Cover Image
AM Clayton
Inside the Big Top

The Mubarak International Raceway is 40 kilometers south of Kuwait City. Although the evening arrived like a dark tide and washed away the day's savage heat, people are pacing around still sweating into their shoes. Most had been there since dawn, carrying around car parts or cameras or clipboards, and the heat burrowed into their skin and stayed there, draining them on their feet.

     Thibault Defert sits in his racecar in the shelter of his team's pit garage. His only immutable belief in life is that he was destined to be right here. Now, he would rather be anywhere else.

     His racecar is painted in a brilliantly glossy heraldic blue – the French national racing color – and the cold neon glare of the garage lighting makes it glow. The car's nano-architected carbon nose cone extends slenderly around his legs and gracefully angles down out of view.

     The rear wing is more science than art, an imposing tangle of struts and slats and spindly rods that resemble an antenna array.

     The tires are bloated and gummy and so soft you can leave handprints in them. They envelop enormous and black discal wheels that shimmer in motion. Thibault used to think watching them was like looking out a ship's porthole in the middle of a clear night.

     On each corner of the car, a portable infrared lamp stands sentinel, lasers pointing at the tires to hold their optimum temperature.

     Behind the driver's head, a hydrogen-fuelled, three-cylinder engine producing 1,400 horsepower idles contentedly. A spidery nervous system of wires disseminates information around the body of the racecar and feeds it back to the driver at break-neck cybernetic speeds.

     Today is Sunday. In 20 minutes, Thibault Defert will contest the final round of the Legacy Series — the last internal combustion engine racing championship in the world.

     The 21-year-old is now in his second Legacy season with the Castrex France racing team. He re-traces the Mubarak circuit in his mind as the mighty AC units belch crisp air into the opening of his balaclava, trying to put down frost on his thoughts.

<  2  >

     Although the track had only been built in the late '10s, a dire lack of maintenance meant some sections had crumbled away and been reclaimed by the desert. In Saturday's qualifying, he was reminded of each bump and crack from last season, and he grimaced every time a jolt traveled up through the suspension and steering wheel and into his gloved wrists like an electric shock.

     He took each corner at a time. There were ruts in the braking zones at turns one, three, four, and seven. On the outside of turn, four was a faded orange billboard for a virtual property agency that had gone bust – the team agreed Thibault had to start turning his car in before reaching it to achieve maximum exit speed ready for turn five. A pitstop for his hydrogen fuel cell replacement was scheduled between laps 22 and 24. He was to conserve his tires from lap 30 to finish. The race lasted 40 laps.

     Forty laps. The same ruts, the same billboard, 40 times over.


     Thibault Defert is in the prime of his life. He can run five kilometers in 16 minutes and 10 seconds. He can do 1,000 situps. He can withstand the same amount of G-force as a fighter pilot and retain the muscular and mental fortitude to overtake another driver at the same time.

     He exercises five days a week and takes his fitness incredibly seriously. When his personal training AI joked he looked 'a little tubby' on his return from a winter break in Provence, he had her software replaced.

     Thibault knows his body down to the last cell. A team of bioengineers study a live feed of his vitals when he is out on track and they have meetings between grands prix to discuss the data. The measurements appear on a little screen in tandem with readings from his car: blood pressure next to oil pressure, body temperature next to engine temperature.

     After each visit to the bathroom, he digitally completes what the team calls a DECC form — scoring duration, effort, color, and consistency.

<  3  >

     Every tangible aspect of his constitution, and even that which was not tangible, was measured to extract its maximum potential.

     All of this intrusion was an exciting novelty at first, then a nuisance. He is used to it now.


     Engineers are fussing around Thibault's car. They all wear matching blue overalls and safety helmets with smoked visors which make them faceless. For all Thibault knew, they might be androids.

     He knows they are studying the fuel cell stability, which always reads fine, and it has been at least five years since one exploded mid-race and killed a driver.

     Thibault adjusts and readjusts his balaclava, trying to angle an errant lock of flaxen hair from his eyes. He wishes it was time to go out already. He no longer feels the nervousness — only impatience.

