Credibility, paranoia and feather dusters

There are some days when unbelievable things just happen - and there is nothing you can do about it except marvel at Fate or whatever greater power you wish to invoke. These things happen. Ask Artemis Pyle, former drummer of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

On October 20 1977 the band - best known for "Sweet Home Alabama" - was on a small plane flying to a concert across a Mississippi swamp when something went horribly wrong with the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Half the band died in the crash but Pyle, badly injured, managed to survive. A former US Marine, he swam through the swamp to get help. As he was swimming a snake closed in on him.

"I looked at the snake," Pyle related, "and I said: "Look, I just survived a plane crash. If you mess with me, I'm gonna bite your head off"."

Wisely, the snake headed off elsewhere. Pyle continued his lonely trek, finally dragging himself to a farmhouse - a mile from the crash site. The owner thought he was an intruder and shot him through the shoulder...

The Fates got together to have a laugh at Bernie Ecclestone's expense on Saturday at Jerez de la Frontera when the ringmaster of Grand Prix racing was sitting down and having his lunch in the Rothmans motorhome and watching the qualifying session for the 1997 World Championship showdown between Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher. He must have spluttered into his nosh when the electronic timing system flashed up the news that the two World title challengers had set absolutely identical qualifying times and would be lining up alongside one another on the front row of the grid.

If you think about it, Bernie should have been delighted but here was something so completely absurd and unbelievable that it looked as though it could only have been achieved with a little underhand help. It was too perfect a showdown for the World Championship. It could not have designed to attract more viewers. On Sunday even the bushmen in the Kalahari would be tuning in to watch F1's version of High Noon.

Bernie might have been shaking in his head as he walked back to his famous grey bus but it was only then that he realized that the third-placed man Heinz-Harald Frentzen also had an identical time.

This was completely incredible and Bernie had a problem. Down in the paddock - where cynicism is as common as tasteless gold watches - and paranoia lurks behind the motorhomes, no-one was willing to accept that such a thing could have happened. Somehow, they said, Ecclestone MUST have orchestrated the timesheets. People with long memories - a phenomenon as common as a ducked-billed platypus in the F1 paddock - reckoned that there might have been an occasion when two drivers had the same time to the nearest thousandth but they had never seen it with three drivers and never at the front of a grid - let alone for a World Championship decider. It was utterly incredible.

In the press room the conspiracy theorists were busy again:

"If they can put a man on the moon they can get drivers with tridentical times," mumbled an experienced F1 pressman, making up words as he went along.

The more generous reckoned that God must be looking after Bernie. Some reckoned that Bernie has now given up being human and is now a deity in his own right...

FIA President Max Mosley, a university-trained physicist, was so surprised by what had happened that he set about calculating the probability of such a thing and concluded that, give or take a few years. It is unlikely that we will see the same situation in Formula 1 until the year 2147.

Mosley and Ecclestone have often been accused of trying to manipulate one thing or another. Often they do play a role in getting things to turn out how they want them too and there were widespread suspicions that they were somehow involved in the political kerfuffles in Suzuka over Jacques Villeneuve and the yellow flags. No-one was able to actually produce any evidence to back up such conspiracy theories but there is no doubt that Villeneuve's exclusion set up the most perfect World Championship showdown.

Credibility is a funny thing. And in Jerez few people in the paddock were willing to accept that all these coincidences might be down to pure unadulterated good luck and not to some twisted conspiracy.

Perhaps it is the time of the season - everyone is worn out - but such is the mistrust in some sections of the paddock that people simply assume that somehow or other things are being orchestrated.

That is something upon which Bernie and Max would do well to ruminate...

Paranoia is not new in F1, of course, but these things are rarely grounded in reality. People at the top of the sport are so under pressure that they begin to see Communists under every bed and spies in every camp.

"In Grand Prix racing," said a world-weary designer to me years ago, "if you are not paranoid - you don't know the whole truth."

Perhaps he was right. Who knows?

There was a graphic example of the paddock paranoia an few hours after qualifying when Ron Dennis sat down to have his regular weekend chat with any pressmen who want to hear what he has to say.

In the days leading up to the European Grand Prix a worthy British racing magazine published a very revealing photograph of McLaren's secret extra brake pedal which - quite legally - allows the driver to apply the brake on one rear wheel or the other. This makes the car rather swervier in the corners and helps the driver to get out of the corners more quickly.

