Nationalism, cricket, ducks and country music

Over the years the Germans have - on occasion - shown themselves to be a rather nationalistic race which loves to be in a dominant position. The British too like to get one over on the Germans (the 1966 World Cup is probably a better example than previous fixtures on the battlefields of Europe.

This chauvinistic rivalry was highlighted at Hockenheim during qualifying. The fans were in wild Teuton mode - which is not always very charming - while the German press seemed faintly embarrassed by it all. On Friday they were rather shocked when those fine pro-Europeans of the British national press celebrated Damon's Daring Deed (taking pole position to normal people) with a rousing chorus of" God Save the Queen". On Saturday when Damon did it again the German reporters had to listen to "The Dambusters March".

But if the British won the battle in the press office, up above in the grandstands, John Bull was rather outnumbered by Johnny Hun and the Germans were making no secret of the fact that they would march to Moscow if Schumi asked them to. I hope he doesn't. German trips to Russia have always ended in tears in the past.

Actually it was pretty scary out in the public areas with thousands of people wearing T-shirts with enlightened messages such as "Kill Hill" and "F**k Damon". If they weren't wearing these, they were following the local tradition of wearing their pyjamas in public places.

They also exhibited the normal tendency to eat and drink far too much. The European beer lake and the EEC sausage mountain came under serious attack. It didn't seem to matter whether "Schumi" was going to break his German GP duck or not because either way it was a good chance for the fans to drink: either to console themselves if he lost or to celebrate if he won.

I should perhaps explain for any German readers who have not yet hung up on this article that "a duck" is not something you eat mit kartoffel und salat, but rather the term used when one fails to score a run when playing cricket. Germans don't play cricket - Michael Schumacher has showed that on a couple of occasions. A few years ago I tried to teach F1 driver Christian Danner the basic rules of cricket. Within minutes Christmas Dinner had thrown his arms in the air because the word "wicket" had three different meanings. He gave up trying to be an English gentleman, although I recall he showed passing interest when I talked about bowling a maiden over...

... Danner was a good maiden-bowler in his youth.

These days - living in rural France - when I talk about ducks it is not cricket to which I refer but the 2000 smelly things which live next door to me. My next door neighbor has the annoying habit of being a farmer and every so often a shipment of poor little chicks - there will be sobbing on the streets of Tower Hamlets tonight - are delivered to be reared for a few months before they are shipped away to Duckie Dachau to have grain stuffed down their gullets and are then unceremoniously turned into delicious things like foie gras, and various bits of yummy confits. Breaking a duck, to a Frenchman, is not cricket at all.

Ducks are pretty smelly beasts but I am told that they can be quite affectionate - it was my wife who told me this because she used to share an apartment in Paris with a yellow duck called Ayrton (separate bedrooms) - but living in the country one must accept these things.

What really bugs me about my neighbor is that his dogs keep biting off chunks of my friends when they come to visit. I guess such things are normal with neighbors. Certainly in the F1 paddock all the teams are regularly trying to do as much damage as possible to the folk in the motorhome next door. You kill the enemy and winning is easier. This is often self-destructive with big sponsorship deals being reduced to less impressive sums of money as team bosses undercut one another with scythes of marketing jargon. You can reel off a great list of companies which were pushed out of F1 by teams getting a better offer: Canon, Shell, Chrysler - and shortly Agip...

This sort of thing annoys me enormously because money and enthusiasm for the sport is being wasted shamelessly and deliberately. I understand the commercial reality but it still upsets me.

The other day, over a glass or two of Bordeaux, another neighbor of mine was saying that he couldn't remember a single murder in the area. And then he stopped, stroked his beard for a moment, smiled and said: "Well, except for Levignac..."

"Levignac?" we cried. "What happened?"

Two neighbors had become so upset with one another that one day their feud over dogs or ducks or whatever erupted into a gun battle. They hid behind their respective hedges and took pot shots at one another with hunting rifles. By a remarkable coincidence they succeeded in hitting each other at exactly the same moment and both died.

