Carnival of the animals

German GP 2001

German GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

When you think about it (and, let's face it, who does?) Grand Prix racing is sometimes a ridiculous business - and it always has been. One is reminded of this in different ways at different times and it struck me the other day while I was wandering through the Media Car Park at Hockenheim.

The Media Car Park is located quite a way from the race track and to get from there to the circuit you have to board one of a fleet of Mercedes-Benz minibuses. And as I was doing this, it suddenly struck me that Mercedes-Benz must be mad. It might be of value to have official supplier status for the Safety Car but who knows (and who cares) that Mercedes is the official minibus supplier to the F1 circus?

But then, when you look at Hockenheim, you realize that sometimes people do weird things.

Hockenheim was built - at huge expense - in 1939 to be a test track for the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team of that era. The Media Car Park is located at what used to be the western end of the original track. If you happen to go there one day, you should look for the grassy patch located between the fire station and the town cemetery. Back in the old days racing cars would go whizzing off up to the Ostkurve (which in translation means "The East Curve") and would then come hurtling back down what we now think of the back straight. Rather than turning right into the stadium section (which did not exist) they would go straight on, through what is now the grandstand, through the car park behind it and across the motorway (none of which existed at the time) and they then would emerge just by the wall of the cemetery.

It really was a case of the quick and the dead sharing this small piece of the earth.

The frightening thing about Hockenheim's early career (apart from the fact that the history was very short) is that it was built to test cars for a single Grand Prix event. The Tripoli Grand Prix. Back in those days the Tripoli Grand Prix was the biggest race on the calendar. It was the richest event and the most glamorous. This may be hard to imagine given that Tripoli is in what is now known as Libya but such was the way of the world. The Mellaha circuit had two long straights with a curling turn at either end. If you have been to Hockenheim you may recognize the description.

So Mercedes-Benz (with a little help from the German government of the day) decided to build a circuit so that they could be properly prepared for the race in Tripoli. Unfortunately its value was never truly exploited as a few months after the track was finished Germany went to war with the world and so interest in racing waned rather while everyone got on with the serious business of killing one another.

When you look at the scale of that investment it is no more absurd than what teams are doing today and when I saw the plans for the new Hockenheim circuit the other day it was fairly clear that in the background there has been another big investment from Mercedes-Benz to help Hockenheim survive into the future.

Judging by the plans this new Hockenheim will be a shadow of the current track. And if that is not an insult nothing is because Hockenheim has never enjoyed any romantic status - nor even a hint of greatness. It was just fast and pretty dangerous. The new track has been designed for the TV cameras, rather than for grandeur. It will be just like all the other circuits which have been tinkered with in recent years.

But there is no point in getting wistful and churlish. This is progress and the modern racing fans do not care much for things like tradition. They care about personality. We live in a personality-driven society. When one is cornered at parties people do not ask "What do you think about the rebuilding of Hockenheim?" they ask what Michael Schumacher is like, whether David Coulthard is a good bloke (because he looks like one) and whether or not Eddie Irvine really is as big a prat as he appears. And if that sounds harsh I am merely passing on the questions that I have been asked of late. I am not passing on any opinions.

One of the things about being a Grand Prix reporter is that it is very hard to get away from it all. You go home, you do your work, you finish. And, in search of a bit of relaxation, you got to a party or a barbecue and the first thing that happens is that someone comes up and asks you what Michael Schumacher is like.

I used to avoid such conversations by saying that I was an accountant. It is amazing the effect that word can have on people. One day I used it on a real accountant and he was suddenly very interested. And then I was in trouble because how does one explain to someone without insulting them that you are pretending to be one of their profession because it is the most boring job in the world?

It is a tough one.

So nowadays, if asked, I say that I am a scientific researcher, looking through microscopes into petri-dishes full of strange life forms. Very few people are interested in nasty things in petri dishes that go under microscopes. And I am not telling lies either. I do spend my life studying odd life forms. They are called Formula 1 people. I started out in motor racing wanting to know why the drivers drove as they did and over the years the psychological profiles I have discovered have been weird and wonderful (and on one or two occasions rather worrying). But in recent years the focus for weird and wonderful characters has shifted away from the cockpits and into the motorhomes. There is no such thing as a normal bloke running a Formula 1 team. You have to be a bit mad to even want to do the job - even if the rewards are massive.

Of course you could (and team bosses do) say the same about F1 journalists. And the truth is that we are all a little odd, a rather dysfunctional band of brothers and sisters in Bernie's F1 Family but the incoming tide in the sea of money is twisting some of the team bosses into very strange little beasties.

I have had some pretty bizarre pets over the years which have included a race horse which had been given too many steroids, a jet-setting gerbil called Olivier (no relation to Panis), a pair of black sheep called Nelson and Winnie and a pot-bellied pig who was must have been the result of an unseemly union of a Vietnamese terrorist and a wild boar.

Originally I named all the animals after fellow journalists but eventually I looked to the F1 bosses for inspiration. There was a point at which I had a couple of dogs called Bernie and Max. They arrived in the same week and rather than calling them Marks and Spencer or Whisky and Soda, I settled on two names which are well-known in F1 circles.

They had nothing in common. Bernie was a mongrel in the truest sense of the word, having no recognizable breed and so had none of the problems which one associates with highly-bred canine champions. He was as bright as a button and dangerous as anything. His only character flaw was that some evil human being had lopped off his tail with an axe and so he lived in fear that an evil human would come and hurt him again and he whimpered or bit whenever anyone came close.

Max too was a difficult dog. He was a pure breed but smart but he had a string of previous owners and a habit of going walkabout. And, having been born with a killer instinct, Max was rather partial to sitting ducks - which is a dangerous business when you live next door to a duck farm. Murderous Max still holds the South West of France freestyle duck killing world record for one evening, having dispensed with 50 of the silly beasts in the course of one silent night.

All this has little relevance except it created a lot of confusion in the old days when I am talking on the telephone and walking the dogs at the same time.

"Yes, but what do you think Ron is up to now?" I would say to some secret source on the phone. "What he is doing just doesn't make sense. Max! Stop that! Bernie! Sit. Sta-a-a-y. Good boy!"

Since the days of Max and Bernie whenever I have toyed with the idea of getting a new beast I have always looked to the Formula 1 team bosses for inspiration when it comes to names. If I ever buy a snake I will not have problem finding a name for it. I have a wonderful name in waiting for my pet earthworm (if I ever get one) and I will not be worried if I acquire a piranha fish.

I even have a name ready for a buffalo - although I cannot see myself getting one in the near future.

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