FEATURE

A hack looks back on ... Australia and Malaysia

So, it's a late start to the season for this column, the first edition of which was written in plenty of time before the Australian GP but somehow failed to get itself published. Although the Editor denies that he went through a crisis of conscience before deciding to consign my mischievous scribbles to the spike, you may already have noticed that his own recent diatribes against The Establishment have been less frequent (and less strident) than we readers have come to expect. Like second-rank F1 drivers whose lap times miraculously improve around contract time, we freelance journalists tend to get a bit nervous before the season as we wonder whether there'll be a credential for us. The difference is that while the drivers go a bit harder on the gas, we hacks ease off the vitriol. 'Nuff said?

Given that we have not exactly been inundated with letters of complaint about the absence of my usual contribution to this site, I propose to move swiftly onwards. Or backwards, because the race weekend in Australia provided plenty of material for a garrulous old hack like me. Since the normally benevolent Bernie (thanks for the pass, sir) had put Malaysia just one week after Australia on this year's calendar, I arrived early Down Under and took a short side trip to Adelaide. It was quite emotional to be wandering along streets which held so many happy memories. I still think the best thing for Melbourne's GP would be to move it to the end of the season, where it used to be in the Adelaide period between 1985-95. Everyone (except the French, of course) loves Australia, and the number of F1 people who stayed on for a well-earned post-race holiday would surely help to justify those claims we read about the tourist dollars which the race is supposed to attract.

So what future does F1 have in Australia? The Editor and I were discussing this very subject rather loudly (the alcohol, y'know) while returning from the annual McLaren lunch on board a Melbourne tram when a middle-aged bloke standing nearby asked if he could lob in his tuppence worth of opinion. He listed everything that was wrong with the GP - the tens of millions of taxpayers money squandered on the event, the four months of disruption to Albert Park, the alleged lies and deceptions uttered over the year by the GP Corporation - and concluded that knocking the race on the head would be good riddance to bad rubbish. The Editor responded magnificently, insisting that even now that the (true) losses have been admitted, the race is still good value for money.

My companion then wheeled out his rather charming "pixie dust" defence, suggesting that the race helps to paint a genuinely glamorous image of Melbourne in the subconscious of the millions watching on TV. The city would only appreciate this benefit, he pointed out, when it was no longer on the calendar. I couldn't help thinking of the question which one-time Minardi owner Paul Stoddart had put to me the previous day. "Is the loss of $35 million still a good investment for Melbourne, Victoria and Australia?" asked Stoddie. "The answer to that is still Yes. God knows, governments spend a lot more on a lot less."

Maybe it's just me, but I had several experiences in Melbourne this year which gave me a strong impression that the city is actively discouraging tourism. Getting around the place has become noticeably more difficult ever since the decision was made some years ago to sell the whole transport system - buses, trams and taxis - to a mysterious foreign group whose only requirement for its employees is that they should not be able to speak English. This was brought home to me three years ago, a couple of days after I had arrived, when I hailed a cab and discovered that its driver, who hailed from Minsk, had actually been in the country for 24 hours less than I had.

It was therefore probably my mistake when I set off on Thursday, using public transport, to attend the Red Bull party. Perhaps because of my sparse knowledge of Punjabi, it took a little while before the nice man in the Yarra Trams shirt was able to inform me that I needed a number 86 (he wrote it down in my notebook). Unfortunately, he failed to tell me in which direction, which resulted in northwards travel when southwards was required, and in my jumping off to hail a cab. Well, two cabs, after driver number 1 had dropped me 25 minutes' walk from my intended destination.

Arriving 35 minutes late, I missed the promised attendance of the four Red Bull drivers, who given the venue (a docklands shed) and the awfulness of the 'music' (a man spitting and thumping his microphone) were presumably present at gunpoint, and then only briefly. I grabbed a beer and stationed myself conveniently close to the kitchen area, from which constant supplies of top quality snacks were soon emerging. Big screens all around the place kept my fellow guests entertained and not a little bewildered, which I understand is how people prefer things to be when they're under 25.

