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Thoughts of a visiting Pom

In Aborigine (or do I have to be politically correct and say "indigenous Australians"?) the word "Moomba" apparently means "Let's get together and have fun". What a great language! Saying so much with so little. Inversely proportional to Japanese. There are times when one is left to wonder if there might be some way in which one could adopt Aborigine as the F1 language. I bet "corporate interface window of opportunity situation" is a lot shorter in Aborigine.

The fact is that the international language in F1 is English and so when we internationals arrive in Australia everyone needs a couple of days to begin to understand the locals. We don't have "bludgers" and "bingles" in Europe. Well, we do, but we call them by other names. The other great thing one notices in Australia is that the language changes every year - "Strine" is a moveable feast of a language.

There were similar problems for the visitors in relation to the local politics: What does one have to do to get "jeffed"? I thought a Brumby was a wild horse not the leader of the local opposition. Save Albert park was also a source of confusion. In America a "sap" is what in England they call a "wally" or in Australia a "dag". And then there are saplings which in England are small trees (like the thousands in Albert Park) but in Melbourne they are presumably children on the members of the Save Albert Park movement.

After a huge build-up before the event, the Save Albert Park movement proved to be as toothless as most of its ageing members. On race day SAP spokesperson Jenni Chandler told the world that "the international incident" had been called off although there would be a protest march outside the track. Ms. Chandler said that this would not have many people involved because many of the members of the movement were so distressed that they had left Melbourne for the weekend. There were howls of laughter in the International Media Centre when that one came to light.

As a general rule the internationals did not get involved in the local politics - to such an extent that even the local gurus suffered ego-bending incidents. One eccentric Dutch journalist saw a man walking into the paddock with people congratulating him and shaking his hand, and intrigued as to who this person might be wandered up to the man in question, stuck out his hand and said: "Well Done! Oh, and by the way, what did you do? And who are you?"

"I'm Jeff Kennett," said the man in question. "The Premier of Victoria."

"Well done!" said the nutty Netherlander.

The deputy premier appeared at one point but no-one paid him a blind bit of notice. Kerry Packer's arrival raised one or two eyelids but only because Packer probably pays a few salaries in the F1 press corps.

One rumor knocking around the media center was that Premier Kennett and Melbourne Major Events big shot Ron Walker suffered an ego-bruising when they wandered into the paddock early one morning and were sent packing by F1 officials because they had walked through a gate rather than going through the security "swipe card" machines which now control entry to the paddock.

These were considered scandalous by some but I think of them more as a disappointment. I tried swiping my Visa Card and then punching in my PIN number to get some Aussie dollars but I couldn't find a number pad...

That was about the only thing which was a disappointment in Melbourne. The facilities were fabulous, everyone was helpful and the attention to detail was remarkable. There is always room for improvement in a new venue but to find one as well organized straight away is remarkable. Melbourne put a lot of permanent tracks around the world to shame.

On the Wednesday before the race I bumped into the chief executive of the Grand Prix Corporation Judith Griggs, and - in my best Australian - said: "Howyagoin?"

She said it was all down to the details and that because there were so many of them she was keeping busy. Attention to detail is what makes for a great race. As we talked a string of old propeller plans flew towards us and, feeling mischievous, I suggested that we should take cover as we were being attacked by Mitsubishi Zeroes. Judith looked up.

"No they're not," she said. "They're ...um..."

At that moment she spotted a wild-haired bearded gentleman wearing a big hat. She said "Seeyalayta!" and ran off. Moments later she swept back, said "Harvards" and set off to solve other detailed problems.

The following evening when I got back to my hotel room I found a little white box wrapped with a checkered flag ribbon on the pillow in my room. It contained two chocolate racing cars. It was a nice touch and I wondered if Judith had donned her Tincurbell gear and visited all the Melbourne hotel rooms leaving chocolate boxes on pillows.

The little touches are, I find, what makes a difference when you visit race track after race track. It's nice to have someone say "G'day" when you arrive in the morning. Melbourne, of course, has not taken on the Grand Prix for altruistic reasons. The aim is to promote the city worldwide and to do that it was making sure that the image presented was warm and wonderful. The use of palm trees along the fast section at the back of the track suggests a sub-tropical climate which even the locals will tell is not at all the case. The flash motor cruises which had been craned into the Albert Park lake made it look like Monaco Harbour - but the truth is that they had to take the propellers off them because the lake was not deep enough.

The little tricks of the trade are perhaps suspect but to wander along St. Kilda Road in the late afternoon sunshine with a warm breeze rustling the trees and trams scuttling along the boulevard towards the town showed that Melbourne is indeed a very attractive place to be. A lot of the F1 folk didn't actually spend a lot of time downtown - much to the disappointment of the local leisure industries - but enjoyed the little restaurants and bars of St. Kilda Road and St. Kilda Beach.

Thopse who did venture downtown said that whereas in Adelaide one would always bump into friends from the circus, in downtown Melbourne there was not quite the same feeling of being in the village-like world which we loved so much in South Australia.

The camaraderie in F1 - team bosses not included - is one of the nice things after a few months away from the circuits. You are there to have fun as well as getting serious. This was amply demonstrated at the end of the F1 pitlane where these days the top teams despatch a spy during each and every session. Their job is to take note of which tires the opposition is using when the cars go out and some have clipboards with charts so they can note down each new set which is used. They pretend to ignore one another. On Friday in Melbourne the Benetton boys thought they would have some fun with the Ferrari man - not a born smiler by nature - by arriving with a chair and a cup of coffee to make his stakeout a little more comfortable.

The Ferrari man said with a smile that he preferred tea...

Having said that the Ferrari team is beginning to look like an organization which is acquiring a taste for champagne once again. Williams emerged completely dominant but the signs were there that it will not be long before the Ferrari F310 is in a position to challenge for wins. It is still hard to imagine that the Italian team will be a position to win the title this year but the aim of three wins should not be outrageous. Unless there are major developments it does not look as though the other two established "big" teams: Benetton and McLaren are going to get into a position to challenge. Both teams will be working flat to develop their chassis and engines. This is the only way to improve and with Williams and Ferrari doing just as much work in an effort to stay ahead, it is hard to imagine how gaps of a second or two are going to be closed up.

The emergence of Jacques Villeneuve is a great thing for F1 for the French-Canadian is not only immediately up to speed and the possessor of a famous racing name, he is also the man who won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the Indycar title. His success can only help F1 as it strives to break into the North American market.

Although they kept a very low profile, the people behind the planned United States Grand Prix in Las Vegas were in Melbourne, looking at facilities and meeting all the right people. No-one is willing to say very much about how advanced the project now is, but it is very serious indeed and when you stop to think about it you have to say that the idea of F1 in Vegas can only be good for the sport and for the city. The image of Grand Prix cars hurtling past King Arthur's castle at the Excalibur Casino or the Luxor Casino's great pyramid or even the somewhat old-fashioned (but very famous) Tropicana will be very powerful. It will undoubtedly be as big a success as Melbourne has been. With Vegas and China both expected on next year's calendar one is left wondering which races we will not be seeing again. Basic logic says Hungary but the tobacco companies and car manufacturers in F1 want the Eastern European market as much as they want to break into Asia in a big way. Logic dictates, therefore, that some of the big European races will inevitably come under threat, as will the South American rounds.

My advice to the organizers who might be feeling a little vulnerable is to plant a few palm trees, crane in a few motor boats and - most of all - make sure that they have a Tincurbell delivering little chocolate racing cars to hotel rooms for miles around the circuit...

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