Unnatural forces

Regular readers of this column will know that I live in a house which is lost in the French countryside. This is very nice but there are some disadvantages to the lifestyle. We are a long way from anywhere and so journeys to Grands Prix are longer, more expensive and more complicated. For Christmas I was called back to the family fold in England and so we headed north up the old Route Nationale N10 towards Paris. Just after the little town of Couhe we past a small and rather innocent memorial in a lay-by. I didn't even notice it. A few meters further up the road the car died on us. The steam coming out from under the bonnet was not because of the cold. The battery had boiled and was about to explode. The alternator had been working overtime - which is a rare thing in France.

We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a truck stop before we deserted the trusty old car and took a taxi to Poitiers and from there a hire car to Paris and the Eurostar train to London. It was all a great adventure. The return journey turned out to be even more exciting because of two remarkable storms which I am told carried the unsavory names of Lothar and Martin. We arrived back in France the day after Lothar had battered the north. We managed to acquire one of the last remaining hire cars in Paris and drove south, admiring fallen trees and felled electricity pylons with a five-year-old boy in the back going "Wow!" every time he saw something which had been mangled or scrunched. The radio said that there was another big storm coming that night and so as darkness and rain fell we gave up the idea of trying to get home and holed up in a hotel near Orleans. The next morning we set off for Poitiers to pick up the trusty rusty old car and as we continued south we entered the zone through which the storm called Martin had passed.

It was only as we accelerated away from the garage that I noticed the memorial beside the road. It was in memory of Marcel Renault, one of the three brothers who in 1898 began building their own cars in a workshop at the end of the garden of the family house in the French suburb of Billancourt. He had been killed at that spot during the ill-fated 1903 Paris-Madrid road race.

The story of that evil race has never been fully told because it was so horrendous. It began in Versailles with 216 cars and 59 motorcycles setting out at regular intervals. The first accident occurred only 45 miles from Paris when a woman was struck by one of the cars as she ran across the road. At Chatellerault a man and child were hit as one of the racers swerved to avoid them. The machine crashed into a crowd of spectators. Further south another car left the road and went into a group of spectators. Two people were killed in the crowd. The accidents continued throughout the day; cars hit trees and disintegrated, they overturned and caught fire. That night in Bordeaux the race was called off. Half the cars had crashed and at least eight people were dead - probably more. Many more were injured.

The French authorities declared that city-to-city races must stop. The British banned all road racing. The French later decided that events could be held on sections of road which were closed and so developed the idea of cars completing a number of "laps" of a circuit. The British government was less willing to compromise and so British racers had to go to Ulster or the Isle of Man until rich folk decided to build a closed speedway at a place called Brooklands.

I was mulling all this over when I became aware that the cries of "wow" from the back seat had increased in number. And in the hours which followed we saw trucks overturned by the winds, cars flattened by falling trees and hospitals without roofs. Every road sign had been twisted to the ground and at every Shell petrol station the center of each red and yellow Shell sign had been blasted out by the 140mph winds. In places we were zig-zagging down roads THROUGH fallen trees - a one-car path having been cut by firemen to get the road open again. We saw entire forests where trees had been torn to pieces 15ft off the ground. There were barns which had exploded. And hanging from the hedgerows was this strange yellow stuff - which turned out to be roofing insolation.

What would we find at home?

We stopped at a supermarket as night fell. People were panicking. When we reached home it was dark and rain was pouring down. There was time for only a brief reconnaissance with a torch. There was no power but the phones worked and the water was fine. We cooked on the fire and listened to the radio. The following day the phones went dead when emergency battery power failed. The water pressure began to drop as the water towers ran out, unable to have more water pumped into them. Daylight revealed that we had been lucky. There were about 15 trees down - two of them over the power line - but the house was untouched. Outside our front door was a ladies bedroom slipper which had been blown in from somewhere in the neighborhood. We wondered what had happened to the lady...

When one stopped to think about what we had seen, it was amazing. We forget that such violent forces exist in nature and when we are reminded we are shocked.

It was for me a reminder of the Spring of 1994 when the people in F1 were made to remember that motor racing is a violent business and that no matter what we do about it there will always be violent accidents and there will always be death and injury. It has been five years since the last F1 fatality - in case you need reminding - and once again we are drifting off towards complacency. The cars are safe. Very safe. But fate will always contrive a way to get around precautions. Stable doors are never bolted before the horses escape...

I must say that I am impressed by what the FIA has done in recent years. They keep up the pressure on the F1 teams to slow down the cars while, at the same time, preparing the ground in case of a major motor racing disaster. Rallying has been tamed to some extent. The shorter stages may be less exciting for the purists but it was essential to do something. At the same time the governing body has done a lot of work on road car crash testing and on ecological causes. This has helped to build up in the minds of the public a reputation for caring about safety and the environment.

This will be important one day because accidents in motor racing are inevitable. You cannot travel at unnatural speeds and expect to emerge unscathed from each and every incident. There will be crisis but motor racing will survive just as it survived the 1903 disaster. It was a similar story in 1928 when Emilio Materassi crashed at Monza and killed himself and 27 spectators and then, of course, there was the terrible Le Mans "disaster" in 1955 where somewhere in the region of 100 people were killed.

The fact is that motor racing people are folk who make things happen. They do not wait and hope. They go in and they grab. They achieve what normal people think is impossible. A few years ago France was blocked by a different kind of disaster when all the truck drivers decided that they had the right to do as they pleased and closed all the roads with their trucks. The police shrugged and did nothing. They said that the French GP would not happen but the F1 trucks came in and went out and only a couple were caught in the blockades. There were a few scrapes and minor skirmishes but the F1 truck drivers would not accept that it was impossible to get through.

I had an example of that in the days after the storm. We were holed up with no light, no heat, no hot water and no phone. It was cold and fog had taken over the world when I got up to let the dogs out for a run in the morning. It was the kind of weather that Jack the Ripper would have loved.

Suddenly, out in the murk I heard barking and there, emerging from the mists was a small car with a light on the top. It said "Taxi".

What on earth...? I thought and went to see if he needed directions to be somewhere else. But no, he had come with an envelope for me. It was an invitation to the launch of Jaguar Racing...

...and, at the same time, it was more than that. It was a message from the motor racing world which told me that come what may the sport was still going strong. And I have to say that it warmed my chilled bones and I laughed at the absurdity of it all. France was closed but I still had my invitation.

New Year came and there was still no power and so that night we ate dinner huddled up in front of the fire and then we snuggled up in bed and went to sleep. It was just as generations before us had done and somehow it was right. There were no fireworks, no music and no partying. Just a wife, a small boy who says "Wow" a lot and a teddy bear called Ferrari...

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