A HACK LOOKS BACK

On nothing in particular

Are you enjoying the Olympics? If you happen to be British, I certainly hope so, because in four years' time it will be your tax money paying for all those athletes to descend on London and practise their peculiar trades in our fair country. Although it would be curmudgeonly for me to complain here about the vaguely ridiculous "sports" which involve people in top hats on horseback, or those weird fixed-grin ladies in swimsuits parting their thighs underwater in time to music, perhaps the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is trying to pack too many activities into the Games. I sincerely believe that the battered ideals of the Olympic movement would command a lot more respect if any sports which can't be decided using a stop watch or a ruler were to be sent back where they belong, namely the circus ring. Sorry, boxing fans, but that includes you, too.

Not for a moment, though, am I suggesting that motor racing should be included in the Games. Sports like ours which are practised professionally - tennis and basketball are other good examples - become a pale imitation of the real thing when included in the Olympics. In fact, the top stars actively attempt to wriggle out of competing, mainly because they don't get paid. Let's be logical about this and introduce another ruling that any sport whose most skilled exponents refuse to go to the Olympics has automatically excluded itself.

Nevertheless, while I would never argue that V8 engines and commercialism on the F1 scale have any place at all in the Olympics, I find it quite comforting to compare the watchability of our sport with some of those on show in Beijing. Regular readers will know how much I deplore the use of the word "boring" when used to describe an activity that involves driving ferocious racing cars on the limit at 200 mph, but it's one of the epithets that sprang to mind when I found myself watching a couple of dozen blokes you've never heard of setting off on the 10km open water swim. The event takes almost two hours to complete, and since you ask, I couldn't help noticing that there wasn't a lot of overtaking.

Even when a top swimmer has caught the public eye, like the American bloke who's winning all those gold medals, it is quite shocking to discover just how tedious his life is. He has to spend a large proportion of every day ingesting the 12,000 calories he needs to sustain all that physical effort (the menu, mostly eggs and bread, made me feel quite sick), and then he gets back in the pool. "I eat, I sleep and I swim," he told one newspaper, which doesn't sound very glorious to me, especially when you consider that the poor blighter's been doing it for more than half his life. Suddenly I realised what a live wire Kimi Raikkonen really is. At least he manages to escape occasionally from his Human Performance Manager, chase naked lap dancers and fall into the Baltic Sea after a few too many sherbets.

It's when you see the figures for the money being spent on the Olympics that you realise just what good value motor racing is. I don't know how much London is planning to spend on the opening ceremonies in 2012, but the lowest estimate I saw for the shindig in Beijing last week was 50 million quid. For that sort of money, Silverstone could be rebuilt from the ground up, with enough left over for a five year contract with Bernie. Better still, instead of having to bus spectators in to make sure the grandstands were full for the handball (no, I've no idea what that's about either), as they did in Beijing, our national circuit would be able to sell seats to fans who genuinely want to be there and who also have a good understanding of what's going on.

You may have got the message here that I approve of Valencia's decision to throw a couple of hundred million at this weekend's European Grand Prix. The promoters (worryingly, they're politicians) claim that the place is sold out, and if that's true at least it means that the locals are happy to see their money going to the Formula One group and that German chappie whose circuit design company has absolutely no financial connections at all either with Bernie or his bankers.

Things have changed a lot in Spain since 1967, when, as the official wheel polisher for Red Rose Racing (Lola T100, Dvr: B. Redman), I attended the first international race at the Jarama circuit near Madrid. Looking back, I suspect that some official in the government of General Francisco Franco had decided that building a modern racing circuit might bring in a few tourists and help to put a slightly prettier complexion on the old fascist during his final days in power (he actually took another nine years before popping his clogs). And knowing a bit about Spain, it would not surprise me at all to be told that the construction company hired to build the place belonged to the same official's cousin or brother-in-law. Nothing of that kind could possibly happen today, of course.