     Text scrolls across the display on his steering wheel and a constellation of LED lights wink up at him. He understands most, but some colors and codes are still lost on him. The engineers knew what they meant, but he never had the inclination to ask them.


     Aaron Kavanagh, belonging to the Sweetwater Vitality Drinks Racing team, is set to win his second world championship today.

     His teammate, Bernd Ricken, has won five titles. Now in his mid-30s, Bernd's body refuses to give up the hundredths of seconds required to remain at the sport's summit, but his success has cemented Sweetwater's place as racing royalty. Hushed voices in the paddock speculate on who, if anyone, will get the nod for his spot next year.

     Thibault's Castrex teammate is older again. Jamie Prutton, universally known as JP, is American, a single-make champion hailed as a big catch when the Legacy Series started in the mid-20s.

     At 38 years old, JP is an anomaly among Legacy's stable of youthful drivers and has taken up something of a cheery patriarchal role for the sport. But he is confident, dependable, and, crucially for Castrex, attractive to ever-dwindling North American advertisers.

<  4  >

     Thibault does not particularly like JP. Plainly, he does not respect him. Georges, the Castrex race manager, said Thibault should look up to JP as a 'cool uncle'. The thought made him sick.

     Although Thibault has yet to claim a grand prix, he feels he is better than his teammate. The young man has finished above him in every single race this year.

     Off the track, Thibault maintains an established wealth of European sponsors. Some followed from his Formula and e-kart days, but others went against the tide and dipped their toe into the Legacy Series – perhaps hoping he will soon switch to the more lucrative and popular sim racing.

     But the situation is clear: Thibault is indispensable to Castrex, and he knows it.

     This is not to say his first season was without difficulty. There had been a violent crash in China with Tenzo Industries driver Felipe Prudente and then, embarrassingly, an entirely avoidable collision with JP on the first corner of the Saudi Grand Prix.

     'What was that fool doing?!' Thibault shrieked into the team radio as the two blue Castrex racecars sat beached in the sand, his wheels spinning impotently. The outburst was clipped and became a social media meme. Users quickly began calling him 'T-bone'.

     The next weekend, in Qatar, Thibault wrecked his car at 350km/h and was lucky to walk away in one piece.

     This poor start came as a surprise to no one more so than Thibault. He had been dominant in e-karts as a child and when his parents finally stumped up the cash to get him into Formula racing, on the provision he passed all his exams, success followed just as willingly.

     He has been told by multiple team bosses and ex-racers that he was the most naturally gifted driver they had ever seen. When Castrex contacted his parents about a test drive at Magny-Cours, it was less like a dream come true and more like the logical answer to a mathematical question.

<  5  >

     The path to success had been laid for Thibault; all he had to do was walk it.

     But some invisible, recalcitrant entity was resisting his efforts. Restraining him. Humiliating him. He could not find a way over it and risked slipping rapidly into something worse than mediocrity.

     Following the tangle at Saudi, a popular copypasta comment appeared under every Castrex social media post, 'T-BONE could never be MY driver. How many cars do CRASHTEX need to rebuild before he's fired?'

     Another read, 'my mom was watching #legacyseries when she pointed at the screen and said son who is that fool? i started saying that driver was JP who is actually a legend but my mom was in fact pointing at t-bone de fart: the only fool at castrex'.

     To shut his feelings out, Thibault had his most prized possession shipped over from Provence: his €16,000 Specialized carbon fiber road bicycle.

     Suddenly, his mood between race days improved. Remarkably so. He covered kilometer after kilometer on foreign roads, soaking up colorful vistas, and incorporating the bike into his rigorous workout routine. He glided between engineers, stewards, and press packs in the paddock with the same carefree attitude that he wheeled around his home village as a boy.

     Something that came from knowing he was the bicycle's sole power source, that its movement and inertia were dependent on him and him alone. Brain replaced ECU. Legs replaced pistons. No separation existed. He began to look forward to the days before and after racing more than the race itself.