Dennis was outraged by the publication of the photograph and completely rejected the possibility that this was a bright piece of thinking on the part of the photographer, who had been curious about why McLarens were leaving corners with their brakes glowing as they accelerated away, and had concluded that such a system must be involved - such things do exist in motorcycle racing for example. It was impossible in Ron's mind that this snapper could have taken advantage of a moment when the car was unattended to slip a camera into the cockpit and fire a quick flash gun down at the pedals.

Instead Ron took the paranoid route and accused the photographer and the magazine of having been "commissioned" by someone to take the photograph in order to destroy any advantage McLaren might have been gaining from the system. In doing so publicly Dennis exposed himself to a charge of slander. Did he have anything to prove this assertion?

It probably did not help that Dennis found about the photographer when Mosley congratulated him on the system just before a meeting about the Concorde Agreement was about to begin in London. Apparently, it was a rather unpleasant surprise...

If the magazine felt the urge to sue Dennis for slander they would, of course, have a very good case. Perhaps Ron knows that this is unlikely to ever happen as McLaren is the major sponsor of a sister publication's young driver promotion scheme and it would be unwise for the publishing house involved to rattle the cage of the man giving them money...

Frankly, I think Ron needs a holiday. In the recent months he has been trying to get McLaren up to speed, and has been fighting over the Concorde Agreement with Max and Bernie.

If I was Ron I would have climbed a tree and began to twitch if I had discovered that on Saturday night Bernie and Max had dinner with none other than Jurgen Schrempp, the managing-director of Daimler-Benz, the company which is bankrolling McLaren at the moment...

Still, Ron might have had a worse week. In Jerez one of my spies at McLaren informed me that one of the team cleaners has just won a cool 250,000 on the National Lottery in England. The spy said that he did not think that the cleaner had left the employment of the team just yet, because there had been no sign of Mr. Dennis walking around the factory with a feather duster sticking out of his bottom...

Not everyone in F1 is caught in the paranoia trap. Some manage to avoid it by just getting on with their lives and not bothering to ask why something has happened. It is probably a wise thing to do. Two such individuals are Gerhard Berger and Ukyo Katayama, both of whom are leaving F1 after keeping us amused for many a year. This is a shame for both are characters with plenty of humour but it is not the end of the world as some of my colleagues would have you believe. There are fewer characters among the drivers that is true but they are not all colorless. Corporate pressures are such that most drivers say only what they think people want them to say. Either than or they stand up and mutter nonsensical things.

One current driver is famous for this approach to such an extent that he is now nicknames "Maximum fishpaste hat-stand radiator" because the words he uses make about as much sense as this useful collection of words.

There are people who do speak their mind: like Eddie Irvine. He is a bit too much of a loose cannon for his own good as was proved recently when he slagged off the Ferrari handling and found himself under serious threat of unemployment. Most drivers simply say what they are supposed to say. Some teams actually have contracts in which drivers are not allowed to say anything critical about the team. These things are regrettable because the era of great quotes is slipping away. It never ceases to amaze me what some of the PR departments produce for the press expecting the quotes to be used.

"We are very happy to have done so well here in XXXXX. It was a great performance for everyone in the team and we are very happy," is the staple rubbish dished out.

Why do PR people not actually print what people think. Imagine what fun could be had and what great articles would appear:

Renault's recent victory in the Luxembourg Grand Prix could have been a real giggle if the Renault man had been made to say something interesting like: "It was just fab to see Mercedes blow up their engines like that. We were laughing all the way to the finish line. Mind you, you have to feel sorry for the Benz boys. I mean, how embarrassing can it get?"

Or what about Goodyear in Japan. Why did the team have to be "very pleased" when it could have pointed out that Bridgestone had been completely trashed at Suzuka. Just imagine: "If I was the boss of Bridgestone's F1 program I would have fallen on my sword by now," would have been a much more entertaining comment.

Thankfully, we still have the grunge kid Jacques Villeneuve. He is so surrounded by minders that trying to get to him is a pointless exercise but when they led him out of his box he does tend to fire from the hip...

Good on him! And well done on the World Championship!

Print Feature