Target Silverstone and other travel tales

Silverstone is usually a Grand Prix meeting dominated by travel adventure stories. One would have thought that after so many years the circuit authorities might have been able to perfect the access roads into the old airfield but the British love of muddling through (the evacuation at Dunkirk, the 1966 World Cup Final and the Williams team all being good examples of this phenomenon) means that each year in July one goes to Silverstone expecting to spend time in traffic jams. A lot of the visiting reporters from the Continent think that it would be a good idea to bomb the old air base.

There are two ways to handle the problem: one can accept it or one can arm yourself with a map table, intercom system, thermos flasks and a precious childhood toy which you can cuddle when it all gets to be too much and you are left sucking your thumb and moaning quietly as some twerp in dayglow yellow jacket tells you that you cannot go down that particular road.

Over the years I have tried every road in and around Silverstone. I have tried lanes, footpaths and even fields but breaking into Fortress Silverstone is still a nightmare. It is such a shame because I am rather fond of the area. Early on a summer's morning (and it has to be if you want any chance of getting into the track) the glades are gleaming and all seems perfect in a peaceful world, full of little bunny rabbits and pheasants which are not being pursued by members of the Conservative Party.

When you eventually get into the press room it's a different story. Out there journalists are missing in the traffic queues.

"Freddy didn't make this morning," we whisper in clipped tones. "Poor chap. He was a good sport."

Around midday a few stragglers will arrive with tales of being jumped by Dutch caravans or of bailing out near Whittlebury and having to walk home. There is also flak to be avoided from visiting Hill fans in the Dadford Corridor.

Every so often it is my turn to get stuck. One year I was stuck in a jam seven miles out and needed to be at the circuit within 10 minutes. In desperation I flagged down a passing police motorcyclist explained the situation and flashed my pass.

"Follow me," he said with a wink and set off on the wrong side of the road, his blue lights flashing. My outrider took me all the way to the circuit gate and then with a cheery wave saw me off and turned on the 20 opportunists who had pulled out to follow us in the fast lane...

I am sure that over the years Silverstone planning bods have tried to improve things but financial restrictions and County Council windbags have made progress lamentably slow. The mythical Silverstone village by-pass is still a myth 10 years after it was first being mentioned.

This year the planners came up with a demon new idea, a secret fast road for passholders, which would cut through the chaos straight to the heart of the circuit. This involved going up a muddy track through the kind of woods where one might find Robin Hood lurking in the greenery. The only slight drawback was that to avoid Germans or whoever finding the road and blocking it with their caravans it was decided that there would be no signposting and that the staff should not be told where it was. It took us an hour to find on Thursday.

At the end of this adventure we concluded that Silverstone should just give up on its road system and buy a fleet of helicopters to ferry passholders in and out of the circuit. These choppers could be rented out for the rest of the year and the passholder car parks at the circuit could then be rented out to merchandisers and to hamburger salesmen.

There would be no shortage of takers for the space. Race fans like spending money. The 210,000 visitors to the Grand Prix weekend - just to give you an idea - eat 200,000 hamburgers between them during the four days of excitement. With a burger costing 1.90 and a bag of chips coming in at 1.10 the hamburger boys go home with about half a million quid without having to sell a single can of drink.

Such a shuttle service would instantly solve all of Silverstone's image problems and people would begin to notice that it really is a very successful place. It would also help to ensure that Silverstone retains the world record for being the world's busiest airport, which has been under threat of late from that other remote Grand Prix venue Magny-Cours.

The only problem then would be that the F1 paddock would have nothing much to talk about and would have to fall back on its "My worse trip was worse than your worst trip" competition which seems to bubble away when all the paddock gossip is exhausted.

One day, when Grand Prix racing has taken over the world a little more, I think I will have to write a book of Grand Prix travel disasters. Formula 1's Flying Flops. It would make extraordinary reading. There would be near-misses and lost luggage, diversions, cancellations, fog, the Brazilian airline VASP, internal flights in China and even in-flight barbecues by pilgrims on the way to Mecca.

These range from Mika Hakkinen's old habit of putting his passport in his suitcase and then checking it in before going through immigration to crash-landing helicopters in back gardens (a Jonathan Palmer speciality).

JP also holds the record for being the latest arrival for a departing flight, having had to knock on the door of the plane and ask to me admitted.

Most of us are not really that glamorous. We go to the airport on the wrong day or go to the wrong airport (if the city in question has two airports this is bound to happen). My own daft airport story was when I arrived in Paris Orly took a shuttle bus to a hotel at Charles de Gaulle and checked into the hotel in preparation for an early departure the following morning. At 0400 I woke up with the horrible realization that my plane was going out of Orly and that I had to go back from whence I had come.

When one travels as much as we do you get used to having to survive such things, just as one has to learn to live with leaving things at home and forgetting important things. One well-known Grand Prix person (who had best remain nameless) went to a dinner party the other year in London and when he left the event found that his car had disappeared. He reported this to the police force and claimed the insurance. He was somewhat taken aback a few months later when he visited the neighborhood again and found that his car was where he had left it originally - he had simply forgotten where it was parked.

When I go to a race I check only four things: passport, tickets, paddock pass and credit cards. If you have these four items you can survive virtually anything. Everything else can be replaced although we have all gone through weekends without sunglasses, without dress shoes (sneakers and a suit do look a bit odd but what the hell).

At Magny-Cours a few years ago I achieved the ultimate in forgetfulness when I managed to leave my entire suitcase at home when we drove to the French Grand Prix. The boot was so full of bags, buckets and spades and such things that the most important bag was left sitting on the driveway at my house. Luckily a housesitter thought to put it into the house and it was there when I got home, ready to be taken to the next race.

Mika Hakkinen was once in Macau for the Formula 3 race and being a Marlboro driver assumed that some flunky would look after his every need and simply left his bag sitting in the hotel foyer when it was time to jump on a bus going to the jetfoil and the airport.

When he got to Europe he wondered where it might have got to until he received a call asking if a Mr. Hakkinen would like to claim the bag that had been sitting around. That would not have happened at Silverstone this year, every bag in the paddock was instantly surrounded by bomb squad officers and dogs, looking in case there was a bomb inside. On Saturday morning Bernie's big grey bus was even cordoned off while the Bomb Boys x-rayed someone's sandwiches and found that they did not have "Made in Ireland" printed on the wrapper.

I am very pleased that the Bomb Squad was not at Estoril a few years ago when I somehow contrived to leave the press room late on Sunday night after the Portuguese GP and forgot to take my computer with me. I managed to retrieve it a few hours later and thankfully it had not been subjected to a controlled explosion.

There was another time when the brain failed completely and I forgot to take the name of the hotel at which I was staying with me to a race and I had to ask around if anyone knew where I was supposed to be. Another journalist found his hotel one year in Budapest and then went out and forgot to take note of what it was called and where it was located and was unable to remember a single thing to help the cab driver he hailed at the end of an evening's entertainment. He had to spend the night on someone's floor...

Still that was probably better than the day I turned up in Italy and checked into my hotel - only to discover that the secretary in the office had booked me into a restaurant for three consecutive nights. The establishment did not actually have any beds. I took a look at the pudding trolley and decided that it was probably time to look elsewhere for accommodation.

I reckon that the sooner Formula 1 gets floated and starts to diversify into shops, restaurants and hotels the easier life will be for those with such tendencies. We could have a huge great hotel in the middle of the Silverstone circuit and not have to worry about those wearying early morning starts and traffic jams in the bad old days at Silverstone...

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