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The Panis mightier than the Sourd

Olivier Panis is mightier than Marc Sourd. I saw it with my own eyes last week at Nogaro. Olivier won the F3000 title, Marc Sourd didn't win the Supertourisme title...

I had a good time at Nogaro. I always do. Today it is my "home" circuit and, just as a London race fan will look to Brands Hatch, so I think of Nogaro in warm and friendly way. It is linked in my mind with long lunches and hot sunny afternoons. It is funny how racing tracks are like people. For me Spa is a stormy mistress - adorable but dangerously changeable; Monza is frenetic, forever on the verge of a nervous breakdown and Suzuka is like an unhappy clown, somehow desperate despite its fun fair.

Nogaro is a nice fresh place, teenaged without being adolescent, so I was a happy soul as we hurtled through the vineyards of the Armagnac hills, and saw away in the distance the mighty snow-capped Pyrenees.

They were wood cutting near the circuit and often, in these parts, this is a sign of a happy event. It is a local tradition to plant a hectare or so of trees when a daughter is born and when she marries, 20-odd years later, they are cut down and the wood sold to pay for the wedding feast. As any local lecher will tell you, being able to tell the age of trees is a useful talent.

My visit to Nogaro was to report on the F3000 finale, which would make a pleasant change from F1. And so it did, for F3000 was full of people enjoying their motor racing and happy to say what they think. It was a very refreshing change from the stifled F1 world. It was also nice to see the bright hopefuls of tomorrow on their way up, full of enthusiasm and vigor.

The standard of the driving at the front of the field was impressive, as one would expect, but if you looked back past the halfway mark on the grid talent seemed to be rather less evident, while money, the Italian language, winkle-picker boots and sideburns seemed to be more important.

The French crowds had not come to see David Coulthard or Pedro Lamy, they had come for just two reasons: to watch the hurly-burly of French Supertourisme, which is just as crazy as the BTCC; and to see France's four new F3000 hot shots: Olivier Panis, Emmanuel Collard, Jules Boullion and Franck Lagorce. The crowd wanted a French victory.

They take their sport very seriously in France. When Alain Prost announced his retirement from F1, the main TF1 evening news led with a 19 minute story about Prost. When the French football team was beaten by Israel, the story was still the lead item on the news 24 hours later.

As Panis was fighting for the F3000 title, even the French daily newspapers has sent reporters to watch. It is hard to imagine such a thing in Britain, but then Britain hasn't yet won an international F3000 title.

I had not reported an F3000 event since Imola in '87 and in some ways things had changed. The enthusiasm of the general Nogaro paddock was not matched in the F3000 area, which seemed to have been invaded by that awful word 'professionalism', with its FOCA passes, briefcases and motorhomes, most of them recognizable F1 leftovers, tarted-up with new paint jobs. It was soul-less and rather sad.

The TWR F3000 team had a different interpretation of "motorhome", the whole team fitted snugly into the back of an Avis transit van behind its pit.

How times have changed, I thought, remembering the Nogaro paddock in European Touring Car times in the mid-80s when TWR Rovers and Volvos battled for the title. It seemed somehow funny that next year TWR will run 'Gothenberg Taxis' in the British Touring Car Championship. There is a wonderful irony when you remember the bitter wars between TWR and Volvo. To be honest who won what has now long since faded into a grey mass of tribunals, but it made me smile to think of TWR and Volvo holding hands and saying nice things about one another. Let us hope they have left their lawyers behind because the BTCC does not that sort of silliness.

The FIA is, of course, a similar story, for those who once tried to destroy the governing body are now in control. And that got me round to everyone's favorite subject just now: Bernard Charles Ecclestone, FIA vice-president (promotional affairs), who has been having a bit of a fight with the press over what he did or didn't say about Alain Prost.

Suddenly I was back where I had begun this article with the pen and the sword, asking the question: Is the pen really mightier than the sword?

The quote comes from a historical play called Richelieu, written in 1839 by Baron Lytton of Knebworth, who went on to become British Colonial Secretary.

Richelieu was the study of the French tyrant and the oft-quoted phrase comes out of context. It should read: "Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword."

In F1 terms Ecclestone is "entirely great" and press criticism seems to have been like water off a duck's back to Mr. E. In fact, I am reliably informed that Bernie was more upset by a suggestion that he worked for FIA president Max Mosley. Bernie doesn't see the relationship that way. His defence was interesting: Does the Chancellor Kenneth Clark work for Prime Minister John Major? He argued.

Well, Bernie, he does when there is a cabinet reshuffle, doesn't he?

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