A Winter's Tale

People keep asking me what is it that motor racing folk do in the winter. Why is everything so quiet? Even the mysterious Eff One has been forced to leave his anorak and bobble hat hanging up at home because there hasn't been anyone testing at Silverstone. So what are they all doing? Are they skiing with the rich and glamorous at resorts like Aspen, Vale, Gstaad, Klosters or Kitzbuhel?

Yes, some have been. In fact, when the World Championship skiers gather at Kitzbuhel for the Hahnenkamm downhill race there is usually a strong F1 contingent present. This is largely due to the fact that Gerhard Berger and Karl Wendlinger both live within 20 miles of the place; the survivors of the old BMW F1 program come down from Munich and half the Brabham team of that era - who have gone on to better things - seem to turn up as well. I am told that there have been many a riotous evening in the snow at Kitzbuhel and that if one knows the right people there are photographs available which would embarrass even the high and mighty of Formula 1.

Max Mosley - I didn't say there was a connection, did I? - spends his winter months sitting in his presidential FIA office in London, solving the automotive world's problems and talking to dull Euro-MPs.

I did spot Max on a cross channel ferry just before Christmas, which was most odd because it was the evening of the FIA prize-giving in Paris. A Friday, I recall. He should have been in Paris, wearing a penguin suit and handing out trophies to obscure World Champion kartists and the like, but no, there he was - mid-channel - wearing a grubby overcoat and eating chips.

He pretended to ignore me, but I am sure it was him. Unless, of course, he has an unknown identical twin brother. And then it crossed my mind that - of course - the Max Mosley who that evening would be presenting awards in Paris was a fake Max and the real Mosley was dashing home to hunt, shoot and fish at some country estate or other. We've all seen movies about famous folk with doubles so I guess clever old Max was doing it too. I sometimes wish some F1 teams would send dummies along to races. Well, come to think of it, there are one or two who already do...

Jean-Marie Balestre - I didn't say there was a connection, did I? - was Mosley's predecessor as FIA president. The colorful Frenchman can be accused of many things, but never of being dull. Balestre - who headed the governing body of world motor sport between 1986 and 1993 - is now 73 years old and has had major heart surgery. A big fan of his garden, and particularly his lawn, JMB spent Christmas Day this year at his summer home in Opio, near Grasse in the south of France. Late in the afternoon, while doing something silly, he fell nearly 4m from a tree, breaking his jaw and a rib in the process. And, as there was no-one else in the house, he had to crawl to a telephone before an ambulance could be despatched to collect him. Ouch!

This winter was also quite a strange one for former Moneytron Onyx owner Jean-Pierre Van Rossem. You remember him, he was rather a noticeable figure in the F1 paddocks thanks to his long, lank, grey hair and beard and his considerable girth. The downturn in the world economy saw him sell the team at the start of 1990 and he disappeared to Belgium and soon afterwards went to jail for fraud. Once released Van Rossem managed to get himself elected to parliament - and there are still people who think proportional representation is a good idea. He then shocked Belgium by writing a guide to Belgian brothels and upset the royal family by making loud republican noises when parliamentarians were taking their oaths of allegiance to King Albert II.

Just the other day I read that Van Rossem had been sentenced to five more years in jail for fraud, although he remains at liberty thanks to his parliamentary immunity!

F1 has never been short of such colorful characters and students of Grand Prix racing history will remember folk like Lord Hesketh, now a solid member of the British establishment but in the 1970s the man who introduced wild excess to F1; Don Nichols, the man who owned the Shadow F1 team, but who was rumored to be a CIA agent; Peter Monteverdi, Switzerland's answer to Enzo Ferrari, who manufactured his own cars and, after buying Onyx from Van Rossem, told the world he himself would design the next year's F1 car.

There was Joachim Luhti who owned Brabham and turned up wearing a hankerchief on his head knotted at each corner with a "secretary" on each arm. There was a Klaus somebody or other - I cannot remember his name but I do recall he wore white socks - who was a Larrousse partner and ended up shooting himself in the head while besieged by heavily armed German police. Another Larrousse partner, Didier Calmels, went to jail for shooting his wife. What an array of folk.

And even the regulars were often extraordinary: Gunther Schmidt, who owned two F1 teams at different times - ATS and Rial - and used to entertain everyone by jumping up and down on sidepods and screaming abuse at his team. Guy Ligier was like that too, but he's now long gone from F1. He used the loot he got from the sale of Ligier to corner the market in natural fertilizer in central France (I won't go into details) and has since made another fortune to add to his earlier motorway-building millions.

Oh, I quite forgot, there was the man who bought Ligier: Cyril de Rouvre. Mayor of a French town and previous owner of the AGS F1 team, who sold the team to Flavio Briatore when the French authorities grabbed him and accused him of all manner of financial irregularities.

In comparison to this lot, colorful old Flavio is positively dull having spent part of his winter in hospital, having a back operation. Someone told me that this was necessary to remove the knives which have been stuck there since he arrived in F1.

Ah, but these are the glamorous folk of F1. The ones who live Dallas-like lives and who hang out in Caribbean hot spots, desperately hoping to be photographed by Paris-Match or Hello magazine.

