Burn-out in Bournemouth

"I was drained by the long flight and annoyed that I had to put in an appearance the evening we arrived at one of those parties that grate on my nerves. I gulped a couple of glasses of wine, then had a couple more and another two after that. I fell into bed round about 3am, having just set a record for the worst race preparation in my 18-year career."

Thus Niki Lauda remembers the Australian Grand Prix of 1985 - his last Formula 1 drive.

"The circuit was marvellous, everything was beautifully and professionally organized. Everyone you met gave you the impression of being happy that these 26 clowns had turned up."

You've probably heard that Adelaide is the favorite race for the Formula 1 teams. But I wonder if you've heard why. No, it is not the wonderful organization, nor the enthusiasm - although there is plenty of both. It's more simple than that, more fundamental.

At the end of the season, people are tired. With the World Championship having been settled in Japan, Adelaide was not a race meeting at all. There was a race but the "Grand Prix" was much more than that. It was a great big party.

I have to admit I wasn't quite sure what to expect. They call Adelaide the City of Churches and one supposed that it was a sober sort of town. Someone had told me it was like the genteel English seaside resort of Bournemouth on a wet Tuesday (i.e.: very quiet). I reckon that person was lying.

Bournemouth was never like this. I didn't see one Grab-a-Granny party being advertised. Adelaide was enough to make the average heart pacemaker blow its fuse.

Falling off the plane after a 24 hour flight, we thought we would be sensible, have an early night, and be ready for the hard work of a Grand Prix. At 3am the following morning, we found ourselves sitting in the bar at the Hilton in deep and meaningful conversation, having had a couple of glasses of wine, then a couple more and another two after that.

In Adelaide during Grand Prix week you could never get a moment of peace. During daylight hours at the track, overhead there was a constant stream of air displays: F18s, Mirages, little flying boxes which brushed the tops of the flag poles and helicopters which flew backwards belching colored smoke.

I thought I was dreaming when, while eating breakfast early one morning at a function held on the lawn outside the media center, I saw parachutists descending from the skies. This was at eight thirty in the morning. I might have been hallucinating from exhaustion after a heavy night trying not to appear rude, going to all the right parties, but others seemed to see them as well.

There were barbecues every night; a Grand Prix Club Cabaret, Grand Prix Balls; Not Grand Prix Balls; John Farnham in concert; the Grand Prix FM Radio station playing all the time; drag racing; sprintcars; and so it went on.

Was there no rest for the wicked?

Well, not in Adelaide. You just staggered from one thing to the next. The Marlboro press conference was held in a tent outside a Shell gas station right next to the circuit. It was an easy place for the media to get to. McLaren boss Ron Dennis was still talking to members of the press when workmen started to pull the tent down. The structure was needed somewhere else!

Perhaps it used to house those who turned up at the race without anywhere to stay. The Grand Prix has a full-time Accommodation Officer - on call 24 hours a day. Every bed in the city was filled. A lot of them housed more than one person!

Hong Kong has its Boat People, the town of Bathurst in Australia where they hold Australia's biggest motor race every year has Corridor People who lay their tired bones in the hallways of such salubrious establishments as the Hotel Kniccurbocker (where they chain the televisions to the walls in case someone steals them).

Adelaide, I discovered, has Pavement People. They have nothing better to do than fall asleep on the pavements - without even feeding the nearest parking meter. I asked a local taxi driver about this strange phenomenon.

"No mate," he told me. "They aren't visitors. They're probably locals. Give them any excuse and they'll go crazy!"

And this in the City of Churches - a religious place - where even the churches were jumping on the Grand Prix band wagon to promote their causes.

Heaven alone knows what place there is for religion in a sport which uses the Seven Deadly Sins as its Code of Conduct.

It was somehow right that Bernie Ecclestone had a sign pinned to his portacabin pointing upwards to the sky. Adelaide Grand Prix boss Mal Hemmerling's name was indicated to the right.

He who sitteth on the right hand...

Adelaide did have a few problems. Ticket sales were down on race day, the novelty of the event apparently wearing off in a society used to heroes in big touring cars.