Meanwhile, the racket from the sound system just got louder and louder. The climax of the evening was an American gentleman with a silly name who chanted his ditties without ever once breaking into song. Superb drummer, though. Sadly, the whole show was horribly over-amplified. It took 40 years of attending motor races to do the damage to my ears which makes me a standing joke in the press room, but here was good ol' Red Bull attempting to do the same to the hearing systems of 500 people, in the space of just two hours.

I made my excuses and left. On the way out I spied my old chum Eric Silbermann, who gave up journalism last year in order to beat the publicity drum for Red Bull. He was standing outside the shed, which seemed like a wise move. A few days later he was on the same flight out of Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur as me, too. In business class, natch.

This piece is being written from Sepang, where I have yet to discover if there's any truth in the rumour that the McLaren engineers had a button on the pit wall in Australia which interfered with the Ferrari telemetry and could be used to blow up engines. It's obviously far-fetched, although it reminds me of a weekend at Monaco long ago when Brian Hart, the brilliant engineer whose various F1 turbo four-bangers punched well above their weight during the Eighties, was convinced that someone in the main grandstand had an electronic transmitter tuned in to his telemetry wavelength and was causing a serious misfire at that point on the circuit.

This is the 10th championship race to be held here at Sepang, which prompts me to recall that first race in 1999. Although it ended with a Ferrari 1-2 (Eddie Irvine/Michael Schumacher), the Ferraris were both disqualified after someone from McLaren suggested to the FIA that there was something not quite right with their barge boards. I can't remember the details, but it seemed a simple enough transgression, and Ross Brawn (then the technical boss at Maranello) seemed satisfied that the punishment was in order. Indeed, while waiting to step into his first class London-bound seat at the airport the following day, Brawn admitted as much to a senior figure in a rival British team.

Two days later, to everyone's amazement, the FIA agreed at Ferrari's request to convene an Appeals Tribunal. In due course, Ferrari was completely acquitted. When the Tribunal's detailed findings were later circulated to the press, I have to confess that I found them too dense to understand. Judging by the blank looks on the faces of colleagues I interviewed here in Malaysia, I was not the only pressman to have been confused.

The Sepang barge board case was the first in the series of incidents which have led to a perception among the more cynical areas of the press room that the FIA is somehow biased in favour of Ferrari. I sincerely hope that the vastly superior reliability of the McLaren-Mercedes entries in Melbourne, which assisted them in allowing Lewis and Heikki to seize such a convincing early advantage in the 2008 championships, does not lead to any rulings which might be seen to give Ferrari any advantage. I'm looking forward to a close and cleanly fought struggle in F1 this year, without any of the polemics which tarnished 2007.

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I was interested to see that the Editor, in a recent missive, discreetly noted the parting of the ways between F1 racing and Ralf Schumacher. While this will have come as no surprise to readers of this website, who were informed long before the Brazilian GP that the German lad's F1 career was toast, it may have been news to fans who believed his various repeated claims that he "wasn't worried" about his future and that he had "several offers" to stay in F1.

Speaking to a British website, Ralf has now admitted that he was well aware that he had nowhere to go after he'd banked the final cheque from Toyota. "I did make those comments, but the situation never changed for me," he confessed.

"I said that [I would remain in F1] because there were a lot of people talking, and the situation was difficult at Toyota, so I just wanted to finish the season in peace."

In honour of this admission, and to acknowledge Ralf's unwitting but useful role in expanding the vocabulary of the English language, I propose the introduction of a new verb, as follows.

• Ralf (v. intransitive). (ralfs, ralfed, ralfing) an intentionally false statement, a deceitful claim, made with its primary objective as a means of discouraging vexatious press enquiries: The Prime Minister was accused of ralfing when he declared that he had full confidence in his Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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