Men of vision

Well, thank you Bernie. That was a very pleasant week. It was so nice to be able to do a little pottering about between races. Having back-to-back Grands Prix used to be one of the pleasures of the busy F1 season, offering the opportunity of a few days of rest wherever we were in the world. Today, of course, the concept of having a break confuses some members of the F1 fraternity who think that one must always be running to catch a helicopter with a briefcase in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. Running around in circles is their favorite kind of exercise and I have to say that whenever I see these folk I am struck by an intense urge to quote Sharon Stone. "Get a life!"

Any sensible folk took a break between the Austrian and Luxembourgeois GP. We left Zeltweg - or Spielberg are we supposed to call it these days - with no real plans beyond the vague idea of going to see Schloss Neuschwanstein, the extraordinary castle built by the barking mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria at the end of the last century. If you have trouble conjuring up the image of the place just think about the castle in the 1960s musical car movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or the building which inspired Walt Disney to build the Magic Kingdom.

You can say many things about Mad King Ludwig but after a trip around the castle, one has to conclude that he was a man if vision. There is a fine line between being a visionary and being a lunatic.

One could argue (and if you do not agree please do not write complaining letters) that Adolf Hitler was a man of vision because he built the German motorway system - down which we hurtled with some efficiency.

Our trip from Austria to the Nurburgring was full of monuments to men of vision: from those who built the bridges and dug the tunnels through the Alpine passes to the vast Zeppelin sheds at Frederickhafen, the cradle of the German aviation industry. Up in the Black Forest some bright spark had even come up with the idea of creating employment by declaring the area the capital of clock-making.

Funnily enough, the one place where we saw no sign of any vision at all was in the little village of Frankenstein, which is dominated by an old ruined castle, presumably once owned by Count Frankenstein.

One would have thought that such a place would have attracted busloads of Japanese tourists and little old German ladies with blue rinses, who now seem to jam every tourist attraction from Hamburg to Botswana, buying horrid china thimbles and teacups with pictures of cocker spaniels stamped upon them. In Frankenstein, however, we found not a single postcard; nor a T-shirt nor even a china thimble. It was most bizarre.

I thought for a moment of becoming the visionary of Frankenstein; of stopping for 10 years to rebuild the ruin and then settle back and collect Deutsche marks from the blue rinse armies. One can only presume that there is no tourist trade in the town because the Germans consider that Frankenstein was a literary character.

In my experience that has never really stood in the way of the tourist industry. If there is no celebrity on which to build a local tourist attraction one simply has to adopt one. The best example of this I know is that town of Bergerac in France, a scenic spot on the Dordogne River with a few vineyards and a pretty grotty tobacco museum. If you ask the average man on the street about Bergerac, he will probably say something about a detective series on TV. He might mention the name Cyrano de Bergerac, famous nasally-challenged poet and duellist. This gentleman caught the attention of the tourist authorities of the town and they up a statue to the hero. Today, ladies with blue rinses and Japanese folk drop by and have their photographs taken with Cyrano. They go home happy, blissfully unaware that Cyrano de Bergerac had absolutely nothing to do with the town of Bergerac and never even visited the place. He lived up near Paris.

Things are not always as they seem. Which brings me, in a round about way to the Nurburgring - a visionary project in itself - dreamed up by the governor of the region, Dr. Otto Creutz, in 1925. As any race fan knows this monument to automotive madness (and cheap labour) is to be found in the picturesque Eifel mountains of Germany. Since it opened in 1927 "The Ring" has been a part of motor racing folklore and for many years was the home of the German Grand Prix.

It was, therefore, rather strange to discover that, when no-one was looking, the Nurburgring sneaked 50 miles to the West and settled in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Either that or those canny Luxembourgeois have invaded a chunk of Germany without anyone getting annoyed.

