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Thoughts for Formula 1's 50th birthday celebrations

Now before you go off to open that bottle of champagne to celebrate the passing of the Millennium, might I suggest you ruminate a while on the following. You have missed it. It happened about four years ago.

Let me explain. The Millennium is supposed to mark the end of the 2,000th year after the birth of Jesus Christ. I am not going to argue that the Millennium will not actually finish until December 31, 2000. That is true but what can you do when everyone wants an excuse to drink and spend money? My argument is different.

The end of the Millennium has been calculated completely wrongly. That can be blamed on a Russian monk named Dionysius Exiguus, who is known to the English world as "Dennis the Little". He whipped out his calculator and did his sums but, like most of us, he did them wrongly. This sort of thing happens all the time - most recently you may have heard about the American Space Program which just crashed a vastly expensive exploring device because one lot of boffins were using metric measurements and another lot were using imperial units. Anyway, back to Little Dennis. He calculated the birth of Christ and invented the modern calendar. This was accepted by the English church at the Synod of Whitby in Yorkshire in 664 and since then the Western world has been working from a calendar which is wrong by about five or six years. How do I know? Because, using Little Dennis's calendar, there is ample evidence that King Herod the Great died in the Spring of 4 BC. And anyone who ever read a Bible will tell you that Herod's most famous act was to order for the slaughter of all the infants in Bethlehem - in an effort to kill off the Messiah. Herod could not have given this order after he was dead and so Jesus Christ must have been born around 5 BC. So, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me tell you that the 2005 World Champion is Mika Hakkinen...

But, don't worry, all this time-twisting has no effect on the history of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. On May 13 next year the championship will celebrate its 50th birthday. And it doesn't look a day over 21, although some of the people involved in it certainly do.

Everyone always says that things have changed and not for the better, but the other day I was looking at the very first World Championship and wondering why it was that everyone thinks they were the "The Good Old Days". Silverstone in the Spring of 1950 was a very agricultural place. People from Brands Hatch seem to think it still is but that is another issue.

The Alfa Romeo factory team turned up, having won all the major events before the World Championship began and duly won at Silverstone. They made it exciting for a few laps by jousting amongst themselves and then disappeared into the distance. The King, Queen and Princesses who had turned up - and they haven't done since - were probably rather bored by the time they set off home for the Palace. Their only advantage being that they did not have to sit in traffic jams in the lanes around the Silverstone, their outriders and other peasant-bashers having cleared the way for them. The most exciting incident I could find from the event was that Reg Parnell ran over a rabbit although as with all motor racing incidents involving animals there was some dispute over whether it was actually a hare...

The other thing I noticed was that the World Championship calendar was decidedly silly. It began on May 13 and by the time the troops arrived at Reims for the sixth round of the series it was still only July 2 which means that there were six races on seven weekends. Can you imagine the fuss that there would be if something similar was tried nowadays? We whinge nowadays about having a race every two weeks...

Mind you, in some ways things have changed quite a lot. Back then exciting things happened around the races. Juan-Manuel Fangio was kidnapped by Cuban freedom fighters to draw international attention to their cause. They treated him very nicely, gave him sandwiches and let him go as soon as the race was over. I suppose that if you translated the event to nowadays it would be a bit like Michael Schumacher being taken hostage by the Corsican nationalists. The only difference is that nowadays they would never be allowed to get near enough to Michael to have the chance to shove a gun in his ribs.

But then again were top racing drivers ever really nice guys? Sir Frank Williams doesn't think so.

"I admire drivers very much because I always wanted to be a racing driver," he said a few years ago. "Of course they are a pain in the bum sometimes, a bit precocious, selfish, aggressive. That's what makes them. That is them. They've got to be mean inside."

There is very revealing story I was told by one of the older F1 journalists about Denny Hulme - the 1967 World Champion - whom he witnessed being approached by a small boy with an autograph book.

"F**k off kid," said Denny and kept walking. He was nicknamed "The Bear" but when I got to know him in the 1980s I must say that the only thing bear-like about Hulme was his cuddly appearance.

