THE MAN IN THE PUB

Oh, these precious drivers

This week, as has been the case every May since 1995, my invitation to join Team McLaren at the annual three-day Silverstone test, landed on my doormat. I say invitation, but in truth McLaren's supporters club wants me to part with around $180 for the pleasure of going to the event. For the first time in 10 years, I will not be joining them. This is in no way a reflection on the club, which, as you may expect, is superbly run, and the day is always hosted by the most charming of staff with a nice buffet lunch in a posh tent at Copse Corner.

Anyone can watch the test for free from the viewing area just across the way and the only real value in the McLaren deal was that, in addition to a little salmon, one got a paddock pass, the equivalent of the Holy Grail to mere Formula 1 fans. In my office I have pictures of myself standing, grinning, with Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, Jean Alesi and Rubens Barrichello to name but a few. I have more F1 autographs from these Silverstone test visits than could be collected in several lifetimes hanging around at the paddock gate. Sadly, this collection will not be added to.

You will have noticed that the drivers mentioned are all of "the old school" with none of the youngsters of today. This is because getting anywhere near a driver nowadays, even if one is in the paddock, is virtually impossible. Gone are the days when drivers wandered about, crossing that prime autograph-hunting zone between the pit garage and the motorhome. In the end I had to ask myself did I want to spend $180 and spend all day chasing shadows in the paddock or should I apply that money to something more sensible?

The rot began back in 2000 when the Arrows team turned up in the paddock at the test with their Nigerian Prince in tow. The presence of such exalted company prompted the team to surround its trucks and transporters with steel barriers, with security guards on watch at every corner. Attempting to get the great Enrique Bernoldi's scrawl on a bit of paper quickly became a task as difficult as scaling the old Berlin Wall.

Fans didn't really give two hoots about the Arrows team's drivers but, as time went on, more and more teams realised that fencing out the Plebs made life a little bit more bearable for the poor drivers. From Ferrari down to Jordan (Minardi doesn't seem to turn up these days) a steel curtain has descended across the paddock. Behind that line lie the drivers.

And remember, this is IN the paddock.

Yes, testing is work for the teams, but I swear it takes the drivers longer to say no than it does to sign a few autographs.

The worst culprit is Juan Pablo Montoya, which may not surprise some. At the 2004 test I stood by the Williams transporter with my six year old son and two or three other folk. My son had decided that Montoya was to be "his" driver but JPM walked past us a dozen times, each time answering the plaintive requests for a scribble with "in a minute". It never happened, after about an hour he rushed past this threatening little group and into the garage, whereupon a charmless security guard came out and told us all to move on. Thanks Juan.

In fact the only driver last year, to make any effort whatsoever was Antonio Pizzonia, who saved the childrens' day, but did I pay all that money and hang around all day long just for a few minutes with Antonio? I think not. Even the usually compliant drivers are now impossible to get close to. Silverstone is a prison camp but the prisoners are on the outside and if they want to escape they can and they do not need ever to come back.

In an interview recently Bernie Ecclestone said: "The drivers don't give the public a fair shake, they're taking a lot of money out of the business, and I'm delighted for them, but it would be nice if they signed a few more autographs."

Hear, hear!

So, after a decade of visiting the Silverstone test session, I'll be spending my money this year on a trip to the Goodwood Festival of Speed. At least we'll get to meet drivers from a bygone era, a time when good manners and a realisation of the great life they led still meant something.

Touring car driver (and all round good bloke) Jason Plato recently said: "People pay good money to see us, and at the end of the day I'm an ordinary bloke doing a cool job, and its important to me to be a crowd pleaser. There is nothing worse than a driver not giving the time of day to a kid when he comes up to him.

"That's deplorable."

Are you listening Juan-Pablo and Co?

I hope so.

Rob Sinfield also runs www.grandprixdiary.com

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