A strange cocktail

The Hungarian Grand Prix is a very special event. In addition to being part of the "silly season", it brings out another side of the Formula 1 folk. It is not really considered a European race and the behavioral patterns change subtly. Some of the reserve is removed. It is the same with the flyaway races, but these are not at this high-pressure time of year.

The "silly season" is a time of paranoia and mental instability among the F1 community; a game of musical chairs which always leaves someone standing up looking sheepish.

For a pressman (and thus for the readers) this is manna from heaven: there is news happening (or being created) left, right and center. That is one reason why the "silly season" is fun. But there is another, altogether nastier, joy to be found.

The "silly season" is the time when everyone has the chance to get back at drivers and team managers; to kick them when they are down. After all, for 48 weeks of the year, these F1 men take enjoyment from winding-up people with a condescending smugness.

And thus Hungary is a cocktail of pressure and a lack of reserve. With the volatile folk of F1 the result is wild happenings: a Lada full of journalists is side-swiped on the motorway by a passing ex-World Champion; a team manager is on his way to the track, dicing enthusiastically with former racer turned scribe Innes Ireland (in a Lada), when Mr. X takes off across Budapest's Heroes Square to try to keep ahead.

It is much akin to running over the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

The flags flying above the Arrows motor home in Hungary produced yet more joviality. People kept telling the team that the Union Jack was upside-down. It was changed several times until no-one was quite sure. Then came a question from the FOCA bus: Why was the American flag flying higher than the Union Jack.

"Because it is on a longer flagpole," replied the down-to-earth motorhome manager.

Silly season stories are sometimes too absurd to seem real.

In Hungary everyone hiring a car gets a white Lada, unless they dig very deep into their pockets and pull out a beaten-up, top of the range, 7-series BMW with the hubcaps missing.

One particular white Lada was in the care of a couple of Italian journalists, who gave the keys to the man in the hotel garage overnight and collected the car in the morning. It was only then that they discovered that the Paddock Parking sticker had disappeared. After a short dispute they shrugged and set off to the circuit. That evening they returned to the hotel and were approached by a hysterical screaming Hungarian. Naturally, they selected reverse and exited, wondering what they had done to deserve such treatment.

A little later they returned and tried to park the car once more. The screaming Hungarian was still there, but seemed calmer now. He pointed out that the Italians' white Lada had spent the day sitting in the corner of the garage while he had to sit next to it. They had been driving the wrong car.

Another apocryphal tale suggested that when Alain Prost arrived he was met by a man from the local Honda dealership with three Legends: one red, one white, one black.

Which would Alain prefer?

"The red one," the Professor is supposed to have said. "It's like a Ferrari."

The proliferation of such stories suggests that this year there is more pressure than normal among the teams. One evening I sat down with a young driver and we mulled over F1. He muttered darkly about how his team was not working as it should.

To cheer him up, I suggested that it was not unusual. We went through the other teams, listing the internal stresses and strains.

Much credence can be given to the belief that McLaren is not winning the races, but that everyone else is losing.

It really is a remarkable situation: everywhere teams are ripping themselves apart or have skeletons waiting to leap out cupboards and strangle them.

Minardi is pleasantly happy, but then it is always happy. Even when hiring and firing is on their minds, their love of "being there" overcomes the politics.

Lotus, from being the disaster of the paddock, is now a much happier place, having reached the depths and now setting off on an upward trend.

But elsewhere civil war is either brewing or has broken out. At Benetton they have stopped sticking knives in each other's backs and are now using chainsaws.

McLaren has its strains, and they are certainly having an effect, but it is holding together. They have Honda, of course, and that should not be underestimated, for at the first sign of trouble, the men from Japan run a million miles in the opposite direction. They have no use for such things.

There is a journalist who, in true "silly season" style, decided recently to test the sub-editing of his copy. He invented a quote from a mythical Honda F1 spokesman about the rumored V12 engine replacing the present V10 (a classic "silly season" article).

The piece ended thus: '"We can still piss on them with the naff engine," said a Honda F1 spokesman'. It was printed verbatim...

The truth has little room in the "silly season", but then about half of what goes on in F1 never gets reported; there is a level beneath which few journalists can penetrate and what they discover can rarely be printed. Why the secrecy? Because knowing a secret gives power. In the F1 paddock power-craving and inferiority complexes are as common as discarded qualifying tires.

But this is to look at Grand Prix racing on the surface. The real story involves an entirely different game: the F1 chess game.

Of course, this is just an opinion.

In this three-tier game there are players, pawns and people who jump when the pawns dictate they should. Only a player knows he is a player, and only players recognize players.

In other words, many pawns think they are players, but very few truly recognize the motives behind the moves being played.

This year, in F1, there are fewer than 10 players and there is only one driver is among them.

Most importantly, as every chess fan knows, the King is not the strongest piece. The Queen is much more powerful.

In this chess game you enter a looking-glass world, where nothing is as it seems. It is an interesting psychological exercise.

The "silly season" is when the players wind up the pressure. The pawns find release from this tension in the most bizarre ways but, up in the chess game, all is calm and, ultimately, the players always win.

The press (and thus the public)? We are way down the bottom of this pyramid, jumping at any scrap offered, by pawns, players - anyone really.

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