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“Imagine a group of fancy track day cars belting down the straight into Turn One at Sebring while someone behind the fence is pointing their cell phone with its new app at the leading car, switching off its brakes." 

 

Zapped by Alan Wilson:  A Review

by Ziva Allen

 

Zapped“Imagine a group of fancy track day cars belting down the straight into Turn One at Sebring while someone behind the fence is pointing their cell phone with its new app at the leading car, switching off its brakes.  Imagine the chaos, damage and potential injury.  Then imagine if someone did that to traffic moving at high speed along a Miami freeway.”  Track designer Alan Wilson paints a scary, but all too true, picture for us.  It may sound high tech and worthy of the sci-fi channel but, as Wilson predicted many years ago and, as reported recently on CNN and other news outlets, the ability to hack into a car’s highly technical electrical system is right around the corner. 

Back in December 2012, with a premise based on a 1992 visit by Wilson to the Grumman aircraft factory site on Long Island, he began formulating his earliest conception of a story depicting what would actually happen if this theory came to life.  Wilson says of his Grumman visit, “I was shown a building which was used to test the electronic warfare systems of the Tomcat fighter plane and was told that, without six feet of special protection in the walls, the system would have decimated the entire New York and upper eastern seaboard electric grid.  While an extremely powerful weapon, it was never used to its capacity because, at the time, they could only use it as a weapon of mass destruction. (At least we presume it was never used, but that’s “need-to-know”).”

Since that Grumman visit, Wilson had often wondered how much more sophisticated the weaponry must have become and he began to write the thriller Zapped, “with the theme that the weaponry had been modernized and could now be used to target the electrics of a single car, in my case, a Formula One car.  The book is based around the ability of a team to cheat by affecting the electronics of competing cars and the efforts of an American geek to prevent it happening.”  

My husband Michael and I both had the pleasure of reading Zapped or, I should say, speeding through Zapped.  To the contrary of Wilson’s own humble assessment, this thriller grabs you from the first page, is an e-page turner, and doesn’t let you up for air until the very end.  In fact, by the end of this international, jet hopping, roller-coaster, I had felt as if, instead of reading it, I had just experienced a two hour high-paced drama/thriller in a theater - it goes that faaast.  If you love driving Wilson’s tracks, you’ll love following his hero Zak, the brilliant, independently wealthy, highly tech-savvy F1 fanatic as he uncovers a secret that could ruin the sport as we know it.  Can Zak save F1?  Just like driving Wilson’s tracks, you’ll get the same quick, high speed turns at every corner of this thriller!

Not only is Zapped exciting, but it calls into question a couple of unfortunate givens about current Formula1 racing.  Sure, they have banned launch and traction control, but do we really want to watch highly driver-autonomous features such as the drag reduction system?  All in the interest of manufacturing race excitement by artificially creating more passing.  The other unfortunate given involves the extreme monetization of Formula1 racing.  It has become a very successful business and not so much a sport.  The iconic tracks are left behind in favor of the venues that, along with government backing can pay the uber fees required to acquire an F1 franchise.  Do we miss the races at Watkins Glen International and Brands Hatch?  Hell yes!  Is F1 better off because of technology and mega profitable business?  Not so much.  And these themes are aptly explored in Wilson’s entertaining and thought provoking thriller.  

Wilson was kind enough to take time out of his very busy track designing schedule to answer a few questions for us about his writing career and what led him to write Zapped.

Q.  So Alan, if we could go back to your days in South Africa where you had a weekly column in a couple of newspapers.  How did that come about for you?  How did you find yourself writing for major newspapers?

