EFF ONE

Australian taxi drivers - if they can speak English at all - make their London and New York counterparts seem like shy retiring little flowers when it comes to having opinions.

"You're not American are you?" my driver asked as he whisked me into Melbourne from Tullamarine Airport. I was quick to point out that I was from The Mother Country and this met with his approval.

"That President Bush's a damned idiot" continued the cabbie. "Whenever I get Septics (the Australian rhyming slang for Americans is apparently Septic tank = Yank) in my car, I tell them that. If they don't like that, I drive them into the city and show them our World Trade Center: "Bit taller than yours now, isn't it?" I say. That shuts ‘em up."

Gosh, I just love Oz, the last great bastion of political incorrectness. It has been crumbling of late with SNAGS (sensitive new age guys) in suits insisting that cigarette packets carry huge health warnings, explaining that cigarettes can kill you, your unborn baby (even if you are a man) and anyone else standing downwind of you within two blocks.

The makers of Winfield cigarettes got rather fed with this and someone in the marketing department came up with a simple ruse to counteract the sombre message: you would read all the nasty stuff on the pack and then flip open the lid to be greeted with a cheeky: "But have a Winfield anyway!" The courts have put a stop to it now.

One of the most exciting things each year is rushing to Melbourne to get your new FIA pass to see what secret messages it will have written on it (childish, I know). Will it feature a hologram? Will there be a dark Satanic message written backwards on the lanyard? Or a picture of Eddie Irvine's upper lip, curled in disgust (as it did last year).

There were none of the above this time but instead a collection of 12 of the all-time greats of Formula 1. Presumably there were a number of committees gone through to decide who would be there but there was some consternation when it became clear that one of Jack Brabham's three World Championships was missing and that Niki Lauda was spelled with two "k"s. The idea that journalists are expected to get their facts right clearly does not extend to our pass.

As one of Austria's most famous sons Nikki (it says here) Lauda gets invited to all sorts of posh events and a while ago he attended a gala evening for some Austrian royal, along with Gerhard Berger and a venerable Austrian F1 broadcaster. Even though it was a black-tie function, Niki was wearing his famous crumpled red cap.

Jostling through the large crowd of minor royals and representatives of the military and the church as the evening wore on, the broadcaster caught up with Gerhard and asked if he had seen Lauda. "I keep seeing a red hat in the crowd," Berger replied. "But every time I catch up with it, it turns out to be another bishop!"

Motor racing and the religious community are not comfortable bed-partners (if you see what I mean) as BBC Radio 5 discovered during their live broadcast of the Australian GP. The radio men tapped into the McLaren team's radio at the very moment that the team informed Kimi Raikkonen that he had to come into the pits for a drive-through penalty for speeding in pit lane.

"I wasn't f***ing speeding!" replied the Finn. As the producer hurled himself at the Off button, commentator Maurice Hamilton covered up with the thought that: "Raikkonen obviously feels he did not exceed the pit-lane speed limit."

Talk about the rules was rife in Melbourne although there was a certain irony in the fact that the cost-cutting measures were basically designed to keep teams like Aussie Stoddy's Minardi mob in business. With that in mind, it was possibly less than fitting that the first person to drive a coach and four through the new rules was Stoddart himself, when his native cunning saw his team bypass parc ferme and still get his cars onto their usual rear-gunning position on the grid.

About as subtle as a cab driver...

Rookie Cristiano da Matta learned the hard way that F1 is an expensive sport, as he picked up two fines for speeding in the pit lane within 15 minutes of Friday's first practice session. None of the four new F1 drivers actually finished their first GP, but they made headlines in other ways in the days leading up to the race: Ralph Firman went swimming with sharks (surely an appropriate metaphor for F1) while Justin Wilson, the tallest man on the grid, was snapped looking down on the giraffes at the Melbourne zoo. Later we learnt that one can buy shares in the lanky Englishman. The minimum investment is £500 and it did not take long for the British tabloid press to make the connection that street slang for £500 in Britain is "a monkey". This led to lines like "Wilson finds a giraffe, but is still looking for a monkey."

A Vodafone event during the run-up to the race featured a certain amount of monkey business with the media being invited to watch Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello each cook a pasta dish.

The local Vodafone PR agency was obviously struggling to milk the event for all it was worth and had arranged a "surprise" good luck message to be beamed around the world from soccer star David Beckham.

"Make sure the only thing you burn up is the track!" was the witty and obviously unscripted word from soccer's golden boy. This was such a "surprise" that it even featured in the press release we were given before the event started. The gushing prose also told us that Michael used his phone to keep up to date on news from his favorite soccer team…. Manchester United.

Given the animosity that regularly marks any confrontation between German and English soccer clubs, what are the chances of Michael, a keen football fan ever since he was a lad, actually supporting Man U?

Having observed the attempts of Michael and Rubens to produce something edible, I could only conclude that the two Ferrari men are to cooking what David Coulthard is to parking.

He might be one of the best F1 pilots in the world, he might have just won the first race of the season, but on Friday night at the track DC took longer to get his Merc out of a parking slot than BAR boss David Richards is taking to get rid of Jacques Villeneuve.

Making matters worse, the incident happened right in front of the area where fans gather to collect autographs from the drivers as they arrive and depart the circuit. The fans cheered when DC appeared. They watched in awe as he selected reverse. They stared in amazement as he put the car back in the slot it had started from. They looked on eagerly as he had another stab at it. They shuffled their feet and stared at the ground in embarrassment when the car still appeared to be going nowhere and finally they cheered with encouragement as David pulled off one of the best-executed 27 point turns I have ever seen, before acknowledging the adulation of his fans.

Coulthard was not the only F1 person to have difficulties with his road car in Melbourne. A German engineer at Toyota pulled out of his hotel one morning, forgetting that they drive on the left hand side in Oz and piled head-on into another vehicle.

The advertising slogan "The Car In Front Is A Toyota" took on a whole new meaning and the man driving the other vehicle will probably remember it for quite a while...

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