On Rat Air, Rindt, BMW, anoraks and Villeneuve

I always book late for my flights - in case things change - and so sometimes I end up going by strange routes and paying more money than those who book months in advance. This provides the people who book my tickets with much amusement (and more money). I think it was Monday (or it might have been Tuesday) when I picked up the phone and muttered that I really ought to get round to organizing a flight to Imola. There wasn't, by any chance, something in the computer that someone had organized knowing that I am an idiot?

No, they said, no-one has been your safety net this time.

I had a glum moment.

But it worked out fine. I flew off to Paris long before the sun smiled and ended up at Charles de Gaulle airport waiting to climb on to an Alitalia flight down to Bologna. There were a bunch of people I knew in the departure lounge so that cheered me up and as the bus approached the plane we all commented that it looked an awful lot like Lauda Air, rather than Alitalia. I suppose there is a marketing synergy there, Niki having had strong Italian links during this racing career. And then we climbed the stairs and noticed that the plane was named "Jochen Rindt" and underneath in very small letters it said "God rest your soul" in German. It seemed rather wonderful to the be flying to the San Marino Grand Prix at the Autodromo Ferrari in a Lauda Air jet called Jochen Rindt. Here was a column that was writing itself... On the plane I discovered that I could have flown south on a Lauda plane called Enzo Ferrari or another called Tazio Nuvolari. That would have been better for the Ferrari connection but Rindt was good enough.

I had never flown Lauda Air before and I was hugely impressed (and I was paying for my ticket!). It was like travelling in any normal Club Class. They treated you like human beings rather than sheep. They gave you metal knives and forks and china plates. The attitude was clearly one of giving customers what they want and not what you can get away with. There was no skimping to make an extra profit. The bread was hot, the smoked salmon came in quantities that one could eat rather than as offcuts that had been scraped off the floor and shovelled in the less than bite-sized pieces onto the plastic trays that all other airlines use.

And as I sat there, reading the Rat Air magazine, the theme of which was success, I could not help but think to myself that I was sitting in the embodiment of the Formula 1 spirit. F1 people will be successful in any walk of life because they spend their time solving problems rather than thinking of reasons why the problems cannot be solved.

"There is no formula for success," Lauda was quoted as saying in his magazine. "And no method for becoming a winner in 10 easy steps. The one thing I am certain of is that no-one is born a winner. The Rat put his success down to "willpower and determination", "more than a little bit of perfectionism", "hard work and persistence."

I was wandering around the paddock a few hours later telling anyone who cared to listen that Lauda Air was a brilliant airline when someone said: "Niki's catering is done by the same people who supply the Paddock Club at the races". Yes, it all made sense.

In the paddock the subject of Germanic hospitality was a topic of conversation thanks to the arrival of the latest generation paddock gin palace, a twin-towered affair with greenhouses attached, belonging to the BMW Williams team. My colleagues in the German press quickly found a nickname for it to join the McLaren Trolly Bus, the Ferrari Underground Train, the BAR Pompidou Center (because it has wires and pipes everywhere and is hidden away in the corner of the F1 city) and, of course, the Benetton Bouncy Castle. This, I was informed was Schloss Neuschwanstein, after the Bavarian castle on which Walt Disney based his Magic Kingdom.

Was the catering any good? Someone asked. Sure it is, came the reply. You know what BMW stands for, don't you? Bratkartoffeln Mit Wurstchen. I wondered for a moment whether Gerhard Berger knew that he was actually running a catering company rather than a Formula 1 engine firm...

Later on I was trying to remember the best flight I had before Lauda Air and I concluded that - amazingly enough - it was on the airline run by Formula 1's only other airline magnate Paul Stoddart of European Airlines.

"Stoddy" is totally bonkers. He's an absolute motor racing anorak with a bizarre fixation about Tyrrells. He likes them so much, in fact, that he owns almost all the Tyrrells currently in captivity and he even races them in historic F1 events. He was so mad about Tyrrell that a few years ago he started flying the team to all the races on one of his VIP jets. He agreed to build a windtunnel for the team but then the Tyrrell family cashed in their chips and Stoddart did not feel the same passion for the folks at British American Racing and so he bought most of the Tyrrell equipment, old cars (to add to the collection), trucks and so on and bought the Edenbridge Formula 3000 team. This year he is a sponsor of (and running the Formula 3000 team for) Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows F1 Team. He has also been the man behind the Arrows two-seater (or one should say Arrows two-seaters because there are currently two of them and a third is one way). When he isn't running his airline he is happily standing on the pitwall showing the Arrows drivers their pitboards...

But like all F1 people, beneath the anorak, there is a steely ambition and Stoddart makes no secret that one day, if the right opportunity presents itself, he would like to be running his own Formula 1 team. When you own a few Jumbo Jets you can have such lofty ideas. Stoddart is also an Australian and although he operates in Europe there is a small element of nationalism in there somewhere. He is running Mark Webber in the F3000 team this year and, after F3000 qualifying on Friday, it was Webber who had turned in the most impressive performance of all the F3000 rookies, qualifying third on the grid behind Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian, both of whom are in their third year in the series.

It is nice to be able to report that it looks like we will one day soon get some more Australian representation in F1. Let us not forget, and often we do, that the Antipodes have provided F1 with some of its most famous names: notably the Brabham and McLaren teams. If Formula 1 needs anything it is a wider spread of nationalities involved. There are too many European drivers and not enough from other parts of the globe. It is not that European nations have any more developed genetic speed, it is just a question of the fast boys being found and nurtured in the right way.

Sitting on "Jochen Rindt" I found myself in conversation with a French journalist who was complaining about the lack of performance of French drivers in recent years. Only Jean Alesi is left and Prost-Peugeot is not delivering the goods. Things are not what they used to be. Back in the old days there were French drivers coming out of the woodwork. But now there are Germans everywhere and the French rising stars usually end up in America and on the post-F3000 scrapheap in sportscar racing.

How was it that Jenson Button could leap-frog over his entire generation and end up in F1 at such a tender age, the Frenchman asked. Why was there so much excitement about him?

It is a question over which I have puzzled these recent months. When Jenson was named as a Williams driver he made the front pages of the national newspapers in Britain. Why? The only conclusion that one could reach was that there is a need (at least in Britain) for some new Formula 1 heroes. Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher may be great racers but they lack the charisma of the stars of the 1980s. Formula 1 needs fewer of the plastic Action Men who stay what they are told to say and do what is politically-correct. The sport needs a new Nelson Piquet, a new South American wild man or a new Rat. The sport needs Czechs and Japanese, Indonesians and Swedes. A Mexican or an Indian. And why not a South African?

In the paddock there is constant talk these days of Jacques Villeneuve's likely destination next year. That would brighten up the front end of the grid a bit because since his detour into BAR country, Jacques has been largely wasted. He has pace and charisma and he's still young. The word in the paddock is that he will be back in a bigger team next year. The rumors suggest it will be McLaren but that may be just a smokescreen for other talks and, indeed, there are some who think that Villeneuve will probably end up at Benetton.

The French do not have any rising stars these days and being a French-Canadian Jacques can easily be adopted by France (as he was when he won the World Championship in 1997). He looks like the perfect man to be driving for Benetton in the years ahead. Not least because he was the last Renault World Champion.

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