Still motor racing has a history of such curious phenomena: the San Marino GP is held every year in Italy and is governed by Italian law - as we are currently finding out in court in Imola. Fifteen years ago the Swiss Grand Prix was held at Dijon in France but as Swiss law bans motor racing, this must have been held under French law.

It is therefore odd that cars running at the Nurburgring were all running with tobacco advertising - which is banned in Germany but allowed in Luxembourg...

The question of a Pan-European ban on tobacco advertising is expected to come up at the next Council of Ministers and the decisions made could have a profound effect on the shape of F1 in the future. Already there are such problems with France over TV issues and television that there is no French GP listed on the provisional F1 calendar for next year. The French will probably say that this is because the traditional date clashes with the World Cup, which is being held in France

This would be a shame because France has a great heritage in racing. It was the cradle of the sport and all the great early racing events were organized from Paris to other European cities. The first Grand Prix was held at Le Mans in 1906.

I am sure that when the calendar becomes official, there will be an uproar in France and the government will come under pressure to back down. The same happened last year but everything was compromised away and nothing has really changed. I get the feeling that this year there will be no compromise and France will be out - as a lesson to all those countries which do not want to do as the FIA would like them to.

The fact that F1 can boss around governments is a sign of the strength of our sport but if there have been one weakness in recent years it has been the failure of Grand Prix racing to succeed in the United States of America.

F1 was simply too demanding for any American promoter to risk putting on a race. People in America were just not interested and F1 was asking too much money. The recent announcement that Sylvester Stallone is planning to make a film about Grand Prix racing will change all that, which is the best possible news for the sport.

Films may have global appeal but most of the movies made in America are aimed first and foremost at the home audience and with a star of Stallone's stature and modern technology available for special effects, the film should be a big success in the US. As film-making these days is aimed as much at merchandising as at ticket sales, the film will stimulate enormous interest in Grand Prix racing and it is no coincidence that suddenly there is talk of Grands Prix being held at Road Atlanta and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These races would be there to exploit the interest created by the film and to put F1 back on the map in America. All this should happen in the next couple of years: the plan is for the film to appear in 1999 and there are plans for races later that same year. In all probability, however, things will not be in place before the year 2000.

What F1 needs to make it big time in America is a star driver, someone for the home fans to cheer for. This is not going to be easy because American single seater racers are in short supply. Most of the big names in CART racing are too old to be embarking on careers in F1. Others have such a good life in America that they have no real ambition to try to take on the world of F1, an alien environment where one of the stars of CART Michael Andretti was embarrassingly crucified in 1994.

The fact is that Michael made mistakes and underestimated just how difficult it is to make it in F1, particularly if you do not know the tracks and you do not have the opportunity to test. It is not, however, impossible as Jacques Villeneuve has proved.

Villeneuve was lucky in that he had a background in European racing and understood exactly what a cut-throat business it is. This is not always the case with non-Europeans and is why Australians and Japanese drivers often struggle when they first arrive in Europe. The only Americans I can think of who have that kind of a background are Richie Hearn and Elton Julian.

Hearn raced in Europe when he started out in single-seaters, taking part in the cut-and-thrust of French Formula Renault racing with the generation of French driver now competing in Formula 3000. He found it hard going but was successful when he returned to the US.

Julian spent more time in Europe, racing in both British and French Formula 3 and did well in both. He moved up to Formula 3000 and even tested for Larrousse at the end of 1994, impressing the team with his pace in a test at Paul Ricard. He is still in his early twenties but seems to have run out of money and disappeared from the European scene.

If I was Bernie Ecclestone I would find out what happened to Julian and throw some money at him and get him in at Minardi - or wherever - so that there will be American interest in F1 when Grand Prix racing arrives.

People in F1 and CART have been saying for years that Grand Prix racing will never go to Indianapolis. This is incredibly short-sighted as it makes perfect sense for both F1 and for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sorting out how it could be done is the work of an afternoon if the people have any vision.

Perhaps they should learn from mad old King Ludwig...

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