Sweet and sour

"Who's that girl?"

I don't know how many times I was asked the same question at Monza and, after a while, I didn't even bother to turn around to look to see who it was that people were talking about. I knew.

"She's a student," I would reply. "She is doing a film and TV course and she is spending the summer working with the French TV channel as a researcher or something with their F1 operation. Jacques Laffite did tell me her name but I cannot remember what is was."

"She's very pretty," came the reply. "Lovely."

She was. And she knew it. It must be nice to be the prettiest girl in the Formula 1 paddock. There was a time, a few years ago, when that honor was seriously disputed at Monza. Supermodels would turn up, being shepherded around by sleazy looking men from the Balkans, and would strut around, wiggling whatever they had to wiggle, zapping passing innocent folk with smiles like X-rays. One could fall in love - or what passes for it these days - three times a day.

The introduction of the swipe card gates in the F1 paddock has caused the pretty girl quota to dive like an Asian currency. This year at Monza there were two or three raunchy little numbers who had somehow convinced someone - and I don't want to go into details - that they should be allowed into the paddock and, so as not to take up too much space in the car, had left most of their underwear behind. Classy, they were not, but clearly they had a fair grasp on the basics of the human reproductive processes.

There was a time when you went to Monza and found yourself drooling at herds - or whatever the collective noun is for such a thing - of startling women. Today the paddock is full of boffins getting lost between the pits and the motorhomes; there are scruffy journalists, hairy TV crews, paranoid team bosses and earnest marketing types. Just occasionally an over-dressed sponsor will be allowed in but they tend to get in the way and use up valuable passes.

In recent years the sport has gradually moved to wipe out anything vaguely colorful in the paddock. Monza held on, the Italians always somehow managing to arrange a few passes for the pretty people. Even when the swipe cards arrived last year Monza managed to maintain its atmosphere, thanks to the tifosi who would cling to the steel bars around the paddock - the chain link had to replaced because they used to use wirecutters to break in - and shout and scream at the stars.

This year they were gone, shunted away from the gates and the paddock was a poorer place as a result. A small section of fence was left open to them, down in the small square of shops at the back of the paddock. From here the fans could gawp and make contact with the F1 world. I spent a short time one day just watching their antics. Whenever a driver came within view they would shout his name and beg for autographs. The only man I saw who agreed to do it was Luca Badoer, but then he has nothing else to do at the moment. There was a steady stream of little boys who somehow managed to scale the steel bars and slither down into the inner sanctum. They remained at liberty for an average of 30secs before a big hairy guard arrived and marched them out of the paddock, and probably out of the autodromo, ignoring their pleas that all they really wanted to do was to get an autograph.

One has to question the philosophy of this sort of thing. I understand that if one creates the feeling than an F1 paddock is somehow an exclusive place, one creates a demand which can be translated into the sale of a T-shirt. There is no doubt that the spectators get a much better deal around the track: with diamond vision screens and improved spectator positions and everyone generally goes home talking about the speed and the violence of the cars and how exciting it was when all the engines screamed at the start. But the people have absolutely no contact with the drivers.

Let us not get carried away thinking that it was very different in the past. When I was a spectator 15 years ago the only drivers I ever saw were through chain-link fences. You could buy a pitlane walkabout ticket but the drivers were never in the garages. Getting autographs was just as hard as it is today.

Perhaps the stars of today can get away with being on television a lot but I cannot see it does any harm for the circuits to organize a place - as happened at Silverstone - where they can spend a few minutes signing autographs for the fans. And they should be made to do so.

If there was one lesson to be learned from the amazing outpourings of grief which surrounded the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, it was that she had the common touch and could appeal to vast numbers of people who had never met her but for some reason felt that they knew her. The only thing common about most of the drivers today is their background.

The paddock at Monza was, as one would expect, completely dominated by conversations about the goings-on in London. On Friday a debate raged as to whether or not the sport should make a public gesture to mark the funeral of Diana on Saturday morning. Motor racing people are hard and for many in F1 the outpouring of emotion in Britain at the death of the Princess was hard to comprehend. It started as a shock but the grief seemed to snowball and become an avalanche that it became impossible to ignore. Probably some day - when it has all died down - some worthy sociologist will explain the phenomenon. Perhaps they will say it was a nationalistic thing, an outpouring of grief like that in Brazil after Ayrton Senna died. Perhaps they will conclude that anyone who ever bought a magazine with her picture inside felt a little to blame for the fact that she died being chased by photographers.

Some in the paddock felt that it was not for the sport to react as a whole, but rather for each individual to do as they felt fit.

"I have been in F1 for a very long time," said one team owner on Friday evening. "I have seen my share of death and I know that grief is a very private thing. I am not going to make any public gesture - and I expect I will be criticized for it but who is to say that I am not going to go to church on Saturday morning and say my own prayers for Diana?"

But World Champion Damon Hill felt that something should happen and wrote to the teams on Friday asking them to join him in a gesture.

"In 1994 I was presented the winner's trophy at the British Grand Prix by Diana, Princess of Wales. I was particularly proud of that victory and I felt that her presence on the podium was a tribute to British motorsport.

"In this very sad moment, I would like to pay my respects to her memory. Tomorrow I will stand in the pitlane for one minute of silence in her memory. I invite all of my British fellow competitors and anyone else who wants to join to do the same."

And so it was that at midday on Saturday, as the TV screens were beaming pictures of the funeral in London, Damon and hundreds of other F1 people gathered outside the Arrows pit. All along the pitlane members of other teams stopped work and came out into the pitlane to pass a minute in silence. Up in the grandstands even the Italians rose to their feet. It was a touching moment and, as it turned out, a dignified way for the sport to express itself.

I stayed silent for that minute - not because I had any particular feelings for the Princess - but because it was a moment to remember absent friends, a few fleeting moments in which to put things into perspective and recall the bright and beautiful people who have gone before they should have done. It is sad that it should be so but it is a part of life.

In motor racing one has to expect that some of those involved will die young. The drivers accept it and believe - as we all do in life - that it will always be someone else who gets hit by lightning or has an accident.

It was during that minute of silence that I realized that just across the race track from the Arrows pit, where today there is a grandstand, a fine racing driver called Emilio Materassi crashed in the summer of 1928. His car somersaulted off the track and he was killed. So too were 27 people in the crowd, making it the worst accident in motor racing history until the Le Mans disaster of 1955.

Motor racing has forgotten the dead of 1928. In the rush to remember the Princess motor racing had forgotten that Monza was once the worst killing field of them all in our sport.

You have only to walk in the woods of the park to feel the ghosts of the racers. Some are vague memories to the fans: Alberto Ascari, Wolfgang Von Trips, Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson. Others have long since been forgotten: Luigi Arcangeli, Giuseppe Campari, Baconin Borzacchini, Count Stanislas Czaykowski, Count Zobrowski... the list goes on and on. It is frightening.

And yet, on a clear day, with the mountains visible in the distance, away beyond the Curva Grande and the old banking, there is something about Monza which lifts it above all the other race tracks. If motor racing has a soul, this is where it can be found.

And while it was right for us to mark the passing of the Princess of Wales; it is perhaps a good moment to remember others as well.

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