GLOBETROTTER

Trains, planes, automobiles and medical magic...

I went to Spain by train. It was the doctor's fault. I could have swanned into Barcelona on a plane as usual with the rest of the Formula 1 jetset, but Dr. Sejourne said "Non".

Regular readers of this column will know that some years ago I gave up the high-pressure life of big city dwelling in London and moved to a life of bucolic bliss in the middle of nowhere in France. With modern technology a Formula 1 reporter can live anywhere if you don't mind little extra travelling to get to and from races.

The day before I was due to head for Spain I somehow picked up a lung infection. I was a bit short of breath but figured that when I got into Barcelona, I would go and see F1's doctor Professor Sid Watkins and he would prescribe the usual - whisky and an aspirin a day - and it would go away. But by the late afternoon, when I found that I could not walk more than 30 feet without needing to pause for breath, I knew that I would have to go to my GP before going to the GP.

"You cannot fly," he said in French.

"I have to go," I wheezed.

"You can go by train," he retorted.

"It would take forever. I have to be there tomorrow morning."

"What do you think I am?" he said. "A magician?"

Being a good doctor he tried to recruit my wife to his cause.

"I don't care if you fly," she said - carefully finding a no man's land between her husband and the doctor . "The life insurance is good and the house gets paid for if you die so I can have as many horses as I want for the rest of my days."

Frustrated, Dr. Sejourne switched to English - which he speaks when he needs to - as if to push the point.

"It is dangerous for you to fly," he said.

"I have to go."

He paused for a moment.

"J'insiste," he said. The phrase does not need translation. Nor did the firmness with which he said it. And so I gave in. I was given a cocktail of pills that would have made John Belushi drool and I spent the night with a chemical war going on inside me. In the morning, armed with anti-this and anti-that, I set off to the train station, following the doctor's orders. It costs half the price to go to Barcelona by train but from my house to the hotel at Montmelo took about twice as long as it would have down with the plane. It was fairly chaotic as well with missing reservations, seats double-booked or only free in the smoking section - which is great if you have lung troubles - but as the hours ticked by I learned one thing.

We F1 people have it easy. The race fans put up with a great deal more pain and stress to get to races than we can even imagine. We may have done the same in the past but we have forgotten. And they pay to do it as well. We whinge about late flights or overcrowded lounges and we have forgotten what it is like to be in the real world. Race fans go racing for love not for money and I must say that by the time the train screeched and rattled into Barcelona I had found the trip to be a source of remarkable inspiration - a breath of fresh air for tired lungs.

The FIA President Max Mosley may say that the sport is not for the enthusiasts and, outrageous though that sounds, I understand what he is trying to say, but the fact remains that the TV viewers do not fill the grandstands, although from the people on the train I figure that quite a lot were curious TV viewers rather than hard-line race fans, going along to get a taste of the sport at first hand.

This is another area where F1 media men have become a little blase. We have all seen so many races that we do not see the great spectacle. We are used to the revving of engines just before the start and rather than soaking up the noise, the vibration, the violence and spectacle of it all, we are too busy looking at the little details: Who is going to get the best start? Who is going which way? We fail to see the splendor of the sport.

I remember a few years ago a French neighbor of mine was invited to Magny-Cours by a company with which he did some business. For weeks afterwards he was talking about the sheer impact that the F1 cars had on him. It did not matter that there was no circus act, no multiple overtaking manoeuvres. The spectacle was enough. He was hooked - and he began to learn the finer points to look for, which keeps enthusiasts happy even though most people think they are seeing a boring race. There is no such thing as a boring race because there is always something happening somewhere down the field, there are intricate strategies to appreciate. You cannot see all that on TV. The drivers complain that F1 cars should be easier to drive but if they were the best drivers would not shine as now they do. The best driver in the world will always get more out of a difficult car than his rivals. Watching Michael Schumacher at Monaco was a bit like that. It is a pleasure to watch geniuses at work.

The only problem is that the geniuses are a little too PR-trained these days. They are not allowed to say what they really think and so they seen to be a pretty bland bunch - which is not really the case when you get to know them better. They are being stifled by the power of money and politics in the sport. There are advantages, of course, that the circus has so much money swilling around inside it but there are times when you want to kick all the marketers out and get back to racing. Cut the crap and get back to Ben Hur.

The enthusiasm of the fans on the train was a real boost for my own enthusiasm which has been battered in recent weeks by the politics of the paddock and, in particular, what has been going on with Honda. It is typical F1 business - cut throat stuff - but usually the victims are only over-preened and over-rich team bosses with whom no-one has much sympathy. A few ego-dents tends to do them good. But the Honda story was different. There are nearly 100 normal people about the lose their jobs because Honda has gone back on its commitment to setting up its own team. That's 100 families. And that leaves a bad taste in the mouth in a small community like F1.

When you talk to the people employed at Honda Racing Developments you appreciate the bitterness that exists towards Honda.

"I don't care who buys this team," one said to me the other day, "so long as they are not Japanese."

It is a shame that it has had to come to this. But the fact is - whether the people at Honda want to hear it or not - that the decision to supply engines to British American Racing, rather than continue with the plan to start up their own team has had disastrous repercussions for the company within the F1 community. When Honda quit F1 in 1992 it was revered. It had achieved an extraordinary domination and the F1 team chiefs respected and listened when Honda President Nobuhiko Kawamoto had something to say. Now Kawamoto has gone and the new management has thrown it all away.

Worse still, Honda made a commitment to the FIA and to F1 racing's boss Bernie Ecclestone. There were some, like McLaren's Ron Dennis, who argued that the sport should not make an exception for Honda but he was overruled. That decision shows the respect that existed for Honda. If the company said it would come into Grand Prix racing with its own team then the F1 bosses were willing to trust the company to do as it said it would.

While one can understand the reasons why Honda decided to change its mind - a vast pile of money is a very powerful tool in decision-making - there is no getting away from the fact that there is now very little goodwill towards Honda among the people that matter in the F1 paddock. At best, they think that Honda is in a muddle. At worst they feel betrayed.

Either way Honda has made a big mistake. And it is not a good time for a car manufacturer to be showing such weakness. There is a major consolidation going on in the automobile industry and Honda is one of the companies which is most exposed to the risk of being gobbled up by one of the industry giants. To reveal that the Honda management of this company is divided on anything or in a muddle is like waving a big chunk of raw meat in the direction of hungry lions.

We will have to see what happens in the months ahead but one thing which is for certain is that Honda is going to have be very clever with its public relations in the years ahead if it wants to rebuild the respect that existed previously in F1 circles. That was built on years of great engineering, honesty and good results. In a few short months it has been thrown away.

It is going to take a magician to rebuild that kind of damage.

Maybe I should put them in contact with Dr. Sejourne...

...except he won't be available because he's going to Barcelona by train shortly. I'm treating him for a change...

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