THE YOUTH OF TODAY

Uncle Henry wins again

Motor racing has, from its very inception, been intended to sell cars. You and I are supposed to thrill to the sights and sounds of our chosen sport, then toddle off down to the local dealership to order a little bit of that sporting pedigree to put on the drive. Presumably therefore BMW's sales have rocketed since San Marino and a batch of Ralf Schumacher stickers and gear knobs are being prepared to shift the some base model 3-series as this year's dark horse makes his title bid. The car market has preoccupied me of late, as the swanky motors of my salad days are put up for sale as parenthood rolls over the horizon and sensible shoes are required.

The bell tolled when I found that my favorite band has migrated from the urgent, inky pages of the weekly music press to nestle alongside Jefferson Airplane and Van Morrison in the glossy monthly magazines. Soon an album of Nirvana's 'lost' recordings will grace my CD rack, officially making me an old fart.

It's one of Mother Nature's ways of telling you that there are things of greater importance than getting tickets for the Astoria on Friday night and the 0-60 figures of your motor. Storage space becomes more important than sweeping lines, and CD players less of a concern than access to the back seat.

Going car shopping for the first time in a while has also brought home the increased input of motor manufacturers in Formula 1 through racing-inspired badge engineering. Instead of naming gaudily colored special editions after holiday resorts you're more likely to find one called a Suzuka, and as the car makers grip on the sport grows tighter, so this is likely to become an ever-increasing phenomenon.

For an F1 sort of person you might think that an F1 sort of car would have some appeal. Journalists are however tend to avoid bearing allegiance to anyone whose on-track exploits they report on.

This means that choice is somewhat limited. Ferrari of course did its 355 F1, featuring paddle-operated semi-automatic gear shifting at your fingertips. The gearbox remains even if the 355 has been pensioned off, but it's all fairly academic as Ferrari ownership is a little beyond the means of most. Besides, where do you put the baby seat?

Such thoughts have obviously occurred to the Agnelli family, hence the new Fiat Seicento 'Michael Schumacher' edition. Be warned: the streets of Milan are about to become even less pedestrian friendly as the faithful shed a few lire to go curb-hopping in a buzz bomb bearing the master's moniker.

If you should find yourself underneath one of these however you'll only have yourself to blame, as they come in such an eyeball searing shade of yellow you should be able to see them coming from several miles off.

It's a color that seems to work for Formula 1 fans. Honda used the same hue on a Jordan-badged Civic and they've all been sold to people who take days off work to watch Formula 1 testing at Silverstone come rain, shine, frogs and locusts. This is the die-hard's choice, and I've even seen one liveried up with the full Buzzin' Hornets color scheme... I doff my hat to your devotion, sir!

Away from their natural habitat though, F1-liveried cars are, well, a tad gauche. You wouldn't see someone turning up at the Savoy Grille in a BAR team shirt, and likewise an A-Class Mercedes with neon red West logos probably wouldn't cut the mustard in the supermarket car park.

Williams has a habit of doing things rather well, and the Renault Clio it turned out a few years ago came in a very sober shade of blue. It also packed the kind of punch that has readers of performance car magazines running for the lavatory clutching their crotches and whimpering to themselves, but alas it is extinct.

This understated F1 appearance is where Jaguar wants to be with its 'R' range of tweaked kitty-cats. Like their racing counterparts they come soaked in dark metallic green, but lose out on authenticity by providing enough controls for only one driver rather than three.

If things going at this rate Acacia Drive at eight in the morning will soon resemble the grid at Monaco, and the rush hour will take on F1-inspired silliness.

Janice the mortgage advisor will pull out in her Schumacher Seicento and immediately cut across in front of assorted Renaults, Hondas and Jaguars. Meanwhile Simon the advertising account handler and will nip by in his Montoya-badged BMW and lead the charge onto the ring road.

Perhaps as a finishing touch the team bosses should write the owners manuals. Ron Dennis could interface with new Mercedes owners on the hows and whys of optimizing their performance envelope, while Renault owners could struggle along behind with Flavio Briatore's guidance: "Issa box of performance. All the ingredients are in da box an you av the key."

BMW meanwhile would be very simple: a picture of Patrick Head looking cross next to the words "JUST GET IN THE CAR AND QUICK ABOUT IT!"

Of all the Formula 1 inspired cars available there was only one I actually considered - a Mini Cooper. After 40-odd years the granddaddy of the breed is still the benchmark and, having a long and affectionate Mini driving life in my past, it seemed right to go and pick up one of the very last of the breed for posterity's sake.

As it sat in the showroom however its cheeky expression seemed to be weighing up where it wanted to rust first and so, finally, I ended up right where the majority of Formula 1 journalists find themselves every few years: in a Ford dealership.

This might seem a touch strange as Ford is the anti-motor racing marque. It abandoned F1 after 35 years, touring cars after 40 years, is starving Formula Ford out of existence and generally removing itself from the sport much like the US Marines vacated Hanoi... yet F1 journalists love them.

Recently a bunch of us were standing about in an arrivals hall somewhere around the world clutching copies of glossy music magazines, debating parenthood and comparing one another's choice of car. Thing was there was no need for comparison, because I was the odd one out and everyone else owned exactly the same car.

It seems that if royalty is signified by Daimler and Arab sheiks by Lamborghini, then a Ford Ka tells you an F1 scribe is near at hand. Uncle Henry may have departed the paddock but he's not forgotten and outselling all the F1-badged cars by a hundred to one, and he's about to chalk up another Ka on his monthly quota. They're cheap, they're fun - and they're small enough to get out of the way when a field of Formula 1-badged commuters come barreling into your mirrors.

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