GLOBETROTTER

The pests of Buda and other stories

In the old Communist days, Budapest was quite a nice place to visit in August. It was hot and humid, of course, and the Danube was horribly brown and polluted but at least one could wander around without being run over by endless western coach parties looking the palaces and opera houses of the Hungarian capital. The splendor of the city was, somehow, rather exclusive and one had to have a great pink visa in one's passport which said something incomprehensible like "Magyar Nepkoztarsasag" - try saying that without spitting out your false teeth.

Admittedly you could spend half an hour looking at a menu without understanding a word of it. There were dodgy translations but the thought of goose livers and venison had one gently salivating. Then the waiter would tell you that actually the only thing available was goulash - "if there is any left".

The gipsy bands had a certain amount of charm and so you ate your goulash, drank some Bull's Blood and wondered what Budapest was like in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The conclusion was that it had a lot in common with Paris - although the buildings needed tidying up after 40 years of Communism.

The buildings still need to be tidied because the vast sums of western money which are pouring east these days are being spent on other things. The Magyars - a wily race which has survived invading Romans, Turks, Germans, Russians and so on - have found capitalism to be a capital idea and are busy taking as many Forints, dollars or Deutschmarks as possible from every visitor. August is holiday time in Europe and so every man and his caravan is packed up and trolling about on the roads of Europe. Some head for the beaches, where inevitably they find that the Germans have got there first. Others go to exciting "new" cities like Budapest and Prague and clog up the streets.

Airports are overcrowded, hot and miserable. Planes are late. Baggage-handlers are working at post-prandial Portuguese postman pace (they are asleep somewhere). Stewardesses do not have time to be nice. The planes are packed with people carrying surf boards as hand luggage and vomiting children. Everything is overbooked.

This is the time of year which F1 folk really hate because travelling is more difficult than ever. In order to make life more bearable in these dodgy times, one must book early, pay early and arrive early.

In Budapest, nothing can be taken for granted because Magyars like doing deals and so the chances are that your hotel rooms will have been sold to someone else. The nice - reliable - hotels in Budapest are now so expensive that only millionaires on expenses can afford to stay in them at Grand Prix time.

And so it was we decided to get a nice secure deal with a good solid firm called Best Western - a nice little place in the center of town.

"You'll never guess what it is called?" said a colleague. "The Hotel Innside Art. The Inside Out Hotel!" This was most amusing until we arrived to find that there was nothing best about it and the only western thing you could say was that it was run by cowboys.

"We have just one small problem," said the man behind the desk, sounding like Max Mosley in a major crisis. He proceeded to explain that he had given away my hotel room because some Finns had offered them a better deal earlier in the day.

"You see," he said, "The Grand Prix is taking place in Budapest this weekend. It is not possible to find a hotel room."

Oh really, we replied, that would probably explain why we are standing in front of you wearing F1 passes and why we booked and paid for the rooms in January.

"What can I do?" asked the man, wringing his hands. His theory was that the best thing to do was to squeeze as many beds into each room as possible and anyone left over could sleep on the shelves. We did not agree. The bargaining position in which we found ourself, however, was only slightly better than the British troops at Dunkirk.

And so it was that I found myself indulging in a sociological study of Hungarian hotel design in the mid 1980s - in what I decided to call the Hotel Gulag - not far from the spot at which I was robbed by corrupt policemen a few years ago. The Gulag was down by the railway line, next door to the siren factory, cost half as much as the Inside Out and was designed by the Hungarian government prison department. It was the kind of place where one expects to find a Frenchman urinating on the wall in the corridor.

You know you are in trouble when your hotel room has prints on the walls of bad Gaugin copies. The TV set - red plastic and very aesthetically-pleasing if the theme for your decoration is Havana 1972 - picked up fuzzy black and white pictures of one channel. This was not surprising as someone had stolen the cable between the TV and the aerial plug. Still, in the first room they tried to fob me off with in the Gulag, someone had stolen the telephone.

