Trains, flames and Korean cooking

In between the European and San Marino Grands Prix there seemed to be no point in going home for a couple of days and so the plan was to drive south from the Nurburgring, through southern Germany and Switzerland and into Italy. In the Springtime we figured the glorious lakes of northern Italy would be a splendid place to spend a few days before heading on to Imola.

In the finest tradition of very simple - and cheap - plans it all went horribly wrong. German hire cars companies seem to be of the opinion that no car in northern Italy is safe from theft and do everything they can to stop their clients heading south of the border. Apparently they disappear faster than stray dollar bills at FOCA meetings.

In order to dissuade people from taking their cars south the hire car companies have an exorbitant drop-off charge. If you want to hire a car in Frankfurt and hand it back in Milan, you will be asked to pay the princely sum of $1200 - which in Milan one could use to buy quite a useful car.

In F1 terms the idea of catching a train has the same kind of stigma as being caught performing immoral acts with animals. F1 people drive cars. Fast cars. They have jets. Trains are definitely not chic. You occasionally see a Grand Prix driver on a Bullet Train in Japan but that is only because even millionaires cannot afford to rent helicopters in Japan.

But we journalists are not chic and so we found ourselves at Frankfurt station on the Monday after the Nurburgring getting on what they call an Inter City Europe train. The ICE. This is a flash high speed train with an ugly chisel snout but plenty of space, comfortable seats, conference rooms, telephones and a restaurant with waiters. It is undoubtedly a very civilized way to travel. In fact it proved to be a perfect solution. And a lot cheaper than a private jet.

The only thing wrong with it, in fact, was that this hi-technology beast was heading south - into the rain. What we hoped would be sunny weather in Italian lakeland was in fact pouring rain and that is how it stayed for the next three days. We went through the motions of tourism, lunching on flower-covered terraces, ignoring the drops of rain, and it was while circumnavigating Lake Lecco that we bumped into the Olympic flame. The symbol of eternal pure competition was being trotted down the side of the lake by a very soggy looking runner, preceded by a man waving a red flag and a support vehicle ahead and behind the runner.

Quite what the flame was doing on the shores of Lake Lecco was something of a mystery as the route from Athens to Atlanta does not normally pass through the little villages of Italian lakeland. It even seemed as if the flame was going in completely the wrong direction. We pondered for a moment turning around and chasing after the little convoy and pointing out nicely that there must have been a map-reading error and pointing to the west and mouthing "Atlanta" in our best Italian. But then we figured that not even the Italians could be that disorganized - we were feeling charitable at the time - and that the flame had probably been invited to some function in Milan.

The thing that really made the impact, however, was not the direction being taken by the flame but rather the fleeting image we had of the runner. He had the torch in one hand - and a cigarette lighter in the other. This was particularly noticeable as he was busy putting the two together as he jogged along in the rain.

I guess no flame is eternal. It makes you wonder whether the US Marines who guard J F Kennedy's tomb in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC - and who are not even allowed to blink - have to sometimes scrabble though their pockets, when no one is looking, for a cigarette lighter to keep the torch burning for another generation.

This got me thinking about a little tit-bit of news I had picked up at the Nurburgring. FIA President Max Mosley had suggested to some of the Germans that he could see no reason why motor racing could not be considered an Olympic sport and that he hoped to have an Olympic GP organized for the 2004 Games, wherever they are held.

The very suggestion would once have been scandalous for the International Olympic Committee. The bastion of amateur sport, the Olympics was unimpressed by the sponsor-encrusted Formula 1. How things have changed? This summer in Atlanta, the TV cameras will be assaulted by one logo after another for the entire Olympic fortnight as Nike, Reebok, Coca-Cola and McDonalds do battle to win over the world's consumers. The Olympic ideal, as laid down by Pierre de Fredi, Baron de Coubertin, in 1896 was that it was competing which was important rather than winning.

The all-pervasive power of money, however, means that today the Olympic Games - for better or worse - has adopted motor racing's attitudes towards competing. Finishing second is losing. Taking part is not what is important, winning is what brings in the big cheques.

There is, therefore, no moral issue as to whether motor racing should be included in the Olympic Games. F1 has as much right to be an Olympic sport as synchronized swimming, ice dancing and ribbon-flailing 14-year-old gymnasts prancing about to Doris's Theme from Dr. Zhivago.

The IOC folk will say: "Ah, but what place do machines have in the Olympic Games?" Well, bobsleighs are machines. And the entire skiing competition in the Olympics appears to be dictated by the kind of wax one uses and how one applies it to the edges of the skis. In fact, any student of history will tell you that the IOC's distaste for machinery is not based on the idea of the original Olympic Games back in 776 BC. These included not only athletics but also recitals of poetry and dance events. This may sound lovely except that all women were excluded from taking part and all the men had to perform stark naked. If the IOC tried the same thing these days they would all be arrested as sexual perverts.

It did not take the Greeks very long to expand the games and within 40 years of the first Olympiad chariot racing was included in the events. The concept on amateur competition also eroded away very quickly. There was soon big prize money and the champion's gained enormous popularity and made money in the equivalent of appearance money and endorsements. If they had supermarkets in ancient Greece the Olympic champions would have been opening them.

I rather like the idea of an Olympic GP with gold, silver and bronze medals instead of trophies. You could have a World Champion and an Olympic Champion. It all makes a lot of sense.

These days there are so many new races popping up that it seems that we will have to doing at least 25 events in a year to fit them all into the calendar. F1 has never been as popular. In addition to all the usual rumoured races in Austria, South Africa, the United States, Indonesia, China and Malaysia there are also rumors knocking around about such wild and whacky projects as Jordan and Korea.

Korea seems a likely destination and I remember well that the reporters who came back from Seoul when the Olympics were being held there brought tales of such charming meals as Doggie & Two Veg.

There are a number of folk in the F1 paddock who think that dogs should not be involved in F1 - whether in the paddock or a local restaurant. The Schumacher Family's recent acquisition of a Brazilian mutt has won endless amounts of TV coverage but the constant parading of Germany's most famous (and richest) canines is annoying the paddock. There are rules supposed to be rules to keep children and animals out of the paddock - just from a safety point of view.

Can you imagine the ruckus if one of the Schumi dogs was accidentally run over by Demon Damon? It seems that being a World Champion means that you can ignore rules you don't like.

I think a doggy's place is in the home and in case all your dog lovers out there think I'm not a nice man I have three of my own. In fact I had a couple called Bernie and Max for a while. Max has nearly calmed down now - but Bernie caused so much trouble that we had to find him another home...

Ah, but that's another story...

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