THE HACK LOOKS BACK

at Spanish Grands Prix

Looking back over the 40 years that I've been writing about F1 racing, I have discovered that many of the really terrifying moments happened at Spanish GPs. I just missed the year (it was 1969) when the sport almost lost both Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill after the ludicrous suspension-mounted wings of their Gold Leaf Lotuses collapsed within a couple of laps of each other as they came over the same 160mph crest at Montjuich. One year later at Jarama, though, I was only yards away from the inferno which broke out when Jack Oliver's BRM broke its front suspension at the hairpin and speared into Jacky Ickx's Ferrari just after the start. Ickx escaped with a bit of help from Oliver, although he sustained some painful burns.

At Montjuich in 1975, on Thursday and Friday I was out on the circuit with the Embassy-Hill crew who should have been preparing Rolf Stommelen's Embassy Hill as they, and dozens of other dejected F1 personnel, attempted to screw together the guardrails which had merely been stacked at the roadside by the lackadaisical workmen employed by the Real Automovil Club de Catalunya. By rights, the race meeting should have been abandoned on the spot, due to the failure to ensure that the circuit was properly prepared. But the FIA couldn't be bothered to intervene, and anyway the paddock had been put under armed supervision to ensure that the event went ahead regardless. As we now know, the race had to be stopped anyway, but only because Stommelen had been launched over a hastily buttoned-down barrier when his car's new-fangled carbon-fibre rear wing support literally became unstuck. Although Rolf miraculously got away with his life, several spectators were less fortunate.

Then there was the nailbiting weekend at the current venue in 1994, the first GP on the calendar after Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger had been killed at Imola. Suddenly, F1 people felt vulnerable. Public opinion in many countries, not least among them Italy and France, was being stirred up by self-interested politicians (is there any other kind?) to oppose our sport. Max Mosley, to his great credit, had stepped in with measures designed to show that F1 was capable of producing rapid, reasoned countermeasures. But one team owner in particular appeared not to understand what was at stake, and the ensuing political manouevering threatened to sink Max's efforts. Then another big crash on Saturday came as a terrible reminder that there's more to motor racing than politics, and everyone pulled together to ensure that the sport had a future.

As I may have mentioned here before, I too nearly came a cropper at the Spanish GP of 1972, when a senior officer in the Guardia Civil ordered me to be detained after he caught me pretending to put a John Player Special sticker on his shiny black hat. I mention this incident again only because I was reminded of it last weekend by none other than Emerson Fittipaldi, with whom I spent a congenial afternoon at Brands Hatch during the A1GP feature race. Emerson was supposed to be running the Brazilian A1GP team at Brands, but his celebrated talent for self-preservation appears to have eluded his driver, who did so much damage in practice that there weren't enough parts left to put his car on the grid. The boss -- World Champion of 1972 and 1974 in case you're too young to remember -- came up to the press box and sat down for a chat with The Hack while a processional race unfolded in front of us.

It is a sign of the times, I suppose, that 37 years after he'd won that race at Jarama, the memory of the celebrations which seems to have stayed with Emerson longest was the sight of his team's press officer (that would be me) being banged up in the back of a military Land Rover. It was fortunate indeed that Crown Prince Juan Carlos was presenting the prizes, because -- as I now realise -- I owe my release to the quiet word that Emerson had with the future King of Spain on the podium.

Two weeks before I ran into Emerson in England, I spent an hour in the Shanghai paddock with his countryman and fellow-champion, Nelson Soutomaior Piquet. Ever since I first met Nelson at an F3 race at Silverstone in 1978, he has always been proud to say that he modelled his driving on the canny win-at-the-slowest-possible-speed style of his predecessor, Fittipaldi. Nevertheless, he doesn't hesitate to draw attention to what he sees as the deficiencies in the way the first Brazilian champion does business. Actually, Nelson likes to tell tall tales about most of the people he's met in motor racing. Not all of them are entirely true.

