A HACK LOOKS BACK

On despots and elsewhere

What with Robert Mugabe defying the wishes of the Zimbabwean people and clutching fast to his country's discredited presidency, not to mention Vladimir Putin's dubious plan to stay in charge of Russia, dictators are much in the news right now. A curse on them all. I've yet to make the trip to Bahrain, for example, mainly because the price of the hotels is so terrifying, but that's not the only reason. Judging by the number of normally bumptious westerners (that includes you, Martin Brundle) that I saw scraping and bowing to the kingdom's Crown Prince on TV, he's obviously a splendidly benevolent chap and definitely no despot. Nevertheless, it was a little startling to find (from the Mercedes crib sheet, actually) that his family, the Al Khalifas, have been ruling the kingdom since 1783. That's even longer than Bernie's been looking after all our interests in F1...

One of the more memorable televised sights from Bahrain was that of the group of Polish fans, all beer bellies and red hair, who'd come to support the excellent Robert Kubica. In contrast with the Brits who had unfurled the Union flag opposite the McLaren pits in Malaysia, at least they knew which was the right way up for their country's colours. It's all very well being patriotic, but you'd think these people would have discovered by now not only that there's a right way up to fly the flag but also that exhibiting it upside-down is traditionally deemed to be a sign of distress, e.g. "this vessel is about to sink."

It was on the morning of the Australian GP in Adelaide, back in 1986, that I saw the biggest Union flag ever, in the grandstand overlooking the hairpin. Several dozen Nigel Mansell fans had brought it all the way from England, and it was inevitable that they, too, had got the bloody thing upside down. I knew instinctively that it meant Mansell's hopes of becoming champion that day were about to be dashed, just as Lewis Hamilton's ambitions were to be frustrated at Sepang. Judging by the further miseries which Lewis had to go through in Bahrain, I would not be surprised that the same bunch of dunderheads (or 'ignoranuses' as the Editor would call them) were present there, too.

So, you army of McLaren minders and human performance directors, take it from me: your boy doesn't stand a chance of turning his season around unless you dash over to the tribunes and make sure our country's flag is correctly displayed. The broad white stripe should be uppermost on the side adjacent to the flagpole, which is assumed to be on the left if the flag is displayed without one. Yes, I know, I should get out more ...

There have been some long faces in the Press Centre recently, worn by the chaps (and chapesses) who work for ITV and are about to lose their jobs to the BBC. So despondent about their futures are they that some of them have actually been turning to hacks like me for a bit of sympathy. Obviously the 13 years of ITV's Grand Prix coverage have passed these people by, because they seem to have overlooked the fact that I was one of the unfortunates who lost his BBC gig when ITV muscled in. Sorry and all that, guys, but I'm tickled pink that once again we'll be able to watch races without being interrupted by someone trying to sell us sanitary towels.

Now we're off to Spain, or more accurately to Catalonia. My memories of Barcelona go all the way back to my first visit, for an F2 race in (I think) 1968. At that time I was completely ignorant of the fact that the people of this region are not only culturally different from the Castilian majority but that they also have their own language. Out on the circuit, during the lunch break before qualifying, I found myself chatting in my terrible Spanish with a group of flag marshals. Unaware of the city's rivalry with the capital, I told them I'd been in Madrid for another race the previous week. They asked which of the two places I preferred, and I responded (truthfully) that it was Barcelona. To my amazement, this not only generated smiles all round but triggered an invitation from my new amigos to share their sandwiches and beer.

Motor racing in Spain has always been something of an on-off business. Until Fernando Alonso arrived on the scene, the country's best driver was probably Fon Portago, the son of an aristocratic family who lived the playboy life (Olympic winter sports and a run in the Grand National) and was beginning to show some real talent behind the wheel until it all shuddered to a hideous end with a crash which killed him, his co-driver and a dozen spectators in the 1958 Mille Miglia.

Then, in 1991, the politicians in Barcelona raided the taxpayers' piggy bank and opened the Circuit de Catalunya (see what I mean about regional pride?), entering the modern age as a serious promoter of the sport. Fortunately, they were a lot more efficient than some of the previous organisers of the Spanish GP. Nobody will ever forget the crashes at Montjuic in 1969 which so nearly cost the lives of Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill, although most of the blame for that double mishap rests at the feet of Colin Chapman and the grotesque - not to mention fragile - wings that he had just introduced. The 1975 crash which cost several lives finally spelled the end of Montjuic as an F1 venue was also the result of a car failure. It not only highlighted the serious deficiencies of the circuit but also drew attention to the callous attitude of the organisers, who refused to acknowledge that their barriers were inadequate.

If anything, the owners of the Jarama circuit near Madrid were even more incompetent. In 1970, for some reason, they had decided that only 16 drivers would start the race, which with 22 entries meant that half a dozen would have to eliminated. Incredibly, nobody seemed to know which session would decide the final 16, and anyway the official lap times took so long before they were issued that confusion reigned right up until the grid assembled, whereupon a number of fist fights broke out as drivers and managers at the back of the field argued over who had earned a place.

All this came as a bit of a shock to me, and I was delighted that I was present only as an observer, prior to taking over the F1 coverage for my newspaper (Motoring News) at the next race, in Belgium. Having a full credential, I had decided to watch the race from the highest point on the circuit, overlooking a left-handed downhill hairpin. On the first lap, this was the very corner where Jack Oliver lost control of his BRM when a front stub-axle broke. He veered helplessly into the path of Jacky Ickx's Ferrari, badly damaging both cars, which were of course full of fuel, and they promptly burst into flames.

The locally recruited fire marshals were clearly unfit to cope with an incident as serious as this. Fortunately, neither driver lost consciousness and both of them were able to escape, although Ickx was trapped for a few seconds and sustained some quite serious (and painful) burns. But there was no sign of the race being stopped, even when the burning cars started sliding down the hill. The flames roared unchecked for at least half the race, which was dominated from start to finish by Ken Tyrrell's March-Ford in the hands of Jackie Stewart.

It was also the only GP won that year by a March, an acronym for the four founders of the company - Max Mosley, Alan Rees, Graham Coaker and Robin Herd. Only one of the four is still actively involved in motor racing, and he's currently involved in trying to put out a few fires of his own making.

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