Midnight feasts, heaven and hell and living dangerously

The other day at midnight I was flicking through the many TV channels to which the satellite dish now gives access and, out there amidst the religious networks, the unwatchable twaddle from Libya and the channel which shows episodes of "Friends" dubbed into Polish, I stumbled on a new one called the Nuvolari Channel.

It was all about old racing cars. One can only presume that the owners of the Nuvolari Channel were out picking flowers one day in Tuscany and stumbled into a barn which was full of cans of old film about motor racing in the 1920s and 1930s. To this they have added lots of rallying footage (which is pretty cheap at the moment) and they will now be able to run it over and over again until it becomes as familiar as episodes of "Friends".

The modern demand for television programming has no bounds and, according to the current line of thinking, it does not matter whether you have singing chefs, stripping housewives, Formula 1 or The Muppets. All that matters is that the screen never goes blank and people have something to look at between the advertisements. Quality has rather suffered.

The other day the Arrows team's new sponsor UPC announced that it has plans to make 750 hours (an entire month) of original new programming for the various TV channels it operates. Creating new programs is now cheaper than buying old films. Six and a half hours of this will be a behind-the-scenes documentary about the Arrows Formula 1 team. Coming soon, no doubt, we will have a soap opera called "Bernie's World", a sitcom called "Going Round in Circles" (complete with canned laughter as Flavio Briatore walks in with his hat on backwards). Before you know it Eddie Jordan will have his own talk show.

And if that is not endless programming I do not know what is.

A few years back I had an Italian barber who never stopped talking about Ferrari. He will probably end up with his own TV channel one day.

"You know Nuvolari?" he asked me one day as he clipped away. "Magnificent! He was the best of all time. He never gave up. Never. You know what he was? He was the romance of motor racing."

Enzo Ferrari, a vicious judge of drivers, who knew them all from Felice Nazarro to Ayrton Senna, was once asked who was the greatest.

"There's no answer," he replied, "but if you want me to name names, you could say that Tazio Nuvolari and Stirling Moss had similar styles. They were both men who put everything they had into racing - with any kind of car, in any circumstances and on any track."

Even his greatest rival Achille Varzi was forced to admit it.

"Nuvolari,' he said, "was the boldest - most skillful - madman of us all."

Nuvolari was so loved by his generation that 50,000 people watched his funeral cortege. His tomb in Mantova is inscribed simply: "You'll race still quicker on the highways of heaven".

The irony, of course, is that in an era when all the top drivers died at the wheel, the bravest - the man who took the most risks - died peacefully in his bed.

As a child he jumped off a roof with a homemade parachute. Later he bought a crashed Bleriot aeroplane, reassembled it and tried to make it fly. It crashed and caught fire. He took up motorcycle racing soon after World War I (during which he had served as an ambulance driver). His life was nothing if not action-packed.

Nuvolari was tiny - under five foot four. He had dark, piercing eyes, a toothy grin and a jutting jaw. Once when he was hospitalized he received a telegram from the Vatican and the well-known Italian poet and nationalist Gabriele D'Annunzio presented him with a golden tortoise pendant. It became Nuvolari's badge and appeared on his writing paper.

In 1947 he drove his last great race at the Mille Miglia. Against far more powerful cars he led the race until his engine cut because of rain. Clemente Biondetti took the victory.

"I did not win," admitted Boindetti later, "I merely finished first. The just and deserving winner is Nuvolari, the greatest racing driver in the world."

It is hard to imagine a driver of the modern generation saying such a thing of a rival. And even if they said it you would not believe them.

"I think Nuvolari was born to drive," Rene Dreyfus mused. "He was so instinctive, his reflexes were uncanny and he seemed to do everything right. We all tried to emulate him a little, but it didn't work."

A few days after discovering the Nuvolari Channel it was time to head off to the Nurburgring, the scene of the Nuvolari's greatest victory 65 years ago where he beat nine of the best racing cars of the era from Mercedes and Auto Union in an outdated Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo.

On Saturday morning the radio in the my hotel room at the Nurburgring snapped on at some early hour and I awoke to the sound of Belinda Carlisle singing: "Ooh, heaven is a place on earth".

I smiled and rolled over. I was in motor racing heaven. The hotel is right alongside the old circuit far enough away from any village to be almost a Schumi Fan Free Zone. There are beautiful views, there is basic but wholesome food and a rather gay waiter. But out of my hotel room window I can see a gap between the trees, about 100 meters away and there I know is a piece of tarmac on which magic was done and where legends were created. The locals call the Nurburgring "the Green Hell" but I think I prefer Ms. Carlisle's interpretation of the 14 miles of tarmac, wiggling in and out of the vallies was where the wizards on wheels like Nuvolari did their conjuring tricks. In the modern world in which an insurance company can sponsor a Formula 1 team it seems rather unlikely that such a place could ever have existed but it is still there and if you buy a ticket you can drive around it and marvel at what motor racing used to be like.

"We used to race anywhere and everywhere," the great Denny Hulme once told me. "We didn't take any notice of the trees, power poles and rocks. We just raced. If you looked back now you'd say we were bloody stupid but we didn't know any better. Now we have the most incredibly hygienic circuits you have ever seen. Some people criticize them. They say it's terribly boring motor racing. Yes, compared to the old Nurburgring, I suppose it is.

"But," he added, "it's better than going to a funeral every Tuesday morning."

To the modern generations the Nurburgring is best known as the place where Niki Lauda crashed in 1976 and was dragged from his burning car by his colleagues Brett Lunger, Arturo Merzario, Harald Ertl and Guy Edwards. The crash was in the news again last week because of a re-enactment of the crash being filmed for a BBC TV documentary called "Living Dangerously".

Edwards was in the paddock over the weekend.

"They keep bringing it back every year," he said. "I really do not understand why. It was a long time ago."

What was it that captured the public imagination about the crash? It was not the fact that men rushed into flames to rescue their rivals. That often happened in the 1960s and 1970s. The only possible explanation is that the story became part of motor racing folklore not because of what happened but because Lauda fought back from horrible burns to return to racing within six weeks of being given the Last Rites.

And a year later went on to win the World Championship for a second time.

That accident was the end for Grand Prix racing on the old Ring. It was impossible to make it safe enough to ensure that marshals could get to a crash quickly enough to save a driver. The unbelievable grandeur of the place was the cause of its downfall.

Lauda's comeback was all the more exceptional because for many drivers a big accident is the end of their career. They realize that they are mortal. Others are not affected. And some drive even faster than they used to do because they realize what a frail thing life is and how easy it is for them to be killed. And rather than scaring them it focuses their minds on what they want to achieve.

When David Coulthard scrambled out of the aeroplane crash recently many in the modern world of F1 mused about whether it would affect his performance. David said it would not. A little later he reflected that he felt it had made him stronger and it seemed in qualifying at the Nurburgring that it had.

Could it be that this year David Coulthard will finally emerge from the shadow of Mika Hakkinen and show that he has broken through into the really big time? It will be fascinating to see.

Perhaps UPC should make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about David, rather than the orange and black gang. Six and a half hours about Arrows might become a little tedious.

But, then again, a warts and all documentary about David is unlikely to be suitable viewing for all the family.

They would have to show it after midnight...

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