The human face of F1

William Taylor thought it was Christmas. The 17-year-old from Towcester was wandering around the Formula 1 paddock in Suzuka looking as though he had been hit by a bolt of lightning.

Taylor is a big Damon Hill fan - literally he weighs 17 stone - and for the last year or so he has spent his time making sure that Damon feels wanted by waving a Union Jack wherever he can. He is always at Silverstone.

"He's been waving that flag for every lap that I have driven in over a year," Damon told the press in Silverstone, "in testing and racing, wet weather, cold weather, sunshine or wind. Every lap I go past he waves that flag. He's a bloody maniac really."

Taylor went to Estoril hoping to see Hill win the Championship there. He was not going to be able to afford a ticket to Japan and so he wished Damon luck in Portugal and asked him to win the title there if at all possible. As we know Damon did not win and, feeling that Taylor deserved the opportunity to see him do it, arranged for William to be sent an airline ticket to Japan.

Just occasionally one hears such nice stories in Formula 1, which too often is a world where everyone is too busy slitting each other's throats and back-stabbing. If there are nice things they are usually publicity stunts and it is rare to see spontaneous kindness. Normally team owners are too busy trying to make millions to care and drivers are too wrapped up in their careers to care about anyone else.

Michael Schumacher recently went to Serbia on behalf of UNESCO, an organization for which he is an international ambassador, and the World Champion seemed rather shocked by what he had seen.

I remember back at Imola in 1994 talking on the Friday with Roland Ratzenberger about F1. Roland was old enough to know just how important F1 was in the real world.

"The serious business is a couple of hundred miles to the east of here," he said. "In Bosnia. This is just a game."

A day later this charming and intelligent man died at the wheel of his racing car.

Roland spent a lot of his career in Japan and, like many others who went to race in Japan, became a wiser and more balanced man from the experience. Being a European in Japan is very frustrating, but there is always lots of laughter to offset the pain. My first visit was 11 years ago and I went on a bus to Mount Fuji, communicating to the driver by forming a triangle with my arms and saying "Fuji" several times over. We drove down the motorway from Tokyo and I looked out of the window looking for the perfectly shaped Mt. Fuji and he smiled and shook his head, either because he thought I was completely mad or to tell me that I still had some way to go. He told me when the get off the bus and I was horror struck that I couldn't see a mountain at all. One rarely can. They say it is a lucky day when you can see Mt. Fuji through the clouds.

Trying to cope with Japanese ways is not always easy for F1 folk for it is the strangest of all the flyaway races. When we first started visiting Japan we were called "aliens". We felt like it. At the time Japan was not a country geared to foreigners. That is changing but it is still very different. This means that the F1 circus tends to draw closer together. Everyone is a long way from home.

Over the years the closeness one gets in Japan has been nurtured by long nights at the legendary Log Cabin bar where most people have a drink or two during the Grand Prix weekend; by long rides through traffic jams on coaches from outlying hotels and by strange meals in restaurants where no-one understands a word anyone is saying. You find yourself meeting other who are lost in the massive stations in Tokyo and Osaka and helping each other find the way to your destination.

The Japanese culture may be strange but they love Formula 1. The passion for the sport was extraordinary. One year there were seven million applications for the 150,000 available tickets. The spectators were so dedicated that hundreds would sit in the grandstands in the dark, staring at nothing in the pitlane.

Times have changed. The economy is not in as good a shape as once it was. Football has grown into today's passion. Honda pulled out of F1 and then the demigod Ayrton Senna was killed. There is a still a large and well-informed fan population and all the tickets for the Grand Prix are sold bit it is not the same...

The F1 circus does not actually mind as the fans were so enthusiastic in the old days that it was dangerous. Drivers used to helicopter in from the Suzuka Circuit Hotel, 300m from the track, to avoid being mobbed. JJ Lehto once told me that he had tried to get to the paddock on a motorcycle and had fans trying to jump onto the bike with him. On one or two occasions I recall ending up as a bouncer, helping a driver through a crowd of hyper-ventilating fans.

