Flying visits and German food

My favorite story from the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend involved the ever-cheerful Simtek team. Having finished off its cars in the pit garages and suffered the indignity of having to sit out the first practice session because its fire extinguishers had been held up in customs as hazardous materials, the team finally got everything together on Saturday only to have Mimmo Schiatarella crash heavily while trying to do too much too soon. Spares for the new chassis being something of a problem the team was faced with the possibility of not being able to field two cars in the race.

And then someone came up with the idea of ringing England and asking the team's chief engineer Paul Crooks - who was at home resting after a winter of frantic designing - to get on an aeroplane and bring out the necessary bits. In the space of three hours Crooks organized for a variety of spare parts to arrive at Heathrow Airport, booked a seat on the flight to Brazil, cancelled his plans for Saturday night and drove from Banbury to Heathrow where most of parts arrived in time for him to carry them hand luggage aboard a British Airways jet for Sao Paulo. He arrived at 0800 on Sunday morning and rushed to the track, arriving after the warm-up. During the night the team had new pick-up points machined in a local machine shop and with a little botching on wing endplates where able to get both cars onto the grid. Both the cars retired in the race but Crooks was able to sit down and write an eight-page fax instructing the chaps back home on what needs to be done on Monday morning in preparation for the Argentine Grand Prix. When that was finished Crooks headed off back to Sao Paulo airport and flew out on Sunday night, arriving back in England on Monday lunchtime - just in time to go back to the drawing board.

Such stories are not uncommon in F1 with famous tales of people doing silly things like taking DFV engines as hand luggage - apparently they like you to buy a seat so that the engine has somewhere to sit.

When I heard Crooks's story I had just one thought: Thank God he didn't try to fly with VASP.

VASP may sound like something a German is bitten by in the summertime, but in fact it is an airline called Viacao Aerea Sao Paulo and this year I decided to fly to Brazil with them. I chose VASP because flying to Brazil with the other well-known Brazilian carrier Varig had taxed my patience in the past and I always felt a little uncomfortable flying on a plane, reading an in-flight magazine called Icaro, named after Greek legend Icarus, the man with wax wings who flew too close to the sun and plummeted to the ground.

Leaving home for Brazil I found myself full of enthusiasm to get back to the Formula 1 world, after a few months sitting at home and enjoying peace and quiet. The knowledge that in order to see the F1 cars I would have to go to one of my least favorite cities in the world - Sao Paulo - did only a little to dampen my enthusiasm. But my first trip of the 1995 season did not get off to a very good start when the plane taking me to Brussels - to connect with the VASP flight - rumbled down the runway. Just as we were getting up to speed the pilot suddenly slammed on all the anchors and aborted the take-off. The pilot of a light aircraft had radioed in a warning that the engines were smoking... A good start.

Back we went to the terminal for a few sliding scales on the throttle with engineers standing by. There was no problem and finally off we went. First stop Brussels to connect to Sao Paulo. What a glamorous life!

You may think that travelling around the world, reporting on all the Grands Prix is a wonderful and glamorous life, but there are times when travelling becomes a nightmare. When I got to Brussels I found out the VASP plane had broken down and there was no chance of a flight until the following morning and so off we were sent to a downtown hotel. The delay crept forward and by mid-Thursday afternoon - when I should have been cruising around the Interlagos paddock gossiping - I was still in Brussels and beginning to get very strung out. The dream of a VASP flight had finally evaporated completely and the airline's representatives were talking vaguely about maybe getting the passengers to Brazil by Friday afternoon. In the end I begged and looked sufficiently frazzled to fight my way aboard a flight from Zurich and, having squeezed onto a Brussels-Zurich flight as a standby passenger, arrived in Switzerland 30 hours after leaving home. When I checked in for the Swiss Air flight to Sao Paulo the lady behind the desk looked maternally at me and suggested that I go and have a nice meal - to cheer me up.

