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Thriller Fiction

“Man or Mouse, Frank?”

The words struck like a dagger in his back. His accuser, standing a few feet away, had deliberately stressed the Teutonic harshness of the allegation. Gunther Kleine, with over-sized Oakleys masking his piercing blue eyes, stared at Frank Kellands, demanding an answer.

Frank did a quick mental count to ten before unclenching his fists and turning to face Kleine.

“Well?”, the impatience mounting.

“The cross-wind doesn’t help, Gunther, you know that. The front end just refuses to sit down.”

“Bullshit, Frank. Schleman has no issues. He’s flat out coming out of Turn Seven. You, on the other hand, lift just as you enter it. The telemetry doesn’t lie, Frank.”

Frank stared at Kleine. He knew that he was right.

“You’re losing about two-tenths on that corner Frank.”

“I make it up by turn twelve. You know that.”

“Not the point, Frank. If you can be faster than the others in that second sector, what’s to stop them doing the same?”

It made sense, Frank acceded. The second sector wasn’t that difficult – it just needed you to take the apex on each corner perfectly.

“Listen, Frank. You are just one point behind Schleman, just one. You can take the title in this last race if you just finish in front of him”.

“I can do it, Gunther. Just leave me to do it my way.”

“Not good enough, Frank. He’s sitting on pole – you’re fourth. He was quicker than you by just over a second in the practices and four tenths in qualifying – all down to you chickening out on Turn Seven. Whatever it is that’s bugging you about that corner, get over it or you’ll just be another has-been.” 

With that final “has-been” ringing in his ears, Frank watched Kleine turn on his heels and stomp over to the three technicians who were busy analysing the latest set of data from Frank’s qualifying run. Frank’s own race engineer was one of them and he turned to face Frank, partly embarrassed by the castigation meted out by Kleine, but also sympathetic to the rebuke because he knew that Frank could – and should – do better.

Frank made his way to the Press area for the obligatory Q&A session, aware that he was going to get a hard time from the reporters, especially the Germans, who were always eager to stir things up.

“Frank! How are you feeling about going into the last race just one point behind Michael Schleman?”

Another stupid question, thought Frank. How did they think I feel? “It should be a close thing tomorrow. We are both looking good.”

“You’re sitting fourth in the line-up for tomorrow’s race with Schleman on pole. Can you still beat him to win the championship?”

“The car is good. The guys have done a great job in the setup. We are studying the telemetry to see where we can improve.”

“Is the right-hander at Turn Seven your weak point?”

Frank inhaled slowly. They know damned fine that it is. “As I said, we’re looking at the data.”

“Does it have anything to do with Grassini last year?”

In for the kill. 

The team Press Officer stepped forward, her hand on Frank’s shoulder. “That’s enough for this morning, guys. Thanks for your time.”

Using Frank’s elbow to guide him away from the clamouring reporters, the Press Officer was aware of the resentment building within Frank.

“That was an unfair question, Frank. Sorry, I should have briefed them in advance.”

Frank said nothing, but the tightness of his pursed lips showed that the question had struck a nerve.

“I’m fine, Sally. They’re just doing their job.”

Back in the privacy of his motor home, Frank slumped on to the bed, hands behind his head. As he stared at a fly crawling on the ceiling, images from last year’s race here filtered through his mind.

He hadn’t really known Georgio Grassini, a young lad who had fought through the lower racing classes to deservedly gain a seat in the prestigious Formula 1 circus with the Barry Knowles privateer team. The Knowles team were one of the mid-field teams – their aerodynamics package, designed by a former aero-engineer, better than most of the other teams, but their budget much smaller than the “Big Boys” who could pump almost limitless funds into their engine design. Knowles couldn’t afford the eye-watering fees commanded by the top drivers but was content in giving opportunity to the younger bucks who, in return, relished the chance to fight wheel-to-wheel with their heroes.

Last year’s Jacaranda Grand Prix on the outskirts of Pretoria was the final event of the championship. Schleman had already won the title fight in the previous race, so there was nothing other than personal pride at stake, and Frank’s pride had been pushing him for the end of season victory.

The week leading up to the race had seen the usual high temperatures, but thunderstorms had been forecast for race day and, sure enough, two-thirds of the way through, the heavens opened.