There were two beds the room, positioned head to toe and three sides of each one were black plastic, offsetting the tasteful red and black plastic chairs. The carpet was a decorous mustard in color - and probably flavour - and the curtains were olive green. There was a balcony (Good for trainspotters) from where I could watch the locals watching their black & white TVs. The "minibar" was spectacular. It had egg racks, salad drawers and was warmer inside than out. I could have slept in it.

The best news was that there was a Gideons Bible at hand which meant that I could - at least - marvel at the wonderful differences that exist between the European languages. The German section of this trilingual New Testament was 338 pages; the Hungarians finished off the same Chapter and Verse in 276 pages while the English language raced through to just 220.

Perhaps, I thought, this explains why Germany doesn't have any F1 teams. In the time it takes the Germans to waffle through all the necessary planning to start a team, the English would have discussed the project and built the car as well.

The strangest thing about Hungary is that the language is a complete oddity and bears no relation to those in the countries around it. The closest relative in linguistic terms is, apparently, Finnish. This must explain the large numbers of Finnish fans who turned up in Budapest this year to cheer on those well-known enemies Mika H and Mika S. The vast numbers of Schumacher fans may have dominated the flag-waving but there were a goodly number of light blue and white crosses out there as well.

In the end I got back into the Inside Out Hotel only to have my nights disturbed by groaning Finns demonstrating to Hungarian ladies the fact that they have higher sperm counts than the rest of the world.

"It is because we live in a refrigerator," a Finnish journalist told me when the news of this strange phenomenon first appeared in the British newspapers some weeks ago...

Judging by the nocturnal activities in the Inside Out Hotel the Finns were actively engaged in empire-building, a sort of reverse procedure to "ethnic cleansing", which might be described graphically as "ethnic grubbying". It sounded pretty grubby to me!

Despite the best efforts of the Finns, however, the dominant race in Hungary this year were the Germans and while everyone seemed to think when we arrived in Budapest this year everyone was happily explaining that this would be the last Hungarian Grand Prix - that happens every year - and yet, as the meeting progressed, it became clear that the Hungarians had never had such large numbers of rich fans rushing in to spend money. The local government thus declared itself to be interested in coughing up a few more million dollars to keep the race coming for another three or four years.

The truth is that if there is a Hungarian GP in the future it will thanks to one man - Michael Schumacher. His fans have saved the race from extinction. The problem with Hungary - apart from access roads which almost rank with Silverstone - is that overtaking is ridiculously difficult. The circuit needs a decent straight to enable cars to pass one another and make it racing rather than a high speed convoy.

With the current technical regulations overtaking has become a problem at most circuits. This year we have watched countless cars travelling two or even three seconds a lap faster than those in front until they arrive behind another car - at which point they are stuck until a pit stop releases them again. Cars which do not qualify well - such as Olivier Panis's Ligier - may be quick but they cannot show it while slow race cars - like the McLarens - can troll around holding up those behind them.

As the TV audience of F1 grows the demand to produce good racing is becoming an issue. This summer's races have, by and large, ensured that everyone watching TV snoozes off after the first five laps. F1 does not want to gain the reputation of being an effective tranquilizer and so the FIA has set about trying to find a way to make the cars more exciting to watch.

At the moment cars cannot pass because as soon as they get close to the car in front they lose a large percentage of their aerodynamic downforce, become unstable and drop back. The simple solution is to rip off more wings, but teams will not agree to this was because it cuts back on the area they can sell to their sponsors.

In the turbo era or early in the normally-aspirated years, engine outputs were widely different. Today's V10s are so highly-developed that there is little differential between them and so cars cannot simply blow past rivals on power alone.

The FIA research program - being undertaken by Professor John Harvey at the Honda windtunnel at London's Imperial College - which is designed to study the behavior of cars running behind one another is looking for a way in which to make overtaking easier by making the cars less aerodynamically sensitive without increasing speeds above 1996 levels.

Teams argue that there are more important issues in F1 at the moment, but I don't agree. The study needs to find answers because otherwise people will start turning off their TVs and give up going to races.

F1 team bosses are notoriously uncaring about spectators, but there are times when they should stop looking only as far as the ends of their wallets and recognize that something needs to be done.

If not Budapest will have less people in the city, causing traffic jams and stealing hotel rooms, but they will find themselves nodding off on the pit wall.

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