GLOBETROTTER

Sir Francis, popular culture, Barbie and The Silly Season

The other day Sir Francis Williams telephoned and demanded to know where I had been for the last two months. He said he had been sending out search parties because I had disappeared off the face of the earth. I was touched. Most F1 team bosses would be quite happy if I disappeared without trace...

Some might even pay for it to happen.

I went on holiday, I said.

Frank is not a holiday kind of guy and one will notice that the only Formula 1 team bosses who do spend a lot of time on holiday do not spend a lot of time on the podium.

It is easy to disappear, I explained. The first thing you do is to have your telephone out of order so that whenever anyone calls it rings for ever - but no-one ever answers. Then, just when everyone is figuring out that something must be wrong with the phone and begin to send faxes saying: "Your phone does not work", you disconnect the fax machine. Then you jump on an aeroplane and spend Christmas in the United States of America where they all still think that Formula 1 is a hair tonic. The tentacles of the sport can slide through US Immigration via E-Mail but you don't have to log on and read the messages if you chose to spend your life watching sea-otters diving in the rocks off Pebble Beach in California...

Huh, said Sir Frank eloquently.

So, I said. What's happening? What did I miss? What's the gossip?

There was a long pause.

Well, said Frank. Nothing really. It's a bit boring actually. Everyone has been having Christmas and the New Year. It should pick up a bit when people get back into their offices.

Frank! Nothing much is happening. They just made you a knight of the realm and no-one in the history of motor racing - apart from Sir Jack Brabham - has ever done that before.

Yes, he said. It's a bit embarrassing really. And he started to waffle on about Williams being a team effort. He is quite right, of course, but it is the fate of the leader to take all the glory - as well as all the pain and if Frank is a sensible chap he will remember those who in the 1970s used to call him "Wanker" Williams and will now have to call him Sir Frank.

To create an instant motor racing traditional saying: "What goes around and around, comes around".

To tell you the truth, I said - and I don't want you telling Ron this - I must say that I feel a little bit sorry for poor old Mr. Dennis down at McLaren. Frank's team has won 15 Formula 1 World titles since 1980 and he is now Sir Frank Williams. McLaren under Ron has won 14 titles in the same period and not even The Boy Scouts have given Ron a good conduct badge. It really isn't fair when they are appointing people Members of the Order of the British Empire for long service in the Post Office and for services to fishing or hairdressing.

However, I have a feeling that it will not be long before we see the next motor racing knight. It may have been 20 years since Black Jack Brabham became Sir Jack but it is unlikely to be another 20 before someone else from F1 gets a tap on the shoulder with Her Majesty's sword. The logic behind my argument is as follows. Motor racing is now part of the popular culture of Great Britain. Once that happens politicians think that they will curry favor by doling out honors to people in popular walks of life. The theatre and the cinema are popular and there are always four or five theatrical luvvies who are knights or dames (or both!). There are even a growing number of pop music people with knighthoods. Such is the power of popularity.

And so there is no reason why we should not see a round table (what is the collective noun for Sirs?) of knights in the F1 paddock before too long. But a word of warning gentlemen before you get too excited. The British Government has long been very unhappy about decorating those who do not pay British Income Tax...

F1 being a competitive business, the race is now on to see who will be the first Life Peer for services to motor racing. And if you think that is far-fetched, remember that the late Lord Olivier started out as a mere actor.

The arrival of Formula 1 in the world of popular culture has had some interesting side-effects - and I am sure there will be plenty more as F1 slides on into the midstream of life. A few days after my conversation with Frank it emerged that Ferrari and Williams had both signed big deals with the toy company Mattel. This led to some interesting speculation as the American company's chief source of income has long been the Barbie Doll.

In case you do not know Barbie is the ultimate Bimbo doll, a sort of plastic Valley Girl with long blonde hair and clothes for all those really important jobs like lying on the beach, going on safari and riding horses. I'm told that nowadays you can buy socially-aware Barbie gear - including wheelchairs - but while Barbie was always qualified to be a nurse, I have yet to see Barbie the Fireperson and Barbie the tattooed dyke.

Still, the Ferrari-Mattel deal will no doubt mean that Barbie will soon be getting a Ferrari to run around playrooms in, and her plastic beau Ken may even be booted out in favor of a Schumacher doll, who will say cool things like "Come on Barbie. Let's go party" when you push a button on his back.

Unfortunately, he will probably have to be called by another name because otherwise Michael Schumacher and his management will demand more millions from Ferrari and Mattel for the use of his name. I guess they could use any German name other than Klaus.

You could turn the idea on its head, I suppose, and have Ferrari look for a strong-jawed racing driver called Ken to promote to stardom to help Mattel sell more dolls. It may not be as far-fetched as it might seem. Recently I received a press release from Elf announcing that they have managed to find a Canadian driver called Michael Valiante. This may mean nothing to you and I but in France there is a famous cartoon strip motor racing hero called Michel Vaillant and the link between the names is enough to guarantee him a future with Elf.

So, if your name happens to be Ken Schumacher and your are a moderately good racing driver, the future is looking up. And if your name is not Ken Schumacher and you are a quick racing driver, might I suggest you change your name right away.

You can call me silly but, in my defence, I would argue that this is a very silly time of year. The other day I was reading about the French unemployed. They were so upset with the government that they went on strike demanding more money - and a Christmas bonus. Now any mathematician will tell you that two negatives make a positive and so in fact the unemployed going on strike should mean that they would go back to work. But not in France... There, they invade unemployment offices and do nothing until the government gives in.

If that was not silly enough we then had Christmas, a period during which normally sane people spend hundreds of pounds buying presents for people they don't like when they could wait a few days and get everything a lot cheaper in the post-Christmas sales. For a week nothing much happens in the world and so newsmen have to dream up stories or write boring annual reviews to the newspapers full and the airtime fully-slotted.

And then we have the New Year, a night of frantic partying. In Latin countries this is the night in which they throw fireworks at each other to get the New Year off with a bang. This year Argentina reported 450 serious firework injuries...

In less volatile parts of the world it is a night of daft hopes and unrealistic ideals when everyone sings a really silly song which no-one in the world understands. I mean, what does "Auld Lang Syne" actually mean?

And now it is back to work which, for the average Formula 1 journalist, means that there are a string of Formula 1 car launches to look forward to. And that means that we are really getting into a really silly season. I know, I know, you're going to start writing in an telling me that The Silly Season is in the midsummer when drivers switch between the teams but I am not so sure. Nowadays, it seems to me, The Silly Season - as it used to be - has ceased to exist. There are rumors all year round and as soon the driver line-up is finalized for the next season we start talking about the one after that - and are then all caught out when someone announces that a deal which had been announced for next year had not actually been agreed and suddenly the dominos are all falling in a new direction.

The term Silly Season has become irrelevant and I suggest that we start using it only for January as there is some 24-carat drivel spouted forth at car launches as everyone looks at their new car - and their new sponsors - and says the right thing. This will be "the big step forward" or "the breakthrough car". This will put the team "in a position to win races". It is lovely - but it is not true.

Some of us may be swept away with the enthusiasm and emotion and actually start to believe that Minardi will soon be challenging Williams, McLaren or Ferrari. And then - a month from now - we will fly off to Melbourne and find out that McLaren and Ferrari are still the teams to beat; that Jordan is quite competitive and that Williams and Benetton are fighting it out for the other places in the top 10.

And all the hot air which will have risen over Europe as each new F1 car was launched will have done nothing but added to the problems of global warming...

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