Schleman wasn’t at his best, and Frank had grasped the opportunity to take a commanding lead. As the heavy rain started to fall, Frank was called in to change tyres to the full “wets”. As he emerged from the pits, he found himself caught in the battle amongst the mid-field players, including Grassini. 

Blue flags were waved by the marshals to warn the lower placed drivers to let the leaders through. Frank had overtaken four of the back-markers, with Grassini and one other car involved in their own battle. Grassini was all over the back of the other car, desperate to gain another place. Seeing an opportunity to take the other car going into the right-hand Turn Seven, Grassini tried to take the inside line, but the gap closed as the other driver defended his position. Grassini immediately switched to the outside line, his accelerator hard to the floor.

That sudden change of line was his undoing. He had not seen Frank Kellands’ car already there, travelling faster than his Knowles. Frank could do nothing. As Grassini pulled into his path, Frank’s front wing dipped under the tail of the slower car, lifting the rear end clear of the road. The car miraculously managed to come down to earth on all four wheels. However, with the road now slippery wet, Grassini’s efforts to brake were in vain. With little deceleration, his car smashed into the safety barrier, debris flying everywhere.

The race was stopped – red-flagged – to allow the recovery of the damaged car. Frank pulled into the pit lane to await the restart. A large screen monitor was replaying the accident and showing the recovery vehicles in action and Frank noted that young Grassini was still in his car – not a good sign.

A few minutes later, news started to filter through that Grassini was dead.

Despite having no blame associated to him by the inquest into the accident, Frank took the death of the young Grassini badly, at one stage seriously considering quitting the sport. At the funeral, however, Grassini’s father sought out Frank to let him know that he held no blame towards him for the accident and urged Frank to continue driving.

The fly on the ceiling took off and Frank found himself contemplating this year’s championship.

The new season had seen Frank and Schleman both at their best, with the majority of races won by one or the other and here, at the final race of the year, Schleman had a single-point lead.

I know I can beat him, Frank thought. It’s just that Turn Seven and young Grassini. Maybe Gunther’s right - I am more mouse than man.

---------- oooOooo ----------

Race day!

With a near cloudless sky, there would be no weather interruptions to contend with this year.

The cars were lined up on the grid, mechanics hovering over them, checking, checking and checking again. Drivers were in their own focus zones, each practising their own form of concentration for the job ahead.

Frank watched Schleman climb into his car and, as he did so, he looked over to Frank, gave him a nod as if to say “This is mine. Catch me if you can!” and dropped into the cockpit for his crew to belt him in.

A heartbeat later, Frank climbed into his own car, desperately trying to erase Schleman’s superior look from his already troubled mind. Concentrate, Frank. Concentrate. You can do this.

The crews cleared the track, the lights turned green and, with a deafening roar, the sleek cars set off on their “procession” lap, weaving across the track to force the friction to warm their tyres, slowing/speeding to get the clutch mechanism up to temperature and sharp braking to raise the efficiency of the brakes. As they approached their defined grid places, drivers adjusted the complex electronic settings for the start.

First red light. Second. Third, fourth and fifth. Pause. GO, GO, GO! In a matter of thousands of a second from the red lights switching off, all twenty cars accelerated out of their blocks, rear tyres squealing as the power transferred to their wheels far exceeded their traction capabilities. As they raced away, the downforce of the rear wings gradually pushed the rear downwards, the cars gaining more grip on the road surface.

Schleman maintained his pole advantage, keeping ahead of Elliot in second place. Johansen in third, however, had been slower to gain the advantage of the downforce and Frank hurtled past him to take third place going into the first corner.

All drivers managed to take the first few corners without incident, but all jockeying for position, some gaining places, others losing out. The race settled into a frenetic rhythm, Schleman maintaining his lead but unable to shake off the cars immediately behind him.

“Frank!” It was his Race Engineer. “You are losing time on Turn Seven – telemetry shows you are lifting as you enter it.”

“I’m still keeping up with Schleman. Leave me to race!”

“You can take him, Frank if you conquer Seven.”

“Roger that!”

Frank’s mind was in overdrive, young Grassini’s smiling face in full view.

