GLOBETROTTER

Waiting... and shopping

In Melbourne in recent weeks, so they tell me, everyone has been getting excited about tennis. Albert Park is just beginning to turn itself back into a racing circuit but the girls in the short skirts, grunting at one another, have been holding the public attention at the Melbourne Tennis Center.

In a month from now Melbourne will be revving up for Grand Prix fever but over here in Europe the excitement is already beginning. The new Formula 1 cars are beginning to run and everyone is trying to figure out who is going to be quick this year. The teams are playing games with one another and everyone else is watching, looking for clues. Great stuff.

But, at the same time, it is a bit frustrating because there are still a wintry month to go before Melbourne. It has been a bitter winter and the lure of some sunshine, some balmy Melbourne warmth and a lunch or two in St Kilda seems very powerful.

In these grey months of waiting even Paris has seemed cold and miserable. Nowhere more so than at Guyancourt where the Prost factory has had a frigid air about it in recent weeks as the staff have waited to see if the team was still in business.

It is very different from five years ago when a rather younger-looking Alain Prost took over the old Ligier team and announced plans to turn it into something special. The ironic thing when one looks back is that Prost's first year was its best. The team was using Mugen Honda engines and Bridgestone tires - Olivier Panis came close to winning races but was hobbled (quite literally as it turned out given his leg-breaking crash in Montreal) by reliability problems. The first Prost-Peugeot in 1998 was a disaster. The AP01 had an Achilles Gearbox and had to be botched. The weight distribution went out of the window and the car became a pig to drive. The AP02 was a lot better but a new generation of engines had arrived and the Peugeot was too big. Prost and Peugeot fell out. Alain did a deal with Ferrari for 2000 but that season was ruined when the team began to get uppity. There were demands that the technical director be fired (mainly because he was English) and Prost backed down. It was a disastrous move and the team sank back into the old Ligier mold.

To give him credit (which no-one would by now) Alain decided that he would have to break the mold and got rid of a lot of French influence in the team. He hired some good new people but the lack of money meant the team was on a downward spiral and France was more excited about having a new Formula 1 team in the form of Renault Sport. Prost is an old toy, tossed aside like Woody when Buzz Lightyear arrived on the scene...

Being born English, one grows up poking fun at the French but I have to admit that I like France. I have lived here for 10 years and despite the foibles of the people I love it. Until recently it was a mystery to me how the country kept going with its perpetual strikes, national holidays, 35-hour-weeks and 13th months of salary. But one day I concluded it is because they are an inventive lot.

They will tell you that Frenchmen have invented more or less everything that has ever been invented (including "chauvinism") ranging from the parachute to the cinema, to photography, the automobile, the dustbin (a Moniseur Poubelle), the fashion industry, the Internet and the fastest trains in the world. If they did not actually invent the computer or the aspirin they have invented stories to suggest that they might have done.

They have also invented the belief that Renault Sport is French. It's about as French as "le hot dog". Renault Sport is an English team. The Frenchmen do the engines.

That aside, one of the greatest French inventions is Grand Prix racing itself. And that is why I find it so hard to understand why the nation has not produced a truly successful racing team. They used to be able to do it in the early days of the sport. I know this because the neighborhood in which I live is famous for a couple of things: it was where they invented the automobile; and where motor racing began.

If I nip out to my local brasserie I am in a bar called the l'Auto. The one next door is called Le Touring. And round the corner is a restaurant called Le Phaeton. If I go to visit the TV repair man I find myself in the Place St Ferdinand, looking at a statue of Leon Serpollet, one of the pioneers of steam cars. In the next door Rue du Debarcadere Ettore Bugatti had his experimental department.

And I get my croissants from a wonderful bakery on the Rue Pergolese. I am sure that the baker does not know (nor perhaps care) that it was here in the 1880s that Count Albert de Dion-Wandonne de Malfiance, a famous playboy and duellist, established a workshop for an engineer called Georges Bouton and his brother in law Charles-Armand Trepardoux. They began to build steam-powered cars but then Bouton realized that the future was probably in petrol engines and Trepardoux performed a magnificent departure from history by storming off saying that steam was obviously the way to go.

Racing scholars will tell you that the first motor race in history was the Paris-Rouen Trial in 1894, starting at the Porte Maillot but actually history is wrong. The first race took place seven years earlier, just around the corner in the Bois de Boulogne. It was won by Bouton at the wheel of a De Dion-Bouton but it has been forgotten for the simple reason that Bouton was the only competitor to turn up. He did however complete the course and the other day at an antique show I found a picture to prove it...

Seven years later he made up for that disappointment by winning the Paris-Rouen Trial as well.

I must admit that I love being surrounded by automotive history but at the same time it does have its disadvantages.

As I drum my fingers waiting for the new F1 season to start, I cannot even go shopping without the whole neighborhood reminding me there are still six weeks to go.

Maybe I need to watch some tennis...

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