A HACK LOOKS BACK

Hungarian GP

My mate PeeWee in Australia has brought my attention to a website on which you can see details of the speed at which our planet is being destroyed. Log on to http://www.poodwaddle.com/worldclock.swf and you'll find lots of whirring dials which track alarming shifts like the increase in the world's population, the depletion of the rain forest, the rate at which we're burning up the oil and other depressing facts. Not (quite) everything that is shown on the site is negative, of course, so take a look. Perhaps surprisingly, it doesn't have a clock on the rate at which Bernie Ecclestone's fortune is increasing, but I am sure it will get around to it eventually.

The reality of climate change hit me personally on Friday morning at the Nurburgring when I got a couple of messages to say that I might like to hurry back to Sussex, where Hack Towers was about to come under a foot of water due to a small local river having broken its banks after a night of torrential rain. It's at times like these that you discover who your real friends are, so it's a tip of the hat to them for helping me to get home quickly. Things turned out to be a lot less serious than they might have been (the water stopped rising about half an inch from the lintel of our front door) and we won't be troubling the insurance assessors. Yet.

Anyway, I was already planning to make my own personal gesture towards saving the planet this year by giving the Hungarian GP a miss, thus breaking a habit which I have observed without fail ever since the first F1 event in Budapest back in 1986. I rather slipped up in this column last year by rabbiting away about all those steamy hot Hungarian GPs, having fallen prey to the cliche that it never rains on the Magyars in August. I was wrong, of course, and although the fans got wet, they also got a humdinger of a race. I hesitate to say this, but one of the more insignificant benefits of climate change is that it seems to have improved the quality of F1 racing.

Although the Hungarian race started out in the Eighties with a couple of memorable confrontations between Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, the more recent races have tended towards dullness, not helped by the fact that the circuit tends to develop a narrow racing line bordered by the slippery mixture of sand (from the unsealed verges) and rubber debris which always builds up as the race goes on. But there have been isolated moments of glory, like the one in 1989 when Nigel Mansell forgot that you're not supposed to overtake at the Hungaroring, came through the field in his Ferrari and managed to trap Senna's McLaren behind a slower car to take the lead. There was also the 1998 race when Ross Brawn switched Michael Schumacher from two stops to three and called him up on the radio to advise him that he could beat the McLarens if he did 15 laps at qualifying speed, which he duly did.

Dyed-in-the-wool race fans like you and me tend to relish moments like these because we are close to the sport and understand its subtleties. But I doubt whether they have much resonance for your average local fan in the grandstand. The Mansell/Senna incident took place years before the Hungarians got big screens all round the circuit, so you had to be watching on TV to have caught it, and I'm prepared to bet that ITV and Speed Television - thanks to sharp-nosed race analysts like Messrs Kravitz, Brundle and Windsor - were the only international broadcasters with the savvy to understand what was going on as the Ferrari ploy developed under their noses in 1998.

One of the fascinations of our sport is that there's so much stuff going on behind the scenes, both on the engineering and political fronts, which we don't hear about until later because it all has to be kept secret. Rather too much of the engineering, in my opinion, is arcane stuff which keeps ludicrously overpaid boffins employed for no very good purpose. In one of the FIA press conferences at last year's Hungarian GP I dared to question the usefulness of the Renault mass damper system, a way of shifting weight around the car to adjust for changes as the fuel was burned off. Just before the Hungarian race, mass dampers had been banned by the FIA.

My question was addressed to the four senior engineers who'd been dragooned into attending the conference, and it came as no surprise to me that Pat Symonds, for Renault, came up with a stout defence of his team's little subterfuge. You don't hear much eloquence in these routine press conferences, but Pat spoke clearly and quite passionately as he pointed out that the mass damper was in a grand tradition of engineering devices that have been in common use for many years in the construction of buildings and bridges as well as in motor vehicles. He seemed to be suggesting that mass dampers had as much to contribute to the human condition as anything dreamed up by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

What Pat was unwilling to concede was the inherent absurdity of F1 teams spending millions to build featherweight cars, then crudely to ballast them up to the weight limit using improbably expensive high-density materials which are then shifted around the car to make things more comfortable for the driver. Developments like these necessarily take place in secret, which means that Joe Public never gets to hear about them until the team's cover is blown. Where's the sponsor value in that? Surely it makes no sense for the FIA to be forcing teams to spend less money on their engines at a time when most of them are still actually increasing their payrolls by employing engineers to weasel out new ideas like mass dampers and movable floors. All for what?

Fortunately, not everything that goes on in F1 stays secret for long. Five or six years ago I was tipped off by an Italian colleague in Hungary that Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve had chanced to leave their hotel at the same time on Friday morning and had proceeded to stage a high speed race through the rush hour traffic. I remembered that Michael was still paying the price of one of his various on-track crimes at that time by acting as an FIA road safety ambassador, or some such title, which involved him jetting around some of the less enlightened European countries to persuade young motorists that seat belts were manly and desirable.

Later that day I had an opportunity to ask Michael in public whether he saw any conflict between his road safety role and the exhibition he had put on in the streets of Budapest that morning. Naturally, this being another FIA press conference, he came over all coy, but to his everlasting credit (and, as we know, rather typically) he didn't evince the slightest trace of guilt. 'Me, traffic hooligan?' he seemed to say. 'Where on earth would an ignorant journalist get an idea about me like that?'

Then, off the top of his head, Michael had a brilliant idea. He invited me to join him the following morning on the ride from his hotel to the circuit. That would give him the chance to demonstrate that he was a calm, responsible driver. It also allowed him to avoid answering any more questions about what had happened between him and Villeneuve.

Eight o'clock sharp on Saturday, outside the Hotel Kempinski. No invitation to join him for breakfast, you'll note. Michael strides out of the front door, accompanied by Balbir Singh, his personal trainer. He deliberately avoids eye contact with all the waiting fans, but I get a slightly contemptuous look as his personal car, an Alfa Romeo 156, is brought up for him. I get in the back and we set off.

I will come as no surprise to you that we drove the whole way at speeds that would not alarm a district nurse in her Morris Minor. Every change of lane carefully signalled, every traffic light obeyed. Finding something to say to Michael in such circumstances was difficult. You want to keep the conversation flowing, so you avoid anything controversial. I happened to mention something to do with German politics, which was neutral ground and nothing to do with racing. He hinted that he tended towards conservatism in his own views, but felt that the German government should offer more financial help to Third World countries.

Michael's been attending a few of this year's races, which I would do, too, if someone was offering me a few million Euros to wear a sponsor's tee shirt and be seen looking rather uncomfortable on the pit wall on TV doing nothing in particular. But nobody has offered me that chance, so I will take the opportunity of what little space remains to me in order to commend to you (OK, use the word plug if you wish) my new book - Nigel Mansell: A Photographic Portrait (£30, www.haynes.co.uk). The pictures make the book, but there are also some stimulating words, many of which cast a new light on this most British of our sporting heroes.

And not a word, I promise, of global warming or climate change.

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