GLOBETROTTER

The enemy within and blow-up companions

In Formula 1 slang "an animal" is a driver without finesse although there are times in the F1 paddock when you hear the wilder members of the driving fraternity described as "rock apes".

Probably the most famous Formula 1 "animals" were two wonderful Italian brothers called Tino and Vittorio Brambilla. They were both pretty good racing drivers but they had a tendency to be a little wild and to do daft things from time to time. And so they became known as "The Monza Gorillas". Both had raced motorcycles before switching to four-wheeled competition (which is usually the sign of a raving lunatic) and a series of crashes and wild moments added to their reputation.

They were both testing one day at Monza when Vittorio's car broke down out on the circuit. Tino saw what had happened and decided that he would stop and give his brother a ride back to the pits.

The only problem was that as he was driving along, with his brother hanging on to the roll bar, Tino forgot all about Vittorio and was soon up to racing speeds again. When he arrived back at the pits the team asked him why he was there and he explained that he had stopped to pick up Vittorio and that... and then he turned round and realized that his brother was no longer there.

They found Vittorio in the sandtrap at the Parabolica looking rather disoriented. Tino never did make it into F1 although he once tested a Ferrari. Vittorio joined March and scored an unexpected win in the rain at the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975, giving Max Mosley's March team one of its rare F1 victories. As he crossed the line Vittorio punched the air with both hands, in exuberant Italian style, and promptly lost control of the car and smashed it into the barriers.

They don't make racing drivers like that any more although, having watched Jean Alesi's qualifying lap at Monaco, one has to say that there is at least one great rock ape left in a sport full of smoothies. Everyone else looks so neat and tidy. You get the feeling that Michael Schumacher could throw his car around if he needs to but that efficiency - a much-beloved concept in Germany - is not best served by such behavior.

I was, therefore, rather surprised in Montreal when someone in the press office muttered: "there are always lots of animals on the track in Montreal aren't they?" during one of the irrelevant sessions on Friday.

It turned out that he was talking about a groundhog which had hopped across the circuit in front of a passing car, in much the same way as the spectators do on rallies in Latin countries - and with about as much intelligence.

A few years ago in Montreal I remember Sandro Nannini running over one of these furry critters in his Benetton, leaving his mechanics with the unpleasant task of scooping what was left out of the radiators. There was enough fur left for them to have a hat made for Sandro...

In Canada this year most of the animals I saw were in the Formula 1 paddock, dressed up in blazers and doing security work for the teams. Yes folks, you may think you get a rough time getting close to the drivers because F1 has this fixation about keeping people out of their ivory towers but today even if you get into the paddock, through the high fences and the swipe card machines, you now have to get past the monkey men, the PR interception teams and the personal managers to get into the presence of a great and glorious individuals. It is like an obstacle race. A sort of Alice in Wonderland above ground.

At the moment paranoia is running high in the F1 paddock because of the vagueness of the regulations and the concept that all new ideas must be hidden.

The blazer-clad thugs have orders to let no-one into the hallowed areas unless they have a team pass dangling around their neck. No-one is safe because monkeymen have no knowledge whatsoever of motor racing so can turn away everyone, even His Formula One-ship Bernard Ecclestone.

In an effort to create a veneer of civility they ask the visitors the purpose of their visit and they receive a variety of different replies. My favorite comes from the wife of one F1 team owner who went to visit the wife of another team boss and was refused entry. What did she want? She was there, she said, to look at the design of the table cloths.

Monkey men rarely have a sense of humour.

Criticizing the use of monkey men, however, is not a very bright thing to do because it will only be a matter of time before some team or other will institute its own system of swipe cards and will put up chain-link around themselves. I expect McLaren will go one better and have a drawbridge and minefields.

In fact I can imagine a situation where members of the Formula 1 press corps will have to arrive with a vaulting horse and while some will pretend to practice leaps and bounds, inside the wooden horse others will tunnel their way under the wire to talk to the drivers.

For a long time now I have been pondering the purchase of serious bugging devices to save myself the trouble of actually wasting my life trying to talk to important people. You can buy directional microphones these days which will pick up the quietest conversation. You can buy laser-beam bugs which measured the tiny movements of a window made by sound waves and then converts the vibrations back into word form. Several teams have already foreseen this and have installed double-glazing in their motorhomes.

If things do not change access to the big players will soon be restricted to big press conferences - where nothing of any value is ever said - or to the drivelsome press statements which teams feel the need to disperse after the major sessions during a Grand Prix weekend. These consist of such really useful quotes such as: "I am very happy with the alterations we made to the car and I expect to improve tomorrow" or "We made a big step forward but it was not obvious from the timesheets" or even "I am very happy to be on pole position but I think that my team mate did a really good job."

Formula 1 is so politically-correct and corporate that you never see a driver quoted as saying what he really thinks. Wouldn't it be nice if press releases said: "I think the designer of this car needs psychiatric help" or "I hate my team, they couldn't run a sharp stick through a rice pudding" or even "I really enjoyed beating my team-mate he deserved a good kicking".

Actually speaking to a driver these days is a pretty difficult thing to achieve because they spend most of their time staring into computers and having meetings to discuss what the team's official line will be when the media ask certain questions.

Jacques Villeneuve and his consultants have done a brilliant job hijacking the image of the Formula 1 rebel. It was not hard because nobody was out there dressing in silly clothes and tipping bottles of Royal Blue Washable ink over their peroxided hair. Everyone else was too busy trying to be like Action Men toys with square jaws, bulging muscles and neat hair.

Formula 1 people think that they are the best at everything and know all the answers but there are many lessons which the sport could learn from its American counterparts. In the televising of CART racing, for example, they have tried hard to humanize the drivers which insert panels which appear every so often when a car is on the screen showing what the driver looks like and giving a few basic details about him.

In NASCAR they believe that the public should be looked after and so before a race all the drivers go into a kind of boxing ring which is set up opposite the biggest grandstands and are introduced by a commentator with a suitable level of showmanship. The crowds boo and hiss the good guys and the bad guys. Some wear black hats, some wear white ones. They all limp like racing drivers should and they all have great names like "Rusty Trawler", "Fireball Roberts" and "Buckshot Jones".

There are lots of good personalities in F1 racing but for some reason everyone thinks it is wrong to say anything even vaguely controversial. They might just as well be talking dummies, which say: "I am very happy. My car is perfect. I will be World Champion for sure" when you press the right buttons.

I was reminded of the plastic stars the other day when I was on the flight to Montreal and found myself reading one of those wonderfully daft in-flight magazines one stumbles across on US airlines.

Clearly American consumers will pay anything although I would love to know who buys the remote-controlled indoor flying saucers or the nose hair trimmers. I enjoyed the idea of a drinking fountain for cats and even the vacuum cleaner which sucks flies off walls so that one no longer has to squish them with a hefty blow from the latest National Geographic. I also loved the idea of a personal yellow plastic smoke hood which you put on your head in the event of a serious fire in the hotel room in which you are staying. This is such a useless item that the manufacturers actually offer a free replacement if it used in a fire, which would seem to indicate that this rarely happens or that when it does occur the people cannot claim because the yellow plastic hoods have melted onto their heads...

The outstanding idea, however, was the blow-up companion for single women drivers, complete with rather fetching salt-and-pepper hair and a rugged look to scare away the bad guys.

I must get one and see if they work with the monkey men...

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