Going back to basics

Barcelona was a fun weekend - even if the race was only slightly more interesting than watching paint dry. That's life. You cannot have a cliff-hanger every fortnight unless, of course, you turn the whole event into a show business spectacular. What we need to know is that the potential is there for some great races this year and that keeps us going. You always get a boring one once in a while.

But Barcelona was great fun and I guess on reflection that there are many reasons for that: some to do with the sport; and some to do with me. One of the major factors was that we had got out from under the shadow of Imola 1994. Everyone has been quietly dreading going back to the place and the paddock seemed tense, tetchy and claustrophobic.

Another reason I enjoyed Barcelona was because Jacques Laffite came back to F1. It didn't matter that he was there as part of a silly campaign by the Ligier owners to convince everyone that it is still a French team. He was still 'Appy Jacques - a lighthouse of humour in a world where they do not always recognize the absurd.

It helped also that the weekend ended with Johnny Herbert finishing second. Johnny has been one of F1's bounciest characters for the last few years and to see him doing well gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure.

It was also nice to see the F3000 teams again and have a snoop around their paddock to see a few old faces and to see which of the new young guys is worth keeping an eye on in the future. While I was snooping in the F3000 paddock I bumped into someone who made me stop and think for a while about F1.

"Everyone involved in an F1 team looks so serious all the time," he said, as we gazed out from the F3000 camp over to the F1 paddock. "Everyone seems so miserable."

I hadn't really considered it, but I knew what he meant. You can say that the paddock is a lively place with a bunch of overgrown kids telling bad jokes and playing tricks on each other, but that is just the veneer of what is a viciously harsh business these days. And the undercurrents are the saddest things about F1. Everyone is far too busy trying to win - both by getting ahead and by screwing the opposition to really enjoy what they are doing. The current belief is that winning is all that matters but there is no harm in smiling if you are unfortunate enough to come second. When you see the way some of the big stars behave you sometimes wonder if they haven't all been brainwashed by STASI men to be ecstatic in victory and miserable in defeat.

I know it's old-fashioned but I happen to think that F1 folk should try to enjoy the pure thrill of being in racing. This silly philosophy - I never said it was realistic, just what would be nice - was triggered because I went to see a little French hillclimb on the Bank Holiday between Imola and Barcelona just to remind myself that there is a real world of racing outside F1. There are times when we clowns in the F1 circus need to be reminded that motor racing is not ALL about back-stabbing team bosses and drivers with fragile egos. And to see the other end of motor racing's evolutionary scale is very good for recharging the batteries.

The Velines hillclimb is not something you will read about in any major motor racing magazine and TV cameras are unheard of at such events. All you have is a road up a hill, a few cars and a bunch of nutty enthusiasts. Velines is a small but pretty little town overlooking the Dordogne river valley, 35 miles to the east of Bordeaux. It does not appear in the tourist guidebooks like the nearby St. Emilion, which is world famous for its wines. This is wine country, but while they make a lot of it in and around Velines, the village is better known for its mineral water - although this is a small-scale business in comparison to the likes of Evian and Vittel.

Velines sits on the top of the northern ridge of the Dordogne valley, overlooking the flood plain of the great river. A busy little diesel train along the valley at the foot of the hill links the village with the great metropolis of Bordeaux, but up at the top of the hill, it is probably much as it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago. There is a 12th century church with a well and war memorial. There are a couple of little cafes and a gravelly village square where the locals play boules in the shade of the pollarded trees.

But not on May 8. Every year - on the anniversary of the end of the Second World War, a French national holiday - the village shuts down to host its hillclimb. From down by the railway track, up a wiggle of road through the vineyards, the cars hurtle uphill to the finish line in the village.

This is not like the great French hillclimbs like Mont Dore or Turckheim where the professional French hillclimb heroes like Marcel Tarres and Christian Debias take six minutes to get to the summit. This is a 45secs blast.

It would probably be quicker if there was more modern machinery about, but these folk don't have the money to build or buy news cars all the time and a wander around the Velines paddock, which is in the village square of course, reveals a strange and wonderful assortment of cars: some beauties and some beasts. Most of these guys bought their cars five years ago or more and the selection includes such strange and wonderful machines as the ugly little Renault 8 Gordini to Clios and Renault 5 Turbos. There are old Formula 3 and Formule Renault cars of dubious vintage. Could that really be a AGS JH19, the Formula 2 car which used to be raced in 1984 by Philippe Streiff? It certainly looks like it. There are Martinis, Duqueines, Chevrons and Marches, which have been climbing this hill every year for a decade.

In total there must be around 75 cars spread out under the trees and in the gardens of the schoolhouse, where scrutineering was set up. The roads have a few crowd barriers across them and there are a handful of gendarmes to control the spectators, but otherwise there are no problems with passes.

In the morning a few folk might have been talking about the presidential election the day before, but most of the hillclimbers are more interested in oiling and polishing their lovingly-prepared machines. The cars all look a bit greasy, but with a picnic table and a tent set up alongside they are in harmony with their surroundings.

Practice began at 10am, which was probably not popular with the old soldiers of Velines who had gathered to remember the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. They had their mass in the church and then the cars were allowed to hurtle up the hillside while the veterans went on to the village hall for a drink in memory of their fallen comrades, a walk to lay wreaths at the memorial, another drink and a few more memories and then lunch - a bargain at 14 a head for a full-scale blow-out with wine in endless supply.

In this region everything stops at 12pm and the village is quiet as the old soldiers have their lunch at one end and the hillclimbers either picnic beside their cars or cram into the bars and cafes at the other end of town. Perhaps there is time for the racers to have a little snooze, although some continue to tinker as the spectators begin to arrive in town in their hot hatches or battered old Citroens.

You bump into drivers changing into overalls on the pavements or strutting around in their nomex, trying to impress the local girls. And then finally the engines are fired up and the whole lot of them disappear to the bottom of the hill to sit in the sunshine and await their turn to run up the hill. And, for the spectators, if lunch was little excessive one can always lean back in the long grass and have a snooze, keeping an ear open for squealing tires.

And if those involved aren't sleeping, they are smiling. Having a great time.

There is no point in trying to tell F1 people that money isn't everything, but take it from me, a trip to a French hillclimb once in a while does wonders for your sense of perspective.

Since Velines F1 has been even more enjoyable than it was before...

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