GLOBETROTTER

Work, work, work

In recent summers the Formula 1 calendar has included a pair of Germanic races: one in Austria, the other in Germany itself. They are separated by a week which means that the army of Schumacher fans can drive from one to the other and buy tickets for both. It is a sound marketing idea.

It also means that quite a lot of F1 folk do not bother flying off back to London or Milan, preferring to have a day or two off and then a quick 400 mile blast up the autobahns to the next event. Between Zeltweg and Hockenheim there are lots of rather pleasant places: the Bavarian Alps where one can marvel at the castles built by Mad King Ludwig or the Salkammergut where one expects the Von Trapp Family to pop up at any moment. As an aside, it is worth mentioning that the original Von Trapp Family was probably not as sweet as the Hollywood version as Baron Georg Von Trapp was actually a World War I submarine commander before the family took to warbling.

One way or another it is a great place to be in late July when the sun is shining. The lakes are as blue as Pacific Ocean lagoons, the terraces are shady and the beer is cold. Outside my hotel window as I type there are a bunch of cheery Germans are inflating a huge red balloon with a rather large blow torch, getting ready for a cool summery evening floating over the Rhine Valley.

It is holiday time.

Those awfully clever people from Mercedes-Benz's press department quickly realized that the short break between the races gave them the perfect opportunity to ensnare members of the international press corps and organized a junket between the races. The offer of a couple of nights of free hotel accommodation and the potential for some feature material was a powerful one and so each year about 40 scribblers end up in Stuttgart, touring Mercedes-Benz facilities, interviewing Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Norbert Haug and partying. The trip also gives Mercedes-Benz the chance to drag Mika and David around car factories for photo opportunities (bolting bits and pieces onto road cars) and signing autographs for the Mercedes workforce. Several birds are being killed with one stone.

And so it was that I ended up touring around the S-Class factory at Sindelfingen. Now you would think that every F1 journalist has been to enough car factories to make this a rather tiresome experience. Somehow or other I never did. And I must admit that I was fascinated by the computer-orchestrated ballet of the robots which was presented to me. It was magnificent to watch these ugly, yet somehow graceful, machines showering sparks as they spot-welded, glued, pressed and whirled the various bits and pieces of metal to produce the skeleton of a motor car.

And then after lunch the Mercedes men took us to a big car park and handed over the keys to a fleet of the latest Kompressors and other fancy Mercedes road cars (most of them convertibles). We were given a road book of instructions to follow and told to meet them all again at a landing stage of the Neckar River 128km later. A lot of thought had gone into planning the route to enable us to see what the cars could do while also giving us some beautiful bits of road to appreciate on a gorgeous sunny afternoon. There was even a stop for drinks halfway around the route. I have never been one for following orders too closely and so after a few miles we decided to have a little fun and set off on a route which was designed so that we would be going the wrong way down the official route at various places. The aim was to confuse out colleagues. And it worked a treat.

"What are you doing?" said one couple when we met them at a crossroads.

"We are going the wrong way," we said. "Having some fun."

And then it was time to climb about a river boat called the Barbarossa for a long meander down the river Neckar back to Stuttgart with vineyards on the steep riverside slopes and sunshine on the water. There was a band onboard which set about scaring water rats and other riverside folk. There was good food and there were the drivers, trapped on the boat. After Mika and David were finally allowed to escape at one of the locks along the way the volume of the band was turned up and it was party time a la Norbert.

Next morning those who still had workable heads on their shoulders went off to another car factory. But this was no normal car factory. From the outside the AMG factory in Ludwigsburg-Ossweil looks like every other dull factory on a dull industrial estate. If the factory had produced plastic piping it would not have been a surprise but inside we learned that this was the production facility for the most expensive new car in the history of the world. Old cars have been sold for a lot more than the 850,000 price tag but there are not many folk in the world who can nip down to the local dealership and write a cheque for that kind of money. The Limited Edition AMG Mercedes CLK GTR is a pretty remarkable machine. The company says that it will make only 25 of these handbuilt monsters - and that to date six people have parted with the cash to own one of these machines.

You have to be a car nut to buy one of these things. It is not a great shopping car, nor can you get two Samsonites in the boot. In fact there isn't a boot. Nor is there a passenger seat as the car is not unrelated to the Mercedes GT sportscar of 1997. It is a serious piece of kit with an engine which even the AMG men describe as "an animal" and a clutch that needs changing after 1500km. It is an extreme machine in the finest traditions of automotive extremity. It is a remarkable piece of engineering and is designed only for people who do not have to ask what it costs for a service. The car is all about pure performance while another machine with similar idea was all about luxury and style. The Bugatti Type 41 was designed for Kings, Emperors and Maharajahs in the 1920s. Ettore Bugatti came from a family of artists and inventors. To him the automobile was more than just a machine. His cars were works of art - and the Royales were the ultimate machines. They were, if you like, the Rembrandts of the automotive world. Bugatti planned to build 25 of them. In the end there were only six - and only three were ever sold - and not one of them went to a crowned head.

And then the guts of the 1920s were ripped out by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. They were very expensive at the time but the passage of time has put the cost into perspective. If you want to buy a Bugatti Royale these days, you need to sell your F1 team to get it. The last time one was sold was in 1990 when the buyer parted with 9.4m, the highest price ever paid for a car. Another Royale came up for sale in 1996 but the owner withdrew it from the sale when the bidding stopped at 6.8m.

The vast prices commanded by the Royales have served to confuse things somewhat because Bugatti historians are not quite sure whether there really were only six of them. Some say there were eight. There may be two more somewhere in the world. And then there are the replicas... the most recent of which was build by Tom Wheatcroft, the owner of Donington Park, who worked out that rather than buying a Royale at auction it would be much cheaper to build a perfect copy, using the original drawings and old-fashioned construction techniques. In order for the car to be as faithful as possible, the work took seven and a half years and 100,000 hours and the bills came to over two million pounds.

When I am at home in my hammock, sipping a cool glass of rose and dreaming about life I sometimes wonder what it would be like to find one of the "missing" Royales. I have searched my property, looked through the barn and poked around under the wood pile - but I couldn't a Royale anywhere - which was a shame. Oh well, maybe one day...

What keeps me going is the knowledge that in 1943 an American named Charles Chayne found a Royale in a wrecking yard in the United States. He bought it for $412 and lived happily ever afterwards...

Leaving AMG and driving through the suburbs of Stuttgart we realized that not everyone aspires to such elegance and wealth. I think it was the man in the open-topped Ford Escort with the Dalmatian skin seat covers and the silly waxed moustache who convinced me of this.

We soon left him behind and wound our way up the Neckar valley towards Heidelberg. The F1 folk who were in a hurry rushed off up the autobahn to Hockenheim but we chose a quieter pace of life. There was time for a glorious drive in the sunshine and a long lunch on a shady terrace under an old castle.

Just another day at the F1 office...

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