I went to the airport restaurant, took a handful of painkillers and then I saw a vision. A racing driver. Well, a former racing driver, Marc Surer, having dinner on his way to Brazil to commentate for Swiss TV. Finally, wedged in beside a lady who looked like Rosanne Barr made-up for the Rocky Horror Show, I left European soil - and went gleefully to sleep. When I awoke those maps on the airline screens said we were flying over Belo Horizonte (which always sounds to me like an enthusiastic Sloane Ranger I once knew) and that there wasn't long to go before we landed in Sao Paulo. Just in time to jump into a cab, fight through rush-hour traffic and get to the racing circuit just as the cars were going out for the first time - 48 hours after leaving home. Now if that had happened to Mr. Crooks, Simtek would be getting their wishbones on or about Monday evening.

When I did finally arrive in Brazil I was greeted by something even more mysterious than the missing VASP jet - the amazing expansion of the F1 driving fraternity. Several of the current drivers - mainly the Germanic ones - had somehow managed to gain large amounts of weight during the winter months. There is no doubt that some drivers have been known to have winter binges, stuffing themselves with hot dogs, sticky buns and pop-corn and all those things which their fitness gurus usually refuse to let them eat. But the most extraordinary thing about the weight gains is that not one of the drivers looks any heavier than before.

According to officially published FIA figures from November 1994 and March 1995 most drivers - weighed with their racing suits and helmets - gained a few pounds although Mika Hakkinen put on nearly half a stone.

Ask any girl what a couple of pounds will do to one's figure and you will be told endless horror stories of cellulite and stretch pants and yet here are men putting on vast amounts of weight without it showing at all. If they could market the secret of putting on weight without showing it that they could make millions without risking their lives.

The really big weight gains came from the Germans and Austrians: Karl Wendlinger weighed in 22lbs. heavier than last year; Michael Schumacher gained 17lbs; Heinz-Harald Frentzen took on 14lbs. and Gerhard Berger added 12lbs.

Germanic cuisine does tend to be a little stodgy with lots of noodles and strudels, sausages and cabbage. They have a tradition of dining on carp cooked in beer on Christmas Day, but these are still remarkable weight gains for active young men who do not sit at home stuffing their faces with faces with Schwarzwalder-Kirschtorte (Black Forest Gateau in case you are interested). I must say that I had a lovely meal in Zurich on my travels and I didn't arrive in Brazil weighing much more than when I left home...

When asked about how he had gained so much weight, the muesli-munching Michael Schumacher explained that the gain of 17lbs. was entirely due to a change in his training program which has turned body fat into heavier muscle. This is a ridiculous explanation unless, of course, Michael now has muscles between his ears...

The secret is that F1 team bosses and drivers are a devious lot and they have carefully read the new regulations which state that the combined weight of the driver and the car must not be less than 1200lbs. The drivers' weights are recorded at the start of the year and kept in an F1 computer. In the past cars were weighed during qualifying with the drivers onboard and the weight of the driver was then automatically deducted to produce the weight of the car, which with the old regulations was all that mattered. As a result all the drivers tried to be as light as possible at the weigh-in, not eating and going on to the scales with lightweight overalls, boots and helmets. This meant that they could then run lighter cars which would, naturally be a little quicker.

In an effort to stop this behavior the FIA decided to introduce a new rule which stated that the car and the driver should be weighed together. The problem with this was that the FIA could not insist on drivers staying with their cars until long after the races and so, in order to weigh the cars at the end of the race, the drivers weights had to be recorded once more so that these figures could be added to the weight of the cars to make sure that the car/driver combination was actually legal. This meant that it suddenly became important for drivers to have a recorded weight heavier than normal which would mean that the cars could be run lighter.

How can the problem be overcome? Suggestions that the racing stars might have to be weighed without any clothing have been rejected for fear that they will start loading ball bearings into any available orifice prior to the weigh-in.

The other way of dealing with the problem was for the FIA Technical Delegate to wait at the finish with a set of bathroom scales so he could weigh the drivers as they climbed out of their cars to find out what they really weigh...

The most honest GP drivers, incidentally, are Johnny Herbert and Olivier Panis who actually lost weight over the winter - Johnny slimming away a pound and Olivier losing a couple.

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