Although some of the stories Nelson told me in Shanghai are scurrilous enough to make your ears catch fire, you won't be reading them here because they would attract the attention of m'learned friends. Still, you can work out for yourselves why he's making the long trip from Brasilia to attend most of this year's GPs. I will say no more than that it doesn't always help a young driver's career to have his father keeping a close eye on things, unless of course the Old Man knows where the bodies are buried. Nelson Jr may be struggling a bit at Renault, but I happen to believe that he will last out a lot longer there than his critics might imagine.

Nelson Snr's appearance at the first three races also seems to have discombobulated his old employer Bernie Ecclestone. When they met in Malaysia, Nelson claims, Bernie casually asked him how things were going. "Terrible!" said Nelson with a completely straight face. "Haven't you heard? My businesses in Brazil have all gone tits up and I'm looking for work. Any chance of driving the Safety Car?"

As anyone who's ever worked for Bernie will tell you, the Little Big Man is extraordinarily loyal to past employees. True to form, he apparently mumbled something about seeing what he could do for the man who won him two drivers' titles back in the glory days when he owned Brabham. The next day, pushing the jape to its limits, Nelson searched out Bernie to see if any employment had eventuated. It was then that Bernie spotted the watch on Nelson's wrist, an unutterably vulgar Hublot in pink gold, as favoured by the sort of man who has twenty or thirty thousand to spend on telling the time. The sort of man, in short, who drives a Maserati and probably sports a trophy Latina wife.

At this point I should mention that Bernie knows a thing or two about watches, having started in the horological business while still a teenager, selling timepieces to his mates down in darkest Kent. "So how can you afford one of these?" he asks.

The way Nelson tells it, Bernie was now in full sympathy with him. The watch, he told his ex-boss, was just one of many items which were on the block to satisfy his creditors. Unbuckling the monstrosity, he passed it over. Although I repeat that I am unable to verify the story, I do like the idea of Bernie's face all screwed up as he examines the fine details of the hideous Hublot. Again, if you believe Nelson, it seems that he even offered to take it off his ex-driver's hands for six or seven thousand quid.

This was enormously satisfying for Nelson, whose businesses in Brazil are in fact thriving. Even more to the point, the previous evening in Shanghai the "Hublot" had cost him just 200 bucks from a street trader who had approached him with a suitcase full of equally convincing fakes ...

Back in England, on the weekend of the Bahrein GP, I got my first chance of the year to watch the BBC's commercials-free F1 coverage. Obviously it won't be until the Beeb gives me my old job back that the show can be expected to hit its stride, but it's heading in the right direction. It would lead to utter confusion if everyone with a microphone in his hand was allowed to offer an opinion, which is why both Jonathan Ledgard (a veteran at 44) and newcomer Jake Humphrey (who's a quarter of the age of his raucous predecessor) appear to be biting their lips. Of the two authorised sages, Martin Brundle offers consistently useful insights, while David Coulthard is surprisingly short of the self-confidence that you would expect from someone with 13 GP wins behind him. Still, there's plenty of time for these guys to find a distinctive voice.

The big surprise of the Beeb's Bahrein broadcast, to me at least, is Eddie Jordan. Back in his days as a team owner, Eddie's gushingly incoherent Irishness made him a nightmare in interviews. On the screen, though, he has become almost concise. I understand that he tightened up his act rather noticeably after the Chinese GP, where he had a prior engagement and yielded his job to sometime designer Mike "The Rotweiler" Gascoyne. Colleagues who didn't make it to the flyaway races in March and April say that Gascoyne's pin-sharp technical summaries and acerbic character assessments not only had an effect on EJ but would guarantee him a permanent TV commentary spot if he ever runs out of F1 teams to work for.

Come to think of it, Mike's been through an alarming number of employees over the last 15 years. If he can get used to the idea of salary cheques without five or six zeroes on them, he would clearly make a great commentator for the BBC. In the meantime, I'm still available ...

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