EFF ONE

It seems that Bernie Ecclestone has finally come up with a way of getting rid of the pesky Formula 1 press corps, which traipses around the world, refusing to wear uniforms and making the paddock look like a jumble sale. Bernie has hit on the idea of having so many races that the media can no longer afford to do all the travelling. The trend towards more expensive events has led us scribes and snappers to search out the cheapest tickets possible and as a result we embark on some very some very colorful routings. This explains how it was that I flew to Osaka via Vienna on Austrian Airlines.

It was the first time I had flown with AA (although I think I once went to a meeting they had) and sadly it will be the last because, after just one trip, I found myself having risen through the ranks to become their poster boy.

Alas, I must report that this will not be a moodily-photographed ad campaign featuring my finely-chiselled face (and body) but rather something along the lines of "You don't have to be an Aryan to fly Austrian".

I did not want to be on their Most Wanted list but it came about because of a number of misunderstandings with the flight crew, who seemed to think that I was breaching several rules of aviation when trying to help a colleague put out his reading light because he fancied 40 winks. The bulb broke off in my hand, starting a small electrical fire but I really don't see what all the fuss was about. The aircraft only dropped about 500ft.

Despite these troubles we arrived safely in Japan and, having allowed plenty of time to get over the evils of jet rag, I found that I had some time to kill on Thursday and so went shopping. I am now the proud owner of a motorcycle jacket, which bears the magnificent legend: "Highway Magician - Power Header, Yellow Corn Dog."

As the jetlag began to wear off, it began to seem like less of a good investment, particularly when it produced howls of derision from my colleagues in the Media Center.

I just don't understand. A while earlier, so I was told, they were all sighing with longing when they spotted Connie Montoya wearing a T-shirt which said "Always on top". How come she can get away with clothing bearing utterly meaningless English expressions and I cannot?

While I was shopping, Jacques Villeneuve was busy retiring. Personally, I never saw what all the fuss over Villeneuve was about. Anyone can be scruffy and have opinions and let's face it, all the Canadian backpacker ever did was become World Champion in 1997. He had the best car on the grid and did not so much win the championship as only just fail to lose it. Jacques's greatest skill as far as I was concerned lay in earning a fortune out of the sport. There was even a rumor flying around Suzuka that his no-show for the Japanese GP had made him a fistful of dollars. The story went that Honda was so keen to get Takuma Sato into the BAR that the Canadian was offered $2 million to say that he was not motivated to race.

The things we hear in the paddock. Outrageous...

In the finest Stalinist traditions, by the end of Thursday all trace of Jacques Villeneuve had been expunged from F1: his name had vanished without trace, whitewashed off the board above his pit and removed from what had once been his car.

Japan was also the last Grand Prix for one of my journalist colleagues and he seemed a little short of motivation as he whiled away Friday reading a magazine all about tractors. It even boasted a Problem Page for farmers: "Dear Sir, I have a problem with a neighbor's cow which keeps crapping on my new driveway. What can I do?" Answer: "Dear Farmer Giles, I suggest you ring your neighbor and tell him to keep his wife locked up at night!"

And we thought real life was dull.

It probably will be after a few weeks at home although I still seem to have plenty to do. Writing this column does not earn me enough to keep the wolf from the door and so, once in a while, I prostitute my journalistic integrity by doing a little work for one of the racing teams. My two contacts are both attractive young ladies, who always dress in identical team kit. I suggested to one of them that they could at least adopt different hairstyles next season so that I don't waste my time chasing the wrong girl around the paddock.

"No need Eff," she replied. "Just look at our bottoms. Hers is much more pert than mine."

My office notice board will henceforth boast photos of the two pertinent posteriors to warm the cockles of my heart during the long cold winter months.

There are, let me see, just over 130 days to go until the Australian GP in Melbourne in 2004 and, from what I hear, that might just be long enough to allow Michael Schumacher to get over his post-Suzuka hangover.

When I left the press office late on Sunday night, I was nearly knocked over by a table and some chairs which came flying through the window of one of the nasty little team offices in the paddock. Inside the remains of this building was a maniac with a huge cigar stuck in his mouth, wearing a Toyota shirt and a Michael Schumacher cap. After the table and chairs, the lunatic turned his attention to the air-conditioning fan which he tried to destroy by lobbing bits of broken furniture into it.

Prior to that eggs had been thrown into the fan, resulting in anyone walking past the office quite literally ending up with egg on their face.

The Schumacher cap was the giveaway, because (Yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen) it was none other than the six times World Champion himself.

It's the same old story every year: Michael takes the world title and goes into catering wizard Karl-Heinz Zimmerman's little hospitality area where the mad Austrian (his brother used to be a downhill ski racer) gives him a couple of quarts of Schnapps. Having lit the blue touch paper, Karl-Heinz then hides under the table as Mickey the Shoe puts the boot into anything and everything that comes to hand. Maybe we should not be too hard on Michael for being true to his cultural heritage as it is a sad national characteristic of the Germans that their idea of stress relief is to annex Poland and beat the shit out of minorities. Perhaps we should praise him for promoting European collaboration because joining him on this wild spree (which ended with them departing the paddock on a forklift truck) was none other than that quiet retiring Frenchman Olivier Panis.

Michael had evidently forgotten that he is supposed to be an emissary for the FIA's road safety campaigns and he decided through his alcoholic mist that he would drive himself back to the Suzuka Circuit Hotel. Alas, he found an obstacle in his path in the shape of Brother Ralf sitting in the driver's seat. Fifty-three laps of Suzuka had clearly not dampened the Champ's love of driving and he grabbed his sibling and simply slung him out the way (just like on the race track). Fortunately, Michael then found that putting a small key into the ignition proved far too complex an operation to accomplish, even for a man of his remarkable abilities.

I was reminded of a story from years ago when someone asked Ferrari driver Stefan Johansson if it was true that it is really difficult to start a Formula 1 engine.

"Not at all," said Stefan. "It couldn't be easier. You just raise your hand in the air and make one of your fingers go round in a circle."

Perhaps Michael should have tried that...

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