Crossing the border, drawing the line...

Michael Schumacher, Brazilian GP 2001

Michael Schumacher, Brazilian GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

"Have you got anything to declare," said the sinister man in the French customs uniform. Take my advice: Never mess with the Douane. They have powers to pull your fingernails out (slowly) while raiding your house, kicking you cat and selling your children into slavery. They do not like jokes. They like to catch bad guys and if good guys get caught in the crossfire it's tough. So you don't say: "Hey, do I look like an international smuggler?". You say "Yes Sir. No Sir. Three bags full Sir."

I meet the Douane from time to time as I cross borders at least twice a week. At the moment the Franco-Swiss border in Geneva is a regular port of call. The Douane like this one because Switzerland is famous for the discretion of its banking system and every so often people try to cross the border with their suitcases crammed full of stacks of clean crisp (newly-laundered) million dollar bills.

Geneva has always been a place which invites intrigue. The United Nations and hundreds of other international organizations are there. It is an international town. The place is full of the rich, the famous and the corrupt. There are far too many African "diplomats" and there are ladies in fur hats and coats who all look as if they should be called Mishka and their mission should be to bed budding Bonds.

And, of course, the watches are so expensive that they must take photographs, shoot bullets and fire grappling hooks.

But Geneva is a glamorous place. Set on the lake in the shadow of the mountains where, on a clear morning, with the sky blue and the sun shining on the distant glistening Mont Blanc, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is no fairer place on earth.

Of course, it does have one or two drawbacks: there are too many modern buildings, taking away from the splendor of the old lakeside hotels and palaces; and it gets pretty damn cold in the winter. Still it was in Geneva the other day that, after years of trying, I finally figured out the value of banks. No, I'm not talking about secret numbered accounts but rather that these otherwise unhelpful organizations give you lovely flexible credit cards - which are great from scraping ice off windscreens...

When the Douane asked me about whether I was transporting money, I laughed. I haven't got any, I said, my bank has taken it all. There was not a glimmer of a smile.

I hate to think how many borders I have crossed in my life but for about 20 years the average has been about two a week - which means that (crunch, crunch, crunch) I have done something like 2080 border crossings. There have been good ones (nobody there) and there have been bad ones (Thank God they did away with Czechoslovakia). I am very proud of my record of crossing three borders - on the ground - before breakfast. And not some silly piffling countries like Liechtenstein or Luxembourg. We are talking proper countries here: France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy all before cracking open a croissant and sucking down a (much-needed) coffee.

There are some countries that I enter with glee and others that I do so with dread.

Mexico, which one of my colleagues in F1 always used to call "Hell's Waiting Room", was always my least favorite port of call. Today I dread the trip to Brazil. Perhaps here are golden beaches and luscious jungly inlets but F1 never visits them. We go to the nether regions of the industrial dungheap called Sao Paulo. It has never been very pleasant (Rio de Janeiro was a lot more F1 in image) but this year the trip is looking decidedly frightening.

Last year when F1 visited the city there were several attacks on F1 personnel. Outside the paddock team members had to run the gauntlet back to their hotels, hoping that the traffic lights stayed green and that they did not have to stop too many times. The robbers wanted money and watches. They do not care whether they shoot you or not.

The organizers and the government say that there is tight security. It is so tight in fact that there were at least two robberies last year inside the F1 paddock at Interlagos, which is as hard to access as The Bank of England.

Interlagos is, of course, one of the worst places left on the F1 calendar in terms of facilities. Work is needed on everything to bring it up to what is supposed to be the established norm.

In the last few months kidnapping and robbery seems to have become a nationalized industry. In the course of the last 12 months kidnapping has increased by 400%. There is a new kidnapping five days a week and when the money does not come the gunmen have no qualms at all about murdering their victims. They kill politicians. They slaughter innocent people and the other day they even killed a woman hostage in front of her own house just to get their message across. It is horrible. Politicians are puffing about it and saying that there will be more policemen on the streets but it is hard to see how the problem will be solved when the hugely wealthy live so close to so many poor people.

Philosophically-speaking crime should not be an issue for F1. Grand Prix racing is a sport that goes all over the world for the greater glory of mankind.

We all know that this is rubbish. Formula 1 goes around the world, picking up the biggest checks on offer. The sport allows the city to bask a little in F1's associated glamour. The race in Sao Paulo survives because it is the only place in South America which hosts an F1 event. And the sport needs a race down there to maintain its credibility and keep the sponsors happy.

No-one with a brain wants to go to Sao Paulo and those who can avoid it, simply do not go. Those who must go do so with trepidation - and that was before the current crime wave.

Sport is not above crime. Just a few weeks ago one of the world's top yachtsmen was shot and killed during a robbery in Brazil. But I have no doubt that F1 will go back to Brazil as always, heading into the dark nasty forest like Little Red Riding Hood, skipping along saying "It will be all right" and whistling to make ourselves feel a little better.

But how are we going to feel when one of our number gets shot?

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