GLOBETROTTER

Flights of fancy

Michelin is the buzz word in the F1 paddock at the moment, although no-one wants to admit to ever having seen, spoken to or been within five miles of Michelin's boss of racing Pierre Dupasquier. Nevertheless it is abundantly clear that the French tire manufacturer is gearing up to come back to Formula 1 next year and there are stronger and stronger whispers of secret testing with a top team. Naturally, everyone is frantically denying everything. The fact is that F1 makes good commercial sense and Michelin is in the business of selling tires. Goodyear had been on to a good thing for a long time...

On a flight of fancy one day at Spa, when the rains were pouring down outside, I let my mind wander off because of the lack of on-track activity.

Michelin sells tires, I thought, but they also sell books. The Michelin Guides tell the world where to go on their holidays, which roads are pretty, where to stay and where to eat. If a restaurant gets the much sought-after three stars in a Michelin Guide, it can basically print its own money. It is "worth a special visit" and with only about 30 of them in the whole of Europe, people come from hundreds of miles around to eat. The prices are in line with the status so if you fancy lunching in a Michelin three-star it is best to mortgage your house before setting out.

Then I suddenly thought that perhaps Michelin should produce a guide to the racing circuits of the world, recommending to the millions of fans the places they should go and the things they should see. Perhaps one could even give the racing circuits star-ratings as well. In the case of the normal Michelin Guides restaurants have to do more than produce good food. The judges take into account such things as the location, the ambiance and the service of the restaurant and so one must do the same for racing circuits.

Monaco would, therefore, be a two-star circuit in my mind because while it is a magnificent place to see racing cars in action, full of wonderful history and atmosphere, the races feature virtually no overtaking because of the nature of the track in relation to the cars of today.

Monza would a two-star as well. It is a wonderful, evocative place, full of atmosphere and excitement, but there are too many chicanes...

The conclusion I came to is that of the current F1 tracks there are only a couple of three-star circuits: Spa-Francorchamps and Adelaide. Both are places to be visited, savored and admired.

And then I thought how odd it was that the feeling in the F1 paddock at Spa is generally very low-key. People are not alive with enthusiasm and it seems that each time we visit Spa everyone is very weary. Part of it is physical, I am sure. The season has been running for six months and everyone is tired of the constant travelling and the endless pressure. There are six races to go and Adelaide still seems a long way ahead. But I think part of it is psychological as well. There is little doubt in my mind that at Spa one gets the impression that the summer is over.

Most of Europe may be baked as dry as a biscuit but in the hills around Spa there is no shortage of water. This year it was cold and wet and that cannot have helped the moods in the paddock. The silly season pressures mean that tempers are a little shorter than normal. In addition to all this Belgium seems to have very amenable judges and each year the F1 paddock on Thursday and Friday seems to be full of serious-looking men in suits - not a regular thing in the paddock - with policemen in tow. They come to seize bits and pieces of racing teams, to settle unpaid debts or just embarrass people. This year it was Pacific's turn to feel the financial squeeze, thanks to the attentions of Swiss engine tuner Heini Mader.

So, everyone is a little tetchy at Spa despite the fact that this is probably the best racing track we visit each year and we should all be full of joy at seeing the marvels which are modern F1 cars flat-out on the great sweeps of the circuit.

Often sitting in the press offices of the world, one loses contact with the sport. You see television pictures but you do not appreciate the violence of the power outputs or the twitchiness of the slides. When you see the drivers fighting to control these awesome technological beasts one suddenly discovers enormously more respect for the men than you have if you only deal with them in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the paddock. Even on the bad tracks of the world the cars are impressive but at Spa the track layout - and specifically Eau Rouge and Blanchimont - make F1 all the more impressive.

Years ago when I first went to Spa, to report on the 24 Hours, I remember sitting mesmerized at Eau Rouge during final qualifying session as night fell watching the cars hurtle through the corner, headlights blazing. The following year the magic was not the same, but I went with a colleague - new to the race - to the same spot and I sat there watching his reactions to remember how it felt to be there. I might have become immune to the magic, but he was not and I was able to recapture a little of that wonderful feeling which one gets at a first visit to any race track.

I often think that F1 journalists would be lot better off if they were able to have occasional sabbaticals and take a year away from the Machiavellian world of the F1 paddock to see a few motor sport events which should not be missed - just for the hell of it. To rediscover that the sport can be as much fun as it is a profession. To recapture the feelings we all had when we started out in the game.

Suddenly I was back on the Michelin Guide theme once again. Where would I send people if I was handing out Michelin three-stars for racing circuits? Hmm...

Well, for sure enjoyment and racing passion, I would immediately say Bathurst in Australia, where the lunatics in helmets drive their touring cars up the side of Mount Panorama, across a scary section of road called Skyline Drive and then down the side of the Mountain back to the pits. What a great place! I would recommend the Galloping Grape restaurant and stay at the Kniccurbocker Hotel. This isn't exactly one of the great hotels of the world but it captures the spirit of Bathurst brilliantly. They used to chain the televisions to the walls and you had to step over the sleeping figures in the corridors because there were never enough rooms to go around...

I would also give the old Nurburgring an immediate 3-star status and recommend that the visit take place to coincide with the annual Nurburgring 24 Hours, which attracts vast entries and monumental crowds. You have to go there and spend the evening out at the Karrussel or Adenau Bridge.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an experience which cannot be described. It is not just about the speed of the cars, you have to take in the fact that there are 400,000 people there watching the race with you. When the crowds cheer, you don't even hear the cars...

Even for a purist who loves only single-seaters the sight of a full grid of NASCAR cars thundering around the backing at Daytona is quite awe-inspiring and it gets a 3-star award from me.

I am not quite sure how I would do it, but I would give the Paris-Dakar Rally an immediate 3-star award as well, although the route changes from year to year. There is something about the whole enterprise which is exciting and adventurous and there is no question that the desert is seductive.

Mount Fuji International Speedway in Japan would get a couple of stars, simply because of its location under the mountain of the same name and because of the wonderful braking zone at the end of the main straight.

I wouldn't recommend Mexico City much but if you had to be there it is worth taking a look at the final corner of the Autodromo - the fearsome Peraltada, a one-star circuit which would have two stars if it was located elsewhere.

I think, on reflection, I would give Pau a three-star award as well because the street circuit in the south-west of France is not only dramatic and scenic but it also allows overtaking and I'd throw in Macau for a three-star rating because of the wonderful balance it has between high-speed sections on the flat and the twisty lunacy along the cliff edges.

At some point in my reverie, an F1 car went thundering by outside and suddenly I was back at Spa again with a refreshed eye - and I was enjoying it again!

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