GLOBETROTTER

Fun and games in a smog-filled Mexico City

Going motor racing is a dangerous business. You never know what you're going to walk into next. A few years ago, on the plane to Misano, near Rimini, I was reading about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. There was a big map of southern Europe with an arrow indicating where the fall-out was expected. The point of the arrow rested firmly on the north coast of Italy - Misano, in fact.

The racing world is legendary for not noticing the real world, so no-one much worried about this invisible danger. Nobody went green and started to glow in the dark, so it was not bad for us - or so went the theory.

Over the years F1 has popped in on financial disasters and impending coups d'etat. In Mexico there was a new excitement: pollution poisoning.

Each morning, when you gazed across the city, you could see the smog. Four times the international safety levels, it said in all the papers. Once in the open air you tend to get an itchy throat and wind up talking like Marlene Dietrich after two packets of Gauloises; and getting as teary-eyed as when Lassie seems to have snuffed it in the movies.

The locals - to whom carbon monoxide is one of life's little necessities - were even complaining that the air was not as normal. That is like passengers on the Hindenburg airship noticing that the temperature is rising...

In an American paper, there was an interesting quote from a Mexico City street drinks vendor.

'Maybe,' said Juan Arozamena, 'it's a little better today without the cars. Yesterday people got headaches and their throats got dry. Business was beautiful.'

You have to make the best of it - whatever the circumstances. The editor is not going to believe it when you say the report is late because you couldn't breathe and were turning blue.

I often get letters saying I am overly harsh on some of the places we visit. Each time I ask myself: "Is that what it was really like. Is that what I was thinking?" Maybe it was not that bad? When it is over, it often seems better than it really was. More often that not you forget the bad things. Good memories are to be treasured - although often even they do not have the same impact when you return.

Years ago when I first went to the Spa 24 Hours, I remember sitting mesmerized at Eau Rouge during final qualifying as the cars hurtled through the corner, headlights blazing. The following year it was not the same, the magic was gone, but I went with a colleague - new to the race - to the same spot and I sat there watching his reactions. To remember how it felt. I might have been immune to the magic, but he was not and I was able to recapture that wonderful feeling.

This year, in Mexico, I was accompanied by a first-time reporter to Mexico City. On his second day he muttered wearily.

"This really is a horrible dump, isn't it?"

He didn't say "dump" but, for the benefit of delicate ears, I will refrain from using his exact terminology.

The thing I find extraordinary about Mexico City is that, despite everything, there is an enthusiasm for racing - which is extraordinary. Perhaps the fast cars are the embodiment of an escapist dream. The chance to be a kid again and look through the railings at Buckingham Palace and imagine what a nice life it must be to be the King.

Whatever the case, there is mad enthusiasm for Formula 1 and Eric Van de Poele had first-hand experience of this phenomenon when his Brabham broke down at the top end of the circuit on Friday morning. Eric wanted to get back to the pits in a hurry, so he asked if someone could give him a lift. Immediately there were two policemen on hand.

"They were like Starsky and Hutch, you know," said Eric, "but they were wearing uniform, like complete sheriffs."

Eric was bundled into the front of the police car and it took off at a million miles an hour out of the race track.

"The guy in the front was driving like a mad man," explained Eric. "He was completely crazy and kept yelling: "Hey, I'm Fangio!" and locking up the brakes. The guy in the back was shouting out of the windows to other policemen, his friends: "Look we have a Grand Prix driver here!" We were going through the traffic, so I decided to press the siren button to get people out of the way. It was incredible!"

It was Eric's second wild ride of the weekend, coming from the airport he asked his cab driver to take him to the circuit, to have a look around.

"The gate was open," said Eric, "so we went onto the track and he drove round the track. You know he was so happy. He had driven taxis for 25 years or something and he'd never been on the race track."

The taxi, incidentally, was a beaten-up Volkswagen Beetle...

If one has the urge one can hire VW Beetles at the Mexico City airport and this is what Mika Hakkinen and Johnny Herbert did, to get back and forth between the hotel and the airport. I hitched a ride with them one day.

Hitching rides is a good way to have a chat with the stars, away from the hurly-burly of the pitlane and paddock. I remember years ago in Rio de Janeiro doing much the same thing with Derek Warwick and, at the same time, waving a tape recorder in his general direction as we dived in and out of the traffic. When the expletives were removed, it was a great interview...

If you have the nerve to ride with the lunatics, it is a lot of fun, particularly if the car is dreadful. In comparison to some wild rides in the past Mika was well-behaved. He was only half paying attention, chatting happily with Peter Collins and Johnny Herbert, who were also on board.

Team Lotus right now is bubbling, the happiest team in the paddock. Even with a two-year-old car wonderful things are being achieved. You get the feeling that the team knows exactly where it is going - and how to get there. For the true racing fans, to see Lotus - such a great name in F1 history - rebuilding is a delight. Would that the same was happening at Brabham and Ferrari.

The other day a caustic Italian pressman hit the nail on the head when he referred to Ferrari as "the Italian Ligier". So much producing so little.

It seems to me that when the F1 circus goes flyaway, the atmosphere is very different to the European season. The guards are down just that little bit extra, as if a bunch of schoolboys have been told they can have the afternoon off...

Even the long flights - which are so wearing - seem to be more fun. What do you do? Well, on the way back from Mexico we discussed great travel adventures: four countries before breakfast without an aeroplane; the 48-hour day when you leave Australia and cross the international dateline at midnight; thirty-six hours between Paris and Mexico. It may not have been fun at the time, but it makes for great story-telling.

Some folk drive themselves (and those around them) mad by playing with bleeping Nintendo machines. Some bury themselves in massive books; some do their paperwork; some play cards; the lucky folk sleep...

On the way back from Mexico I played a couple of interesting games. There was "Imagine the worst possible flight". Check in by Mexicans; seat assignment by Air Afrique; traffic control by Tenerife; food by Malev; stewardesses by TWA, a stopover in Calcutta; landings by Alitalia, immigration by John F Kennedy, New York and baggage-handling by Heathrow - and the whole adventure in the company of an American college singing group or fifty Japanese newly-weds en route for their honeymoons. As I said before, it's better to remember it, than it is to live through it.

The conversation then drifted to the worst possible combination of motor racing people to sit between. And then, we tried to put together the worst possible racing team.

Think about it, you'll have a lot of fun: owners - a combination is always better for a real clash of personalities; a good explosive driver pairing; designers, desperate to make a breakthrough, taking risks; over-influential aerodynamicists; dodgy finance directors and ineffectual team management. We came to the conclusion that several of the worst possible teams already existed - and spent a good hour howling with laughter. Unfortunately, one cannot name names. Might get sued.

Getting off the plane at Heathrow, exhausted and bleary-eyed, a mechanic turned to me with a huge grin.

"I don't care if the luggage doesn't come through," he said. "I'm out of Mexico - and that is all that matters."

Well, perhaps not all...

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