GLOBETROTTER

Rubbish in the paddock and other PR-related stories

As I stumbled out of the baggage area at the impressive new Kuala Lumpur International Airport a man rushed up to me with one of those message boards that men at airports thrust at arriving businessmen. "Bernie Ecclestone" it said.

I thought it rather odd because it was six o'clock in the morning and only one flight had arrived and Mr. E was not on it. When he travels on commercial planes Bernie always sits in super first class (in front of the pilots) and so I don't tend to see him because by the time I climb from the black hole of Economy he is away and gone in a big stretched limousine full of champagne, caviar and dancing girls.

At KLIA (that's what the "in" people call the new Malaysian airport) it is such a long walk from the plane to the immigration hall that I am sure I spotted an oxygen tent on the way. After a long flight I like a brisk walk to get the blood flowing again and so I tend to come off the plane doing a pale impersonation of Carl Lewis in a gold rush. As a result I was the first person from the plane to go through immigration - despite having started in deep dark economy. So - having passed everyone on the flight - I knew that there was no Bernie of the Ecclestone ilk.

It was only a few minutes later - as I sat drinking coffee and waiting for someone to turn Malaysia's lights on - that I begun to wonder what might have happened if I had gone up to the man with the sign and said: "Ecclestone here". He would not have known any different and I could have been whisked away in a motorcade, being fed chocolates by dusky maidens. We would go to the Prime Ministerial residence where he would interrupt his cabinet meeting to give me a cheque for $15m and we would have a few moments of harmless chit-chat before I would be off again to a hotel with a suite the size of Namibia.

I could hang out the "Please Do Not Disturb" sign, lock the door, draw the curtains and then pick up the phone and start barking out orders to MY people at the race track. What fun it would be. All security men must stand on their heads today, I would say. And it would be done.

I could stay there all weekend, telling my staff at the track that my change of voice was due to a bad cold, picked up because I had been sitting in front of the pilots on the flight down.

When we got to the track on Thursday I wondered if perhaps someone else had snuck into the Namibia Suite and was impersonating FIA President Max Mosley because the governing body began issuing ludicrous decisions, notably the one which banned press officers from entering the press room. This is a bit like banning drivers from the pit garages or men in FIA blazers from visiting bars. For a moment we thought that the FIA was actually joking.

No, they said, the press officers make the press office look untidy and we cannot have that.

Personally I think they are rather a pretty bunch (apart from the blokes) and given the fact that almost all pretty girls have long ago been banned from the paddock - because presumably they make mechanics spill oil everywhere - I think having press officers running about is a jolly nice thing.

So nice in fact that a few years ago I actually married one of the Press Officers... Thankfully she has now retired from F1 and doesn't have to put up with the daft edicts of today.

What chance do the poor single journalists of today have of marrying a press officer if they cannot actually meet them? And love letters would be no use at all because the Formula 1 PRs have got into the habit of writing in Grand Prix speak.

"It has not been a very good weekend so far and I am not satisfied with the results," they would write. "I have not yet maximized the potential of the relationship because someone got in the way when I was going for it. We need to explore the performance envelope further but I am sure that they are many meaningful synergies to be exploited to create a closer partnership. We have to work hard tonight to improve the situation and I am sure that by the morning we will be in a position to score."

The most puzzling thing about the FIA order was that there was absolutely no logic to the decision - which used to be the norm for all FIA statements a few years ago. This one, however, appeared to have been issued because someone within the governing body suffers from what Professor Freud would have called "anal retention". Everything must be tidy. If not it must be buried or painted white or both. Everyone must be in uniform. Nowadays all team members wander around looking like ice cream men and even TV crews are now marched around in similar kit. Photographers have to wear matching jackets numbered so if they do anything wrong they can immediately identified and taken off to be shot.

The problem is that the journalists refuse to tidy themselves up and they insist on leaving bits of paper lying around everywhere. This, according to the FIA is the fault of the PR girls, who hand out these pieces of paper. This, says the FIA, must be stopped at all costs.

Now here is the funny thing. Apart from the press the only scruffy people allowed in the paddock these days are pop stars. They are only allowed in on condition that they stand, straggly-haired, next to team bosses so that photographs of them can appear in "Hello" magazine or in a publication called "Eurobusiness" which runs a regular photographic feature about people in the F1 paddock.

Copies of Eurobusiness are always being left lying around in the paddock. Hide them away and within minutes another stack will have appeared. For some reason the paddock policemen - who can usually spot if a mosquito has the wrong pass - never seem to see the piles of Eurobusiness. If you left a pile of another magazine lying around for a minute or two they would either all have been stolen or a paddock policeman would have found them and they would have been blown up in a controlled explosion in case someone had hidden a bomb inside them.

The only saving grace about all this is that Eurobusiness is really rather a good magazine. It is informative, it gets to the people who matter and it seems to try to dig out the truth. The pursuit of truth is, of course, not a fashionable occupation in the paddock and so in addition to wafflesome press releases teams have made life difficult for journalists by banning all access to the pit garages. Every team now has security men wedged into every available pit garage orifice. Their sole task during a Grand Prix weekend is to say "No" - although I think they are instructed to admit anyone from Eurobusiness.

In Malaysia they have built the most remarkable pit garages - or so we were told because we were never allowed to look inside them. The whole place was extraordinary and a testament to what can be done if you have all the money you need to build a Grand Prix circuit. The Malaysians were hugely enthusiastic and did everything they could to make the F1 visitors feel at home. And, for a change, F1 responded in gentlemanly fashion. At the Prime Minister's gala dinner almost all the team bosses were present and 18 of the 22 drivers made the effort necessary. It was a shame that neither FIA President Max Mosley nor Bernie could be there but Shirley Bassey made up for it by putting on a great show.

Everything was pretty well organized and the only real problem was that the weather was so hot and humid and the garages so nice that the team people and drivers did not bother to venture out. It was far too hot to be in the open air and hiding in air-conditioned boxes meant that they did not have to deal with journalists, desperate to find out what was happening because the Press Officers had all been banned from the media center. The only team bosses I spoke to were angry ones who emerged, like human cannonballs from their boxes to complain about things I had written. They then became very hot under the collar and had to retreat to put their heads in their refrigerators to cool off.

Wandering around the paddock looking for any sign of life was a very sweaty business and with the healthy Malaysian diet of rice, seafood, vegetables and fruit one could lose a lot of weight very quickly. The only problem was that dealing with jetlag and the sapping humid heat meant that each night we all went home completely worn out.

One or two of my colleagues did seem to find the time and the energy to do a bit of partying. I spotted that this might be the case on Saturday morning when I wandered down to breakfast and found life-sized cardboard cutouts of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard playing snooker.

I guessed it was something to do with my colleagues and a flight of pretty KLM stewardesses who got into the habit of meeting up at the pool table long after the witching hour to discuss the finer points of the European Union.

I wonder how they all found the energy to stumble back to KLIA?

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