A drive in California

After the Australian Grand Prix was over and everyone had drunk themselves into oblivion on Sunday night in Adelaide, the F1 circus exploded in different directions: some went to holiday on the beaches of Queensland; others rushed back to Europe to be busy. I went east to the USA, crossing the International Date Line in time to restart the day I had just finished.

Crossing the line I wondered if Michael Schumacher might have liked the same chance the previous day. Michael cannot have enjoyed winning the championship as he did. I know I would not have savored such a triumph. If one is dedicated to winning, one needs to know that one has won fairly. Otherwise victory is a delusion. One is defrauding oneself.

But, as the big old Qantas bomber cruised across Catalina Island and arched in a lazy circle over an unusually clear Los Angeles, I no longer cared what had happened in Adelaide. It was history. Just as out of date as the Queen Mary, berthed below in Long Beach harbour and as much F1 history as Long Beach's Shoreline Drive, down which GP cars once raced.

California has forgotten F1. The sport is not considered important enough for space in the newspapers. College football stars are more important. They say that Niki Lauda once checked into a West Coast hotel and the receptionist asked: "Niki who?"

Formula 1? What is it? Some kind of hair tonic?

This is one of the few things which is likeable about LA. It is a place where you can totally escape from F1. The other good thing about LA is that you can leave. And, as we headed west out of LA's infernal traffic jams in the direction of Santa Barbara, the world became an infinitely nicer place. First you hit the Santa Ynez mountains and then the Santa Lucia range comes across your path. Where these hills hit the ocean you reach San Simeon, where William Randolph Hearst built his own personal paradise - a concrete castle on top of an enchanted hilltop. Hearst Castle is the ultimate folly, a monument which proves that you can everything money can buy and yet still not be satisfied.

Hearst never managed to acquire good taste but, looking out over the golden hills, one has to admit that he knew did know an enchanted setting. Wandering happily through these hills, one finds oneself dreaming about how it might one day be possible to live in the south of France for the F1 season and pass the winter months on California's Central Coast.

This is the time of year when racing journalists have to look back at the previous nine months and write their seasonal surveys. Usually it is quite fun. A chance to praise and abuse. But this year it is a terrible task for it has been a year of death, injury, allegations of cheating, rule-changing, political in-fighting and contract-breaking. The racing has been pretty thin on the ground.

Damon Hill's drive in Adelaide was outstanding but if you asked most people in the paddock to say what they thought was their best moment of the 1994 season most will reply: "the end of it".

I suppose you could say that it ended fittingly, with Schumacher cynically punting Hill out of the Australian race. Michael said it was an accident rather than a deliberate move, but I do not accept that. It was too convenient.

The German had cracked under pressure and tossed his World Championship away. The only way in which he could save the day was to make sure Hill did not finish - and Michael did. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna both did the same sort of thing in 1989 and 1990. Later they admitted the truth and one day Schumacher may too. The truth almost always comes out in the end.

Whatever the case, Michael is the champion, although that title was always going to be an empty honor following the death of Ayrton Senna in May. Had he lived, the title would have been his and even Schumacher had the good grace to admit it.

I think Senna's death will come to be seen as a turning point in F1 history. He was the last of the icons of the 1980s: Alain Prost had retired as World Champion; Nelson Piquet had hobbled into the sunset and Nigel Mansell was sulking in America. Senna's death opened the way for the new generation.

The Benetton team would have you believe that it is the new thrusting force in F1. Time will tell. There were too many question marks in 1994. Benetton won the Drivers' title but it was Williams which took the Constructors'. It was the correct balance. Benetton had prepared well and victory in the first two races was the reward. It was a surprise, but a popular one. But in Aida people began to ask questions: How was Schumacher able to go so much faster than his team mate? This would remain one of the mysteries of 1994. No matter who was with him Schumacher was always way ahead of his team mate. And when Michael was not present the Benetton team was off the pace.

In a world where a driver with a tenth or two in hand over the rest of the field is worth US$10m, Schumacher seemed to be seriously under-valued. Benetton paid him maybe US$5m this year, but based on his performances should have been paying US$200m. Such brilliance was hard to accept, every brain cell screaming that such things are just not possible. But the gravity-defying Schumacher kept on doing it.

His domination over Jos Verstappen was understandable, but when JJ Lehto drove it was the same story and by the end of the year Michael showed that he could blow away a confident Johnny Herbert.

In previous years Michael had been quicker than both Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese, but his margin of domination increased dramatically in 1994. So dominant was the performance that despite his many victories Benetton lost the Constructors' title.

There is no question that Michael drove very well all year but this inexplicable inequality of performance led - inevitably - to allegations of cheating. These were never proven, except in the case of the removal of the fuel filter at Hockenheim - but, despite the team's annoying habit of issuing self-righteous press releases each time they were found to be not guilty, there remained large amounts of "smoking gun" evidence. The FIA concluded that they could not destroy the team based on such evidence.