A.  I was a brash kid at University in Durban, South Africa rallying my MGA and serving on the Competitions Committee of the Natal Motorcycle and Car Club and contributing articles to its monthly club magazine.  I wrote some very critical articles on the quality of motor sports reporting in the two local newspapers and p…d off the local writers, so the editor of the Natal Daily News, the afternoon paper, called me into his office and said if I thought I could do better he would give me a column!  I ended with the whole Saturday back page from 1969 to 1970 when I left town to move to Ford Motor Company in Port Elizabeth and then started a similar column for the local paper there.  I also wrote news stories for CAR magazine and after I moved to Johannesburg in 1973, became South African correspondent for Autosport magazine.  My newspaper columns were more general interest (and stirring!) about all forms of motorsport including perspectives from my own bike and car racing.  The column was called “Who’s Wilson?).

Q.  Do you enjoy writing?  And if so, why – what about the process interests or grabs you?

A.  My Dad ran a local country town newspaper and I did some small columns about cars for him while at school.  I was always interested and just enjoyed things like writing history essays during school.  I also read a lot.  So no real education in writing but I just enjoy it.

Q.  What did you write about while with Autosport Magazine?  Do you recall any particular articles that you wrote that stand out for you? 

A.  I reported on South African national racing, mostly just a paragraph about once a month.  But I did get to know some of the names at Autosport at the time.

Q.  You were the motorsports coordinator for Ford Motor Company in 1970.  What exactly is that position?  What does it entail?

Q.  I was hired from University as a Graduate Trainee by Ford in 1970 and placed in the advertising department for my first year.  The Advertising Department ran the company’s racing program which was quite extensive at the time, as we sponsored Formula One cars, the Formula Ford program, leading teams in all the major provincial and national saloon racing series and in the national rally championship.  My boss, the Ad Manager did not like racing and his assistant was too political in his desire to be mainstream in the marketing world so I was handed responsibility for everything except actually signing the checks!  Big responsibility for a kid fresh out of college.  But I was pretty well versed in the sport thanks to my own competing, starting a major motorcycle championship and my writing, so got on with everyone OK.  Among my activities was instigating developing Ford’s national rallying program within my first three days of arriving at Ford (!), helping direct the new Formula Ford program into a major success (including getting Jody Scheckter involved), starting the Driver-to-Europe Award which Jody and later Desiré [Wilson’s wife and former F1 racecar driver!] won and handling things like Fords involvement in the South African Grand Prix.  It was a great year and I tried not to get big headed about it but I was then moved to the parts marketing department at the end of the year as the Graduate Development program sent us to different departments each year!

Q.  Your first book is about your wife Desiré and her career.  What was it like for you to write about your wife?  Did you both collaborate on the book or portions of the book together?  You wrote that book with Andrew Marriot.  How did that collaboration come to pass and what was it like working with Andrew on a book?  Can you describe the writing process when you’re collaborating with another writer?

A.  I was always aware that Des had played an important role in getting women recognized in the UK and Europe as having the potential to make it all the way to Grand Prix, but that her career had been so short that her impact was also going to be short lived, and that she had zero recognition in the States.  I also understood how different her career had been compared to that of other women drivers, especially Danica, as Des never used her femininity to market as her way to the top.  (Although being a woman was a major reason for her getting some drives, and not getting others!).  So I thought that motor sport should have a record of her career for history’s sake.

I wrote the book over several years, mainly sitting on aircraft or in the United lounge at Chicago waiting for delayed flights at a time when I collected a million miles doing track designs and visits around North America.  As my writing is not very good and because I needed to lessen much of my personal bias I asked Andrew, who I have known for many years, to edit it for me.  He cut a whole lot of stuff that I thought was interesting but he saw as being too wordy and most importantly he found the publisher.  So he did not really co-write the book, but he was essential in his editing of it, making it readable. 

Q.  So let’s talk about Zapped, your second book and first fiction novel.  Can you talk about or expand upon how it is that you had this visit to Grumman?Grumman

A.  I was asked to review the site for a potential new track development.  The Grumman factory had closed but the property was still controlled by the Navy, hence my communications with a Chief Petty Officer who showed me around and told me about the electronic warfare weaponry.

