The corridors of FIA power

People often ask what Formula 1 reporters do in the winter. Do they curl up in dark caves and hibernate, or lie out on Caribbean beaches sipping coconut milk off the stomachs of luscious ladies.

The sad truth is that we rush home from the Australian GP, kiss the wife, kick the dog and start writing. There are too many yearbooks, annuals and Christmas editions to be filled for a quiet life. By the time these are out of the way the Silly Season is slowing down and you are into the Soiree Season, during which the motor racing world congratulates itself on being wonderful and one has to go to lots of parties and watch other people being given trophies. These events are all very much alike and after a while they merge into a blur of people in penguin suits and cold food.

This winter the FIA prize-giving in Paris coincided with Ayrton Senna going up before the World Council to explain why he clipped Eddie Irvine around the ear after the Japanese Grand Prix.

As a result Paris was packed with racing journalists to such an extent that when I wandered into a cafe to have lunch I met another F1 reporter and when - after lunch - we wandered down the road we bumped into commentator Murray Walker. And then Alain Prost drove by in his Williams-Renault.

We had a few glasses of wine, but this seemed rather odd because it isn't every day you see an F1 car in Paris's Place de la Concorde.

The Place is constantly being closed down for one ceremony or another and on International AIDS day, the ever-so-subtle locals used the stone column in the center of the Place to ram home the dangers of the disease. They used a crane to lower a 50ft. condom over the monument.

Alain Prost's exhibition did not require a crane but there was still intricate planning needed as he was to begin his journey at the Renault building up near the Arc de Triomphe from where he would motor down Paris's busiest street to arrive at the FIA in the Place de la Concorde.

Everything had been advertised in advance and the route was lined by thousands of lunching Parisians.

At the appointed hour - with rain drizzling down onto the cobblestones - nothing happened and it was 20 minutes before the chief of police - easily recognizable because he had a jacket which said 'chef de police' on it - breezed into the Renault building where lots of important people in suits were wondering what was causing the delay. He was told that he was late.

"Ah bon?" he said, muttering that he thought the kick-off was not due for another 10 minutes...

He barked a command into a radio and within seconds the Champs Elysee was closed down by aimless gendarmes wandering into the traffic.

The French, of course, are famous for their disrespect of authority so there was still occasional Citroens and Peugeots which appeared on the empty street to spoil Renault's big day. The policemen whistled and waved at those who broke the rules, but there was not much else that could be done.

Prost fired up his car and set off, preceded by a lorryload of wet photographers and surrounded by a hundred motorcycles, including pizza delivery men and camera crews.

Alain arrived in the Place de la Concorde and circled the phallic object in the center, passing the FIA and the Hotel Crillon - which is amazingly plush, expensive and designed for people with big expense accounts (we bumped into Mal Hemmerling of the Australian GP outside) - and then he found himself at the back of a small traffic jam, waiting for the lights to change. They went green and - as usual - Alain let everyone get away ahead of him before he began his second lap of the Place. By this time the police had given up completely and there was a tour bus in his path.

Finally Alain drew up outside the Hotel Crillon and was engulfed by admirers. The phalanx of policemen who had cleared a place at the front of the FIA shrugged and wandered off. Within minutes Alain was plucked from the crowd by a team of Renault security guards who normally play rugby for France. His feet did not touch the ground until he was in a Renault bus, disappearing into the distance to kiss babies and open factories.

The hardened F1 hacks smiled and went into the FIA to find the press office. This proved to be a daunting experience because the ACF/FIA building is a warren of corridors. One mistake and you can be lost for hours. I had lovely tour of the kitchens, squash courts and snooker rooms. I went up and down several rickety staircases which whisk people secretly from one floor to another and bumped into blokes delivering pizzas to forgotten corners of the empire. I visited the swimming pool heating machine room and even took a little tour of the glitzy rooms where all the great FIA decisions are taken. They are named after great racing marques: Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye. There is a wonderful old library with beautiful wooden shelves from floor-to-ceiling and carved wooden stairways to reading galleries. But there were no books on cars. Eventually, using fire escape maps to escape I found my way to the press office, the roost of hyperactive FIA press guru Francesco Longanesi - known to his friends as the Marquis of Cattani (a title always helps to get into the good clubs of Europe) - and his loyal team.

By this time I was completely fed up with the FIA and decided to forget the prize-giving and go home. As I wandered off through the traffic - looking left and right lest I be mown down by a passing F1 car - I decided that FIA president Max Mosley would do well to demolish the place and start again - as he has done with the FIA rule book.

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