     The pressure ebbed away as soon as he was back on the saddle.

     The week after Qatar, Thibault was called into a team meeting. Present was his stout and mustachioed race manager Georges; the entire marketing and social analytics team, led by a small, pinched woman named Melisa; and the team operations officer, a fleshy, grey man named Robert.

     Melisa tapped at her tablet and the room's big projecting screen came alive. Dozens of abusive comments were spread evenly from corner to corner. The screengrabs were identically shaped and stacked in neat, equilateral rows. They were all about Thibault.

<  6  >

     'So, as you can see, what we're seeing is a lot of negative reaction to Thibault on social media, mostly negative reaction to the crashes,' she said.

     Thibault was wondering what the rest of the negative reaction could be about. He started to read the collage of hate, this anti-shrine to him, then looked away. At least half of it suggested he committed suicide.

     After a pregnant pause, Georges said, 'It is very embarrassing. The optics are not good.'

     Melisa continued, 'As you can see, many Twitter users are calling Thibault "T-bone" after the cut of steak. For those who don't know, this is another name for when one driver crashes into the side of another.'

     People nodded earnestly.

     'What we think is, while Thibault is still developing as a driver, we do the unexpected and buy into the negative reaction instead of ignoring it or trying to counter it.'

     She tapped on the tablet again. A 3D render of Thibault's crash helmet appeared on the screen, rotating steadily.

     There was a cartoon depiction of a raw steak over its crown.

     The meat was a bright fire-engine red and the fat and bone were picked out in white. The chop had a goofy grinning face and pencil-thin arms that wielded a giant fork and knife and what looked like Mandarin characters orbiting its oblong circumference.

     'We have been in touch with Nanyang Foods, an up-and-coming Chinese company that specializes in producing synthetic beef. When they reached out to us about sponsorship, we came up with this idea, and they would love to have this unique and humorous decal added to Thibault's helmet.'

     Thibault said nothing. Sat back in his chair with his fingers laced in his lap, he felt very small and very silly.

     'It does not have to be on the top, it could be on the side or somewhere else he prefers. Crucially, it's putting a spin on Thibault's development.'

<  7  >

     More people were nodding. Thibault looked around at them.

     'I think it is a good way to handle the criticism,' Robert remarked. 'It's buying into the reaction, putting a spin on it. And we all know how dear a new sponsorship deal is in these trying times.'

     'If it is what we have to do,' added Georges, his voice dry and grave, 'Then we should do it. What does that script say?'

     Melisa looked at the big screen. 'It says, "Nanyang Foods: For the Right Kind of T-bone".'

     The decal was agreed upon. That night, in bed, Thibault wept.

     This season has been going much better.

     Thibault started the year in China by narrowly missing out on a podium, with more fourth and fifth-place finishes to follow. At the West Coast Grand Prix, held around the streets of outer Los Angeles in a clinging pale heat, Thibault bested Felipe Prudente to finish in second behind Aaron Kavanagh – his first Legacy podium and Castrex's first in two years.

     Castrex moved up to third in the team championship standings and Thibault to fourth in the drivers'. The mood in the garage was positively euphoric.

     Among those Thibault considers his racing equals are Prudente and Yuya Ichida at Tenzo Industries Motorsport, and Enzo Bromley and Salim Al-Abri at Caliph Airlines Racing. They are all slim, polished, privately educated men in their early twenties and destined for careers in business and finance. Each speaks perfect English. They engage in gentle banter in the paddock and interviews. Any tension or competition between them is imperceptible.

     Thibault knows nothing about business or finance. All he has ever wanted to do is race.

     On the track, he has started gelling with his car – it sits down on the asphalt and does exactly as he asks of it. After just one or two laps of a race, it is as if the vehicle becomes an extension of himself. He wills his body into perilous gaps, powers through 6G corners, and hunkers down into 400km/h straights, and the machine simply follows.

<  8  >

     His movements have become automatic. He no longer needs to think cerebrally about how he will control the car; his synapses fire and the action is completed for him. It is total, mechanical cohesion.

