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Adventures on the Pacific Rim

"The French?" said the loquacious guest on the Australian breakfast television show. "The French are a despicable race. They're all shits."

You cannot say things like that on television.! Can you? I scoured the papers, looking for news of the arrest of the man but there was no word. Perhaps an Australian Court would rule this to be fair comment.

Watching television and reading local papers always provides much of the fun of foreign travel. In Japan Sandro Nannini's victory was put firmly in its place by The Japan Times.

Sandro, if he understood it, would have found this most amusing. He would not think of suing the newspaper because it has inferred that he is not capable of winning a race and had to settle FOR A LUCKY WIN. He's a lovely bloke and one who has few enemies, very few begrudged him victory in Japan.

One of the nicest things about him is that he really doesn't care about politics or, come to think of it, about anything which requires more than a few moments of thought. He drives racing cars. Pure and simple. That is a down-to-earth occupation.

Organizing and promoting Formula 1 Grands Prix, however, seems not to be that simple. The signs in the paddock pointing out the offices of Bernie Ecclestone and Mal Hemmerling brought all manner of comment.

"Mal sitteth on the right hand of God," mumbled a cynic (very quietly).

At Adelaide laughter was noticeably absent compared to 12 months ago. Contention was something the F1 folk have had to live with in the last weeks of the season.

The Adelaide race meeting this year had a despressingly flat atmosphere. In part it was the hangover from Suzuka, in part the state of the country.

"Are we still the Lucky Country?" one of the locals asked me sadly.

It didn't seem so.

Theoretically, of course, Australia is the Lucky Country, but today it is beset with pilots strikes, horrendous political corruption, collapsing big business and a recession around the corner.

Whatever the problems, however, they still love sticking it to the Europeans. They lapped up the stories when people began to talk about a conspiracy against Ayrton Senna. It was a classic case of the Old World (France) versus the New World (Brazil).

A friend of mine in the local press summed up the way they operate early on Friday after Derek Warwick had shoved his Arrows into the wall -- his in-car camera recording every moment.

"Warwick escapes death in high-speed accident," he mumbled.

"He didn't," I replied.

"He will have done when he reads this..."

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- everyone in the F1 business might be taking it all too seriously.

When you think about it logically, the Senna-Prost carambolage at Suzuka, the FISA-McLaren wrangles and the other clotted nonsense of daily Formula 1 tittle-tattle do not have a great deal of significance when you compare them to fact that the Berlin Wall is being pulled down.

Long after Alain and Ayrton have become names buried in the record books, the fact that the Berlin Wall was pulled down will still have some significance.

In the months ahead the two sections of the old AVUS race track, divided by the conquering armies in 1945, can once again be joined. Isn't that amazing?

That side of Australia, I always enjoy, the tongue-in-cheek, "You guys are seriously up yourselves" attitude.

It is delightful to be able to take a step back, look at such things and allow them to put the whole F1 thing into perspective.

Too much exposure to the ways of Grand Prix racing send people tiptoeing off into paranoia.

Is there really a long-term, planned, French conspiracy against Ayrton Senna? Get out of here. Take cover. We're being dived-bombed by flying pigs.

When the Suzuka business finally died down on Friday, things improved. Saturday was beautiful and peaceful. They talked about a "change from the south" but the glorious weather didn't look like changing.

It did, and we were back in crisis mode again as the drivers tried to have the race delayed.

Personally I believe that the race should not have taken place in the conditions. It was not worth the risks being taken. I have no qualification to say something like that, beyond the fact that whenever I've seen rain like it at a race track, the number of accidents has gone up dramatically.

Adelaide stood out from all previous wet races, however. It was the only race I can remember watching when I wanted it to stop immediately. I was not comfortable watching it. I was scared for the drivers.

"Accidents in the wet are at a slower speed," said the television talking heads. "That means less danger."

It's a lovely theory, but it couldn't stop the fear I felt.