Our esteemed (and very old) Ed has a similar story to tell, having been pushed out of the way by Mike Hawthorn when he asked the star for an autograph at Crystal Palace back in the late 1950s.

But even today I have seen drivers happily signing autographs and chatting with the fans when they were called upon to do so. I have even seen one or two of them deliberately go out of their way to make themselves available. They are not all the spoiled brats which they are sometimes portrayed as.

I feel very strongly that there is not much difference in attitude to the racers of the of the so-called Good Old Days. They are just as charismatic, just as crazy. Today they worry more about stocks and shares than they do about getting killed but it is not their fault that the sport is safer than once it was. I can think of a couple of drivers who would have preferred to race in cloth caps than to have to wear the helmets of today.

The reason I became a motor racing journalist years ago was because I wanted to know what it was that made them willing to risk their lives driving racing cars. I thought it was fascinating - and I still do. Over the years I have heard a huge number of different explanations. Few of them involve any logic. Many involve an almost chemical addiction to the thrill of speed, some involve a large element of madness. Although I probably should not admit to it I did once have the chance to read the results of some psychiatric tests carried out by a sponsor on some of its drivers and I have to admit that I felt afterwards that one or two of the drivers in question should never be allowed near a racing car. Prison maybe.

So don't listen when people tell you that modern racing drivers are dull. They are far from that. It is just that they have been made to believe that in order to be "professional" they must treat their bodies like temples, have no fun, exercise far too much and never say anything in public that will upset anyone. And so they resort to mind-numbing blandness whenever they see a pressman.

Until recent years the journalists were not interested in whether the drivers were swinging naked from chandeliers. As a result the drivers in the old days did not even bother to hide what they were up to. They didn't care and I guess that if there is a difference it is that. The racers in the old days did not have to hide. They were people who had lived through the war and survived the hard times. They went racing because they wanted to have fun and blow off some steam. Life was not as it is today. The drivers knew that life was something that could be snuffed out in an instant and so they made the most of it. They raced, they had parties. They were friends just as fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain were friends. There was no money, no hype, no television but they were bound together by a passion and an understanding that they were the lucky ones.

Thankfully the modern generations have not had to fight wars. Life is more precious than once it was. Killing racing drivers is not considered to be as "acceptable" as once it was. The outcry after the death of Ayrton Senna was the most graphic illustration of that.

But what binds the F1 circus together is the same as it always has been. There is a passion and a feeling of belonging to the most exciting club in the world. The F1 people do not have to take the 08:15 to Waterloo every day. They jet from place to place. They live the romantic life that others can only dream about when they sit in dull offices and stare out into rainy cities.

I have always found that what race fans want most of all is stories from the inside of the circus. What are the drivers really like? Is such-and-such a team owner really as big an idiot as it seems? These are the questions that are asked. And when talking to fans one can tell the stories - but if you try to put them in print there is always a lawyer about with a writ.

Formula 1 has never really had intrusive journalists and gossip columnists digging up the dirt. The pressures have grown as publishing has changed but the racing journalists are still much the same as ever they were. Every so often one will come along and dig up some story. There was a Frenchman in the early 1980s who wrote a spectacular book called "Des Bolides en Or" (The Cars of Gold) which dug deeply into the financial side of the sport and the background of some of the big players of the day. It was banned as soon as it hit the streets as it included photographs and documents which indicated very clearly that a well-known motor racing personality had spent part of the last war as a soldier in the SS!

The laws of libel are strange in that if one dares to suggest something one has to prove it and often it is impossible to do it, even if you have seen it with your own eyes and racers are protected - particularly the famous (married) racing driver who once spent a quiet time on a very exclusive island hideaway where there was unfortunate mix-up over hotel rooms and he had to share his with an airline stewardess.

But what does it matter? Racers will be racers and those who marry them should know that!

The good old days are now...

...or at least four years ago according to Dennis the Little.

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