Imola security, beryllium and things people never say

Being inside the Formula 1 paddock is the dream of almost all the race fans around the world. You can see all the glittery trucks and shiny motorhomes, look at the strutting girls (if you can find them) and play I-Spy with drivers and people who appear in Hello magazine. It is the ultimate thing to tell your mates down at the pub about. And where better to do it than at the Autodromo Ferrari in Imola, home of the tifosi, where the fans bubble like the local wine and you can go to heaven on a pizza (although don't try this at home unless you have parental guidance).

Of course, a flying pizza might be the most effective way of actually getting into an F1 paddock because it seems that these days it is easy to get out of a high-security prison than it is to get into an F1 paddock. And at Imola it seems that every year it is a little bit more difficult than at the other race tracks. The Italians seem to think that one solves organizational problems by appointing 15 people to do one person's job and that mean that Imola always has more pass checks than any other race track. Each one is carried out by a man who looks like he lost his razor at the bottom of his suitcase because he was wearing dark glasses when he got out of bed. I saw one of these chaps refusing entry to David Coulthard and Damon Hill on the grounds that they were riding on motor scooters and thus did not go through the pass machines. The kerfuffle went on for 10 minutes with the man shouting into his radio a lot and Damon and David becoming increasingly fed up with his inanity.

The thing is that they always get very excited when you point out to them that they are not being logical or ask them to explain why it is necessary to have four pass checks within five metres.

"I'm sorry," you want to say. "It's a fair cop. I sneaked past all your friends here without a pass. They couldn't see me. They were wearing dark glasses. You must have really good eyesight to have spotted me. You know my shirt is made out of a special composite material. I'm a Stealth journalist. Here, can I lend you a razor..."

Of course, we never say what we want to say until we think of it 15 minutes after the moment has passed. And so we all pretend when telling the story that this what we said, when it is really only what we wished we had said. The same is true of team owners. They go to meetings and agree to all kinds of thing and then realize a few hours or days later that they have agreed to something daft and have to live with it for the next few years.

Recently they have all agreed to control fancy metal alloys in F1 with a limit of so many giga-pascals per something or other (No, don't ask me, I have no idea what they are). This was a great idea, they thought, because it meant that expensive stuff like aluminium beryllium would no longer be allowed. Instead everyone has to buy some stuff called boralyn, which has fewer giga-thingys. The only problem is that boralyn is not quite at the right giga-thingy level. This can be increased with a different mix of aluminium and boron but by the time that metal pie has been cooked the result is a metal matrix composite which is much more expensive than magnesium beryllium - which mean that, guess what, the costs have gone up rather than down.

This was one of the stories which was circulating in the paddock at Imola this year and, as my eyes glazed over as the discussions turned to giga-pascals, I began to think about all the things one never hears in the Formula 1 paddocks around the world.

"I wish I was as fast as my team mate today," is not an expression which tumbles easily from the mouth of an F1 driver.

You never hear them say : "Here, take my car," to their team mate or : "It was my fault. The car is really good but I screwed up really badly. I'm an idiot."

I don't think I have ever heard anyone say : "I think Max Mosley is doing a great job," - although Mr. Mosley may have said it himself at some point.

You never hear anyone say : "Here Bernie, can I lend you a few quid. Your motorhome is looking a bit shoddy these days compared to these big flash new ones."

A constant complaint amongst the F1 journalists is that it is very difficult to make the drivers into characters because they are so scared of saying something contentious that they never say anything interesting.

The fact is that there are some weird and wonderful characters among the F1 frontrunners but they clam up whenever they know what they are saying is "on the record" for fear of upsetting their team boss, their sponsors, their country or whoever. Trying to turn them into interesting personalities in print is like asking Leonardo da Vinci to create the Mona Lisa with felt tip pens.

It would be so refreshing to hear a driver tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth rather than a tissue of half-truths.

"My car handles like a soggy sandwich and my team are a bunch of idiots," would make a great quote but instead we get some waffle like : "At this moment in time we have not successfully maximized the potential of our performance parameters but I am sure we will do better tomorrow."

But that is not all. There are all kinds of other things you do NOT hear in the paddock .

"Don't worry. You don't need a pass to get there."

"I've had to sign a confidentiality agreement, but..."

"I was lying to you."

"I have an audience with the Pope in five minutes, but he can wait. I find your questions intriguing."

"I did not really go to university but the PE college was just down the road from it and so I say I went to university because people are impressed by that."

"Actually we screwed up the calibration of the windtunnel so the car was really dreadful all season long."

"Are you all right ? That was a pretty big accident. Looks like the throttle stuck open. Oh, thanks for bringing back the spanner, I was wondering what had happened to that ?"

"Do come into the garage."

"You should have seen the crash test results. The flywheel ended up in the next door county."

"The details of the prize money ? Sure, come down to the motorhome and we can go over the figures. I can give you all the team budgets as well."

"Sure ,I am nouveau riche. What's wrong with that ?"


"Thank you."

From all this you may conclude that the F1 paddock is an unfriendly place, but the funny thing is that is not really the truth. Formula 1 race is just like a village with all the gossip which that entails. The only difference is that this particular village is not situated in a picturesque valley called Bottom Wallop - or some other daft English place, but travels around the world, pitching its tents wherever it goes. Just like a village it is hard to become integrated. You have to serve your time before you are accepted - and it is best not to rock the boat before that acceptance comes. It is not very different from being a non-sailing person at a yacht club or a non-rider at a horse club. It is not much fun until you feel you are a member of the group.

After two flyaway races, coming back to Europe was rather pleasant and Imola, despite its bad associations, is a place where one always feels the fervent passion that exists among racing fans. The paddock is back to its normal self and the teams are no longer hiding away inside guarded garages while everyone mills around outside. Imola marks the return of the F1 motorhomes and is the first time that one sees the latest pantechnicon dreamed up by people in marketing departments with not enough to do and budgets which are too big. This year the sensation of the paddock was the Benetton bouncy castle, a small ballroom suspended between to trucks, in which the team did its business looking out through a shop window at the paddock passing by. It was impressive but you wonder if the money might have been better spent on something else given the team's performance in qualifying.

British American Racing had a pair of trucks which telescoped upwards - like McLaren's famous motorhome. They must have cost a king's ransom. They looked great but maybe a little bit on the heavy side - and there are rules about how much weight you can truck around Europe. It does not take a brilliant mind to work out that the extra weight means that the trucks can carry less cargo. Still, if money is no object - and you could never accuse BAR of being penny-pinchers - everything inside the truck is probably made of lightweight materials.

There are no rules in Formula 1 as to how you should spend your money - except perhaps that the team tends not to function very well when you are spending money that does not exist. If there was a little more logic in F1, there would not be such machines. The race tracks would build pit buildings with the necessary team facilities built in, to allow not only for VIP catering and viewing but also meeting rooms, interview rooms, offices and so on. Such permanent facilities would do away with the need for all the temporary accommodation , wiring and so on. It would also end the protracted battles which go on over who can park which vehicle where.

There is a great irony somewhere in all this ostentation. Right now big companies around the world are all cost-cutting and consolidating frantically and in the meantime F1 is wandering around, looking like Liberace and I cannot help wondering if it is such a good idea.

A bit like the mad pass-checkers of Imola...

Print Feature