Boys, babies, boxheads and betrayals

On the flight to Sydney the plane on which I was flying hit bad turbulence, they often do when you get out of Singapore and head south-east through the tropical nasties above Indonesia towards Australia. In the old days this was a much-feared part of the world and the pioneer flyers would arrive in northern Australia with fearful stories of being pitched around the sky by plane-eating clouds. Some never turned up at all and disappeared into the shark-infested seas or the jungles full of head-hunters with luncheon vouchers.

This was why Amy Johnson, a Yorkshire lass barely out of her teens, became such a famous international celebrity when she arrived in Australia in a flimsy old biplane. Marvellous people, those pioneers. I was thinking about such heroes when suddenly the cabin address system crackled and the pilot began to talk, sounding as smooth and cool as Chuck Yeager in a flat spin - a voice which all airline pilots seem to have perfected.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen," he said. "Sorry to disturb your sleep but I thought you might like to know that we have a little problem with the electrical system of the plane. We've lost all power to the controls. The engines are working fine but if we hit turbulence we will probably go completely out of control and plummet to the ground or into the water - it doesn't matter much. You're going to be dead. So if you would like to use your mobile phones to call your nearest and dearest please feel free to do so. It is not going to make any difference with the navigation system. Normally we would suggest that you adopt the crash position but really that is totally pointless, so sit back, relax and enjoy the in-flight programming. I'll see if we can get the cabin staff to lay on another drinks service."

There was a stunned silence in the cabin.

And then, at the back of the plane there was a kerfuffle. A gorgeous woman rose from her seat and began tearing off her clothes.

"Before I die I want to be loved," she said. "I need a real man to make me feel like a real woman!"

A couple of seats in front of her, a man got up, tore of his shirt and threw it at her.

"Here love," he said in a broad Australian accent. "You can iron this..."

This was a joke doing the rounds in the Formula 1 paddock in Melbourne and to a large extent typifies the view of Australia held by the Grand Prix circus and most of the world.

There are, my Australian mates like to argue, quite a lot of SNAGs these days - Sensitive New Age Guys - but when you ask them if they are have SNAG tendencies they deny it frantically. Australian girls say that in order to exhibit SNAG behavior, an Australian man must be locked in a room without other Australian males. He will then become suddenly thoughtful, decent and affectionate.

"That's only because there's no bloke to have a drink with," said an Australian colleague when I asked him to explain the phenomenon.

To be honest I don't want to get into a fight over whether all this true or not, but it was interesting to see the reactions in Melbourne to Michael Schumacher's remarkably sensitive comments about what it feels like to become a father for the first time.

"Did you listen to all that mumbo-jumbo about popping sprogs?" someone said. "He's going soft."

For anyone who has been through the experience his words were a poignant reminder of one of the most overpowering and yet difficult to explain feelings which exist. I remember how I felt but ask me to put it into words and I could not do it.

Schumacher has been working hard on his public image in recent years - having been cast as the villain since the dodgy Benetton goings-on of 1994. I have to admit that I was never really convinced by his adopting stray Brazilian dogs and becoming an international ambassador for UNESCO. I am cynic. To be able to talk as he did, however, one has to know and understand the feelings and so I guess I must have been wrong about him. Maybe he is a good bloke after all - as well as being bloody quick.

What will be interesting is to discover if becoming a father will affect Michael's ability to go fast in a racing car. The theory in Grand Prix racing is that if a driver has kids before he arrives in F1 he does not slow down as new ones are born, but if he goes into baby production while he is still active in the sport he loses a second per lap per kid because he is suddenly aware of his responsibilities as a parent. Judging by qualifying in Melbourne the scale of the responsibility has not yet held him back although he did seem rather subdued than his brother Ralf, who drove around looking like an accident about to happen - which meant that lots of German pressmen were able to make "Ach" and "Ja" noises.

The Schumacher Brothers and Heinz-Harald Frentzen have meant a sharp growth in German interest in F1 racing. The Grand Prix press room these days is beginning to sounds like a run on the Frankfurt stock exchange and the local media - who like to refer to the German visitors as "boxheads" - found the growth rate rather alarming.

In fact the whole of F1 is growing at an impressive rate. The circus seems to be bigger and richer than ever. When we get back to Europe we will see the new generation of F1 motorhomes - none of them costing less than $600,000 to build. Grand Prix racing is booming and teams are growing so fast that it is sucking in people from all the other formulae: ITC, Formula 3000, Indycars and even touring cars. In recent months the staff at Jordan has increased by 30%; Arrows has added 25% and will add probably another 75% in the months ahead; Prost will double in size in the next year and Stewart will add probably 50% to the existing crew. Is there no end to this growth? Experienced F1 race engineers are now so scarce that they are being paid US$225,000 a year.

There is a limited pool of skilled engineers available but the growth rates will probably continue because in the next few months there are expected to be major cuts in the automotive industry in Europe. The car companies are producing too many cars for the markets. In the days before the Australian GP Renault announced that it was going to have to lay off 6000 workers in France and Belgium and other manufacturers will have to follow suit - whether the unions like it or not.

The unions in Melbourne were to play a major role in this year's event, the transport strike making it very difficult for thousands of spectators to get to and from Albert Park. Being close to the center of the city, the GP was always designed to be an event which relied heavily on public transportation. There was very little parking foreseen - in an effort to keep down the disruption which local residents would have to be subjected to.

As a visiting Pom I found it impossible to understand what the union officials thought they would achieve with a strike. What did the unionists gain from making life difficult for everyone? It was a gift for the local government. They happily told everyone that the unions had betrayed Melbourne and that the race would not be able to break even this year because there would be a major impact on ticket sales. That means that it is the Melbourne taxpayer who will have to foot the bill.

Perhaps the race would have lost money anyway. Who knows? But now Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and his staff cannot be blamed for that. The government has someone to blame. The transport strike might have pleased the pathetic number of Save Albert Park protesters who still exist. Their continued publicity stunts means that the Grand Prix organizers have to waste money on extra security measures. The movement has become an embarrassing joke for the city, but still gets lots of coverage because news is not made by thousands of people who accept that the Grand Prix in Albert Park is a really great idea for the city but rather by a few whingers who refuse to accept the event.

The local newspapers didn't need the protesters to fill their columns, they made it up as they went along, in particular when they created a media storm over comments which Michael Schumacher made about the track. He said it was a little bit boring - which it is - but then Melbourne's special events chief Ron Walker went to town abusing Schumacher for being a primadonna and a wimp. It was totally silly.

Former Grand Prix driver John Watson - who is now a television commentator - managed to give the media men a bit of their own medicine when he whispered to a pair of reporters who were getting excited about the furore that the reason Michael had been critical of the circuit was because he was a leading member of the Green Party in Germany and was actually a secret supporter of the Save Albert Park movement.

One of the scribes was so taken in by this story that he rushed off to check it out with Michael's press spokesman only to discover that he had a rather large amount of egg on his face.

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