GLOBETROTTER

Globetrotter

I am pretending to get ready for the new Formula 1 season. That means that I go to London and do some shopping, telling the wife that I am going to interview someone important. On the way this year I stopped off in Paris to visit the Retromobile exhibition. This is a pageant of nostalgia. I like looking at old cars and pottering through old books and I was delighted to find a book about racing in the 1920s. It is a splendid book if you don't read the text. It is full of wonderful photographs and has a magnificent cover featuring a sepia-tinted photograph of pretty woman racing driver, perching pertly on a Bugatti Type 35. She has an enormous grin and bags under her eyes which suggest that she had been doing rather a lot of dancing the previous evening.

Her name was Helle Nice. Well, that is not strictly true. Her real name was Helen Delangle and later in the book there is a photograph of her wearing nothing but a scarf. When she wasn't a racing driver she was a dancer at the Casino de Paris and obviously it got very hot there because the need for clothing was clearly not pressing.

You don't get racing drivers like that any more...

In those days the grids were peopled by aristocrats and gigolos (sorry, I cannot name names but you can usually spot them because their cars were entered by baronesses). There was a Cubist painter (Amedee Ozanphant) who liked to race and the Chilean consul in Nice Juan Zanelli was no slouch at the wheel of a Bugatti. There were German bankers and heirs to great fortunes many of whom raced with pseudonyms. What were their secrets? What were they trying to hide?

"Philippe" was always one of my favorites. He walked into the Bugatti offices in Paris in 1929 and ordered three Bugatti 35Cs, each at 155,000 Francs. I am not good at arithmetic but I do know that this was a major amount of money.

He drove one, lent one to his friend Helle Nice (I wonder if he told his wife?) and the other to a pal called Guy Bouriat.

"Philippe" was an amazing man. His real name was Baron Philippe de Rothschild and he came from the famous banking family. Many years later would find fame in the world of wine by reviving the family vineyard at Chateau Mouton, commissioning famous painters to decorate the labels of his vintages, making wine that was so good that the authorities eventually had to give Chateau Mouton-Rothschild a top-level classification. It was Baron Philippe who came up with the brilliant idea of using the Mouton "brand" to sell cheap wine to the mass market. Today you can still buy his Mouton-Cadet in bottle shops all over the world.

In those days there was no sponsorship - except from barons and baronesses. Today Grand Prix racing is as much about business as it is about racing. I must say that I think it lacks the romance of the 1920s although perhaps in 70 years from now Michael Schumacher will be remembered as a romantic dashing hero. I doubt it. I think this will remembered as the age of the functional racing driver. The modern generation of drivers all have much the same story: karting as kids, total dedication to racing to the exclusion of all else. It is hard to dig out anything really interesting about them. Giancarlo Fisichella has a secret passion of architecture; Mika Hakkinen has a tortoise; Heinz-Harald Frentzen used to drive hearses. But there is none of the scope that the 1920s afforded.

People relate less to big business than they do to individuals and so the drivers have remained the stars but they have become the finger-puppets of big corporations. The team owners have become celebrities because they have marvellous stories to tell. It is their rambunctious approach which has built the sport in the titanic business it is today.

When people know you are involved in F1 they are full of questions: Who is going to win this year? Can Ferrari finally do it? In mid-February come the official requests for predictions from editors. I try to refuse predictions because in Formula 1 you just never know. In 1994 I predicted that Ayrton Senna would be World Champion. Last year, despite the speed of the McLarens in testing, I thought Williams would get it right when the season began.

Testing times can be of use when you are making predictions but there are teams which deliberately set out to set fast times, running underweight and with illegal systems, in order to make an impression to lure sponsors or to try to grab extra column inches for publicity-craving backers. Others deliberately do not set fast times, happy to lull the opposition into a false sense of security.

Such is the technology these days that even experts cannot tell who is really quick. Ask the Formula 1 engineers what is important to make a fast car in 1999 and they will say: engine, aerodynamics and driver. The really smart ones will say that with the new tire rules this year mechanical grip is going to be more important than brute horsepower because horsepower is no good if you cannot transfer it to the road. There has been intensive work on differentials and traction-control. I know that traction-control is supposed to be illegal but these days the rules are such that one never knows what is legal and what is not legal. The FIA has deliberately created rules which are open to interpretation in an effort to have some control over what happens on the race track. It is a fact of life that if one team runs away with a championship then viewing figures drop. And that is bad news.

