GLOBETROTTER

This is living (or not as the case may be)

Michael Schumacher, Australian GP 2000

Michael Schumacher, Australian GP 2000 

 © The Cahier Archive

It had been snowing but the bright sunshine had melted the whiteness on the ground except for small areas in the darkest shadows. From 20,000 ft the English countryside did not look at all ravaged by foot and mouth disease. That was behind us as the airplane powered away from the winter en route to later summer in Melbourne. After weeks of frantic action getting ready for the start of the new Formula 1 season suddenly there was nothing to be done. It was time for the stewardesses to supply a drink and time to read an entire copy of The Economist. There were 30 hours to kill.

Thirty hours? Well, there is an argument that if one goes west around the world one gets less jetlag - it works for me - and so my route to Australia is usually via Los Angeles. The advantage is that after 10 hours one can get off the plane, re-oxygenate the blood, have a good meal and then set off for the long haul across the Pacific. Flying the other way is quicker but you get only one hour off in 22 and you eat nothing but plastic airline food.

Some people in Formula 1 do not like the long-haul flights but for the optimists it is a big opportunity. There are no phone calls, no e-mails and after a few hours the computers have all run out of energy. All one can do is watch films and they are never as good as in the in the cinema as all the naughty bits have been "edited for airline use".

It is a chance to read, to whizz through the latest book, to scour magazines. And so it was not long before I became an expert on Somalian politics, Tom Cruise's love life and minimalist interior design. I learned that the Grand Prix in Melbourne this year clashed with the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney and I was shocked to discover that this event attracts half a million people, which I suppose makes it a bigger spectator sport than the Grand Prix. Judging by the picture of lesbians in uniform and men with safety pins in unusual places, it must be quite a spectacle.

The Grand Prix in Australia is a massive event but on arrival in Melbourne this year, it got precious little media coverage in the build-up to the race weekend. The problem was that The Don was dead. Readers in Sicily and New York City may be rather confused by this news but we are not discussing some sleazy sun-tanned Italian mobster with an expensive watch. No, we are talking about the greatest cricketer of all time - Sir Donald Bradman. In the media hyperbole of the modern era everyone is "a legend" but The Don really was. Even so, Australia went completely over the top. For the next five days Bradman was on the front page of the newspaper I was reading. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that The Don had been the greatest Australian of all time, a comment which caused outrage in the chattering classes in Melbourne.

"It bespeaks of our lack of national confidence in intellectual or political and social contributions, including the great nation builders of the early years" railed The Australian newspaper, adding "bespeaks" to sound intelligent. "It is part of the problem intellectuals, politicians and innovators have in gaining recognition in this country."

There then followed a long (and not very interesting) analysis on how one should judge greatness. Politicians, religious leaders and businessmen were all rejected for various reasons. David Headon, who runs the Center for Australian Cultural Studies, summed it up neatly: "Sport is simple. It delivers a measurable result and it captures the public imagination."

In defence of The Don, one could argue that cricket gave Australia national self-respect. It certainly gave the English some respect the Australians and it was Bradman who did it. He remained a modest individual and was referred as a national treasure.

Passing through LAX (the name travelling folk use for Los Angeles International airport) one could see a similar process of reverence going on. The Americans were still trying to come to terms with the fact that its greatest racing driver of recent years was dead. Dale Earnhardt has achieved in death a fame far greater than he had in life. He was on the cover of Newsweek (or was it Time?) and even The Economist gave him space. These are heady achievements. But the articles in the USA were full of angst-analysis: Will Earnhardt's death hurt NASCAR? Will the fans turn away in droves (whatever a drove is)?

The F1 world has lived through this. Ayrton Senna's death seven years ago was a shock of similar (probably bigger) proportions. And, without wishing to be tasteless, one has to say that it was the best thing that happened to F1. Overnight viewing figures went up by 30%. And they stayed there.

The only conclusion from all this is that people like death and destruction. It is the only explanation I can come up with. And if you want further evidence of this you have only to look to the cinema where Gladiator and Hannibal (if cinema seats had detachable cushions I would have been hiding behind them) are ahead at the box office.

Ironically the slogan for this year's Australian Grand Prix was "This is living" and I have to say that I was enjoying life in sunny Melbourne. I was back with racing cars again after a winter of desks and drizzle. There is usually not much time for partying in F1 but somehow I managed to get to a few events (which is why I am writing this at 4.24 in the morning).

I was having such a good time at The Grand Prix Ball that when someone asked me afterwards what the evening had been like I could barely remember any details. What did I eat? Um... What was being auctioned? Um... I had no idea. Most of the speeches and presentations went completely over my head.

What were you doing? my questioner fired back.

I was chatting with three gorgeous women about quantum physics and such matters.

"Oh yeah," so my questioner, "Melbourne's famous for beautiful women."

Well, yes, but you see one was English, one was Canadian and one was German. It was cosmopolitan F1 as it should be.

Boys will be boys. And how nice it was. After a winter of doing grown up stuff it was nice to be a kid again. At the end of the evening we giggled with excitement (and perhaps a little influence of alcohol) when chocolate racing cars came with the coffee.

This is living... Thank you Melbourne.

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