     In LA, after he stepped off the podium, Georges slapped his back and declared, pale eyes gleaming, 'This is the Thibault Defert we signed!'

     The same team bosses and ex-racers from his junior days messaged him and his parents, brimming with praise and saying, 'We knew this would happen! It is only the start!'

     This, however, did not encourage him. None of it did anymore. The dull hated feeling he had in the first season, like static under the skin, started prickling his nerves again.

     He stopped replying to the messages and excused himself from team meals.

     He found himself tuning out in meetings and interviews, although nobody seemed to notice or at least pick him up on it.

     Something is wrong with his body. All he knows is that it is not corporeal; it is not something he can point out or anatomically explain like his recurring Achilles tendonitis or plantar fasciitis. It is not something he can include in his exercise program to develop.

     Something has broken in the last 12 months and he does not know how to repair it.


     Outside the garage, Thibault heard the roar of people cheering. The noise was a recording pumped around the circuit by speakers.

     Thibault thought there could not be 150 spectators here, and most of those could be found in the glass VIP suites above the pitlane.

     Regular people, Kuwaiti or not, could not afford to attend the races anymore. On the main straight, the colossal grandstand sat sand-swept and bare – the ruins of some recently deposed empire in composite plastic and galvanized steel.

<  9  >

     Thibault supposed the remaining fans streamed the races online. He was interviewed by smiling journalists most weekends and was sure that the footage must be shown somewhere. Just where he was not sure. He couldn't remember the last time he even watched something related to motorsport.

     The shiny enthusiasm that once engulfed him had been buffed out. He remembered sitting down with his tablet on a Sunday to watch the stars of yesterday buzzing around circuits, which were always packed with delirious spectators who swarmed them for autographs behind chain-link fences, looking like desperate prisoners, brandishing programs and pens at their idols.

     Thibault cannot recall even signing one autograph.

     The only sign that anybody outside of the Legacy Series machine actually turned up to the track, among all those carrying car parts and cameras and clipboards, was a Kuwaiti man with a little stall in the circuit car park.

     He was selling all kinds of Legacy merchandise — hats, phone cases, and even those new disposable holograms of drivers saying stock catchphrases. He had no customers and no other stalls to compete with.

     But it wasn't the man's wares that caught Thibault's eye as he cycled around the circuit perimeter. It was his little red and white tent.


     In the summer Thibault turned 10 years old, a travelling circus set up camp in the empty fields between his home village and the nearest town.

     He only knew it was there when he saw a poster out the car window as his mother drove him to karting practice.

     The colorful poster stayed in his mind until one afternoon he rode out on his old bike towards the circus. He was not a curious child and this secret, urgent desire to see it for himself would have surprised him if he was self-aware.

     As he crested a tall hill skirted by the boundaries of a lavender farm in full bloom, he looked down across the fields. Smudges of people moved about like ants in the garden, and although he was far above them, he heard the careless birdsong of children playing and the solid timbres of cork balls knocking down cans. At the center of the fair, the nucleus of it was a red and white striped big top. He badly wanted to be a part of what was down there.

<  10  >

     He pestered his parents every day of the summer holidays to take him. His mother was reluctant while his father flat-out refused, and muttered something about gypsies, and two weeks later left the country on a business excursion.

     Thibault continued to hound his mother until, early one evening, she finally relented. As they crested the same hill with the lavender rows, now harvested, and dipped down towards the circus, Thibault was surprised by the empty car park.

     The music of children and cork balls was missing as if someone had turned it down. In fact, most of the stalls were gone. The children, too. The only evidence any of it had even been there was left in squares of flat jaundiced grass and sweet wrappers rippling in the September breeze.

     The mother and son wandered around for 10 minutes. She bought some candy floss for him from an olive-skinned man who put out a cigarette as they approached the machine, and then she admonished the man for dropping a lit cigarette on the dry grass. His eyelids were dark and puffy and he seemed to listen but not listen at the same time.