Q.  What are your earliest recollections of being interested in technology?

A.  I am the world’s least technological person and have zero knowledge or understanding.  But the idea intrigued me so I did some research and asked a lot of questions.  Also the F1 move to overreaching technology has really upset me as we now have computers and engineers doing the racing which is 100% not what racing should be about. (Heroes, superstars, brave moves, idiots, mistakes and heroics).

Q.  What background do you have in the world of technology, which you obviously need in order to design some of the world’s safest tracks?

A.  I do not design the tracks from a technological point of view although I do use CAD for my drawings.  For example I never try to estimate corner speeds, top speeds, acceleration rates, etc., and I certainly don’t try to calculate things like braking distances.  Also I do not do simulations.  Mainly because it takes too much brain power!  I have always done everything on feel, experience and common sense.  I guess it is more the artistic approach but it works for me.  I am more concerned with flows, the experience for the driver, the absolute need for safety and the general enjoyment of the spectators and the participants, and very much for the cohesiveness of the facility layout that gives the operator the ability to operate the facility efficiently.  Today tracks are approved using technology, simulations and mathematical calculations but so far mine always seem to meet the standards that these demand, so my guess work seems to have served me well.  Perhaps it is just nearly fifty years, watching, working in the sport and competing in cars and on bikes and living it through my own and my wife’s careers.  I have also visited more than 150 tracks around the world and have been involved in all levels of the sport (except NASCAR).

Q.  Although at the outset of Zapped, you make it clear that this book and all of its characters are fiction, you do mention your wife a few times and you mention her by name.  So there’s no mistaking that particular character!  You incorporate her presence in a way that sort of moves the reader through an understanding of the behind-the-scenes of F1.  Is this something you discussed with her or did it just flow for you as you wrote?

A.  It just flowed.  The biggest issue with the book was my need to introduce new Formula One readers to the structure and political background to the sport, and so to make the characters read true.  This meant a long buildup to the action, which has put some readers off.  I tried to get some action going early on, but it took many pages to set the scene in a way that it could have credibility.

Des did not read the book until I had virtually finished it.  She did not read Driven by Desire either until it too was nearly done!

Q.  Should all telemetry be banned?  Why?  Was it a good thing that F1 banned launch and traction control?

A.  Telemetry is good as it helps develop the car’s performance, but I really believe that once the team delivers the car to the grid, everything should then be left to the driver who can read his instruments, feel the car and should make his own strategic decisions as to how to conduct his race.  There should be no electronic communications, either voice or systems between the driver and the teams once the race starts.  Pit boards can be allowed but should be limited to safety items, laps to go, lap times and gaps to other competitors.  I also think that too many driver aids detract from their skill.  But then the world is now going into driverless cars for the general public, so what future does racing really have?  (Or is that another story?).  F1 racing should not be owned by a company with no interest in developing the sport, and which is only interested in maximizing the profits it can draw from it, as is the case with CVC.  The decision by the FIA to sell the commercial rights will go down in the history of all sports as the worst decision ever made for the good of the sport itself.  My anger at this is reflected in the central element of the books politics.

alanwilsonWilson also points to the modern hackers’ ability to ruin racing by using a hand-held phone sized “zapper” that could target any car on the track, or on the streets.  He says, “Amazingly, since I started writing the book, several things have happened:

- Hackers have shown that they can affect the brakes, steering and electronics of modern cars.

- The British government is actively developing a system that will enable their police to point a radar type gun at traffic and kill the electronics of any car (and also to ultimately control the electronics of any and ALL cars on the roads from a satellite).  So far it is not in use because they cannot yet stop the car from crashing!!!

- The Ferrari F1 team had to shut down their F1 factory for a week because a virus entered their computer systems.

- Also a Russian team has now entered GP, a Russian driver now races for wins and there is a Russian GP, none of which were really in place when I started the book!  

Wilson concludes by lamenting, “The sad thing is that it is not only a theory, it is actually already possible and very highly likely to happen sometime, soon.”  To read more about how telemetry really could be compromised, not only to the detriment of racing, but to the detriment of safety on our public roads, pick up a copy of Zapped (available at amazon.com).

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