There were also brawls, induced by excessive intake of beer. These were rather unpleasant and tended to follow you down the streets from midnight onwards. A problem for the organizers and law-enforcement agencies to solve in the future. They are used to solving problems.

Building the race track on the public roads must be a nightmare in itself. There were 2142 concrete barriers all to be put in the correct positions (or so it said in the press release). There were over four miles of wire fencing, 54,000 seats, an entire pit lane complex which looked permanent but would be gone in a matter of days after the race, 11 miles of electric cabling, 578 telephone extensions... They even had a telephone directory for the weekend for communicating between the various facilities in the paddock.

For a long time now, I have wondered how it is that Grand Prix drivers manage to dematerialize as soon as they climb out of their cars so that no pressman can find them.

Once I had a copy of the Adelaide Grand Prix telephone directory they had no escape. I could talk to anyone.

"G'day! Can I speak to Driver X please. Tell him it's his accountant. Listen, I'm calling to find out what your problem was today. You disappeared very quickly. Oh, you spun off. I see, no wonder you disappeared. Thanks. See you later!"

All good things must come to an end.

By Sunday night, Adelaide was like a ghost town. The Marlboro party was at one end of town, the stars jostling and the groupies gathered outside hoping to touch the hem (or other bits given half a chance!) of the stars.

The Camel party was at the other end of town and there was nothing much in between except a few tired souls in the Press Room hammering away on computers.

On Monday I said goodbye to Adelaide at the airport, with a heavy heart, heavy eyelids and a glass of tonic water in my hand. By then I could not handle anything else.

Would that all Grands Prix could be like this one...

I flew to Melbourne.

"What is this Grand Prix then, eh?" asked the Greek taxi driver when I got there. "Is it a horse race or what? Where is this place you want to go? Hey. You look it up in book for me! So you write about horse races, heh?"

Greek taxi drivers are a standing joke in Melbourne but this was my first experience of the phenomenon and it made me laugh. What chance did a sportscar race at Sandown Park have if some people of Melbourne had not even heard about the Grand Prix in Adelaide?

Out in the sprawling suburbs of Melbourne, Sandown Park is a racecourse (for horses), complete with white rails and a large 8000 seat grandstand giving a fine view of the entire track.

The circuit was entirely rebuilt in 1984 to qualify for international motor sport events, the work being carried out thanks to a state grant. The first major event - a six hour sportscar race that year - was a disaster.

"It used to be a magnificent race track," says local hero Peter Brock. "It was a really ballsy sort of circuit. Then they put in a lot of corners and curbs aimed at cars with aerodynamic downforce and, unfortunately, that meant a lot of first gear stuff."

Not what you want for cars built to howl down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans.

The promotion of the Sandown event left a great deal to be desired. World Championship or not, Sandown was offering less starting money than the similar events at Tampa and Kyalami and the entry in Australia was worse than poor. Even the television advertising was misleading. "Faster than Formula 1" was the slogan.

Um. Well yes that is true. A Group C sportscar can be faster than a Grand Prix car - but not at Sandown Park.

The entire Sandown weekend reminded me of another of the local adverts. This was trying to sell a locally-made fizzy wine: "Made by the authentic Methode Champenoise" it said. It sounded very impressive really with a little French thrown in, to add a some style.

But wait a minute. Methode Champenoise? Isn't that the way the French make cheap champagne? The kind of bubbly you buy when you go to parties and you don't like the hosts. What is authentic about Methode Champenoise?

That was Sandown Park in a nutshell. Cheap wine masquerading as something it was not.

Still, the governing body insists that sportscar racing is going to be given a big push next year. The Japanese are coming in. Teams have to compete in all events (thus guaranteeing the promoters a package to promote) and, with only one race per country, Australia should have an event.

If the Australians want vintage sportscar racing, Sandown Park is not the place to do it. Phillip Island with its fast sweepers would suit the big Group C machines much better.

I'm sure the international federation will sort it all out in the fullness of time - one way or the other.

And while they are doing that, I'm off to Bournemouth.

That's obviously where the action is...

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