GLOBETROTTER

How not to keep a low profile in F1

I am a great believer in journalists remaining anonymous figures. No-one really gives a damn what the face at the top of the column looks like - and the photos published rarely look like the people concerned (most are several years old and the grey hairs and crow's feet have been carefully removed). The only thing that matters is whether or not the column is a good read. Besides, "star" journalists have this ghastly tendency to develop Zeppelin-like egos and are soon complaining that everyone in F1 - apart from them - gets to travel first class and it just isn't right.

Famous journalists, I always argue, are at a disadvantage to those who can slip through the crowds without being recognized. It is not that one doesn't want to stop and chat with the enthusiasts, it is just that in the recent years - as F1 has boomed - time has become so precious for F1 pressmen that one cannot afford to waste it. The modern F1 stars - drivers and team bosses - have so many things to do that they have very little time available to talk to the press and when they do their PR people advise them that it is more efficient if they speak to television people because the microphone touters have bigger audiences than the average writer. All the top teams now have people employed to screen people trying to talk to drivers to ensure that drivers are not snowed-under by the media. These folk are usually very polite and very keen to please but they are there to block and block they do. One of them (who had best remain nameless) is nicknamed "Two Shoes" by the mechanics of the team with which his driver works because, they say, that is all you can ever see of the man in question because he is so closely involved with his driver. I won't go into the anatomical details...

Away from the paddock most of the "stars" of F1 can go about their business unmolested because very few people actually know who they are. It is only the really big stars who are mobbed by soppy race fans wherever they go. Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher cannot do much without people spotting them and Jacques Villeneuve apparently spends his life locked away in hotel rooms to avoid being torn limb from limb by screaming, dribbling teenage girls.

For the rest of the field - who dream about teenaged girls - life is very quiet unless they put on their overalls and people realize that they are stars. A couple of years ago I remember seeing David Coulthard wandering around the streets of Montreal the day after the race - in which he had finished second - and no-one paid any attention to him. If he had done the same wearing his racing overalls I am sure there would have been a riot as people tried to get his autograph.

These days almost everyone in Formula 1 wears a uniform - probably so they will be recognized. The team members all wander around looking like ice cream men, the FIA men wear uniform, so do the FOCA TV crews, even the Paddock Club bouncers have uniforms. The photographers are now issued with identical jackets, numbered on the back, so that they all look vaguely the same and if they get up to any mischief they can be spotted by eagle-eyed FIA observers and have their wrists smacked.

"Come in number 456. You're for high jump." That sort of thing.

Nowadays the different TV companies involved are beginning to put their people in uniform as well and I have even seen sponsor guests all dressed in the same gear. There is not much individuality left. Except, of course, in the press corps the members of which wander around the paddock looking messy. Because we are not lined up like a box of lead soldiers the F1 folk think we are a slovenly bunch - which I suppose we are.

A couple of years ago I got into a discussion on this subject with McLaren boss Ron Dennis, who was going on about the need for pressmen to tidy themselves up.

One can only take so much of this sort of thing and finally I remarked that if he improved the quality of wine served at the team motorhome I would make an effort to look tidy.

I would wear a dinner suit if he would supply me with Chateau Petrus. Ron agreed - obviously having too much money to know what to do with it all. And so it was that on Friday, August 13 1993, I turned up at the TAG Motorhome, in stifling heat, in full evening dress.

Ron was as good as his word. He had sent off a man to buy some Chateau Petrus - all he could find was 1969, which was not a good year - and that cost Ronzo a couple of hundred dollars. It was all jolly fun. It was so hot that day that when Ron offered me a second bottle if I stayed in the gear all day I had to refuse.

The funny thing was that no-one paid much attention to a journalist in a DJ. I guess there are often waiters popping about in the paddock so a DJ was not that unusual, but whatever the case no-one paid me much attention.

Thus I was rather surprised when I arrived in Buenos Aires that wherever I went in the paddock people kept photographing me and asking me to smile into television cameras. How odd, I thought, that after all these years I should suddenly become a celebrity. It was rather fun, actually. Everyone likes to be noticed - whether they admit it or not and some of us are so unused to the attention that we are not bored by it.

The reason for my instant stardom was that I was wearing a rather silly hat. When I took the hat off everyone ignored me as usual. Mad-cap millinery is not unusual in F1. Marshals always wear silly hats and no-one pays any attention to them. The reason that my hat was in the spotlight was that it was as much a political statement as it was a means of covering the head. It was half Goodyear blue and half Bridgestone red. It said "Goodstone" on the front.

To explain, I should perhaps point out that for the last four years I have worn Goodyear hats to keep the sun off my head. Goodyear was the only company in the paddock which had a ready supply of hats which no-one complained about. If you wore a hat with any sponsorship on it, everyone in the paddock assumed that you were in the pay of the sponsor in question - and that meant that as a journalist one was able to collect fewer stories, because people do not speak freely if they think that what they say is being reported back to rival teams. The paddock is a diplomatic minefield.

A few years back I tried wearing a hat given to me by the Hoosier Tire Company - which has never been involved in F1. I was nearly machine-gunned by a man from Goodyear, because at the time Goodyear and Hoosier were at war in NASCAR racing.

A Goodyear hat in the F1 paddock was a neutral way to cover one's head - a sort of Formula 1 United Nations helmet.

This worked fine until Bridgestone decided to enter F1 and start a tire war. Goodyear was no longer an option. In Australia the Goodyear men tried to lure me to their side with hats. I had to explain that it was nothing personal but that a chap could no longer be seen in Goodyear gear. But what could you do? There is no other obvious product in F1 which everybody uses. I am sure there are a few grommet-making companies which enjoy F1 monopolies but none of them ever gave me a hat.

I wandered around Melbourne looking for suitable headgear and very nearly bought one with "FBI" printed on the front. In the end I decided that perhaps there would be people in the paddock who would run away if someone with FBI on his hat arrived in the garage.

And then it struck me. In a war you are safest if you appear to be sanctioned by both sides and I concluded that the best course of action was to have a Goodstone or a Bridgeyear hat.

After Brazil I spent a very dull morning picking apart a Goodyear cap and then a Bridgestone one. I discovered that they have two different constructions and that Goodyear builds a much better quality hat. When I mentioned this down at Bridgestone I was told that this was because the company puts all of its money into tire development rather than hat design and that results would soon prove that a good hat was not essential for winning.

I then got a friend of mine to put it all back together again so that the two halfs became one hat. It was a great feat of needle engineering.

I offered to loan my hat to a number of team bosses who are perhaps in a quandary about what to do about tires. Half of them want to stay with Goodyear. The other half wants to cut and run to Bridgestone.

I have no idea what it is they put in Goodyear contracts - they are probably as tough as the hats - but the team bosses who are thinking most about switching to Bridgestone seem a little scared at the possible legal bills and punitive damages that leaving Goodyear might occasion. The men from Akron say that their reaction to defectors with contracts would be "robust".

But, at the same time, in Argentina we had a Prost looking like it was going to beat a Williams... and all the team bosses know that while the Prost may be a good car, it was not that great last year on Goodyears. If you put Bridgestones on a Benetton or a Ferrari they might instantly become Williams-whippers.

As the rushed off to fight over places in First Class - there were one too many millionaires booked for the seats available on the British Airways flight home on Sunday night - they knew that in the days that followed Goodyear's counter-attack would begin with a new range of tires being tested at Barcelona.

I would not like to have to choose - and that's why I have a silly hat...

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