It's all very well for team managers to say: "They should have started it and to hell with the drivers," but what would they have said if someone had been killed?

Well, the fact is that any F1 team manager worth his title, will argue whichever point best serves his purpose at any given point.

If someone had been hurt, they would have dragged Tim Schenken out of his Clerk of the Course cabin and strung him from the nearest flagpole.

Now there are people who might argue that stringing up Tim would be a great idea, but this time he was lucky.

Australians are generally a lucky lot. They are weaned by previous generations on the theory that you CAN get something for nothing, have an immense love of gambling.

The Grand Prix had its own top 10 lottery. Someone asked me on Sunday morning who to put in the top 10 if it was still raining in the race. Why? Because if you had the correct top 10 at the end (even if there were only eight finishers) and you could become a zillionaire.

The same was true of the Melbourne Cup horse race on the Tuesday after the Grand Prix. Australia stops on Melbourne Cup Day. It is a public holiday in Melbourne -- a public holiday for a horse race?

Still, if you could had named the top three in the Cup this year -- in the right order -- it would have paid 12,000:1.

Out on the road between Adelaide and Melbourne the Cup was played on all radio stations simultaneously. If you don't care about horse racing it drove you mad.

Still the roads were good. Fast, sweeping roads, blasting across country, eating up the hundreds of miles which you don't notice when you look at Australia on map.

They have absurd speed limits, of course, and bizarre signs exhorting drivers: "Don't drive and sleep".

They are just the kind of roads which could teach youngsters how to drive very quickly. The run down the Great Ocean Road is one of the greatest pieces of the tarmac anywhere in the world. The old Nurburgring with the Southern Ocean right there if you need to cool off.

"I'm surprised there aren't more good top line Australian drivers," I mumbled to my colleague Mark Fogarty -- guru of the Antipodean airwaves and the only Australian reporter regularly seen in F1 -- as he bounced us along this road, trying to scare me.

"You never see our good drivers," he snapped back, convinced -- no doubt -- that he is an Ayrton manque.

"The good drivers stay here. Australian sponsors are only interested in winners. They don't want to mess about in the junior formulae."

It was a revealing trip in many ways and pleasant relaxation after the scandals of Adelaide and Suzuka.

We howled along -- radar detector at the ready -- through country towns and gradually it began to occur to me that we were passing little speedway after little speedway. Grassroots racing in Australia. Dirt cars on grubby little ovals, which the occasional better class of track such as Premier Speedway at Warrnambool and Avalon Raceway at Geelong

It struck me that this was very like the southern states of the USA. Where gradually the ovals were replaced by speedways and then superspeedways. Bob Jane built Australia's first superspeedway at Calder near Melbourne and ever since the world has been convinced that he is a mad man. Yet, you get the feeling that, when a few more speedways are built, he will have been right.

"It won't be NASCAR," said someone a few days later. "It'll be AUSCAR. Australian Fords and Holdens and drivers like Steve Harrington, Bradley Jones, Terri Sawyer and Kim Jane".

These will become the heroes long after the Peter Brocks and Dick Johnsons have parked their last bath chairs.

It may be some time before that happens, judging by the antics of the touring car men on the streets of Adelaide.

As we were watching the wild antics of these gentlemen, bashing fenders and leaping over each other's bonnets, a cynic asked a telling question:

"I wonder if Bernie Ecclestone is watching -- to see what he turned his back on when they axed the World Touring Car Championship?"

Yet, I found myself thinking, even in the darkest days of tin-top politics none of it ever came close to the bullshit flying around in the final weeks of the F1 season.

The pair of ear-blasted F1 hacks, survivors of the Great Ocean Road, arrived in Melbourne and began, as night fell, to transcribe the pearls of wisdom of Ron Dennis's Adelaide press conference, combing it for very nuance of possible meaning.

It must have been about 1am when we moved on to Ayrton Senna. We woke up two hours later: the transcripts in both notebooks reading exactly the same.

Senna: "...

Nothing personal Ayrton.

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