     They wandered on. She asked Thibault if he wanted to see a show inside the big top.

     The boy peered up at it, gripping his paper cone.

     Pale red and white stripes arched up towards the sky like the lingering smoke trails from performing airplanes that had since flown on to another town. The tent opening, which was more like a jagged tear, was flanked by two more tired-looking men and was dark inside and he could not see in.

     He did not want to go inside. His mother did not ask twice, and they left.


     On Saturday afternoon, just as he was preparing to ride his bike, Thibault's phone buzzed.

     This season, he had gotten into the habit of cycling every Saturday. It was inextricably tied to his good form. Although he did not think about this, as he pointedly separated riding with racing, the act had become a ritual.

<  11  >

     Thibault read the text.

     'Afternoon Thibault, this is Alastair Hutchingson. Have you got time for a chat?'

     Thibault told the Sweetwater race manager he did, and Alastair gave him the name of a restaurant in Kuwait City.

     The restaurant was halfway down a sterile sidestreet on the metropole's outskirts. Inside was soft and dusky, a welcome reprieve from the opaque afternoon light. A hum of quiet conversation was carried along by the air conditioning.

     Alastair was sitting at a small table in the center of the room. He was dressed smartly and stood to greet Thibault.

     'Hello mate, how are you?'

     'I'm good, thanks, Alastair.'

     'On parle français?'

     'English is good, thanks.'

     Alastair motioned for Thibault to sit. He was impossibly British and Thibault thought it would be easier to humour this.

     'Second row tomorrow, not bad mate, not bad at all. I know you had our boys sweating for a moment in quali there; you're not going to rain on our parade, are you?'

     Thibault chuckled. 'I don't think Aaron would let anyone stop anyone from taking this championship.'

     Alastair nodded and leaned forward earnestly.

     'So, I'm sure you've heard the rumors. We're not looking to renew Bernd's contract next season and we want someone new to partner Aaron. We're grateful for what Bernd's done for the team, but he knows he's not getting any younger. And, well, let's face it, neither is Aaron.

     'What we want is for a young buck to come in and eventually become the face of Sweetwater Racing. I'd like for that to be you.'

     Alastair looked expectant.

     Thibault simply nodded.

<  12  >

     'I've spoken with the sponsors, spoken with the board, although really it's my say and not theirs. I think you're a great young talent. I think you've got a lot of potential.'

     Thibault nodded again. He thought how he would quite like a glass of water. Each table had a full decanter but theirs. Perhaps Alastair had drunk it all.

     'I'm not blowing smoke up your arse, here, mate. I saw your podium in LA. You've got what it takes. You'll be in the best car next season, I can promise you that, and nothing is stopping you from reaching the top of the sport with us.

     'Now, I should let you know we do have a tight deadline to get a new driver on board before the end of the season. I've got a preliminary agreement drawn up here with me. You've just got to put pen to paper and we'll start the process to make you a Sweetwater driver.'

     A pause. Thibault wet his lips. 'Have you spoken to Castrex?'

     'I've spoken to Castrex, I've spoken to Georges. He wasn't happy, admittedly, but there's nothing stopping you from joining us.'

     Alastair spread his hands. He was smiling.

     But Thibault felt like he wasn't really a part of this conversation. Not because Alastair was dominating it – Thibault just felt like he was somewhere else. Like he was listening to him from behind a thick-paned window that absorbed all the words.

     'It's a wonderful offer,' he began. The words fell from his mouth as slowly and softly as snowflakes. He hardly knew he was forming them and now it was like he was behind the windowpane with Alastair too, watching himself.

     'But I should stay at Castrex.'

     Alastair's smile broadened. 'OK. Well, what can we offer you to come on board?'

     A pause.

<  13  >

     'I mean what I said, Thibaut: we are looking at other drivers, but I personally want you on board. We can make you a world champion.'

     A pause.

     'I can offer you, tonight, a three-year deal for a salary worth $30 million.'

     A pause.

