GLOBETROTTER

Glitz, The Blitz, big hits and Hollywood casting...

Life really is a bitch. The other night a small group of Formula 1 journalists found ourselves swanning about a chateau near Spa, sipping chilled champagne and nibbling caviar. And then Bernie Ecclestone turned up to pay for dinner, which was just as well because none of us could afford to even open a menu, let alone order the food. Even the World Bank would have struggled.

Mr. E does not seem to care much about food and was heard to mutter that the artistic mouthfuls of creative cuisine which turned up every half an hour reminded him of his childhood.

"We used to have fish with strawberry jam every Friday night," he muttered as we devoured the curious mixture set before us. "I think I'd settle for some chicken nuggets..."

It was a very amusing and enjoyable evening, interrupted every now and again by a horde of waiters, who descended on the tables like extras in the movie Zulu ensuring that the only crumbs visible were those which came on the plates as the next course.

Bernie was very relaxed, despite the three or four rather silly bomb threats which had been made in the Belgian newspapers by assorted blackmailers, Islamic crazies, European Commissioners and members of the Labour Party. One of these bizarre letters demanded that 165,000 to be sent to the Sudan to help a French organization called Medecins Sans Frontieres, which if we did not know better we might confuse for a strange kind of game show involving syringes and girls dressed up in nurses' uniforms.

"A hundred and fifty grand," said Bernie, sounding like Britain's top taxpayer, "It's not expensive enough to be serious. I would have paid it, but they didn't tell me where to send the money."

The Belgian police were, however, taking everything seriously and there seemed to be hundreds of Inspector Clouseaus wandering around the paddock looking for ticking bags...

Over dinner we wondered if some of the less successful teams would actually notice if a small bomb went off in the back of their cars, as their engines blow up so often that the mechanics would simply throw away the bits and pieces and stick in a new engine.

Mind you, engine blow-ups are not what they used to be in the old days when the F1 teams were using really silly fuel. We got to talking about these and, inevitably, the conversation turned to the most remarkable of all F1 engines: the BMW turbos of the mid-1980s which were capable of producing the most amazing horsepower statistics. The conversation turned to the story of an old oil chemist at Wintershall - the company which supplied BMW fuel at the time - who remembered a remarkable fuel which he and his colleagues had created many years earlier when he had worked at the German research and testing facility for rockets and missiles at Peenemunde. The fuel had been used for the V1 and V2 flying bombs which rained down over London. He knew that somewhere in a safe was the old formula and it was eventually found and at the end of 1983 the Brabham-BMWs of Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese literally did run on "rocket fuel".

By 1985 and 1986 the 1.5-liter BMW engines were capable of producing around 1500 horsepower and the stresses and strains on the engine were such that the blocks would sometimes be blown into two or more pieces when something went wrong.

Even after the FIA demanded a change to the 3.5-liter normally-aspirated engines there still were blow-ups of majestic proportions, which reduced lovely engine blocks to metallic muesli scattered along the road.

We have not seen such things since the FIA changed the fuel regulations and the nearest thing we get to explosions these days are when the cars hit solid objects at high speed. After the early season narrow twiddly tracks we have now reached the time of year when the F1 cars are allowed to perform as they are supposed to do on the famous swoops of Spa. This is a place where driver skill and bravery are at a premium. On such a track every so often a driver makes a mistake or a car fails and the result is a monstrous crash. We saw two huge ones during the practice days for the Belgian GP, both at that most fearsome corner Eau Rouge. And yet in both cases the drivers hoped from the steaming piles of metal which had once been racing cars. Mika Salo and Jacques Villeneuve walked away with bruised knees and headaches from shunts of monstrous proportions.

During dinner with Bernie the subject of the need for better race tracks came up and Mr. E mentioned that he had seen the most recent CART race from Road America, which we argue was reputed to be one of America's great road courses. As usual Bernie mumbled that there was no F1 standard race track in the United States.

He did, however, admit that F1 will "probably" be back in America in the year 2000.

"Probably probably?" we asked.

"Probably probably probably," said Bernie.

We could have gone on all evening. Well, probably...

Bernie is, of course, well-advanced on a clever program to get F1 established in the United States of America. Teams are hiring CART champion after CART champion and it may be - if both Alex Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser come to F1 next year - that F1 will have the CART champions of the last four years all racing in Europe next year: Villeneuve, Vasser and Zanardi.

Getting a race at Indianapolis is a big bonus but one of the important elements in launching F1 back into America is having the right publicity and the plans for one or more feature films about F1 racing are very important. It seems that every other race we have Sylvester Stallone stomping around the paddock with some Hollywood shark producer in a flowery shirt in tow.

The next morning we got to thinking about how one would make a film about Grand Prix racing. Who would you cast in which roles? Who would play Bernie? Who would play Max Mosley? This soon became a rather amusing press room game with all manner of wild and whacky suggestions.

You might think that Robert de Niro or Al Pacino would be best suited to the Bernie role but the F1 casting department concluded that there is a streak of mischievousness in Bernie which could only be done justice to by someone of the stature of Danny de Vito.

Max Mosley was a little easier. The cinema is full of elegant blond Englishmen like Michael York but once again the casting department felt they were far too clean-cut to play President Mosley. Edward Fox, it was agreed, would do a better job. Ron Dennis posed a problem for a while until someone suggested that John Cleese was the man for the job and after rolling around on the floor of the press room with mirth for some minutes we agreed that no-one else could possibly play Ronzo.

Danny de Vito was suggested as a possible candidate for the role of Ferrari's Jean Todt, but then the name Rowan Atkinson popped up and we knew we had found the right man. It was ironic that Atkinson himself appeared in the paddock a couple of hours later. He was spotted standing on the pitwall with a certain team manager - sorry no names for this one - and one caustic soul was heard to mutter that Mr. Bean had met Mr. Has-Been...

Moving along swiftly, it was decided that Burt Reynolds was the only man who could pull off the role of Eddie Jordan and the half-shaven Don Johnson was quickly signed up as Benetton's David Richards.

But what about the drivers? Who could possibly play the difficult role of Mika Hakkinen, to whom lively expression does not come instantly. Various news readers were suggested but they somehow seemed to lack the whimsy of Hakkinen in full verbal flight. It was concluded that Mika would simply have to play himself...

David Coulthard was pretty easy. The wide jaw and the Scottish drawl might have suggested Sean Connery but he was thought to be a little too old for the job. We concluded that Pierce Brosnan was the man.

Giancarlo Fisichella was easy. Leonardo di Caprio seems to have the 13 year old girls of the world swooning over his boyish good looks and Fisichella has the potential to do the same. Giancarlo's Benetton team-mate Alexander Wurz was not so easy for he has a king of Jimmy Stewart innocence about him. Tom Hanks would get that role.

And what about Jacques Villeneuve, with his ever-changing hair and his obvious awareness of PR stunts. Madonna was suggested but it was concluded that Johnny Depp would probably get a little closer to catching the sensitive side of Jacques's character. Damon Hill was easy. The dark and tortured Jeremy Irons...

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was a more difficult one for there are few German actors who are as laid back as the semi-Spanish Frentzen. Who could play such a role? A young Clint Eastwood? Yes, probably, he had a big future in America as well...

The Ferrari team needed a certain amount of muscle for the difficult roles of Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine. The obvious choice for Schumi was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has a habit of flattening everything in his path, and Jean-Claude Van Damm playing Unsteady Eddie.

We concluded it was going to be an expensive cast. The only problem was that we could not find a role for Stallone himself.

Perhaps someone said we should write in a sub-plot involving an F1 truck driver...

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