INTERVIEW

Bertrand Gachot

Bertrand Gachot was released from prison on the Tuesday before Suzuka. He flew straight out to Japan, but he no longer had a Formula 1 drive. He had been jailed just before the Belgian Grand Prix in August, convicted of causing actual bodily harm to a London taxi driver after a collision at London's Hyde Park Corner in December last year. In the ensuing altercation Bertrand sprayed CS gas into the face of the cabbie. In Britain CS gas is illegal. Bertrand was sentenced to six months for possession and 18 months for assault.

'I just couldn't believe what was happening,' he says. 'For me it was a clear case of self-defence and I think that people who know me know I would not aggress anybody.

'The judge considered that I used too much force on someone who came only with his hands. I cannot understand his judgement and I will never accept it. It was an incredible sentence.'

Initially Bertrand was held in Brixton Prison in London, one of England's most severe prisons.

'It was a prison like you would imagine,' he says, 'but it was worse because you were locked in 23 hours a day. You didn't have a table on which to eat. You didn't have anything. You didn't have a toilet in the cell, you could not even switch the cell light on and off. You were trying to look out of the windows to see normal life, people. You wouldn't treat an animal as badly as that.

'I had to be philisophical about it and laugh about it and not get miserable. At the end I was surprised how man can adapt and how other prisoners were actually not such bad people at all. I discovered things which I never believed were possible.'

'Afterwards they moved me to another prison which was not at all what I imagined a prison to be. We were quite open, quite free. We had to do some gardening, but at least I had fresh air and was able to see outside. The second prison was not so bad and I was able to keep training and physically preparing myself for the day when I would finally get out.

'Initially I was not interested in racing at all, I didn't want to know. I didn't want to see F1. Then the virus took over and I started to watch the GPs and then, when Barcelona was on, I was riveted to the TV. It is something you have inside of you. It's difficult to take it out.

'About 99% of the people were really kind and thought it was wrong that I was in jail. They helped me, made life easier. Obviously you have the 1% who are really bad people and they say: "Why does he have it easy? Why should he be treated diffrently?"

'But most of them made my stay in prison relatively bearable.

'One thing that was fantastic was the support I got from people all over the world. I had the most letters from Belgium, France and England but many from America, Japan, Australia. I really enjoyed reading them all and I will reply to them. It was just knowing that I was not alone. It kept me calm. When you are in jail you cannot think too much. You cannot get angry. You hve to control yourself at all times. All the support did help me.

'The other thing which kept me going was that I was convinved that I would get out on appeal because somewhere along the line I still believe in justice. We live in free countries after all and I don't think anyone is interested in putting innocent people in jail.

'I trained a lot physically and I was really motivated: not to eat the wrong things; to keep fit. I prepared for the day of getting out because I still had the contract with Jordan.'

After two months in prison - and four Grands Prix missed - Bertrand's appeal was finally heard on the Tuesday before Suzuka. The Court of Appeal did not quash the conviction, but the three judges, headed by Lord Lane, considered the sentence to be much too harsh.

'When I was in court it was really funny. I was calm. What more could they do to me? My screw (warder) said: "You are even calmer than I am".'

The judgement was still a big relief.

'It had to end some time,' says Bertrand. 'I was always convinced that I would get out on the day of the appeal, but I was really relieved to see that they thought that the judgement was not right. For me it was actually a big victory. It is the best proof that they have admitted that they were wrong.

'After the appeal we had a party at the French Embassy in London, which was good. Then, on Tuesday evening, I went straight to the airport and caught a plane to Japan.

'Believe me, when the plane took off it was a nice feeling. I woke up in a hotel in Japan and life was normal again. It was quite an adventure but already it is like it never happened. It's very strange. It is like a distant nightmare.'

In Japan there were other problems to be faced. Eddie Jordan, as Bertrand must have known deep-down, would not give him his Jordan-Ford back.

'That disappointed me a lot,' admits Bertrand. 'It was a drive which I thought was mine, but he didn't want to do it because he had commitments with other people. He decided to interrupt the contract. I don't know what the grounds were but I have had enough of lawyers and things like that. I'm not going to look into that. It's going to be my advisors who will do that. I don't want to get involved.

'I am left with a lot of destuction around me, everything that I have tried to do in the last years has been wasted. I had won Le Mans and I was 11th in the World Championship. That represented enormous risk, as much physically as financially. I don't feel bitter about it, but it does hurt me. If I was considered to have used too much force to defend myself, I believe the courts have certainly used too much force against me.

'The money that I lost for my business is terrible, but that is part of life and I hope I can make it again and I will try to find some benefit in this experience. What is much more worrying is the money it cost me to be able to appeal - not everybody could finance that.

'I also regret that they did not give me a sentence which was productive: helping handicapped children or putting up boards at customs saying CS is forbidden in England. That would have been constructive. It wasn't the case.

'Anyway, you can only try to take the good from it and get stronger. I learned that these things happen and I learned to look at life from a different aspect. Obviously I would rather have done without the experience...'

'As I said when I came out of court I knew that injustice existed. I knew of cases of it. But when you experience it yourself it takes on a totally different proportion.

'I believe that hard experience in life makes you a stronger and bigger person and I will come back as a more complete driver. I just hope I can get back in and do what I want to do - drive and be champion.

'It will be hard to get back into F1 but I think that life cannot only be bad luck. I've had a lot of bad luck lately and soon, maybe, I will have a lot of luck to compensate for it. I am young, I am physically OK, my mind is all right, I am happy to be alive and I have my future."

Bertrand hopes that his future is in F1.

'F1 is my passion and my goal. I believe that is where I am at my best, so I will try very hard to come back. But it will be very hard.'

Although he has always raced under a Belgian licence, Bertrand carries a French passport. His helmet carries the flag of the European community - he believes for a good reason.

'I am not really one nationality,' he says. 'I feel very much a European, but today I have to accept that a united Europe is not yet a reality. Certainly from a legal point of view."

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