Adventures at the Autodromo

Formula 1 folk were pleasantly surprised when they arrived in Buenos Aires this year. Grand Prix people who were at the last Argentine Grand Prix 14 years ago remembered Buenos Aires fondly, as a pleasant city with a good race track. It is still a pleasant city and if the race track is not what once it was, it is nice to report that the country is a lot better off than when F1 was last in town. Back in 1981 there were some pretty nasty goings-on which F1 blithely ignored. The military was in power and anyone opposed to the regime was likely to disappear, often never to be seen again. There are some nasty tales too about secret policemen in Ford Falcons without numberplates and of screams coming from the basement of the Naval Technical School at the dead of night. The fate of "the desperacidos" (the disappeared ones) has still not been officially explained by in recent weeks the country has been shocked by the revelations of a retired officer who says that many of the missing were drugged and then thrown from military aircraft into the ocean.

An F1 colleague of mine was actually mad enough to get himself arrested by the secret police in those dark and dangerous days. Intent on writing about the regime, he decided to take photographs of the Naval Technical School and the Ministry of the Interior. He achieved the first, but was arrested when he tried the second and spent a terrifying few hours being interviewed. As a precaution he had taken a lot of tourist-type photographs before snapping the two suspect buildings - both of which are rather grand. His defence in case of trouble was that he was just a tourist. He reckons that it was only good luck which kept him alive.

In that same era, there is a famous story about the Buenos Aires bomb. In the middle of practice for the Grand Prix, with the pitlane stuffed full of armed soldiers there was suddenly an enormous explosion and half the pitlane dived for cover. In fact, the fire extinguisher in Mario Andretti's Lotus had blown up!

Today the military is gone and the locals have developed a healthy attachment to democracy. General Galtieri and his friends in the military government never bothered with details such as elections but now Argentina is in the grip of a presidential election. Buenos Aires was awash with election posters. All the indications are that the poll (to decide who will be president until 2001) will be won by the current president Dr. Saul Carlos Menem.

Menem has been the architect of Argentina's rebuilding since he took office in 1989 and he was the prime mover in bringing F1 back to Argentina.

"It was essential to transform the state, the economy and education," says the president, "and it was a priority that this development should reach the sporting world."

Menem was a rally driver in his youth and his son Carlos Jr. competed successfully in international rallies and had ambitions of becoming a top single-seater racing driver. This was perhaps the most important aspect in the return of F1 to Argentina but, sadly, Menem Jr. was killed in a helicopter accident a few weeks ago. Despite this dreadful tragedy Menem was much in evidence around the F1 paddock throughout the Grand Prix weekend and on several occasions gave people a hell of a shock by turning up unexpectedly. Several times I was bashing away at my computer in the press room when I looked up to find the President passing through, followed by a swarm of cringing flunkies and generals.

One man who was noticeably absent in Buenos Aires was Juan-Manuel Fangio, F1's greatest champion and an enormous sporting hero in his country. Fangio has been very ill in recent months, but his non-appearance at the Grand Prix underlined just how sick the great man must be.

One might have thought that when the locals decided to renamed the Autodromo a few years ago they might have called it after Fangio rather than after a man called Oscar Alfredo Galvez. Who the hell was Mr. Galvez? Confused by this, I asked the locals and discovered that while Galvez was never a big name on the international racing scene he was Fangio's greatest rival within Argentina and was for many years the undisputed king of the wildly dangerous Turismo de Carretera road races, a tradition in Argentina which dates back to the 1930s. The most famous of these was the International Grand Prix of the North which took place in 1940. The 5920-mile route started in Buenos Aires went across the pampas plains over the Andes mountains and then turned north to Lima in Peru, before turning south back to BA. The event took 13 days and was won by Fangio, but when he turned his attention to racing in Europe, Galvez spent the 1950s winning a series of carretera championships and long-distance races. He was as much an idol in Argentina as the great Fangio, although Galvez raced in only one GP, finishing fifth in a Maserati in the first Argentine GP in 1953 at the brand new Autodromo.