But it is no secret that Senna went to his death at Imola believing that Schumacher's Benetton was running some form of traction control. Ayrton had been punted off at the first corner at Aida and had stood beside the track watching the race. He came back to the pits and spoke privately to friends and team members. Those thoughts were never made public, but Senna believed it and many others worried about it.

Senna died at Imola and, amid the anguish, was born the other great mystery of 1994: Why did Ayrton crash? Many in the F1 paddock refuse to accept that the Brazilian could have lost control of his car in Tamburello but nothing was ever found to suggest a breakage. As a result there will never be a satisfactory explanation.

After Imola the season spun out of control. The allegations against Benetton became stronger; there were battles over safety and further injuries. In July the FIA announced that it had analyzed Benetton's black boxes from Imola and found a "Launch Control" system in the software. It included what appeared to be a hidden trigger system which was highly suspicious. Benetton proved to the FIA that this system had not been used at Imola. A lot of people wondered if it had been used in other places.

The men at Benetton spoke privately of a vendetta against them. Possibly they were right, but if there was a vendetta it was probably only because the governing body believed Benetton was getting away with other crimes. Punishing a team harshly for breaking minor rules, if you want a parallel, was like arresting Al Capone on tax evasion charges.

Initially there was a lot of sympathy for Benetton, but after the revelation of "Launch Control" the reaction in the press corps hardened. By the time the circus reached Hockenheim Schumacher's retirement from the race was greeted with cheers from the media. Those cheers said it all and they may come to haunt Michael because if he is ever to be believed about 1994 he will have to show the same sort of domination over his fellow drivers in years ahead. And that will not be easy...

At times in 1994 the press room was like a vaudeville show as the media men reacted to images flashed up on the TV screens in front of them. Schumacher was not the only victim. After McLaren's saintly divorce with Peugeot Ron Dennis's face appeared on the screens and the press room boo-ed loudly. While some folk were willing to give Ron the benefit of the doubt over his split with Chrysler in the autumn of 1993, the divorce with Peugeot was transparent. You can argue that McLaren did not break the contract, but forcing Peugeot to accept the end of the arrangement amounted to the same thing. In The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde wrote that "to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness". The same quote could apply to McLaren's engine suppliers.

The McLaren-Peugeot split was symptomatic of the way F1 is currently developing. In addition to the McLaren-Peugeot split, Renault's exclusive deal with Williams was thrown away; Schumacher's contract with Benetton until the end of 1996 was junked; and some very nasty business went on behind the scenes as rivals tried to destroy the Lotus team in order to scoop up the wreckage. Morality went head-first out of the window. This trend was not helped by a deal between the FIA and Benetton over the Hockenheim fuel fire. The FIA announced that the team had pleaded guilty to the charge of removing a filter from the refuelling system, but the team was not to be punished. It was settled in a squalid back room deal designed to save the championship. Benetton agreed to make "substantial management changes" in exchange for not being found guilty. The punishment may damage the team in the long term but made no difference in 1994. It was a piece of pure unadulterated pragmatism.

I detest this decline in F1 morality. There was never many morals among the club of second-hand car dealers that has long dominated F1, but the recent years have seen a much harder and more cut throat approach from newer bosses. The older car dealers have had to adopt the same principles to survive in this piranha pool.

Half the F1 paddock will accuse me of being naive and say that these things are normal business techniques. Maybe they are. I do not know. I am a press man. Yet when one adopts a harder attitude and goes digging for the dirt one is accused of being a conspiracy theorist. I do not wish to be either. All I want to do is watch good motor racing and the only reason I am worried about such behavior is because since Senna's death F1 has been increasingly in the spotlight. People are looking at F1 with more scrutiny than ever before and that means that F1's blemishes are becoming more public. The sport does not need outside crusaders coming in looking under its upturned stones.

These are all pretty dark and dismal thoughts, and it took a lot of winding through Californian roads to remind me that, despite all the politics, F1 really is an amazing circus.

Sometimes you have to walk away from the paddock and just watch the cars or listen to the chatter of the enthusiastic crowds. Sometimes you have to wander down the pitlane and actually look at the cars; look at the tiny details of their design and marvel at the brilliance of these machines. Long after the serpentine bosses of F1 are forgotten, these machines will remain in all their glory.

It took a visit to the Behring Auto Museum near San Francisco to drive that point home. There was a Bugatti exhibit advertised but I was not prepared for what greeted me as I went through the door. There were two of the six Bugatti Royales in the world. Perhaps AUS$20m worth of wonderful regal automobile. But, oh, what marvellous works of art they are.

And you know what? I'm looking forward to next year already.

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