Professional drinking and amateur engineering

The French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours is, curious though it may seem, not a popular event with many of the people involved in Formula 1. The countryside around Nevers is lovely and the pace of life is slower than a snail after a big French lunch. The problem is that it is not an easy place to work. It is just not an easy place to work. It isn't near anywhere. The roads are not quick, the traffic during the race weekend is bad, the restaurants are superb but rather too rural for F1's beautiful white trash. And there are very few hotels which are not booked all year round by cockroaches and other things which share hotel beds with French truck drivers.

For the VIPs it isn't so bad. You fly to Nevers Airport in your executive jet and use a helicopter to ferry from the track to the rented chateau and back each day and then back to the airport on Sunday night. Your only real worry then is to avoid spilling delicious sauces on your silly designer clothes.

For most of the F1 circus - terrestrial folk - and particularly those who remember the summer trips to Paul Ricard with rose-tinted spectacles, Magny-Cours is a pain in the neck and when that happens F1 reacts by trying to cheer itself up. In general this involves partying a little harder than usual.

At the French GP - it being a fortnight before the British GP - teams are looking to make the British press feel particularly wanted - and so they throw lots of parties. The media like this a lot. But the combination of a slight desperation and lots of friendly racing teams is a dangerous one for the average pressman. On Thursday night Sauber and Ford combined to throw a fine party for the Englishmen which ended in the small hours of the morning with singing and brandy - which is the sign that the Brits have had a good time. There were a few sore heads on Friday morning.

The more sensible folk - like me - were saving themselves for Friday night when it was Tyrrell's turn to throw its annual French GP party. The now-annual event is one of the highlights of the F1 social calendar of recent years and there was a full turn out of the 70-odd British journalists, photographers, TV types, travel agents and hangers-on. The fact is that one dares not miss the event because Harvey Postlethwaite has taken to reading out a list of those who do not show up during his speech...

Harvey was on fine form - a little lubrication helping him along the way - but as the sun gradually disappeared and we mulled over the wine he summed up the scene perfectly.

"If you could put this atmosphere in a bottle and sell it, you would be a millionaire," he said. "To me, the best moments in motor racing are always summer evening when the paddocks have cleared out and you can have a few drinks and a meal with racing people."

Bernie Ecclestone came round and mischievously suggested that Ken Tyrrell would have to pay for expanding his allotted paddock area beyond its boundaries to fit in the tables. Ken then took Bernie to task about the date of the race.

"My best friend is getting married tomorrow," said Ken. "A year ago he rang me up and said "When do you have a free weekend next summer?" So I rang Bernie and he told me that this weekend would be free... I have to fly back to England and then come back out on Sunday."

Then he smiled. "When I told Bernie this he offered me his private jet so I can get back for the wedding without too much trouble."

It seemed suddenly a long way from the F1 we are so often used to, this was F1 of years ago before big money and pragmatism. This was mates having fun. Lending a private jet may seem a great gesture of largesse, but to these guys it is like lending a bike or a car to a mate.

By about midnight - so they say, I had gone home - the Tyrrell party had drained the entire paddock of wine, every available bottle having been drunk. The following morning the team was so impressed by the intake that the PR man was wandering around giving out the totals of empty bottles and it makes impressive reading: the 50 or so drinkers - about 20 guests were teetotal or boring - consumed 49 bottles of red wine, 28 bottles of white, five magnums of champagne, two and a half bottles of Pimms - oh, and three bottles of brandy...

That is the French GP for you. Alcohol always seems to figure strongly, perhaps because Nevers is close to the wonderful vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly, which one drives through on the way to Magny-Cours from Paris.

This trip is not the easiest in France and inevitably one finds oneself whizzing down the tree-lined avenues of the routes nationales discussing the French predilection for having massive road accidents at every opportunity. This is inevitable on the road to Nevers because if a wombling Dutch caravan doesn't get you, there is always some nutter in a Renault Five coming at you on the wrong side of the road, overtaking a truck on a blind corner - while the driver is scrabbling around in the passenger footwell, looking for his cassette tape of accordion music.

