Excuse me, my man, parlez-vous motor racing

Start, Japanese GP 2000

Start, Japanese GP 2000 

 © The Cahier Archive

The new season beckons and in the Formula 1 world activity has reached fever pitch as new cars are rushed through their final preparations, going from test to test. Soon they will be bound for the airports to be freighted off to Melbourne. The gossip mill is grinding at high speed: who has failed the crash tests? Are there going to be any late changes in drivers? Who is sponsoring whom? Are the testing times to be believed or not?

For the journalists the season has already begun. There are team launches and team lunches in which everyone tries to persuade you to write nice things about their chances this year. Preview material is flowing as freely as the wine. The desks have been cleared, last year's paperwork (largely unsorted) has been thrown onto the bonfire. The countdown has begun. All systems are go. Will it be Ferrari or McLaren? Will it be Bridgestone or Michelin?

And just when I was nicely warmed up, some idiot sent me a list of rhetorical questions which he had trawled from some murky corner of the Internet. I wasted two minutes reading them. They were not that funny but one or two did raise a thought: Why is a boxing ring square? Why is third hand on a watch called the second hand? Why is traffic slowest in the rush hour? For a moment my thinking went lateral and I found myself considering the idea that no-one ever really explains what we are all talking about.

Formula 1 people wander about talking in jargon and for those who are new to the sport, it is not very helpful. It is a bit like being stuck in a lift with a group of computer nerds - all of whom look like The Penguin from the Batman movies - and who gabble about gigaflops, megabytes and band width.

And then I remembered the trauma of being a young race reporter and not knowing what "homologation" meant and being ashamed to ask anyone to explain it to me. I looked in the dictionary but that was no help. In the end I just had to figure out from conversations which took place.

Motor racing presents the newcomer with a baffling array of words. Even the word Formula One creates confusion. Why is there a Formula 1 and a Formula 3 but no Formula 2? Well, there used to be a Formula 2 but then the FIA (which are the initials for the French translation of the "international automobile federation") came along and with brilliant logic deleted Formula 2 and replaced it with Formula 3000. So when you count in motor racing, you go: 1, 3000, 3. Simple.

No-one tells you that Grand Prix means "Big Prize" in French. It was first used for a race which started in the town of Pau 100 years ago and was universally adopted after a big race at Le Mans in 1906. The Americans even went as far as having a race called The Grand Prize but it did not survive.

When you stop and think about it, the questions come thicker and faster than a Finnish racing driver. Why do racing cars overtake but not undertake? If they can outcorner other cars why can they not incorner them? If there is understeer and oversteer why is there is no such thing as inbraking when F1 people talk so much about outbraking? Why do engines have butterflies and trumpets? How can cars have coke bottle rear ends and flat bottoms? And when a wishbone snaps does one get a wish or a prayer?

Not so long ago a Dutchman with the impressive name of Henk Wagenaar Hummelinck sent me a book called "Formule 1 ABC" and I thought: "What a brilliant idea!" And then I read the book and concluded that all race fans now have to do is to spend 15 years learning to speak Dutch and they will be fine.

However, reading between the lines I discovered the explanation for really useful F1 expressions such as "lollypop man", "marbles", "hot air management" and "idle button" (no, he's not a Benetton driver).

I wanted to know the derivation of the word "pit" and discovered that "Ein pit is eigenlijk een overdekte werkplaats" and that it was first used on the 1908 Targa Florio. By why is a pit called a pit?

A pit is a hole in the ground, at least it is according to the dictionary. Well, there are seven meanings in terms of nouns and three verbs. The motor racing usage of pit is the seventh and last noun and is described as "an area beside the track where racing cars are serviced during a race". Fine, but why? Some claim that the paddock on the Targa Florio was lower than the race track and so became known as "the pit" but even the great Internet could not give me confirmation of that. And languages other than Dutch are not much help either. The French call the pits "les stands" which can get very confusing when one considers that in English the stands are the grandstands. The Italians and the Germans use the word "box" or "boxen" to describe the pits and in America the garages tend to be away from the track and they are called garages.

So what about the word paddock? How, when applied to motor racing, does a word meaning grassy meadow become a tarmac-covered camp for motorhomes? The answer to many of the questions about motor racing can be found at a place called Brooklands. It is just down the road from the current McLaren factory in Surrey and was the very first permanent racing circuit in the world. You can still bits of the great old oval circuit as you fly out of London's Heathrow Airport and head south to France.

When they opened Brooklands in 1907 motor car racing did not have a language as it does today. So the organizers based everything on The Sport of Kings - horse racing.

Brooklands had grandstands which were reminiscent of racecourses, it had different enclosures for members and for the general public. There were bookmakers who took bets on who would win the races and there were even white rails beside the race track. It was, in effect, horse racing with cars. This is how the paddock became known as the paddock. In horse racing a paddock is where the horses are finally prepared for a race. At Brooklands the horses were replaced by cars. The original garages at Brooklands were known as stalls - just as in horse parlance - but this quickly faded away and the replenishment depots acquired the name "pits".

The influence of Brooklands is also felt in the nomenclature of the race officials. Motor races have a starter, a clerk of the course and stewards who made the decisions about the rules.

But not all of the Brooklands terminology and practices have survived. Originally every race was for a Trophy, a Plate or a Cup although there were some races which were graced with the name Stakes, which means that they were for a cash prize. This faded away over time. The tradition of drivers wearing different colored jerseys - just as jockeys do - was also discontinued quickly with the introduction of numbers on the cars. This made it much easier for the spectators and officials to know what was going on. The system was altered a few years later when cars from different nations began to appear in different national colors. This was thanks to an American newspaper man called James Gordon Bennett who offered an impressive trophy to the nation which won a race he organized. The cars of each country were given different colors: France was blue, Germany white, Belgium yellow, Britain green and America red. The fact that no Americans made much of an impact in Europe resulted in red being taken over by the Italians - which is why today Ferraris are red, Prosts are blue and Jaguars green. German cars were white until 1934 when Mercedes-Benz decided to save weight by not painting its racing machines and Ferdinand Porsche, the Auto Union designer, decided to follow suit because he had minimalist tendencies. And so Germany's national color has become silver which is why the McLarens are silver-grey.

And if you want to know why the Ferrari fans are called the tifosi it is because they are mad and froth at the mouth with excitement. The word comes from the Italian for typhoid and is used when one is trying to describe feverish activity...

Which brings us neatly back to where we started. On the road to Melbourne.

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