When rules can be interpreted in different ways it is inevitable that there will be arguments but that is fine in the modern business. Scandals and battles keep the sport in the news. There will be some bumping and grinding about the regulations when the teams get together in Melbourne. There may even be protests although teams usually wait until after the first race before acting. So we will probably have a political ruckus in Brazil as usual...

In pure horsepower terms one must expect McLaren and Ferrari to be quick. There are no compromises in their engine programs. If the Ferrari is a match for the McLaren Schumacher will win. He is the best driver out there. If the car is not good enough I can see him - no matter what he says - giving up the Ferrari dream at the end of the year and going to West McLaren Mercedes - which will pay him whatever he wants. The Schumacher-Ferrari dream needs success in its fourth season to stop gangrene setting in.

Mika Hakkinen showed some moments of very real brilliance last year but he has one disadvantage. Schumacher has Eddie Irvine acting as his man-servant. The number one status at McLaren will only be settled at the first corner in Melbourne. Neither Mika nor David Coulthard is going to lift off in a 50-50 situation. A crunch like that could blow a World Championship and create bad feeling within the team.

The big guns aside, it will be interesting to see how Jordan does now that Honda has its own project underway. The last time Honda switched from one team to another, the one it left suffered a half-season of disastrous engine failures. It looked as though Honda was trying out new ideas. There is no reason for Honda to build up a rival team? A better policy would be to do as much damage as possible and learn valuable engineering lessons on the way. Honda wants to win as Honda not as Jordan. Damon Hill and Heinz-Harald Frentzen will be an interesting combination, particularly if things do not go well.

One should not expect too much from Supertec. Renault is no longer pouring money into the V10 engine. There is probably a dribble now and then when the powerful French unions and the Renault shareholders are looking the other way, but the Renault bosses have more important things to worry about as the automotive industry consolidates. To keep the company alive they must expand and that takes money. Wasting money on racing can come later.

Last year the F1 teams paid Mecachrome and it paid Renault for development. This year teams are paying Supertec. It is costing around 30% more than last year. Supertec is paying Mecachrome. Mecachrome is paying Renault. Will the extra money go on development programs? Let's not be silly. Flavio Briatore is a commodity trader. He has an expensive lifestyle. He is not into charity work. Thus one can expect to see Williams, Benetton and BAR (if they stop playing idiotic political games) scrabbling to keep the Stewarts, Prosts and Saubers at bay.

At Williams Alex Zanardi is going to have to work hard to stay ahead of Ralf Schumacher, but Ralf needs to stop making mistakes if he is to become a serious F1 player. If he crashes he can expect Patrick Head to shout at him quite a lot.

At Benetton Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz will become itchy and frustrated if the results are not better this year and Rocco Benetton may find F1 rather more difficult than life in the New York jet-set.

We will have to see what happens with British American Racing. I am sure the team will be technically-sound but I think dreams and realities have become confused and there will be hard lessons ahead. A F1 team needs time to grow, to be tempered by experience. Jacques Villeneuve will be surrounded by pals but it is likely to be a frustrating year for him. The F1 media will turn like sharks on the team if the results do not happen.

Sauber seems a little stagnant at the moment but being stagnant with Ferrari engines is an advantage. Prost is still using a tarted-up version of the old Peugeot V10 and that will be reflected on the race track although expect some good finishes if the cars are reliable.

If you are looking for surprises I think Stewart is a good bet. The team needed a good kicking at the end of last year and, to its credit, it has made changes. Whether these are the right changes is another question. Ford has taken a monumental risk with its new V10. If it works the men in Dearborn will be heroes. If not... well, it is a time of rationalization in the motor industry.

I think Minardi will surprise on occasion and it is best not to talk too much about Arrows. One can only hope that by kissing a prince Tom Walkinshaw will not end up with a frog.

No exotic dancers. No gigolos. No Cubists.

But F1's still fascinating, isn't it?

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