What if...

There used to be a rather odd man who wandered up and down Oxford Street in London carrying a billboard which declared for anyone silly enough to read it that it was necessary to eat less meat and fish or else the world was going to end.

"The end of the world is nigh!" he used to proclaim loudly.

That was 20 years ago and the Japanese factory ships are stilling pulling whales out of the deep and turning them into sushi; Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds are using up meat like there is no tomorrow - and yet tomorrow keeps on coming... every day. And we are all still here.

I guess we must be doing something right. Anyway, if we'd all given up eating meat and fish, we'd probably have eaten all the rain forests by now.

Perhaps there were people who went up to the man in Oxford Street and said: "Why don't you go home and have a nice ham sandwich and a cup of tea. You'll feel better", but if there were it did not seem to make much difference. The only conclusion one can draw from this is that people like warning that things are going to go horribly wrong. When things do go wrong the world does not stop. Life goes on as it must.

We constantly hear that fatal accidents could result in the end of our sport. That's piffle - as long as it is only drivers who are getting killed. The world has no right to interrupt unless we start to kill spectators. It is no different to mountain climbing really. I don't care how many climbers fall off mountains, I just don't want them landing on me when they exit this world.

To give motor racing credit it has done enormous amounts to stop drivers as well as spectators being killed. It is all very creditable and socially-acceptable, but it doesn't stop me wondering what could be done and how spectacular racing could be if we were allowed to use the available technology. Some say that this would make racing impossible but I do not agree, it would simply change the nature of the sport, just as the progress in aviation has changed aerial combat from the days when one took potshots at one another in biplanes to the modern world of electronic warfare.

The silly thing about F1 today is that it is like having a modern warplane and trying to fly it around inside a large exhibition center. Nelson Piquet always used to say that racing at Monaco was like riding a bicycle around the sitting room and increasingly every track is becoming like that.

The other day at the launch of the new Tyrrell Harvey Postlethwaite said that the new car was designed to go around 75mph second-gear corners - because this is the dominant corner in modern Grand Prix racing. There are not enough fast corners to make it worthwhile designing a car for them. Harvey reckoned that perhaps the time had come to have another look at racing circuits and rethink them.

There is not a lot of point in trying to figure out how to get another 100 metres of run-off at Monza when environmentalists were busy nailing themselves to oak trees for the sake of a couple of metres. One simply has to accept that the old racing circuits would be better used being sold off to get money to build new circuits in places elsewhere. The current race tracks can be turned into shopping centers and the revered Monaco tarmac can be turned over to little old ladies with Zimmer frames.

The problem is that one can hardly build a new generation of race tracks in a world which is full of environmentalists bleating: "It's not fair".

Even without the protests, land prices are such that any new tracks - like Hajime Tanaka's Aida - would have to be located hundreds of miles away from big cities.

Perhaps the only long-term answer is "the end of the world" where we can have fast corners and grandiose race tracks. There will still be risks for the drivers - they can hit one another if nothing else - but spectators won't be placed in danger.

One must build circuits in places where people do not live and do not want to visit: Death Valley, the Gobi Desert, Central Iceland, the Amazon basin, Botswana, Saudi Arabia, anywhere in central Australia or Scunthorpe.

You do not need to be a brain surgeon to work out that these new tracks would hardly draw big crowds. Who wants to trek to the middle of nowhere to watch a race across half a mile of run-off area? Most people cannot even bothered to go to as far as Snetterton.

It may be scandalous to suggest it, but one could argue that this is actually a good thing. Motor racing doesn't need spectators any more. When you think about it, if you look at photographs of "the good old days", you do not see many people in the background on great events such as the Targa Florio. There is a reason for this. Many events took place in remote places where it was difficult for people to visit.

The Targa dated back to 1906 when Vincenzo Florio offered the first trophy for a race on the roads and tracks of his native Sicily - apparently someone had the cheek to take motor racing to Sicily before Flavio Briatore's recent Benetton launch.

The reason Florio - not Flavio - chose Sicily is that the organizers did not want a lot of people to turn up.

Florio chose Sicily because it was as far away from humanity as possible. There was space. The Targa Florio was, at the time, an event just as I am now imagining. It was, quite literally, at the end of the world and racing went there not because Florio was a local wine producer, but because the entire sport was in the public doghouse after the murderous Paris-Bordeaux race in 1903 which left a trail of dead and dying along its route.

The result of Florio's plan was an astonishing track - the Madonie circuit, which began on the coast road of northern Sicily and then ran up into the mountains in a crazy dash from hairpin to hairpin. There were a handful of tiny villages but otherwise nothing but a desolate rock-strewn landscape. At the top - 3,600ft above the sea - the magnificent hills were inhabited only by the bandits for which Sicily was famous. There were 1500 corners per lap and they raced on this track in cars which were the Grand Prix machines of the day.

In time it became one of the world's great races. Gradually, however, civilization began to invade Sicily. Benito Mussolini visited in 1924 and was humiliated by the Mafia establishment, arriving in the hills above Palermo with a vast escort to be told by the local godfather that he did not need the policeman as he would perfectly safe if he stayed with the mafioso. This was probably not the wisest way to behave to an egomaniacal dictator and with months Mussolini had begun a purge to wipe out "the men of respect". The Mafia men - among them such luminaries as Carlo Gambino and Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno - ran off to New York.

The Targa Florio survived this onslaught of "civilization". There followed the war but the race survived although by 1973 it had become crazily outdated and was done away with on the grounds of safety - which was not at all surprising given that there were prototypes with F1 engines hurtling through villages with only haybales as protection.

When you stop and think about it, there is no reason why the sport cannot once again disappear off to the ends of the world - leaving the beardy-weirdy environmentalists to polish their sandals in suburbia.

In the old days the sport was financed by rich men like Florio who did not give a damn if the public came to watch racing or not. Today it is financed by television and such is the march of TV technology that remote-controlled cameras and helicopters can easily take care of the coverage.

The Paris-Dakar - now called the Granada-Dakar - is what I would call a grandiose event. It is shorter and safer than original great challenge, dreamed up by Thierry Sabine and his pals 15 years ago. Some of its grandeur has gone but it is still a formidable challenge. It is covered entirely with TV cameras.

For the competitor it is beyond anything else available today. Those who have competed on it become hooked. This year Bertrand Gachot and Paul Belmondo teamed up on the Dakar and got the shock of their life. Gachot told French pressmen that in his life he had two experiences which taught him a little humility: being sent to jail in Britain and fighting across the desert on the Dakar.

The number of people who smoke on the Dakar is unlike any other motor racing event I have ever known. These are not the health-food freaky racing drivers. Constant exposure to danger means that few worry about the damage a cigarette will do to them. You take your pleasures, lest they be your last.

The F1 drivers of yesteryear understood this attitude but today drivers have career plans and personal stock brokers. They plan for the long-term, assuming that they will automatically survive.

They are taking risks - and being paid handsomely to do so - but they are like circus performers playing with lions in a cage - rather than in the wild of the African bush.

Perhaps "the end of the world" is no bad thing. We might get some back some red meat-eating drivers...

Print Feature