Jarama wasn't much of a circuit, although it holds a few stark memories for me. One of them was of the nearby restaurant where the Red Rose team (that would be our mechanic Terry and me) found ourselves on the first day. Sitting at another table was the mighty Team Lotus (a grand total of three mechanics, as I recall), soon to be joined by Graham Hill and Jim Clark. After a couple of beers, Graham decided that the stern-looking locals at the other tables needed a bit of cheering up, so he produced a packet of condoms which be proceeded to inflate by mouth before releasing them.

This, remember, was still the old Spain, where the tyrant's Roman Catholic principles meant that any form of birth control was strictly against the law. Somehow, though, those Spanish diners appeared to know that the latex objects flying round the room were not Christmas balloons. It must have been deeply uncomfortable for them, especially the ladies, and I have to admit that I was also acutely embarrassed by Hill's caper, which would probably have earned him a night in the slammer if someone had called the cops.

A few years later, again at Jarama, it was your correspondent who attracted the attention of the rozzers. This was 1972, by which time I had accepted a sponsor's money and briefly turned in my press credential for the role of John Player Team Lotus press officer and the yellow and black shirt which went with it. Recruiting me had a splendid effect on the team's race results, and our man Emerson Fittipaldi was soon picking up the five victories which gave him his first world title. His first of the year was, in fact, at Jarama, and it was while Emerson and Colin Chapman were waiting in the garage for the podium ceremony that I committed a serious error of judgment involving a policeman's hat.

To explain, Spain has three different police forces (supposedly to keep an eye on each other), of whom the grandest and most military are the Guardia Civil. Officers of the Guardia wear distinctive headgear in shiny leather or plastic, the rear part of which is turned up vertically, and it was while waiting for our two blokes to meet the King of Spain that I foolishly pretended to put a JPS sticker on the hat of a senior Guardia Civil officer. I was standing behind the chap, who couldn't see me, at least not until Hazel Chapman shrieked at me. The officer turned round, assumed the worse, and promptly detained me, apparently for the crime of attempting to disgrace his holy uniform.

I was led away and put into the back of a Land Rover, which was then locked. Whizzing through my mind were the images I had seen in a book I had recently read about the Spanish Civil War, a barbarous conflict in which families divided against themselves and in which both sides routinely executed prisoners without trial. I knew that Franco had never stopped rounding up his imagined opponents - many of them innocent civilians - and I couldn't help speculating about my own prospects, possibly under a headstone decorated with my name and the JPS logo. Fortunately, Chapman must have had a word with the King in my favour, because after half an hour I was released. I think my heart beat was still racing at warp speed a week later ...

No doubt there will be some bumf available in the Media Centre in Valencia with figures prepared by some consultancy wizards in Liechtenstein to show just how much cash the race fans will be bringing into town when they check into their hotels and pack out the local restaurants. You can believe these figures if you like, but I would gently remind the local caterers that a similar exercise in 1996, the year when the Australian GP moved from Melbourne to Adelaide, cast some doubt on the encouraging statistics. Expecting thousands of out-of-state fans with open wallets to descend on the place, the restaurants in nearby St Kilda stocked up with food. The fans apparently preferred to eat in their hotels or on the other side of town, and by Monday morning a lot of angry restaurant owners were telling the consultants just where they could put their expensively compiled report.

I am equally sceptical about the theory that a Grand Prix benefits its host city in terms of PR. The politicians in the region around Valencia are anxious to get more self-government, and a big sporting event will certainly attract attention. Let's face it, Valencia is a city which until now has been best known for its oranges and for corrupt property developers. If people can be persuaded to think of it in terms of motor racing and international sport instead. then so much the better. But there's negative PR, too, and I would imagine that a realistic assessment of the damage done to Valencia's image by the light-fingered character who nicked Lewis Hamilton's suitcase outside his hotel there last week would be measured in several million Euros.

You may have noticed from the last two columns here that I have somehow acquired the knack of tipping winners. Following an avalanche of requests, I am going to tempt fortune by suggesting that Lewis is going to be out of luck this weekend and Kimi will be making a come-back. Only bet if you can afford it, of course.

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