     Alastair lowered his voice. 'Look, if I were you, I'd box clever here. It's no great secret that Legacy Series is on its last legs, you probably know that. Motorsport is. It just won't be around in five years' time – maybe less – and all that'll be left will be sims or bloody bot racing.

     'We can find a role for you when that comes, Thibault, and it will. We look after our own at Sweetwater.'

     The young man showed no indication that he did not know this. He said nothing and stretched out his legs. He could think of nothing except his hamstrings were tightening and he needed a drink and he wanted to cycle.

     Alastair's smile turned incredulous. 'Are you really happy at Castrex? Pissing around all year in a mediocre car for a mid-table team that, if Georges is to be believed, is on the brink of bankruptcy?'

     Thibault looked past Alastair. He did not know this either but could think of nothing to say in response. He would need to stand soon. He would buy a bottle of water to go.

     Alastair's hands fell. He sat back and smoothed a crease in his shirt.

     'Well, I'm surprised. Really, mate. I see your body language, watch your interviews, and I'm thinking, "Here's a young lad who's not happy, he needs a new challenge, he needs the right backing to realize his potential." Obviously, that's not the case.'

     Alastair stood. Thibault automatically stood too.

     He was aware some fundamental change had occurred. Aware of the sudden space left by the erasure of something irretrievable. But it remained dulled to him. Like the sound of a light being switched off in another room.

<  14  >

     'I'm disappointed, Thibault. We'll have to look elsewhere. Good luck at Castrex.'

     Thibault stepped back out into the sterile sidestreet. The light was vanishing and soon he would not have time to cycle. His mobile rang as he climbed into his company car and after resisting the enormous urge to ignore it, he picked up.

     'Good evening, Georges.'

     'Thibault, where are you?'

     'I just left a meeting with Alastair Hutchinson. I'm about to go cycling.'

     'What was the outcome?'

     'I'm not going to join Sweetwater. I'm staying with the team.'

     Silence. Then, 'Come and see me.'

     Thibault rapped on Georges' hotel room door. The race manager opened up, still dressed in his full Castrex uniform. He gestured for Thibault to come in.

     All the lights in the room were switched on and the bright white spill made Georges look fraught and haggard. His eyes were pale and rheumy as ever and he smelled slightly flammable.

     'So, what did those slimy bastards have to say?''

     'They offered me a lot of money and said I could be a world champion.'

     Georges scoffed. 'Those slimy bastards, they will say anything. And you said no?'

     Thibault nodded.

     A deep breath. 'I am so pleased, Thibault.'

     Georges stepped forward and embraced him. Gingerly, the young man returned it. After a long moment, Georges began to sob.

     'I thought you were done with us, Thibault, I thought for sure you would leave and the team would be done for. But you have loyalty, my boy, something in short supply in this sport. You are a good boy.'

     Thibault held his race manager. He would not have time to cycle now.

<  15  >


     A cacophony of engines call out from beyond the garage, howling, the high-fenced pitlane compressing their sound into a violent column of pressure that whipped into every alcove.

     The young man sat in his racecar, staring emptily towards the floodlit track, and thought that whatever was inside the big top had not been worth watching anyway.

     Engineers continue to fuss facelessly behind their safety helmets. He hates them and he hates their helmets and he hates his own.

     'Comms, comms, testing. All clear, Thibault?'

     The crackle rouses him from his distemper. 'All clear.'

     'Thibault, it's Georges. Let's end this season on a high and go for a strong points finish. Keep the podium if things go our way.'


     Perhaps he would get a podium, perhaps he would not. Plainly, he did not care.

     He had not had time to cycle yesterday and that was a shame. Tomorrow, once his body is suitably recovered from the racing, he will see how far he can cycle out into the desert.

     The engineers finally step away from his car and Thibault revs the motor in a measured, swinging motion. He re-traces the track layout in his head once again.

     Ruts in the braking zones at turns one, three, four, and seven. Turn in before the billboard at four. Fuel cell replacement between laps 22 and 24. Conserve tires from lap 30 to finish.

     Forty laps. Just 40 laps, and he was done.

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