New places, new concepts

Everyone keeps telling me this is the start of a new era in Formula 1, with new star drivers and so on and so forth. I agree that we are entering a new era in F1, but I think the changes are more fundamental. The whole world has woken up to the fact that Europe does not have a monopoly on Grand Prix racing. With each passing year there are more and more non-European races on the calendar and with the calendar restricted to 16 events, something is going to have to give. Europe is not helping itself with rigid tobacco laws and such.

Already we know that in 1996 we are going to China and Qatar. We know that Malaysia, Indonesia, Venezuela, Russia, South Africa, Singapore and Mexico are all anxious to get in on the act, and the Germans reckon they need two races because of Michael Schumacher and Mercedes.

There are several F1 projects under way in America and while Australia has resolved its fight between states to get hold of the Grand Prix, France is about to get embroiled in a big fight between Magny-Cours, Paul Ricard and Le Mans to host the French GP.

Argentina seems to think it is going to have a race this year, but they don't seem to understand that modern facilities are necessary.

Last week F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone went to visit the Buenos Aires Autodromo. He then went on to Brazil and told the F1 circus that Buenos Aires - which is supposed to hold a GP in October - is "nice for historic car racing".

When asked which country could replace Argentina Bernie smiled: "I think we'll have an auction."

If this is the case we are bound to end up at silly little race tracks like TI in Japan. Only one current F1 driver has ever been there, Simtek's Roland Ratzenberger.

"It's in the middle of nowhere in the south of Japan," says Roland. "Personally I don't mind where we race. As long as we race at Monaco we can race anywhere. I won a touring car race at TI two years ago and it was difficult then to put two touring cars side by side, so you can imagine what it's going to be like for F1."

So why is F1 going to TI? The answer, of course, is that the money is good and that there is a huge demand for F1 in Japan. But F1 insiders are voting with their feet. They have heard that Ti is near a town called Yunogo - and that is exactly what they intend to do. Stay home.

F1's move to the east is not just about money. There are also the increasingly difficult tobacco laws of Europe. Personally, I think this is silly. If you can make a product legally, you should be allowed to sell it. And what good are rigid laws? This year the Mild Seven Benetton transporters will criss-cross Europe with Wild Seven badging.

And what about the Enlightened Tobacco Company? What is wrong with a small tobacco company marketing a brand of cigarettes called Death and launching a mild version of the same which will be sold under the Slow Death brand. Why should they be banned?

There are no such problems in places like Brazil and that is probably why Bernie has signed a contract to hold the Brazilian GP at Interlagos until 2001. It is a great circuit, but the city really isn't a glitzy kind of F1 place. Every year at the end of the overnight flight to Sao Paulo on Brazil's national airline Varig they wake you up gently with a dreamy promotional film, extolling the virtues, wonders and romanticism of Brazil. It is a nice film. There is haunting music and lush images: dusky girls dancing the samba, thunderous waterfalls, endless beaches and so on. As the film ends with a glorious sunrise the words "Bom Dia" flash up on the screen. Good day.

There are many people in Formula 1 who feel that the only kind of "boms" needed in Sao Paulo are high explosive ones. It's not nice.

The locals like to say that the city is the New York of the Third World and it certainly lives up to the second part of that description. Like New York it is a great melting pot of the races, bursting with life. It is vibrant and dangerous. The streets are as bumpy as the Big Apple and the pavements are just as littered with rubbish.

But Sao Paulo is very different from New York in that pollution hangs like a miserable, smelly grey cloud over the city. There are fearful shanty towns where people live in appalling squalor and the drainage system is perpetually overloaded by the season rains. Getting around is highly complicated as there are endless rabbit warrens of criss-crossing streets which house the city's 20 million people.

We stayed at a quiet hotel, poetically-named the St. Exupery Residence. The only thing it had in common with the French writer of that name was that no-one could find it. Like all Third World hotels the shower stall fell apart when you climbed into it because they hadn't used enough screws to hold it together. The air conditioning was interesting. When it was off the room was too hot and when it was on, it was like sleeping next to a Mack truck.

But these are the amusing inconveniences of F1 living. Life is never dull, particularly in passionate Sao Paulo. Senna's town. This is the town which spawned Ayrton, the Fittipaldi clan, Rubens Barrichello and Carlos Pace. This is a racing town and Bernie knows it.

It is hard to explain how popular Senna is in these parts. Alongside Senna Fever, Mansell Mania seems like quiet applause at a cricket match. Brazilians are hot-blooded and so when Ayrton goes by they celebrate by banging drums, waving flags, hooting horns and dancing in the grandstands. It's really quite something.

You cannot help but be moved by it, particularly at the start of the F1 season when even the hardest cynics in the F1 paddock feel their hearts beating a little bit quicker at the thought of hearing once again the roar of the engines. It is an exciting time for all F1 folk, but particularly so this year for F1's television commentators. Why? Well the arrival of Peugeot in F1 has meant a thrusting PR offensive with lots of new bright ideas.

One such idea proved to be particularly brilliant for TV commentators. They were given vibrating bleepers. No really, it's true. Peugeot Sport handed out bleepers which vibrate in your pocket to tell you that the McLaren Peugeot team has a message for you. You take out the bleeper, press a button and it tells you that Mika Hakkinen's had an engine problem. These bleepers were very popular, but probably not for the use they were intended!

In the finest F1 tradition all the other teams will now follow suit, which means that TV commentators will probably not be able to concentrate much on the business in hand as their various pockets vibrate with 14 different bleepers.

Another new idea came from the Brazilians. As we drove in to Interlagos on race morning we were handed a Grand Prix guide pamphlet, shrink-wrapped with four white pills - presumably for headaches. Judging by some of the behavior seen in the stands opposite the pits, they might perhaps contain some dubious hallucinogenic drug.

I'll have to try one...

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