The Duke, reputation creation, cuddly bunnies and Max going down in flames

I keep bumping into people at Orly Airport in Paris. A few months ago it was the remains of the Arrows test team, On the next trip there were two sets of people I knew on the same plane. On the next trip there were not one but three or maybe even four test teams on the way somewhere or other and the next time I passed through I bumped into all the girls from the Benetton marketing department. I am beginning to wonder if I need to go to races at all. If I sat in Orly eventually everyone in F1 would come to me. The only problem is that Orly is a horrible airport. While waiting for planes I have prowled every corridor and every shop. I know all the places to eat, all the newsagents. There are chapels and mosques and even an art gallery (although it is never open).

The other day I was so bored that I agreed to help fill in a vast 70,000 question survey about the need to improve the place... As I was doing this I looked up and saw a figure I recognized. He was a little greyer than I remembered but there was no doubting that there was "The Duke". No, it was not some irrelevant member of the aristocracy on the way to open a flower show. Nor a man with a trumpet. It was Gerard Ducarouge, a larger than life engineer who was an important figure in F1 in the 1970s and 1980s and for many years was the undisputed top French F1 designer. It was Ducarouge who designed the powder-blue Ligiers which won races in 1979 and 1980 in the hands of Jacques Laffite and others. When winning became more difficult Guy Ligier - an man with an explosive temper - began to get frustrated and eventually Ducarouge was sent spinning through the door marked "Sortie". A big mistake.

After a couple of years collecting money at Alfa Romeo, Ducarouge became - for a brief period - a British national hero when he arrived at Team Lotus and galvanized the demoralized crew into action within a few weeks with a brand new car. Within two years the team was winning again and much of the credit went, deservedly, to Ducarouge. As the years ticked by he began to pine for France and eventually went home to work for the Larrousse team and finally ended up back where he had started with Ligier. By then he had ceased to be an active designer and had become a brilliant technical manager, his extraordinary ability to motivate people with his enthusiasm never failing to shake up a tired and grumpy team. The Duke was never without a smile, rarely without a coffee and always had a cigarette burning somewhere on his person. A great character.

We got talking. He watched the races of course but had no desire to be back in F1. Often he would doze off watching them. Something needed to be done about the lack of overtaking. It was a familiar conversation...

What was he up to? I asked.

Off on holiday with his English partner Sally, he said. Going to Bali. The tickets were free.

Why? I asked. Well, frequent flyer miles, he said. I have travelled 425,000 miles in the first six months of the year.

I spluttered. I'm sorry!? How many?

Four ‘undred and twenty-five zousand miles, he said. I am the international development director of Matra Automobiles.

And I thought I did a lot of travelling...

It was a fun start to the Silverstone weekend.

The British Grand Prix is always a race at which one sees a lot of old faces and this year was no exception. One always goes homes with a pocketful of business cards, outlining the latest new ideas in the sport. There are an ever-increasing number of financial and business types wandering around the paddock, looking for "business opportunities". The body of F1 "consultants" is growing faster than a rabbit colony and venture capitalists are more common than pitlane popsies. There was a time when the Silverstone paddock was full of family members of team personnel - but they have been banished these days.

My favorite business card this year came from a company offering "reputation creation, management and protection".

Now THAT, I grumbled, is a difficult job. It is not easy to build palaces out of breeze blocks. If I had a dollar for every person in F1 with a dodgy reputation who has told me a lie in F1 at some point I would now be as rich as Bernard Ecclestone.

One is often reminded of F1's mendacious tendencies at Silverstone because it is where a lot of teams make important announcements and the folk involved, amid clouds of false bonhomie, deny that they ever denied anything. At times I feel the need to buy an M60 machine-gun and slice them half with streams of hot lead... but I never do. That would involve going to prison (which is actually what the other folk need). And so I have a saner reaction. I throw the people into the "not to be trusted" dustbin of F1 and I don't waste my time on them. If you only talk to people you can trust, you know where you are. If you talk to the liars, you merely become confused. When people ask me what it is like to be a Formula 1 journalist, I always say that I have a nice life. A little too much travel perhaps, but you cannot have everything. When it comes to work however, it is like being in quicksand. You are flailing about trying to survive and you grab out at anything that might be solid. Those that give way are worthless and you don' t try them twice. You find a solid handhold - and then you hold on. There are still - and I hope there will always be - people in F1 who like to tell the truth. I don't mind people who say "I cannot tell you".

Ah, but there are - the British Racing Drivers Club will be glad to hear - one or two good things about the Silverstone weekend. The traffic is so bad that one gets to get up very early and whizz through the leafy lanes, dodging dear and nice little fluffy bunny rabbits which one can aim for.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to Tan Sri Basir Ismail, Chairman of the Sepang racing circuit in Malaysia. He turned up at Silverstone to talk about the race later this year and - for a man who has directed one after another of the country's big businesses, he displayed not the tiniest bit of killer instinct. He was a happy, cuddlesome, avuncular figure with a white beard, a jovial laugh and the eyes of a tinker. What did he think of the February date for a race next year? Surely it would be hard to sell tickets. He laughed. Well, yes but they would have to talk with Mr. Ecclestone. Yes, but what about the monsoon? He laughed again. Yes, well they would have to talk to Mr. Ecclestone...

How much rain is there usually at that time of year? we asked.

"About 22 inches," he smiled. Yes, well they would have to talk to Mr. Ecclestone.

Perhaps, I thought, Bernie will issue the teams with scuba diving gear for the event.

Why we asked Max Mosley - who popped up at Silverstone like a magician's rabbit - was it necessary to have a Grand Prix underwater in Malaysia?

Max was brilliant - as he always is - and launched into a lovely speech about the importance of the timing of Grands Prix and how everything needed to be organized so that the biggest market - Europe - was properly catered for. Um... Max... Didn't you say last year that Europe was not that important and that the majority of F1 TV viewers were in Asia.

The vulpine grin on the face of the FIA president froze, cracked, and fell to the floor with a large gulping noise - just like in Tom & Jerry cartoons.

Get out of that one Mr. Mosley, we giggled. The thing about Max is that he does and in doing so makes Houdini look like an amateur. Even when he is clearly fighting a losing battle Max argues all the way down, smoke trailing behind him as he goes but with his guns blazing. This time the effort was rewarded by laughter but, to give him credit, he did try to defend himself...

Sparring with Mosley is something of a sport within the Press Room. He is a dangerous adversary and many - myself included - have crashed and burned while trying to outsmart him. A few years ago I tried to suggest that the automobile world must watch out for legal actions because eventually some US lawyer will work out that cars kill people and, as no-one is responsible for their own actions, the car manufacturers will be held to blame. On Friday at Silverstone news came from the US that General Motors had been fined $4.9bn by a Los Angeles court for injuries incurred when a Chevrolet was hit by another car and caught fire. The lawyers argued that GM had known the car to be dangerous... Funnily enough it sounded just like the arguments which were used against the tobacco companies. Mosley told me - in a charming way - not to be silly, such a thing would never happen.

"Well," Max would say. "You're absolutely right but there are just a couple of points..."

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