Chancellor Schumi, the Dorint Perimeter and the F1 calendar

Every so often the world goes mad and there is a year of revolution, upheaval and other such silly things. This year is one of those years. We have seen the roller-coaster rides on the Stock Exchange, the adventures of President Bill Clinton and Monica Whatsername, the implosion of Russia and, most absurd of all, the French victory in the World Cup.

I always thought that the Germans were a fairly sensible, disciplined and ordered nation. The trains always run on time and German people are generally socially-responsible.

The other morning, however, I realized that the German nation is just as barmy as all the rest of us. This was proved when the radio-alarm clicked on in the little guesthouse where we stay near the Nurburgring, and after a rousing chorus of Bangles singing "Manic Monday" - it was a Friday - the lead item on the news was about "Schumi und Co".

It was two days before the German General Election.

With the race due to take place on election day - or perhaps one should say that the election was due to take place on race day - the German TV people seemed to be rather confused about which was more important. They talked about a 10-hour non-stop program switching between election news and the events at the Nurburgring. There was, of course, a danger that the TV luvvies would get confused and we would end up with Chancellor Schumi and cuddly old Helmut Kohl colliding with someone in his Ferrari.

By Sunday morning, I am happy to report, the general election had become the main item on the news despite the qualifying efforts of The Great Schumi - who seems to become more and more of a magician with each passing race.

"How is he going to finish 1-2 by himself this afternoon?" we mused on the early morning drive to the circuit.

There was much debate when we arrived at the circuit as to whether the Chancellor was going to be at the race. A Schumacher victory in the afternoon would be a useful symbol for success for Kohl with the polls open until a couple hours after the race. There might also be The Schumi Factor with Schumacher fans rushing off to vote for Kohl because Michael said he wants Kohl to win the election.

When you go to the Nurburgring these days you are amazed that everyone in Germany is actually given a vote. In fact, if the truth be told, you find yourself wondering why anyone ever doubted Charles Darwin when he suggested that man is linked with the monkey.

Now before you start reaching for your acid-free recycled notepaper to write in to complain that I'm being nasty to Germans, let me assure you that I have no such problems and indeed I spent half the weekend wandering around the paddock looking for former F1 driver Christian Danner in order to give him a book about the rules of cricket.

Now a TV commentator and CART team owner "Christmas Dinner" has been trying to figure out cricket for about 10 years. I remember trying to explain that the word "wicket" has three different meanings. It is a strip of grass on which the game is played; five bits of wood and at the same time something that is lost when the five bits of wood are knocked over. Christian became rather confused and went back to a life of an English country squire living south of Munich. But, being a tenacious soul, he has now returned and is once again staring cricket in the face.

The thing about the fans at the Nurburgring these days is that most of them do not play cricket. Just as Nigel Mansell once attracted Britain's football hooligan elements to Silverstone, so Schumi has awakened baser instincts in the darkest recesses of German society. And it is not just the British who have noticed. The Dorint Hotel at the Nurburgring is where the drivers and team bosses stay. It is opposite the pits. You can walk into the paddock. The only drawback is that the hotel has been a little noisy as the fans in recent years have tended to gather outside and peer through the windows, leaving drool marks on the glass and nasty stains on the pavement.

This year the hotel decided that they did not much like their guests being treated like goldfish and so the Dorint Perimeter was created, a cordon of steel fences being established and five or six goons patrolling within the fence to ensure that all drooling was done at a distance.

A couple of years ago we gave up trying to eat in the many charming little restaurants in the villages around the track. Sitting in them surrounded by the Schumi fans was such an unpleasant experience that we began dining at the Dorint, access to the place being restricted to those with the F1 hard cards. The other big advantage of this is that you tend to bump into important F1 people. The bar at the Dorint is inhabited by the likes of Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone.

When it comes to politics, of course, there is no-one in F1 with the talent of Max Mosley when it comes to snaking out of difficult situations. He would give slippery Willy Clinton a run for his money.

For years one of my hobbies has been baiting Max at his occasional press conferences, trying to ruffle his feathers and throw him from his smooth flow of rhetoric. Often he has made me look silly but once or twice I have caused him to take a sharp intake of breath or babble incoherently while trying to think up an answer to a nasty question. It has been a fun game. The favorite subject for trying to knock Max off his guard has been the Formula 1 calendar because years ago when he was elected President of the FIA part of his election platform was to promise to make the World Championship a truly global series and reduce the sport's dependence on Europe. This was a brilliant piece of electioneering on his part because suddenly obscure motor clubs in Tunisia and such places began to dream of hosting Grands Prix. Mosley picked up the votes.

With each passing year the calendar has remained solidly and boringly the same with the European races dominating as they always have done. For a while Max was embarrassed when the subject came up, now he simply says that one must ask Bernie Ecclestone because it is Mr. E who arranges the calendars.

Many people in F1 prefer to visit the same old places. One gets to know the hotels, the restaurants and the roads. You know you can go out and not risk ending up eating doggie and two veg produced by a kitchen with all the health safeguards of the river in Sao Paulo...

Sticking with European races is easy but it is also dull and the World Championship has still not really become the global series that Mosley. Sure, there have been races in South America, Japan and Australia but Africa, mainland Asia, America and the Middle East have been largely ignored.

Although there have been no official announcements, there is now little doubt that in the year 2000 and 2001 we will finally get some new races in Asia, Africa and the United States and I believe that these will offer the sport a great opportunity to open up new possibilities both with audiences and potential sponsors.

Races outside Europe will have various effects: they will broaden the sport's horizons still further and may help to convince more multinational companies to support F1; they will create interest and thus increase the all-important TV viewing figures. These are the obvious benefits but there are other more subtle things which could be just as important for the sport. New races may help to stimulate youngsters in those countries to want to become F1 stars.

The best way for interest to grow in the sport in any country is for that nation to have a successful racing driver. If it had not been for Keke Rosberg we would not now be watching Mika Hakkinen and without the inspiration of Emerson Fittipaldi there would not have been an entire generation of Brazilian stars. You cannot create champions, of course, but you can get enough people interested that one of them may have the necessary talent. The Japanese have produced a lot of F1 drivers now but none of them have been World Champion material. Italy has been producing drivers year in, year out but there has not been an Italian World Champion since the 1950s.

Just as the F1 calendar is based too heavily in Europe so I think the drivers are too European. It would be much better for the sport if we had Czechs and Malays and Indians rather than a bunch of Europeans and a few extras thrown in.

In the end F1 team bosses care little for nationalities - unless a sponsor demands a driver from a certain country. All they want is to find the fastest man available and finding the elusive new stars is much on the minds of the F1 team managers these days. Since the death of Ayrton Senna and the retirements of the icons of the 1980s like Prost, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, Grand Prix racing has only had one real star, Michael Schumacher. Others may do well in the right car but Schumacher is really exceptional and the hunt is on to find the man who will challenge Michael, just as once he challenged Senna and before that Senna challenged Prost.

The man is out there somewhere...

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