NO! Fuck off, Grassini! It wasn’t my fault! Leave me alone!

Lap thirty-five of the forty-eight lap race and Frank managed to out-brake Elliot in the second-placed car into turn three, squeezing past him with just millimetres between them. Turn Seven arrived quickly and Frank automatically and unintentionally eased his right foot off the accelerator, allowing Elliot to come up parallel to him through the corner. Frank, however, had seen him coming and immediately planted his right foot on the throttle to its full extent, managing to somehow keep ahead of Elliot.

That was the wake-up call! Frank focused on Schleman’s car, now only about fifty metres ahead. In some corners, Schleman outpaced Frank, but in others it was the other way round and for the next eight laps, their dogfight continued. The fans around the track, but those in the home straight especially, were on the edge of their seats as they marvelled at the battle before them. Schleman’s followers in their red hats and shirts and Frank’s faction in blue watched in awe as their heros roared past, the Reds praying that their man stayed in front, the Blues craving for a small miracle.

Lap forty-five and Frank was now only thirty metres behind Schleman.  Turn seven loomed again and Frank cursed at Grassini. That was NOT my fault! Despite the intense heat in the cockpit, Frank felt a chill run down his back as he set up the approach to the corner. 

Schleman saw Frank’s car in his tiny mirrors, closer than ever, and placed his car on the perfect racing line to take the apex of the right-hand turn at full throttle. Frank followed him, his right foot planted on the accelerator.

“Take him Frank” called his engineer. “The tow will give you some extra speed out of the corner.”

But this is Turn Seven. The thought broke into his concentration again. Damn you Grassini, damn you! Leave me alone!  Cold sweat dripped from his brow. I can do this.  I can do this!

Frank closed his eyes for a fraction of a second, banished Grassini from his mind and chased Schleman through the corner. As the cars straightened up, Frank was even closer now, only ten metres separating them. He had done it. He had vanquished Grassini’s ghost!

“Go on Frank! You’re quicker than Schleman in this sector. Take him!” The engineer’s voice had lost its usual composure as he egged Frank on.

The long straight after Turn Nine gave Frank the edge he needed – he gradually pulled closer to Schleman then darted left to try to pass him. But Schleman had seen him coming and reciprocated with his own jink to the left.

Frank saw the move and immediately jerked his car to the right where Schleman had been a second before. With the cars now side by side, Frank had the advantage as they approached Turn Ten at the end of the straight and, with the advantage of the inside line, he squeezed into the lead.

As they roared into the Home Straight, his fans in blue screamed at their hero – he was in front of Schleman with only three laps to go.

Schleman tried everything to regain his lead, but Frank had a new lease of life. His nightmare was gone and Turn Seven no longer had a curse on him. 

Lap forty-six saw Frank maintain his lead over Schleman, moving nearly a full second ahead.

Lap forty-seven – only two laps to go, but back-markers were ahead. As he quickly caught up with them, Frank was aware that the marshalls were waving their blue flags to warn the slower cars that the leaders were approaching. Three cars were fighting their own race, eager to gain some last minute pride and points for the season.

In his faster car, Frank was soon in a position to pass them. Turn Six saw all four cars race into the left hand corner, only fifty metres before Turn Seven. Frank moved to the inside, sure that the other three would allow him to pass as they were mandated to do. However, in the heat of the battle, they had not seen Frank’s approach, despite the blue flags.

The third-placed car moved left in an attempt to pass at least one of the others on the outside line. But the second-placed car did the same, a fraction of a second later. The third-placed car then swung back to the inside line where Frank had positioned his car. All too late he saw Frank’s car in the space which was no longer there for him and he jerked his steering wheel left.

He was too close to the second-placed car and the low nose of his car dug underneath it. With all aerodynamics now lost, the two cars spun wildly. Frank braked hard in an attempt to avoid the two back-markers spinning out of control.

Schleman, who was only a matter of metres behind, could do nothing to avoid slamming into Frank’s car, sending it hurtling towards the barrier and the inevitable consequences.

“Frank! Are you OK? Frank?”

The crowds were silenced by the scene on the monitors around the track. A huge plume of black smoke billowed above the track at Turn Seven.

“Frank! Frank! Please respond!”

October 30, 2020 15:54

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