International incidents

Down in Melbourne there are protesters (yawn) declaring that they are planning an "international incident" because the race in Albert Park is going ahead.

That got me thinking. What would I do if I was a suburban protester trying to disrupt a Formula 1 race. The answer is very simple: I would give up because I know how difficult it would be. If you haven't got the right passes you cannot do anything unless yo are willing to hurt people or break the law in a serious way. Getting on to the F1 grid, where one could cause serious trouble with spray paint, is about as easy as escaping from Colditz in 1943.

Nice suburban protesters don't throw tintacks or oil on the track because to do so during the race would be criminally dangerous. If they did it before a race it could be quickly tidied up by marshals while the police are booking those responsible. The protesters could dig a big hole in the track in the middle of the night - but the chances are that someone will see you do it - and, besides, tarmac is hard work without a pneumatic drill and the noise of that might give them away.

So what are they going to do? Nail themselves to traffic lights? Tie yellow ribbons tightly round their own throats? Borrow a submarine and torpedo the pedestrian bridge across the Albert Park lake? Or maybe just stand behind the wire fences and throw traditional Aussie meat pies at Bernie Ecclestone.

It is already too late for the Albert Park people to go on hunger strike so that they will die on the right day. That would have been a very effective tactic - but I doubt any of them really care that much. They probably are more for traditional Aussie meat pies...

The air display will undoubtedly be such that no-one would notice an extra biplane or a parachutist, even if there was a large banner saying: "Save the trees which were dug up months ago". No aerial protest would be silly.

I remember some years ago when we went to Phoenix in Arizona there was a crazy man who somehow managed to get onto the race track, where he danced up and down and then lay down on the road. It scared the hell out of the drivers but it didn't get much in the way of coverage. You expect madmen to do mad things so it isn't really news.

Fidel Castro is the only man I can think of who pulled off a successful "international incident" relating to motor racing. He sent a number of his guerrillas to downtown Havana during the 1958 Grand Prix of Cuba with instructions to kidnap the Formula 1 World Champion - Juan-Manuel Fangio.

One of them walked up to Fangio in the lobby of the Lincoln Hotel, drew a gun and explained very politely that Fangio should follow him. The World Champion did exactly that and he was whisked away to a secret location. He was given food and watched TV and listened to the radio until the race meeting was over and was then released. The race went ahead and the publicity which the rebels achieved was widespread - but damning...

If they are going to get nasty they could put salmonella in the sandwiches. But, hey, what's new? Salmonella sandwiches are part of the glamorous world of F1. We get them regularly in Sao Paulo. And down there in Brazil we have to dodge gun-toting eight-year-olds being chased by police death squads as well...

Australia is a lucky country. Lucky that there are so few things to worry about that this sort of protesting and political banter becomes important. Lucky that there is space in the newspapers to include such rubbish because the murders, rapes and corruption haven't filled all the column inches.

I do not want to be accused of taking sides in this silly dispute. I want to watch motor races but I think it is wrong for protesters to threaten the sport when the sport has done nothing wrong. Their protests have nothing to do with cutting down trees. That was done because the state government wanted the race to happen. Besides, it has been irrelevant for some months. The trees are gone and no about of wailing and gnashing of teeth will bring them back. Besides, ecologically-friendly people have got plenty to do in Albert Park. There are lots of new little - defenceless - treelets all over the park needing caring people to water them constantly and talk them through their growing pains.

So if it's not about trees, what is the problem? Is it democracy as some of the protesters would have you believe?

No. It is not. There were elections for the Victorian state government. Anyone who voted in those accepted that they believed in democracy. Those who did not vote gave away their right to have a say and cannot, therefore, scream that something is not democratic. If you believe in democracy you do not protest. You protested when you voted. You can protest again at the next elections.

If it isn't about democracy, it must be about politics.

