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Tales of the unexpected and the sweet and sour of Spa

Legal actions are often a part of Formula 1 these days and so one is always keeping a vague eye open for cases in which precedents are set. The crime pages are usually rather colorful and my favorite story in recent weeks is of a gang of female robbers who have begun hitting supermarket checkouts in France. They arrive at the till, rip off their shirts, pull out their guns and demand money. When they have departed the police arrive and ask for descriptions but, incredibly, no-one seems to be able to even remember whether they were blonde or brunette. Apparently all the eye witnesses were looking at other things...

The other day I was reading through some legal stuff and chanced upon a document from which I discovered that the powers-that-be in Formula 1 recently went to arbitration and argued that: "The Formula 1 races trace their roots back to 1887 when a French magazine organized a reliability trial of horseless carriages."

This was rather surprising because every history book I ever read said that the sport began in 1894 when a bunch of Frenchmen set off to drive from Paris to Rouen. But there it was in black and white. Exhibit G, quoted from the Wall Street Journal.

This needed investigation and so it was off to the library for a bit of digging and eventually there it was hidden away in a corner of history. There was a race organized for horseless carriages on April 20, 1887.

Marvellous.

The only problem was that it did not actually take place. You see it is very difficult to have a race when you have only one competitor. And Monsieur Georges Bouton was the only one to turn up. Mr. Button (as he would have been known had he been in England) later became rather famous as half of the De Dion Bouton automobile company.

Right now, another Mr. Button is becoming rather famous as a Formula 1 driver. Six months ago lots of Formula 1 talking heads were going on about how Sir Frank Williams was barking mad to have signed a 19-year-old who was barely out of school. There is a dwindling group of diehards who refuse to accept that Button has proved anything this year and that anyone could have done it. Yeah? Well, Ralf Schumacher - the man voted the top driver of 1999 by many F1 pundits - could have outqualified Jenson at Spa - but he did not. And, judging by Ralf's face on Saturday evening, he was less than happy about Button qualifying third for the Belgian Grand Prix. Ralf has four years of F1 experience behind him and such things do not reflect well upon him.

Spa is the kind of race track where the good stand out from the dross. It was where Michael Schumacher first wowed the F1 fraternity when he qualified a Jordan eighth on the grid in 1991 on his F1 debut. It was several places better than had been achieved by the previous occupant of the car who was unable to continue his career with Jordan because he was otherwise engaged in London's Brixton Prison.

Schumacher grabbed the opportunity and his bank manager will tell you the rest.

Spa is the place where the driver can make the difference. It is not one of the Mickey Mouse places we usually visit. It was where Michael won his first victory in 1992 and where he has since won another three victories (actually it was four but one was taken away from him on a technicality). It was where Juan-Manuel Fangio won three times and where Jim Clark won four in a row. And let us not forget Ayrton Senna, who notched up five Spa victories.

Today Spa is almost the last of the circuits where the driver can - within reason - outdo the machine. There is a grandeur about the track which few other circuits today can emulate. And there are so many stories that can be told from the old days.

I started going to Spa for its second great event: the Spa 24 Hours. The biggest touring car race of the year. It was magical to be there for the final qualifying session as night was falling and the air was cool and I still remember seeing the likes of Gerhard Berger, Manfred Winkelhock and Hans Stuck hurtling through Eau Rouge in the old BMW 635s bouncing over the curbs and skittering through on two wheels, teetering on the brink of a big accident. It was mesmerizing stuff. And when I became a Formula 1 reporter it was much the same watching Senna going through Eau Rouge. It was a thing to behold.

It may be a track for the greats but there is always an element of unpredictably about Spa. Sometimes it is on the race track. Sometimes it is the weather. Usually it is the traffic flow system which the Belgians love to change things from day to day.

Sometimes it is even the food.

Another of the joys of visiting Spa is that the Belgians are famous for their ability to produce good food. This is possibly why there are so many fat men standing on gates at Spa arguing that you cannot come in because they have changed the traffic system since yesterday. Anyway, the food is great but it can sometimes be a little surprising and on Saturday night when we went out for a quick meal before getting down to work, I found myself eating ostrich. Perhaps I should add that it had been cooked.

And very nice it was too. Not unnaturally the unusual dinner led to conversations about unlikely foods in unlikely places and there were tales of roasted impala in South Africa, bear steaks in Montreal and Buffalo Grills in France. And then I remembered a pizzeria in Sydney, Australia, which decided that it would be good to reinvent the pizza and offered Chinese and Thai pizzas and - and this was my favorite - the "Great Ozzie Pizza" which featured a lamb chop and a fried egg on the top. I could go on to tell you about the Jewish-Chinese restaurant called Cohen & Wong, just off Leicester Square in London, but you probably will not believe me.

Ah yes, and there was that restaurant near Spa a few years ago where a few of the F1 press had dinner with Bernie Ecclestone and were served chicken with strawberry jam.

In F1 life is full of surprises which is why we all love it, I suppose. We do not get bored commuting to the suburbs. We have all run away and joined the circus, just as kids dream of doing.

The other day I went to the circus and I found myself watching Canadian deer (Oh, I've eaten one of them!) which had been trained to jump through hoops. Do you know how hard it is to train a deer? No, nor do I. But it must be pretty difficult because I never seen one before. The highpoint of the show was seven trained wild boar.

And as I was watching them the only thought I had was: If it is possible to tame wild pigs, how come there are some racing drivers who can never be tamed?

It was a good question but in the end irrelevant because these are not men who will win races at Spa.

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