This camaraderie is a pleasant change. It feels sometimes like the old days in the junior formulae when racing journalists and pressmen had time to become friends and had endless adventures.

The F1 paddock pulled together at Suzuka on Saturday when six members of the MSL Catering team, which feeds many team people in the paddock, were involved in a nasty road accident. Returning from the circuit late at night in a minibus they had to avoid a local coming out of a turning without looking properly. The minibus hit the central reservation and rolled before being hit by another car. Two of the team were very seriously injured and all suffered head injuries.

In the paddock the next morning everyone available joined in to help MSL produce breakfast for the troops. Photographers were doing the washing-up (something which one would suggest is a rare thing even at home!), the BBC producer was making sandwiches, BBC pitlane commentator Tony Jardine was spotted cutting up tomatoes - very badly, according to paddock catering aces - PR ladies were cooking bacon and even one of the F1 marketing managers was involved in producing breakfast.

The accident cast a shadow over the meeting but gave evidence that for most people in F1 it is more than a business. It is a shared passion. It is fun.

I have always believed that in the paddock there is an expert in everything if you know where to look. There are brilliant academics, marketers, there are brilliant chefs and nutritionists, there are artists and painters, there are dancers and brain surgeons. The drivers are just the tip of an iceberg of multi-faceted talent.

If you have a problem there is always a way to solve it. You just have to know who to ask. A few years ago I made a very rash bet that Benetton would not finish 1-2 in Japan. It was the year that Senna and Prost sailed off at the first corner, Berger went off on their sand and Nigel Mansell turned his Ferrari driveshafts into corkscrews by accelerating too fast out of the Ferrari pit. And through the carnage came the two Benettons of Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno (Nelson's protege). They were tears in parc ferme that day and there were nearly tears when I remembered my bet. I had said that I would learn to tap-dance if Benetton finished 1-2 in Japan. Benetton later presented me with a pair of tap-shoes painted up in team colors. I have them in pride of place in my study at home. One was signed by Nelson, the other by Roberto. I wondered how I would learn to dance and discovered that the Ford PR lady was an expert...

I am ashamed to admit that I did not get further than a few basic steps - one of the metal attachments on the bottom of one of the shoes fell off - and I never did learn.

One can learn many things in a career in F1: languages, driving tips, you name it. The most useful thing I think - and one of the most enjoyable I have to say - was how to get to sleep when suffering from jet-lag.

Anyone in Formula 1 will tell you that going to Japan is usually the worst visit of the year when it comes to jet-lag, that evil phenomenon which wakes the dead at five every morning and leaves them bright as a button until the afternoon when they have to battle eyelids which weigh a ton apiece.

Grand Prix people like to think they are superhuman but the human body does not always agree with them. Man was not made to switch around between the time zones. If evolution had taken that into account we would all have been born with jet engines on our backs and long pointy noses to make us more aerodynamically-efficient.

You find yourself up at five o'clock in the morning in a hotel room which is barely larger than your suitcase. I have learned over the years that the best thing to do at such times is not to try and sleep but rather to get up and start typing on the computer. The most important thing is to eat chocolate. Chocolate is good for you. They always give chocolate to soldiers about to go to war and depressed ladies find themselves drawn to chocolate boxes when their dog, daddy or dandy has run off with someone else. Chocolate contains a wonderful chemical with a very long name which sounds like an F1 fuel additive. I used to have it written down somewhere for moments like this but I have lost it somewhere in the sections of the computer where virtual spiders weave cobweb sites.

I learned the chocolate trick from an osteopath who used to work on occasion in F1. They called him Dr. Spock and he was asked by someone or other to find ways to improve driver performance by investigating such things as seat design, steering position and high-energy drinks. One day he explained to me that if I was tired and wanted to stay awake that I should not eat chocolate - as people do - but rather than I should walk around the hotel room, do a few exercises and re-oxygenate the blood. Chocolate perks you up but few minutes later the body reacts and produces insulin to deal with the high blood sugar level. And then your circulation slows down and before you know it - boom - you are asleep again.

You learn something every day!

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