GLOBETROTTER

Bombing the backwaters, road kill and the law of Evin

If you were a megalomaniac (and I have heard it suggested that there are such people in the Formula 1 paddock) and you were one day so annoyed that you decided that it would be a great idea to bomb the hell out of France, you would pin a map of the country on a wall and, when the bombers pilots arrived, you would jab a wild finger into the center of the map. You can be pretty sure if your pilots were any good that you would be bombing somewhere near the town of Nevers.

Being at the geographical center of France is all very well but it is not very exciting. In fact it is pleasantly dull, a charming backwater where one can live a nice life if there is nothing which needs to be done at high speed. When Francois Mitterand was President of France a few years ago he and his Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy came up with the extraordinary idea to try to turn the region into the silicon valley of France of high technology precision engineering firms. It was a mad idea and was never going to work but they did it anyway. The result was a vast racing circuit which was to be the central focus of the development and would host the French Grand Prix.

The problem with Magny-Cours is that it is not very glamorous, even with Formula 1. It is hard to be glamorous when there are munching cows, clucking chickens and not much else. The local politicians think that they are at the epicenter of France but today even the local folk admit that the town is in the middle of nowhere.

Getting to and from Magny-Cours is easy enough if you have an executive jet but the majority of people in Formula 1 are still saving up for their first Learjet or their first Falcon. This means that they take a commercial flight (oh, horror of horrors!) and drive down from Paris. Others take the train.

Despite the best efforts of the Shinkansen engineers in Japan the French still hold the World Railway Speed Record. One of the impressive TGV Atlantiques establishing the rather frightening target of 320mph on a very straight stretch of track near Tours. Alas, the railway that takes one from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Nevers is rather less swift and one has to rattle along through the countryside for two and a half hours before the train finally snakes and squeals into Nevers station.

It is not very glamorous but it is a lot more sensible than driving because the roads of France are famously murderous, peopled by automotive Jack the Rippers who drive too fast, are horribly selfish and get over excited and do stupid things like brake-testing those who have annoyed them.

The motorways are safe enough because everyone is going in the same direction and so it is more difficult to have head-on accidents, although some of the French, being an inventive nation, still do manage it.

On the normal roads - the Routes Nationales - things are frighteningly different. There are, to begin with, beautiful trees usually vast plane trees which date back nearly two centuries. They were planted on the orders of the Emperor Napoleon to create shaded roads on which his armies could march from one end of the country to the other. Napoleon was a brilliant man in many respects but he was not visionary enough to imagine a day when there would be automobiles.

The French drivers are very fast but they regularly drive into the Emperor's trees at very high speed, bifurcating their automobiles and getting themselves on the front page of the local paper on the day before their funeral. As the F1 circus struggled through the Silverstone-like traffic jams on Saturday morning, those coming from the south reported passing just such an accident scene with a burned-out and unrecognizable car wrapped around a tree - and a white sheet over the top. There would be a number of empty seats in the grandstands on race day...

The French government recently did a very expensive survey to discover why it is that the nation has so many appalling road accidents. It took months of research and cost a fortune but it revealed that the problem was because the French have an attitude problem. I could have told them that in exchange for a big lunch in Paris.

The worst days of the year are public holidays. In 1998, for example, the French managed to slaughter 85 people on the May 1 weekend. This year, after a massive and very expensive advertising campaign to reduce the number of road accidents, the total on May 1 was 98. And over the Easter weekend there were another 90.

At Magny Cours FIA President Max Mosley and the French transport minister Jean-Claude Gayssot announced a new FIA road safety campaign called "Formula Zero", a strategy for reducing fatalities and injuries on track and road. They might as well have set off to get rid of the Sahara Desert with a bucket and spade.

How can it be that the French have not learned from all this pain?

And why is that the nation cannot produce a top-level Formula 1 driver, the only useful job for fast lunatics?

France has the veteran Jean Alesi and the underemployed McLaren test driver Olivier Panis. There are six Frenchmen in Formula 3000 but four of them have their careers going in the wrong direction. In Formula 3 the French Championship is being led by a Japanese driver.

Where did it all go wrong?

Where is the endless supply of Frenchmen called Eric which used to drip into Formula 1 at the rate of one a year?

There are two reasons why there is dearth of French talent in F1 at the moment: the problem began in 1990 when a French politician called Claude Evin had the mad idea of banning all tobacco and alcohol advertising in the mistaken belief that this would stop the French smoking and drinking. He might as well have banned the advertising of garlic. Evin's Law hit the statute books in January 1993 and in the space of a few weeks demolished most of France's motorsport industry as Gauloises, Marlboro and Camel were all forced to give up their motor racing activities and the young heroes of the day became a lost generation, scrambling around to get drives in shoddy sportscars at Le Mans.

Driving sportscars at Le Mans helped to rid the modern generation of probably the best rising star, Sebastien Enjolras being killed in 1997 when the rear bodywork of his car flew off and he lost control of the car at high speed. The 21-year-old from Montpellier had a record in Formula Renault matched only by Alain Prost.

Two more rising stars Stephane Salaz and Anthony Gheza died in the same road accident a year ago.

The saddest thing is that the French are not smoking nor drinking less thanks to Evin. In fact road accident statistics show that alcohol is still a major factor in a large percentage of crashes. The cradle of world motorsport has been tipped over and the babies thrown out. Nowadays every time you look under a toolbox there is another Brazilian. Even the British are producing more racing stars. If the French are not careful there will be more Australians in F1 than there are Frenchmen.

The only hope is that car manufacturers Renault and Peugeot will start pouring money into a new generation of racers but the evidence to date has been that they will spend their money buying the fast guys rather than bringing on the youngsters. Even Prost gave up on his young protege Stephane Sarrazin this year and hired German Nick Heidfeld in the hope that being nice to Germans would result in an engine supply.

In Magny Cours there was a lot of talk about Prost selling his team and giving up in Formula 1. He denied it but he looks like a man who is tired of fighting. He says he will go on and that he has faced worse things in his racing career but he is less convincing than once he was. The whispers in the paddock are that the team will be taken over by another French organization and that they will try to chase the mad dream of a French national team. It is not the way to go motor racing and Alain knows that, but it did not stop him backing down when he was faced by a mutiny amongst his troops just before Monaco. They delivered an ultimatum: either the English technical director goes or we go.

Alan Jenkins went out of the door taking a briefcase full of Prost's credibility with him.

One would forgive Jenks if he was down at the local bookshop buying a big map of France and trying to find the telephone numbers of bomber pilots.

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