Schumacher's front tire contacts it. Grosjean spins.

Anguish. Loss. I feel both. My three bets on Grosjean are toast, but I'm glad he's OK. Years ago I saw an F1 start in Montreal in which a rookie driver smashed into the pole driver because his car stalled just as the light turned green. Everyone made it past except the rookie, Riccardo Paletti. He died. Today, Grosjean walks away. I stare at him on one of the tandem screens. On the other is data detailing the twenty-three cars racing up the straightaway toward the casino. A little stunned and in denial, showing how deeply I've slipped into a gambling head, my mind scrambles for explanations: Schumacher caused the crash (he didn't), Alonso was too impulsive (the Spaniard was also trying to pass). Most poignantly, a nervous stranger, fiddling with his phone, sat right in my sight line minutes before the start. That idiot jinxed the race for me! I think irrationally. Bottom line: my driver has been eliminated in a split second that no algorithm could have predicted. Or was this just a pattern repeating, its likelihood helped by Schumacher and Grosjean being together at the start? Webber leads after one lap, Rosberg is second. Driving masterfully, Vettel soon moves from ninth place to sixth. By midrace the big question is the weather.

"It's starting to sprinkle," says a young Frenchman named Guillaume who's next to me.

"You bet on the race?" I ask, disconsolate still.

"Yes. I think it is more interesting to watch that way."

He bet on Rosberg to win. I still have Rosberg to podium. So there we sit, two possible winners, both wanting rain to fix our bets. With eight laps left, Rosberg is only 0.6 second behind. "He must win!" Guillaume says under his breath, making me wonder how much he's wagered. The last laps, in the wet, tires crucial, are nerve-racking. At the checkered flag, it's Webber, Rosberg, Alonso.

Guillaume quickly tells me he's a business-school student and a rookie F1 gambler like me. Yes, on the Web. No, not BetClic -- the site wanted his banking information. He has to go, is supposed to be working. I hurry after him, the race still in me, down past the hospitality suites and almost pass Grosjean. In jeans, a Lotus shirt, and cap, he is walking by himself. Slowing down, I reach out and give his shoulder an avuncular squeeze. How thin he feels, how slight and vulnerable. He smiles with youthful resignation. Like a goofball fan sharing a moment of intimate connection with a new hero, I give Grosjean a thumbs-up. Then I'm off after Guillaume to talk more about gambling. Monaco was an intense, four-day, adventurous education into the strangely addictive world of F1 gambling. I escaped the Alcatraz of the rich, as one local called it, slightly ahead. Four bucks ahead, to be precise. My largest bet, Rosberg to podium, saved me. I made mistakes, but I erred on the side of discretion. A motorsports gambler should learn about algorithms, I realized, and let the geek inside him fly. And park his heart when he gambles. No knee-jerk emotional plays, like the one I made on Schumacher after he took the pole. It was a poor bet on a former champ beating back time.

As for Grosjean, it feels good to have a young hero. His weaknesses are those of the F1 newcomer. Too switched on, overaggressive. He needs experience. If he stops crashing, relaxes, gets "out of his skin," like they say when they talk about how Ayrton Senna often drove, Grosjean could be great. Even make me a little money. After all, I'm a winner.

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