It was a great story but I still have trouble believing it and I cannot help but wonder if there isn't a little "top spin" on the story. "Top spin" is something the Fleet Street reporters in F1 use to liven up their stories. They take a fact and then they stretch it. If, let us say, Michael Schumacher says "Damon Hill is crazy" because his English is not sufficiently subtle to say "Damon made an unwise manoeuvre", the tabloids will run "Damon's a Loony!" headlines.

These beautifully crafted stories are not entirely true but according to the publishers they are what the man on the Clapham Omnibus wants to read.

They are crafting stories which are not strictly true but keep their editors happy. It is what the public wants to read. You never hear on the TV news that everyone in Surbiton is living comfortably, do you? All you ever get is the bombs, the bullets, the scandals and the slurs. And what lovely stuff it is.

There is actually a word for this sort of thing. "Bentrovato". It means things which are not true but which are entertaining to read. The word comes from Italian: "Se non e vero, e ben trovato" - which roughly translated means "Even if it isn't true, it is a good story".

F1 is suffering severe bentrovato at the moment. Everyone blames the press but people like F1 big cheese Bernie Ecclestone is smart enough to know how to use bentrovato to their advantage. Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher would not have tea and cucumber sandwiches together but no matter how hard they try to play down any antipathy, someone winds up the feud again. At Hockenheim it was Bernie. No, he said, Hill and Schumacher cannot ride around in the same car and by the way Damon shouldn't use his car as a torpedo - a chap could be banned for doing that. The Fleet Street afterburners lit up at that, The Sun winning the Bentrovato Award with its "Peace Off" headline.

The fact is Bernie was simply using his boxing promoter instincts. He wants a controversial battle, even if it is contrived. Bernie is a great promoter and so is his mate Flavio Briatore. Wearing a hat backwards may seem a daft thing for a grown man to be doing but the cameras focus on you because you are unusual. You then write Renault on the back of your hat... and everyone is happy. You get to be on TV and your sponsors get a slice of the action.

The Benetton family are past masters at using the bad boy image to promote their goods. One might find it hard to believe that bloodied babies and Nuns kissing Priests is good for selling jumpers, but controversy keeps your name in lights. Everyone knows who you are. The latest Benetton advertising campaign continues the theme with tasteful images of a Crucified Christ next to a climbing boot and photos of Nazi athletes saluting Hitler in 1936 juxtaposed with a pair of skis. The caption reads: "All men are equal, not all skis. If you want to race, choose the chosen ones. Only for racers - not for racists."

Judging by what I saw in the grandstands at Hockenheim I think a picture of Schumacher waving at the German crowd should be run with the simple headline "Master Racer".

Anyway back to Flav. The other day I was chewing the cud with another team boss and we decided that we should organize a special Flavio Day on which everyone would wear their baseball hats backwards. In order to get on camera Flav would have to arrive in a Benetton-sponsored kilt or some such.

A few years ago there was an attempt in the press office to organize a Bernie Ecclestone Day on which everyone in the press corps was supposed to wear a neat white shirt, dark glasses and grey trousers with knife-edge creases so that everyone would look like Bernie...

It never got off the ground because the media - myself included - prides itself on its independence of thought and so we dress like Wurzel Gummidge or the average country & western singer.

Which reminds me of another silly thing currently happening in the F1 paddock. There is a contest to find the best title of a country and western song. There is more than a bit of bentrovato involved here but the original frontrunner - "I found Jesus in a dustbin in Kentucky" - is being challenged by "Eight dead at the intersection", "They don't make Jews like Jesus anymore" and "Drop-kick me Jesus through the goalposts of life".

You don't get a lot of C& W music in F1 but you occasionally get a good joke. Everyone knows that when you play Beatles's Sergeant Pepper album backwards you can hear the words "Paul is dead". Apparently, when you play back the average country and western song you hear that the man in the song gets his pick-up back, then his dog is found and finally his wife comes home too...

Se non e vero, e ben trovato.

Print Feature