A HACK LOOKS BACK

at Australia

As a regular reader of this column (as well as an occasional contributor to it), I have become thoroughly jealous of The Mole. My labours in Formula 1 would have been much lighter had there been a bevy of Penelopes to do my research for me, and it would have been so agreeable to have had a Mrs Batty around to ensure that my breakfast kidneys were properly devilled and the kedgeree correctly spiced. How splendid it must be to have Mole Manor as one's hideaway, not to mention the little place in the South of France!

Although we've never been informed of the great spymaster's exact age, I suspect that he and I are of the same generation, probably educated at similar schools. I may be giving something away here, but I can even remember reading contemporary road test reports of the Graber-bodied Alvis cabriolet which The Mole still favours for Continental touring. Actually, his taste in personal transport suggests to me that while I was reading car mags, he was absorbing Clausewitz and whatever works of reference are required for a career in espionage. A pleasant enough vehicle, the Alvis, but the Swiss styling was too bland for my tastes. If our hero had not been so busy learning how to become a discreet James Bond, he would have known, as I did when still in my early teens, that The Mole's choice of runabout with its four-cylinder engine was seriously under-powered.

In material terms the Mole has evidently done rather better than me, but then of course he's employed by the Government. No worries for him about the price of hotels in Shanghai or being chased out of a Spanish press room at gunpoint for him, then. Nevertheless, as I get older, the more I appreciate the extraordinarily good fortune I have had since starting work at the age of 20 (and not a day on the dole). It's not just in major events that I have been lucky -- like becoming a sports writer just as Formula 1 racing was becoming popular with the public, or in finding wives who were almost as perfect as me -- but in surviving countless little incidents which could so easily have been disastrous. As my friends will tell you with a shrug of amazement, I have somehow always managed to pull the fat out of the fire when I got myself into scrapes. Not being religious, I don't know who to thank for this long series of minor miracles. All I can do is express my gratitude to the many friends who came to my rescue (you know who you are) and admit that I hardly ever deserved any of it.

My British contemporaries in the F1 writing business are all a few years younger than me, but even here I have an advantage in having been able to cut down on the Sunday night chores a little bit before them. You see, it's just getting too expensive for a freelancer to write about F1. When most of the races took place in Europe it was possible for blokes like me to commute from England at reasonable cost and even to spend a weekend or two between GPs at home with the family. Today, not only does the unhappy freelance face huge bills to attend all the races which Bernie is staging in the desert and points further east, but the internet is also diminishing the revenues out of which the leading newspapers and magazines have to pay their contributors. If you can find a little compassion for the common pressman, please consider one of my mates. This hard-working hack has been taking a close look at the income from his newspaper, which doesn't seem to understand that it costs a lot more to report a race from Abu Dhabi than from Magny-Cours or Silverstone. He glumly (and truthfully) informed his newspaper bosses that on the money they were offering it would be cheaper for him to report the GPs from the telly and send the paper a large cheque every month.

Enough of the whingeing, you say, and you'd be right. The daffodils are flourishing in the garden, which means it's time to pack the bags and head off to the Land Down Under for the first GP of the year. When the taxi arrived for the first part of my trip to Melbourne, the driver recounted a story which made me reflect on the series of extraordinary coincidences which litter my life. The cabbie, a keen F1 follower, had picked up a fare at the local railway station and discovered that his passenger was a Brazilian. The two chatted a bit about racing, whereupon the man in the back said he was none other than Felipe Massa's cousin. When some doubt was expressed, out came the young man's Blackberry, complete with pictures taken on board the Massa jet. On hearing this I uttered a few cliches about small worlds and all that, but most unfortunately my driver had to admit that he hadn't bothered to ask what had brought his passenger all the way from Sao Paulo to our modest village in the heart of sleepy Sussex. In the old days, I'd have found a quiet moment with Felipe to discuss it. Fat chance now.

On arrival in Oz, full of anticipation about the start of the season, I was brought down to earth with a thump while waiting for a friend to pick me up outside Melbourne's Tullamarine airport. The place was swarming with people in uniforms and not a lot for them to do. One of them, a young woman looking incongruous in luminous yellow waterproofs and a flat police-style cap, informed me that I was standing at a Disabled Drop-Off. No visibly disabled persons were to be seen, and there were no vehicles carrying disabled parking badges. So I mentioned that my friend would be along in a moment, my bag would be in the back of his car within a couple of ticks and we'd be off without discombobulating anyone. "Aagh!" cried Ms Jobsworth in triumph, "that's an automatic $188 fine." Evidently she'd not been informed that many of the people passing through the airport are tourists whose dollars help to pay her wages. "Thanks for the splendid welcome to Australia," I muttered, "whatever happened to all that rugged indivualism for which this great country was once renowned?"

Perhaps I am being unduly sensitive, because the days of Melbourne's GP may be numbered. The F1 circus has been going to the city since 1996, so this is the thirteenth running of the event in Albert Park. Twelve months ago the local press was busy canning the event and it seemed quite likely that this year's race would be the last in the city centre. Now, my media friends believe it will be allowed to run to the end of the contract in another three years's time.

I've been to all but one of the Australian GPs which have counted towards the world championship, plus the three Formula Atlantic races which local racer and businessman Bob Jane, starting in 1981, generously laid on at his 1-mile Calder circuit to showcase top European talent. Nearly 30 years ago it was my Sydney mate PeeWee Siddle to whom Mr Jane turned when it came to recruiting the drivers, which is how blokes like Prost, Piquet, Lauda, Rosberg and Laffite -- not to mention Jones -- found themselves pounding round a forlorn dustbowl in punishing temperatures at the height of the Aussie summer. PeeWee had somehow wangled me into the job of being the unofficial press officer for those races, and I've been in love with Australia ever since.

Bob Jane was well before his time, as it happened, and his little showcase events failed to persuade Melbourne to bid for a championship race. Instead, the baton was taken up in 1985 by Adelaide. Ten years later, when Melbourne decided that it was interested in F1 after all, Bernie had pushed up the sanctioning fee to such terrifying heights that the city, under wildly different political regimes, still finds every excuse possible not to reveal the truth. No doubt Bernie's contract includes provision for commercial secrecy, which is easy enough to enforce when he is dealing with regimes whose citizens know that it is inadvisable to ask too many questions about how their money is spent. In a proper democracy, though, it makes for an unhappy relationship between the public and politicians.

I think it would be a disaster if the Australian GP were to drop off the calendar. Now that Montreal has gone, there are precious few races which bring the F1 atmosphere to the heart of major cities. In time, perhaps Valencia and Singapore will fill the gap, but I will miss the Melbourne buzz which comes from knowing that the people who welcome the race into their communities are genuinely interested in F1. I urge the people of Australia to continue supporting their race. Perhaps the tumbling cost of running F1 teams, so aggressively promoted by the FIA, will lead to Bernie being required to follow suit.

There will be more developments on this theme over the weekend and I, for one, am anxious to see Melbourne's place assured. Perhaps The Mole could be called in to arbitrate ...

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