GLOBETROTTER

Mr. Crapart, the Earl of Shrewsbury, Cold War logic and Julia Roberts

This is the time of year when Formula 1 reporters go home to discover that the kids are taller and that the wife has reported you missing three months ago. And, after all the excitements of the World Championship showdown in Japan, there is now the excitement of returning home to face the paperwork which has built up into a wobbly tower in the box marked "To do".

This is a social history of the 1990s.

There are old racing magazines and faxes about motor racing teams which have long broken up in disarray. There is a mound of wallpaper from British Airways but when you dig through it all and find the total mileage travelled it always says "Zero" because no-one in their right mind ever pays full price for an airline ticket. There are a few airline ticket stubs which prove that I am not in my right mind. There are 13 copies of The Economist - none of them opened. There are a pile of letters signed by a man called Michel Crapart of Reader's Digest telling me that I am a finalist in a confusing number of different prize draws. Mr. Crapart keeps saying that I am on the verge of becoming a millionaire. The bank statements indicate otherwise.

There are four brochures from a wine company called Berry Brothers & Rudd which list all the wines I simply MUST buy for Christmas. The column on the right side of the page indicates that a bottle of 1990 Chateau Petrus is a bargain at 9,940.00.

I think I'll go down to the local supermarket for a bottle of Chateau Collapso instead.

Right at the bottom of the "To do" pile (18 inches of paper) is a map of the area around the Caspian Sea, from which I have discovered that there is a country called Kyrgyzstan.

I have tried saying it several times but it makes me sound like a bottling machine. Still, as this is the non-urgent paperwork, I guess I can wait for another day to learn how to say "Kyrgyzstan".

The pile of urgent paperwork - about six inches in depth - is topped by a little red plastic ruler which says "Action this Day".

This is the really important stuff. There is a postcard from Alaska, another from Wisconsin. There is a dollar bill. There are several photographs of happy faces from a summer holiday which I wasn't quite there for. Oh! And here is a photograph of a baby sitting beside a Christmas tree. I know it's not my baby but I am damned if I know who it belongs to. I guess I should have noted it down...

In among the flotsam and jetsam are a few scribbled notes. One is the history of Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, 20th Earl of Shrewsbury. It has been scrawled on the back of an envelope. You may ask of what use such a thing could be to a motor racing reporter and all I can reply is that if the good lord were alive today he would be owned by Peugeot. There is also a note about a man called William Crush who in 1896 staged a train crash to promote a new stretch of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway. There was a crowd of 30,000 to see the two trains hit head-on at 60mph. One person was killed by flying debris, two were seriously injured.

Ah, the lure of blood sports...

After a few days at home, the lure of paperwork is wearing thin but it is still too early to be missing the sound of the racing engines. The winter stretches away ahead like a road that vanishes into the distance. The only trouble is that you know from experience that the winter will soon be gone. The testing will start at one minute past midnight on December 1. And it will be Ferrari out there burning up gas and spending money. And then the new cars will start to pop up. There will be launches and then suddenly I'll be kissing goodbye to the wife again and disappearing off to Melbourne for the start of the 2000 season.

The F1 year is perpetual motion. Except in November when no-one is allowed to test. This is a marvellous idea. Testing has reached absurd levels these days and I am absolutely convinced that it is very bad for the sport. The cars now run so much that they are so reliable that we get few mechanical surprises in the races. It is boring if you know that a car is going to finish every time. Part of the fun of races in 1999 was to wait to find out how long the two BARs were going to run until something went wrong.

One can understand the desire of the teams to want to test. Everyone is doing it and so must they. This is Cold War logic still being applied 10 years after the Berlin Wall was torn down. It is like the nuclear arms race or the madness to build battleships in the years before the First World War. It has ceased to have much relevance and there is little sign that much is gained or lost. In Japan five of the top six on the grid were the same as they were back in March in Melbourne.

Testing has simply become a way of spending money. F1 bosses Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley long ago recognized this and have been trying to figure out ways of stopping it ever since. This year, you may recall, there was supposed to be restriction on the amount of testing during the racing season. In February the teams got together and agreed there would be a 50-day limit for testing. And then they went away and ignored the agreement. It was not an actual rule so the gentlemanly agreement did not amount to a hill of beans.

Funnily enough, this year a magazine asked me to try to keep track of the number of miles covered by each team in testing. It was very interesting. I am not saying that my calculations are correct because I always erred on the side of caution but I reckon that from the figures I obtained Ferrari - just as an example - completed a minimum of 13,500 miles of testing between March and October. Practice, qualifying and racing is not included in that figure.

In other words Ferrari covered something like 30 race distances in the actual races - and around 70 race distances in testing.

This is dumb.

Does all this trolling around add anything to Grand Prix racing? Obviously there must be some testing at the start of each year because some designers - no names, no law suits - have a habit of designing machines which fall apart as soon as they run. Consequently it is wiser that the cars be given a day or two of testing before the World Championship begins. After that I see no purpose in testing except as an engineering exercise to keep the boffins with their heads stuck in their computers. They could do that using static rigs in the factories.

The damage caused by testing is not felt only in the racing. I think it damages the people as well. Drivers are paid fortunes and therefore do not warrant sympathy but I often think that if they had more time to themselves they would do the image of the sport a great deal more good. They would have time to be glamorous, to play the casinos in Monte Carlo and consort with loose lasses in teeny-weeny bikinis. They could go hang-gliding or become celebrated musicians or painters.

Formula 1 is a sport but it is also a business. It is not an engineering business as some would have you believe. It is a retail business. The sport sells dreams to millions of ordinary folk around the world. For many people F1 - like the cinema - is a way to escape from the humdrum existence of daily life. A way of getting away from the fact that you have all your paperwork in order. And it works not just with normal folk but also with chief executives of big companies. They helicopter to races and get excited about being shown around the pits. They tell their friends about how they stood near Jean Alesi in the queue to catch a helicopter out after the race.

Formula 1 puts pressure on the drivers to be dull - which of course most of them are not. They do what they have to do to be taken seriously. Society, as ever, is to blame. Those who do not follow like sheep are seen as not being serious enough to make it. This may explain why so many of them seem to be in a permanently grumpy state of mind.

In the movie "Notting Hill" there is a very poignant scene in which Julia Roberts - playing the world's most gorgeous and famous film star (type-casting I feel) - goes out to dinner with a bunch of normal folk in Notting Hill. This is a ridiculous concept if you know the neighborhood. Normal people are few and far between. Anyway, as the dinner party draws to a close it is revealed that there is one piece of chocolate brownie remaining. Each person at the table tries to win it by explaining how miserable their life is. No-one even gives Ms. Roberts a chance because she earns $15m a movie and is beautiful. But she forces the issue, explaining that she looks as she does because she has been on a diet for 10 years and is always hungry. She says that one day she will be a has-been.

I sometimes wonder if life as a Grand Prix driver is not a bit like that. It is always interesting to note how when they retire F1 drivers often become fat and happy. They no longer have to listen to earnest "nutritionists" who make them eat rabbit food mixed with glue every morning. They no longer have to spend six hours a day torturing themselves in gymnasia. They stop having to dye their hair. They begin to live.

I reckon that a ban on testing and a change in the cars to make them less physically demanding would do F1 a lot of good.

And it might even help me with my paperwork...

Print Feature