French road accident statistics are as bad as Jean Alesi's career with Benetton to date. Frenchmen will tell you that this (the road accidents not Alesi's career) is probably due to the fact the Emperor Napoleon had all these roads built with avenues of trees on either side, designed to shade his armies as they marched to the next battle. It was a good idea at the time. The arrival of the motor car and the growth of these trees was not a good combination and very soon French number-crunchers had worked out that in the case of an accident it was not a good idea to hit a Napoleonic tree - a concrete wall is better.

The French government recently funded a huge survey to try to establish why there are so many road accidents in France and after months of work and huge expense, the survey revealed that the problem was due to the French mentality. I could have told them that for a couple of thousand dollars...

This conversation led, inevitably, to discussing "big shunts" in general and after whipping through a quick list of F1's greatest hits, a fellow hack from the United States told me a story which deserves mention if only as a warning to amateur engineers around the globe. The day he had left the US he had heard this bizarre tale on the radio, involving a car nut in Arizona who wanted to soup-up his Chevrolet Monte Carlo a little.

He had broken into one of the vast aeroplane graveyards they have in the Arizona desert and found a Boeing B52 bomber - a Stratofortress. The US service men used to call them BUFFs, which apparently stood for something along the lines of "Big Ugly Fat Flying Machine". Well, that is not strictly true, you know these military types, the second F stood for something rather ruder. The B52 when fully loaded weighs in at 240 tons and so to get them off the ground the US Air Force developed booster rockets, which fired for 24 seconds and produced 6000 lbs. of thrust. The Arizona car nut wanted one of these.

He was smart enough to demount it and worked out how it was fired but he did not think too much about what it might do if attached to his Chevrolet Monte Carlo...

Having completed the transplant he headed off to a straight piece of desert road to test the car. What actually happened has been reconstructed by accident investigators. A Chevrolet Monte Carlo weighs in at around a ton and a half which means that with a 6,000lb booster rocket it could probably go vertically upwards for 24 seconds if pointed in the right direction.

A smudge on the road indicated where Mr. Car Nut fired the rocket. The investigators reckon that after three seconds the Chevrolet was doing 150mph when the driver decided to apply the brakes. These did not achieve much. At six seconds the car was doing around 300mph when it took off. At 12 seconds there was a boom as it passed through the sound barrier - at around 750mph - becoming the only Chevrolet Monte Carlo ever to break that barrier - Dale Earnhardt eat your heart out! At 12.2secs there was another bang when it hit a hillside, 150 ft. above the road. Of the car and driver there was little evidence left, apart from the odd matchbox-sized pieces...

This story caused much hilarity in F1 where - thankfully - technology has now reached a point where everything is researched, number-crunched and tested before any lunatic climbs on board to drive.

They say that a Formula 1 car produces sufficient downforce to be able to run upside down on the ceiling if it goes over 120mph. Personally, I have never seen it done, although I do remember Riccardo Patrese and Christian Fittipaldi trying to do it without the ceiling.

In the middle of Friday - F1's now meaningless day - we were discussing if perhaps the occasional stunt such as a ceiling GP might not be a bad idea to keep everyone awake and spice up what has become a very dull day. I can see it now. Bernie would have to build a corkscrew piece of track on a long straight with a small "ceiling" section before another corkscrew brought the cars down to earth again! If Bernie and the team bosses really wanted to keep driver retainers to a minimum there could be a rule to say that the driver with the highest salary each year would be the man chosen to show off F1's technology "ceiling"...

This was, perhaps, just a hint too silly an idea, but there is no question that Fridays are now currently a complete waste of time for all concerned and completely opposed to the oft-pontificated argument that F1 is trying to save money. There must be a better way than this...

It only leads to alcohol and partying - ask a British pressman...

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