FEATURE

Why I don't look forward to ... oddball GPs

I managed to miss last year's Turkish GP, following which I heard nothing but praise for the splendid circuit - and complaints from colleagues who had got caught in the traffic on the way to the track. It may seem wonderfully romantic to be making a daily crossing of the stretch of water which separates Europe and Asia, but a couple of weeks ago I actually heard Frank Williams using the F-word to describe the two hours each way he spent in the congestion on the bridge across the Bosphorus. I expect to be more than happy to be watching the race from my sofa again.

I must also admit to feeling a bit queasy about supporting what I call "despot" races, the ones which are laid on to make some country's political regime look a bit prettier than it really is. You might argue that by inviting teams and spectators to cross their borders, such countries in effect become more open and tolerant. But unless you're Mr E as he walks out of some laughably named People's Ministry of Youth and Sport with a fat contract safely tucked away in his famous briefcase, it can be a difficult distinction to make.

I suppose my conscience should have been pricking me back in 1971, when I almost snapped off the hand of the nice man who was offering me a free plane ticket to Sao Paulo and hotel accommodation to attend a series of F3 and F2 races at Interlagos. This was the beginning of the process which led to Brazil joining the Grand Prix elite, eventually providing the sport with a string of great drivers, two of whom won six world championships between them. What I didn't know then, however, was that those early GPs at Interlagos were organised and promoted by a TV channel which had been set up to enrich a general in the repressive military government then running the country. Thirty years ago, the Brazilian GP helped to give the generals and their rotten government a slightly more human face.

There used to be a requirement in the FIA rule book that no country (not even race-mad Brazil) was allowed to stage a full-scale GP unless it had first run a non-championship event as a dress rehearsal for the real thing. That's no longer a realistic imposition, of course, but I still feel that having an F1 race should be the apex of any nation's motorsporting status. I wasn't allowed to report Grands Prix until I'd served several seasons' apprenticeship covering club events at Mallory Park and F2 races at horrid airfield tracks in Europe. Surely there ought to be a similar graduation system in place for would-be GP organising countries, with the right to run a GP as the reward for having established a proper motorsporting infrastructure.

Yes, I know that Turkey is going through the motions of becoming a hotbed of motorsport, and has quite an active rally scene. It is also guiding some well-sponsored (though not hugely talented) young drivers into international circuit racing. But it is difficult to avoid asking oneself if the country's government - and it's the government, not an enterprising businessman, who's paying Bernie's bills - would have committed itself to spending hundreds of millions of Euros on a world championship race if it hadn't calculated that the coverage might enhance its chances of being accepted as a candidate for membership of the European Union.

No doubt future Turkish drivers will demonstrate the same innate talents which have made Brazil such a glorious motorsporting nation, but until that happens I like to regard the race at the Istanbul Speedpark as slightly oddball.

The history of the F1 championship includes a number of events in unlikely places, most notably the Moroccan GP of 1958, held on some dusty roads in the desert on the outskirts of Casablanca. I didn't get to that one myself, but the record shows that Stirling Moss's Vanwall walked away with it, although some rather unsporting team orders by Ferrari deprived Moss of his best-ever shot at the drivers' title. Overshadowed by the fiery crash which was to cost the life of Moss's team mate Stuart Lewis-Evans, the event was not repeated.

One of the restrictions at races held in strict Muslim countries like Malaysia and Bahrain is that the podium ceremony may not involve champagne, out of respect for Islamic teachings on alcohol. Back in 1976 I was sent a clipping from an English-language Saudi newspaper in which a photograph of James Hunt spraying a magnum of Moet was wryly captioned: "Englishman James Hunt celebrates with a bottle of milk," presumably in order to save the editor from a possible punishment involving his head and a sword. Don't imagine, though, that such restrictions exist only under Islam. Back in the Seventies, six world championship races were staged in at the Anderstorp circuit in Sweden, where the girls go unveiled but the rules on booze could only be described as repressive.

First off, there would be no champagne on the podium. Oh no, the top three finishers were handed bottles of sparkling apple juice to spray on each other. Furthermore, to protect the area from drunkenness, for 60 kms around the track every (government-owned) grog shop was closed down during the weekend of the race. The wooly-headed do-gooders behind this law should have anticipated that it would have the opposite effect from what they intended. Local youths stocked up before they left home, which meant that three consecutive nights were enlivened by bacchanalian revels into the small hours as they drank up every drop of fire water they'd brought with them and collapsed into the gutters.

Last year the Turkish Prime Minister boasted about the economic benefits which he expects his country to receive from staging a Grand Prix. It is possible, I suppose, that he genuinely believes his five year deal with F1 racing will generate $3 billion in additional tourist revenues for Turkey. Back in 1973, though, the Swedish city of Gislaved obviously didn't understand what impact there would be from having a Grand Prix down the road at Anderstorp, as a group of us discovered when we tried to get fed in the dining room of our hotel. "Sorry," we were told, "the kitchens are closed because the staff have gone on their summer holidays."

Sweden has a distinguished motorsporting history, understandably concentrated on rallying. Many of its racing drivers have been far from shabby performers, though, and the Grand Prix was organised, by a private individual, to celebrate what were to be the six most glorious years of its greatest star, the greatly lamented Ronnie Peterson. In 1974, sharing a borrowed Volvo with two colleagues, I drove from Gothenburg to Anderstorp, a couple of hours at a law-respecting 80 km/h with nothing to look at except pine trees.

Having picked up our car park pass and signed in at the circuit press office, we returned to the car, climbed in, buckled up, started the engine (running lights on, of course) and gently headed back to the main road. Waiting for us was a leather-clad Swedish motorcycle cop, hand raised, with a request to check our passports and examine our vehicle. With almost excruciating politeness he looked through the interior then asked us to open the boot. Having asked us to unlock our suitcases, he then rummaged through our fresh shirts and toilet kit before waving us on to resume our journey. Not once did he indicate what he might have been looking for.

The three of us buckled up again, headed out on the main road (running lights on, of course, despite the strong sunshine) ... and simultaneously declared, "I'm never coming here again."

It was a promise that I personally was happy to keep. After that experience, mid-June seemed like a better time to be spending on a Mediterranean beach than in the company of a Swedish motorcycle cop. And as Ronnie once told me, with a wink, all the prettiest Swedish girls were more likely to be on my beach than sitting around at Anderstorp waiting for the winner to start throwing ... apple juice.

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