Politics? From what I've read about the Albert Park business, neither side has the faintest idea about politics. If I were Machiavelli faced with the problems in Albert Park I would have been rather less refined than Premier Kennett. I would have dipped into a slush fund - all governments have them - and would have sent a large fat cheque to each member of the Save Albert Park politburo with a message reading: "You've won the state lottery! And, in addition, you get a free holiday weekend with the penguins on Phillip Island. Melbourne at Grand Prix time could be really nasty with all those interstate weirdos flying in - drinking, brawling and pouring millions into the local economy. Who knows, if you don't go penguin-spotting, one of these horrid people (who have nothing to do with the local government) might do something nasty like nailing your favorite cat to your front door."

This would be followed up with an anonymous phone call suggesting that if any attempt was made to indicate that this was a bribe, grandma might find herself strung up with the car.

That is the way politics works.

And so we get back to where we started. How lucky people are to live in Australia. How lucky they are to be able to complain without someone gunning them down or nailing grandma to her letterbox.

Let us just assume that the protesters can dream up an international incident which is not a criminal act and which can be carried out successfully. What message would Australia be sending out to the 100 million people watching on TV? That a few hundred protesters (and I am being generous in the assessment) have the right to dictate to 100 million people? That Australia is a country were whingers can be kings? Where minorities cannot be controlled.

One hundred million people - most of them living on different time zones - is quite an audience when you stop and think about it. That's 28 cities the size of Sydney in which every single person is watching the same motor race.

I can tell you that in Europe there will be seriously silly race fans - the kind of people who still wear Castrol GTX jackets and JPS hats - who will be setting their alarm clocks for strange hours of the morning so as to be up and ready with tea and sandwiches to watch the race in Albert Park. And why do they do it? Because people like F1 and we are looking at what should be one of the most exciting Grand Prix seasons for many years.

And this is what we should be discussing. Sport. It should not affected by political acts. It is a leisure activity, an amusement. You could argue that a few years ago the odd international incident would have been a good thing given the domination of the Honda engine. For the serious insomniac there was nothing quite a Sunday afternoon in 1988 when Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna droned around and around until one of them won the race. It got to be so boring that in 1989 the only real interest came when they fell out with each other...

In recent years the Renault V10 engine has performed brilliantly, winning 50 races in five seasons. Last year we went to races with the expectation that only one of four men - the Renault drivers - would win a race. Once - by pure fluke - we were proved wrong and Jean Alesi lucked into a win for Ferrari. On all the other 16 occasions a Renault driver won.

This year, however, it seems that the other manufacturers are catching up. And that has to be good for the sport.

To the modern racing fan, however, F1 racing is not really about machinery. It is about the personalities involved in the sport. People do not ask whether the Yamaha engine will win in 1996, they ask whether Jean Alesi is going to be any good in the Benetton or how much money Michael Schumacher had to be given to sell his chances of a third straight world title down the river.

For the last 18 months the focus of the media coverage in F1 has been the clash of personality between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. All the other drivers have played only minor roles. Bit parts.

We are so used to seeing the same old faces winning the races that we tended to exclude the possibility that the circumstances might offer opportunities to others. By midseason last year, however, we began to see some new winners in the spotlight: the ambitious young David Coulthard, the frustrated Jean Alesi and everyone's favorite Johnny Herbert. Their success added much-needed variety to the sport.

I think that this year we will see further characters emerging from the shadows. One can easily imagine another three or four new race winners. Schumacher's wander down the dollar-strewn road to Ferrari has left Hill looking very strong, but we must also look to drivers such as Mika Hakkinen, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jacques Villeneuve, Rubens Barrichello, Eddie Irvine and maybe even Martin Brundle and Ukyo Katayama. All of them might win this year. In fact, judging by how close the teams seem to be at the moment, we could have a season where no driver wins more than two or three races.

This may sound rather far-fetched but it should not be forgotten that in the space of 11 races in 1982 there were no fewer than five new winners: Riccardo Patrese, Patrick Tambay, Elio de Angelis, Keke Rosberg and Michele Alboreto and it was Rosberg who won the World Championship that year with only one victory to his name. A driver who finishes a lot of races in the points could find himself well-placed in the championship.

It is possible that we could see a similar situation this year - that is what those in control of the sport would like to see because the excitement of multiple championship showdowns - like the three-way fight between Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet in Adelaide in 1986 - make for great TV ratings.

And that would make for a really interesting "international incident" in Suzuka in October...

Print Feature