The excitement of porridge and Paris in the Springtime

Bobby Rahal will see alot of these the next  few days

Bobby Rahal will see alot of these the next few days 


The Imola weekend was not exactly gripping - particularly if you were a Michelin tire. Michael Schumacher dominated the whole event in his Bridgestone-shod Ferrari and the nature of the Imola circuit meant that everyone behind him went round and round in line astern, unable to overtake. There was only overtaking maneuver worthy of mention after the first couple of laps.

Being an old-fashioned kind of fellow, I still lap-chart Formula 1 races and one can always tell from the old lap charts whether or not things were dull. The numbers stay the same. If nothing is happening they are neat. If it is exciting the chart reads like a doctor's prescription. It is almost illegible. The 2002 San Marino Grand Prix was so dull that I had time to note the rising and falling of the temperature (which I never do) and I had had time to write "Porridge More Exciting!" at the top of the page after about 15 laps.

So in some respects it was a pleasure to get back to Paris on Monday lunchtime. Nothing beats Paris in the Springtime. Except Paris in the Springtime with a beautiful woman on one's arm.

I decided to celebrate my return by lunching at my favorite cafe on the Avenue de la Grand Armee, with a copy of Le Figaro to find out what was happening in the world and The Financial Times for motor racing news (who reads the motor racing comics these days?).

Having waded through the articles about the bloody mess in the Middle East and the French presidential elections and having skipped through an article exhorting us all to take part in the revival of hip-hop, I arrived at the sports page and read a boring story about a boring motor race. And then it was on into the warm and wonderful world of the classified advertisements where all apartments are "exceptional" or have "standing" and nothing is ever, tumbledown or crummy.

A browse through the obituaries revealed no enemies and no friends and suddenly I was in the automobile section and reading about Le Tour Auto which I discovered was departing the following morning from close to my apartment. There would be 222 beautiful old cars on a 13000-mile jaunt on the highways and byways of La Belle France.

San Marino GP lap chart © The Motortsport Company

The entry, I was delighted to read, included not only Jacques Laffite but also Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal. I had seen Danny and Jacques in Imola but I have not seen Bobby his F1 career was cut short last summer by a large corporate chainsaw being handled by a man with a strange moustache called Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle. He thought Niki Lauda would do a better job and so Bobby was shown the door and Lauda's trials began (I was going to say "baptism of fire" but it would not be fitting in the circumstances).

I decided that in the morning I would go down and see them all. Such things need accreditation but I figured that I would bluff my in and so I skipped happily across the Avenue Foch and headed south before the traffic had even started to build. It was a beautiful Parisian morning. A quarter of an hour later I was at the Palais de Chaillot. It was pretty much deserted which made it a little easier to convince the guards that although I did not have the necessary silly little plastic bracelet to enable me to be on the other side of the barricade, I was all right.

The organizers had not thought there would be any need for accreditation and so nothing was open and so it was down to a little chat with the security chief; the flash of a Bernie F1 pass and mutterings about negative publicity for the event and, as if by magic, I was inside the security cordon and mixing it with people wearing Nomex and gold Rolexes. When I got there I began to realize why they had needed guards. There were millions and millions of dollars worth of machinery lined up on the three roads around the famous water cannons.

For those of you not familiar with Paris, the Palais de Chaillot is the magnificent building which sits opposite the Eiffel Tower on the hill overlooking the Seine. It is probably most famous for a photograph take there in 1940 when a Mr. Hitler stopped by and wanted his picture taken with the famous tower in the background - just to show the world who was the boss of Europe.

I am not a great expert on old racing cars but I did recognize the odd Porsche 917, a few GT40s, some Mustangs, a couple of Minis and an AC Cobra. For the other stuff I had to look at the bonnets and discovered that I was in the presence of such peculiar material as very early Lotuses, Fraser-Nashes, Porsches, Alfas, BMWs and so on. I recognized a Lancia Stratos (and can even tell you that they normally have a Ferrari engine) but my search for Jean Sage's Ferrari was handicapped by the fact that it was not red. I completely missed the Alpine Renault and I had trouble telling an Alvis from an Austin Healey (I thought he was a rugby player). There were Lago Talbots and Maseratis and that sort of stuff and probably a few Sunbeams as well. I did spot a gull-wing Mercedes and very please with myself.

I found Sullivan first and he began to chat about the event. I began to realize that this was not a bunch of rich old men playing with their toys but a very serious business. Danny was complaining that some of the other cars had bigger tires and engines than they should have and that some of the machines were very definitely not original. The whole thing seemed insanely competitive.

"But then again," he said, waving his hand up the hill, "there are a couple guys up there who do what they want. Sometimes they just fail to show up because they have stopped for lunch at a Michelin Three Star restaurant along the way."

Now that's motor touring!

A little later Laffite came hobbling up, looking like a famous racing driver.

"Which one are you in?" he said.

"No, no. I am just visiting," I mumbled while thinking to myself that it was a very good question. My friend from L'Equipe was all decked out in overalls and about to spent 1300 miles sitting next to Jean Sage and whistling along tree-lined avenues, stopping occasionally for lunch. What a great idea. Maybe next year?

Rahal was driving a Porsche 904 (his own car) - which was cheap at $400,000. Some of the Ferraris, he said, were worth more than a million each.

Next to Bobby's car was a red thing (an Alfa Romeo I think) being driven by a kindly-looking gentleman who Rahal said was called Rob Walton. Did the name mean anything? Bobby asked. I nodded. One of the Wal Mart Waltons of whom several are in the top 10 lists for the richest people in the world. Bobby reckoned that there were more millionaires in the Palais de Chaillot than in any F1 paddock.

We gossiped a bit about the latest news in Formula 1 and CART and then Rahal explained about Le Tour Auto. There were a few "white knuckle" moments on some of the hillclimbs but generally it was pretty easy running. A nice way to spend a few days, ending up in Biarritz, just a few miles from my favorite holiday location, St. Jean de Luz.

Any chance of ride next year Bobby?

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