Hard cards, Dalmatians and soap opera stars

I haven't heard a Formula 1 engine racing for a while and I have to say that I am just beginning to feel a slight urge to have my eardrums blasted again, just as all those nice little stereocilia "hairs" inside the ear are beginning to stand up again after last year's battering. It is usually like this in January and February. Motor racing junkies are motor racing junkies.

In a way that is quite strange this year because the off-season has whipped past with all the speed of a rattlesnake's bite. And it's been a pretty poisonous time as well, what with Michael Schumacher's corrupt move on Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez and his seedy denials and then all the sleazy suggestions which floated around over Bernie Ecclestone's 1m donation to the British Labour Party.

It was all rather depressing. And then up popped a Euro-bureaucrat in the form of Karel Van Miert and suddenly there are a load more problems for Grand Prix to hurdle before it can settle down and live happily ever after.

If it sounds like I am whingeing, far from it. I am well aware that to be the holder of a Formula 1 permanent pass - a hard card - is a position which should not be taken for granted. At an idle moment I concluded that nowadays you are more likely to win a national lottery than you are to be given the opportunity of a Formula 1 hard card for an entire season. If you don't believe me, may I suggest that you add up the number of countries in the world with at least one weekly lottery (some have two or more) and then multiply the total by 52.

This is the time of year when one discovers whether or not the FIA has decided whether you are a worthwhile person or if you are not worthy of the honor of being granted a hard card. Without one you are merely a human being, if you have one you become on one of the chosen few. Angels descend from the skies and you immediately acquire a suntan, a Rolex and a suit from Hugo Boss (Well, somebody has to wear them! Hugo baby, that was a joke. Um. In German the word is... Mein Gott, there isn't a German word for joke.)

Anyway, before you are allowed to take on angelic (hard card) status you have to sign a piece of paper which says lots of legal things (in very small print) about what you can and cannot do. It tells you that if you get squashed by a racing you cannot sue anyone. I could have told you that. Have you ever tried to get a coffin up the stairs of courthouse while you are lying inside?

You can call me dull but, as I recall, nowadays you can sign any waiver you like because none of the signatures mean a thing because lawyers have somehow proved that you cannot sign away your basic right to justice.

Old racing fans will probably remember the case of Mark Donohue, who died in an accident in Austria in 1975 as the result of a tire failure on his F1 car. It took his widow nine years but eventually she was awarded a total of $20m in damages, despite the fact that Donohue had signed all the necessary waivers. In the end she settled out of court for $10m rather than battling through the appeals processes to get the full amount.

I must have been bored when I was reading through all the small print on the hard card "waiver of liability" but I did discover some very good news. To my absolute delight I found that there WASN'T a clause saying that journalists are not allowed to bring the sport into disrepute - which means, I suppose, that the F1 press corps is not officially censored.

In a way it did not surprise me. Bernie Ecclestone is a very clever man. He knows that a bit of criticism from time to time keeps everything bubbling away nicely in the newspapers and he has been known to throw out the occasional "speculative" story to a hungry journalist to stir up a storm.

I remember some years ago I had some problems with passes and was wandering around the paddock with a nasty cardboard pass (oh, the shame, the shame!) when I received word that Bernie wanted to see me in his office in the Control Tower.

"Whatchewan?" he said when I arrived.

"You wanted to see me."

"Did I? Oh yeah. Gimme your pass. You're a trouble-causer. An agent provocateur. You can't have a pass. Go away."

Luckily, I had been tipped off in advance that Mr. E was planning to play a joke on me and did not crumble into a gibbering pile on the floor, begging for accreditation, when he took the cardboard pass away.

After a moment or two Bernie realized that there was no point, threw me the new hard card he had in his desk, clipped me round the ear and told me to go and cause trouble.

It is not always like that with the team bosses. There are times that your views as a journalist do not tally with their views as team managers. This may be after you have described their cars as "garbage" or when you point out that their press releases have told a great long list of lies.

After that you simply cease to get invitations to events. The message is very clear, in the words of Nicely Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls: "Sit down, you're rocking the boat".

At this time of year everyone is launching their cars and beginning to test. They have new sponsors who are glowing with pride and optimism and old ones who are hoping that this year the team will come good and all the investment that has been made will suddenly become worthwhile. And, of course, Williams keeps on winning...

But we go along to the car launches and are supposed to be swept away by the gushing torrents of optimism. I am sure that the other day I heard Ken Tyrrell suggest that he expects Tyrrell to gets some podium finishes in 1998. Now you can call me cynical but a Tyrrell podium looks, from where I am sitting, about as likely as Ken spending all the money British American Tobacco has given him to become an astronaut and go to Mars.

The easiest route for a journalist to take, of course, is to swallow his professional pride and be swept along with enthusiasm. That way everyone is happy. The readers are not getting the whole truth but as they do not know that, it doesn't matter. The teams are getting the coverage they want and the journalist is getting a nice easy life.

The attitude was best summed-up I suppose in the recent Disney movie One Hundred and One Dalmations (don't ask me why I was watching it) in which the actress Glenn Close plays the evil Cruella DeVil, the wealthy boss of a fashion empire who is passionate about fur and surrounded by simpering, spineless (and rather effeminate) assistants. At one point one of the camp followers says something slightly out of place.

"What kind of a sycophant do you call yourself?" Cruella roars. There is a pause.

"What kind of a sycophant would you like me to be?" comes the reply.

The logical conclusion in all this - if you have logic like mine - is that Cruella DeVil would make a very good F1 team boss. I am sure that a couple of cars running in Dalmatian spots would look no more out of place that Jackie Stewart's tartan ribbons, although perhaps Cruella's two-tone hairdo would be rather too radical, even in these days of the blue-rinse wunderkind Jacques Villeneuve. The wildest hairdo you are likely to see in a meeting of the current team bosses is Eddie Jordan's "ageing rock'n'roller" and, somehow, that doesn't seem to fit him very well.

One the whole, however, one cannot complain about the raw material on offer for journalists from the team bosses. There are rather too many Scotsmen (now that Craig Pollock has joined Tom Walkinshaw and Jackie Stewart) and someone really ought to tell David Richards that the Don Johnson "look" went out with the Bee Gees. But Frank Williams is manna from heaven, Alain Prost is cute, cuddly and very dangerous, and Jean Todt IS Napoleon Bonaparte. Ron Dennis can be annoying but there is no doubting the fact that he's a character. You don't go from ash to cash like he has without having a certain charm. With Bernie and Max Mosley thrown in for good measure, and Eddie Jordan dancing jigs with his tongue, there are all the makings of a completely unbelievable soap opera - which is, of course, what modern Grand Prix racing is all about. Yes, the sport is still there on a Sunday afternoon but for the rest of the time, the script comes straight out of soap opera lah-lah land.

I used to think that this sort of thing was not what the sport was all about but now I find that I enjoy it as much as the racing. Whatever, I keep asking myself, are these fruitcakes going to do next?

And so, while the lure of the engines is lurking out there somewhere, I can hold off for a few more weeks before Melbourne because I know that every week somebody, somewhere in F1, is going to do something silly.

Well, I mean, Minardi just signed up Shinji Nakano and Esteban Tuero. I expect with that dynamite line-up they will soon to be knocking Tyrrell off the podiums...

Just stirring up trouble, you understand. Bernie's orders.

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