Prior to that, however, Galvez had competed in the Peron Cup races on the Palermo Park circuit, laid out on the streets of downtown Buenos Aires in the late 1940s. To give you an idea of his standing at the time, when the greatest racing driver of the era, French ace Jean-Pierre Wimille was killed in Buenos Aires, Galvez joined international stars Giuseppe Farina and Gigi Villoresi as a pallbearer.

Later Galvez would bury his brother Juan Galvez, a driver who - so the locals say - was just as good as Oscar. After he retired Galvez worked as an ambassador for Ford Argentina until his death in the early 1990s.

If the world has not heard of Galvez, he remains revered by the locals fans and just as they once loved Galvez so they idolize Argentina's other great racing hero Carlos Reutemann.

Carlos was much in evidence at the Autodromo, his job for the weekend being to drive a 194 Ferrari F1 car to get the fans - and I expect himself - excited. It was a very clever idea from Ferrari because it not only gave Ferrari a high profile and kept the fans happy, it also did no harm whatsoever for Carlos's political ambitions.

Well, here is my theory. In a land where they like men of action, to see a top politician driving a Ferrari F1 car in anger is a hell of a good way to win votes. Carlos was not messing about and his first demonstration run - in treacherous conditions on Thursday afternoon - showed that he has lost none of his talent. Like all the best racers, his time improved with every single lap. His time would have been good enough to make him 10th in the session just before he drove for the first time - and he kept it on the island.

Reutemann was always with the rugged hero type with charisma to spare and brooding good looks which made him a great hit with the ladies. He was on pole position for his first Grand Prix and went on to drive for Brabham, Ferrari, Lotus and Williams, winning a total of 12 GP victories before retiring early in 1982.

Since then Reutemann has developed political ambitions and in 1991 he was elected governor of Argentina's Sante Fe province. He is expected to become a senator within a few months and with president Carlos Menem expected to be re-elected next month for another six-year term, Reutemann will have to wait if he wants to become president. He is, however, being tipped as a possible candidate for the presidency in May 1999. He will then be 59 and will have 10 years experience as a governor. Menem will be 70.

Driving around Interlagos in Ferrari, waving the Argentine flag will have done his ambitions no harm whatsoever. Perhaps John Major should take note...

Ferrari added a very nice touch too to make the runs more enjoyable for Reutemann. Some bright spark organized a pitboard which was shown to Carlos as he thundered past the pits. It said "Reut-Jones". Students of F1 history will know the story, but if not I should explain that way back in 1981 Carlos was Alan Jones's teammate at Williams. In Brazil that year Reutemann was leading when the team showed him a board with "Jones-Reut" on it. He was supposed to follow team orders. After thinking about it for a few laps, Reutemann decided that there was no reason for him to give way and let Jones through and he went on to win the race. That year Reutemann went on to finish one point behind Nelson Piquet in the world championship.

Reutemann's performance in Buenos Aires was, for me, one of the outstanding events of the weekend. The weather was not good but at least we got a slightly clearer idea of what to expect this year. The Williams-Renaults were dominant; the Benetton-Renaults were struggling, even with Schumacher; Ferrari looked very good. And McLaren?

I don't think we have yet seen what that car will do and I have a vague suspicion that the McLaren-Mercedes combination is actually the biggest danger to Williams domination. The McLaren team has accepted that it made a disastrous error. It has been laughed at but it will emerge stronger and more dangerous from the cockpit cock-up. Ron Dennis is not a man who likes to be humiliated publicly and I am sure that he will be spurred on to make the team better.

Ron has never been one to get complacent but perhaps the recent events have given him a renewed resolve. Ron should know how important motivation is. It was McLaren's humiliation of Benetton in 1993 - when McLaren was a Ford customer team but performed much better than Benetton, which was supposed to be the Ford factory team. I believe the pain inflicted on Benetton was the prime reason why the team was so successful in 1994.

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