For most of us the winter is the time when we go home to buy new suitcases; do some gardening; have babies; conceive babies; all the things we never get round to doing in the summer months.

If you phoned the F1 News office over Christmas an answering machine would have informed you that no-one was there, because the magazine was having its "summer holiday". The journalists have been sitting by their phones at home, chatting to anyone who will talk, trying to find out what is really happening out there. There is always news somewhere, even if it is sometimes a little off the beaten track. I like to dig up news and I will take it from wherever I can get it. Over the years I have learned that the more you read the more you know (clever that!) so I read everything I can from in-flight magazines to junk mail. Even the local papers! I found out that McLaren was looking for a new factory from an estate agent's magazine; a local newspaper in Devonshire (which just happened to employ my brother-in-law) told me that Nigel Mansell was buying himself a golf course. More recently, my local paper in France gave me a really great story about the F1 man who fell to earth.

Jean-Pierre Jarier, you may recall, competed in 134 Grands Prix between 1971 and 1983. He was notoriously unlucky and led several events only to have his cars die under him. For a long time "Jumper" had the misfortune of being the least successful F1 driver of all time. He was threatened briefly by Eddie (known to his friends as "Undera") Cheever but it was finally Andrea de Cesaris's double century of insignificant performances which consigned Jarier to the dustbin of F1 history.

But, Fate had obviously taken note of Jean-Pierre's misfortunes because when his luck came - at the age of 48 - it came all at the same time. And it happened just down the road from my house when the helicopter he was flying decided it would fall out of the sky...

My local paper gave me the full story - complete with the only eyewitness report to the event. I read it and I laughed. Whenever anyone asks me why racing drivers are different from the rest of us I will tell them this story.

"I saw a helicopter coming down at high speed," said the eyewitness Madame Nicola Chateauneuf, who drives a school bus. "It crashed and bounced. I ran towards the helicopter which was in a cloud of smoke, and I saw small flames coming out of the tail. I thought it was going to explode so I held back. A man got out, took out two suitcases and walked towards me."

The Hughes 500 helicopter had dropped like a stone and hit the ground at an estimated 60mph. The wreckage was spread over 60 metres of maize field.

"The man said he had pains in his head," continued Mme Chateauneuf, "and there was blood running down his head. I told him to wait for the emergency services to arrive but he kept asking me to take him to the nearest doctor. He kept on insisting and in the end I gave in."

And so Jarier and his suitcases boarded the school bus and Mme Chateauneuf drove to the local doctor, while Jean-Pierre - clearly worried about his state of health - kept repeating: "Faster, faster!".

"If I had known he was a former racing driver," said the stern Mme Chateauneuf later, "I would have told him that a school bus is not a racing car!"

What a way to spend the winter!

But what are the rest of the drivers doing - the modern generation? They've finished the annual run of awards ceremonies and dinners and have opened all the racing car shows. They have had their annual binges of hot dogs, beer and chocolate but, with the new season approaching are now back on the usual diet of rabbit food and pasta. If they have drives for 1995 they can at least go and waste a few hours training to get fit, but nonetheless they are going mad with frustration because the cars are always too late for them. If they don't have a job for the coming season they are now sitting in their Monaco apartments, glued to telephones and increasingly becoming hysterical because everyone else has a job and they do not.

In the meantime, the racing teams are working flat-out to build new cars for their frustrated drivers. That work has been particularly frantic this year - thanks to the introduction of new three-liter engine formula and new chassis regulations. Everything has had to be made from scratch.

This is most unusual because - and I'm leaking secrets now - a lot of teams don't usually bother with new cars. The little teams traditionally stick some new bodywork on top of the chassis from the previous year. The bigger teams whip out last year's CAD/CAM disc, iron out a few wrinkles, play with the aerodynamics a bit and then pay some color-coordinator to design a new paint job. They then launch "the new car", sending out bulging press packs full of much ado about nothing. This is both cheap and cost-effective. Revolutionary changes and research breakthroughs are all very well, but they cost a fortune and they don't always work. Generally-speaking, constant development and stability brings rewards.

And, if you don't believe me, dig out a picture of John Barnard's first Benetton design, when it was launched in April 1991. Compare it to the Benetton-Ford B194 with which Michael Schumacher won the 1994 World Championship. Or scrutinise the Williams FW14, which Adrian Newey penned back in late 1990, and play "Spot the Difference" when compared to Damon Hill's FW16B. A few nips and tucks; a little lowering here and there; the odd massaging of bodywork. And the same can be said for Gary Anderson's Jordan, first seen back in February 1991...

But even evolutionary change involves a lot of work and this is the time of year when the F1 folk we never see get to do most of their work. This is the moment of glory for the design draughtsmen, computer nerds, CAD/CAM operators, number-crunchers, aerodynamicists, model-makers, machinists, fabricators, laminators, buyers, autoclave operators, quality controllers, finite analysts (whatever the hell they do), gaffer-dazzler tweakers and even for the cleaning ladies.

We may not yet know how the cars they build will perform but the next time someone says: "What do F1 folk do in the winter?" You can tell them from me.

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