Fun and games in the F1 Paddock

Webber gave me a quizzical look

Webber gave me a quizzical look 


Retail therapy is a phrase that people use in Europe to describe what they do when they feel the need to go shopping. When life is tough a new frock can make all the difference - well, at least for girls. Boys prefer things like mobile phones or similar executive toys.

When the multimillionaire team bosses feel the need for retail therapy things become much more exciting as they tend to buy themselves rather bigger presents. And let us not confuse personal wealth and racing teams here. Teams may be struggling but the bosses are not exactly poor. Eddie Jordan was complaining the other day about how times are hard in F1 and at the same time was spotted in Monaco with a huge new motor cruiser. You cannot buy them with coupons cut out of magazines. Paul Stoddart runs a business which owns about 50 jet aircraft, including five Boeing 747 Jumbo Jets so when he goes out shopping he can come back with just about anything and Ron Dennis has been known to splurge on occasion: he is building the world's most expensive factory near Woking (an amazing place) but he still has enough cash left to buy Mrs. Dennis a large diamond which she was kind enough to show me the other day. It is not as big as Gibraltar but it was definitely a rock and a half.

And at the moment Bernie Ecclestone is building a boat in Turkey that will make Jordan's motor cruiser look like a tender.

The other day in Montreal Paul Stoddart decided that he needed some light relief during his battles with the other team bosses over money and was reading through a local newspaper and found an interesting advertisement for a convertible Ford Mustang. Stoddart grew up trading cars in Melbourne and he recognized a bargain when he saw one and he was soon off down to a local second hand car dealer out near Dorval Airport.

The owner of the car did not know who Stoddart was and a deal was quickly struck. When it came to discussing sales tax Stoddart informed him that as the car would be leaving the country immediately he did not need to pay sales tax. It was not the first time the dealer has heard such a story (and not believed it) and he insisted that Stoddart pay the federal taxes. Stoddart insisted that the car was leaving the country. It was not until the dealer's son arrived and explained that Stoddart had a Boeing 747 sitting on the tarmac at Dorval that the dealer accepted that perhaps the car would be leaving the country immediately. Stoddart spent the weekend driving around Montreal in his Mustang (saving on hire cars!) and then the day after the race completed a few customs formalities at the airport and the Mustang was then loaded into the guts of the Jumbo - along with all of the Minardi F1 cars, spares and equipment and, with the team on board, headed back to Europe.

Apparently it is cheaper to do it this way than to buy tickets for everyone and pay commercial rates for freight.

With Formula 1 there is never a dull moment.

This is something on which Mark Webber and I agree.

"Nothing surprises me in Formula 1," he said the other day when I was telling him the story about one of the motorhome girls I had met who turned out to have two university degrees: one in law and one in theatre and drama.

At the Nurburgring I was amazed again when I walked into the telephone room in the Media Center to send some e-mails and, as I was tapping away, I was vaguely aware of a conversation going on over my head between a journalist on one side of me and a girl from the Media Center. I was not paying attention but it sounded a bit like Japanese.

Then I heard the girl speak in perfect English.

"Wow!" I said. "I haven't met many westerners who can speak Japanese."

"It's Chinese," came a reply from either side of me. "Mandarin."

I was more than surprised.

"So, let me get this straight," I said. "You speak German, English and Mandarin."

"...and French, and Spanish, and Croatian," she added.

I told her that if she wanted a job in Formula 1 she could get one in about 10 seconds. The teams would die for anyone who can speak Mandarin. It transpired that not only could she speak Mandarin but she could write it as well and was studying for a doctorate in languages. She was working at the Grand Prix for a bit of fun.

There have been times in recent years when I have wished that some of the Formula 1 drivers were as interesting as some of the people in the paddock. We went through a rather dull phase not long ago but now things are changing and we have Montoya, Webber, Button and Massa. The journalists have some color with which to paint our pictures.

I was discussing the current Grand Prix drivers with a girl I know the other day. She has nothing to do with the sport but was complaining that it was very hard to find a good looking man and asked me if any of the F1 drivers were worth a look. I had a program from one of the races and let her look at the pictures. After the first couple of pages (during which she made some odd faces) she stopped and said.

"But they are school children!"

I asked her what kind of man she needed and she gave me a few hints.

"Ah" I said. "You need Mark Webber" and showed her his photograph.

"Um-m-m-m..." she said with a glint in her eye. "Yummy..."

I must say that I am a big fan of Mark (in a rather different way!). He is what a racing driver should be.

But we do have a habit of getting into arguments. The other day we were talking about the American girl racer Sarah Fisher who qualified so well for this year's Indianapolis 500.

"She did well," said Webber. "But Lynn St. James did better."

I was surprised. Most F1 drivers think that the history of the sport began the day that they started racing.

"Rubbish!" I said (with authority). "Lynn St. James never did better than the last row of the grid."

Webber gave me a quizzical look, thought for a second and then decided he was right.

"No mate," he said. "She qualified on the second row one time."

I thought for a second.

"No way!"

And so we bet five dollars (we are still arguing over the kind of dollars). Alas, the Internet revealed that Mark was right. In 1994 Lynn St. James qualified sixth for the 500. I was impressed by that - and by the fact that Webber knew it. When you lose a bet with a racing driver you know that they will never let you forget it so what I do is to pay them too much money. They never have change and so you can go on demanding money from them so it looks like you won the bet. I paid Webber 10 Canadian dollars (I couldn't find any cheap New Zealand ones). Mark argues that he does not need to give me change because of the emotional trauma which I caused him, suggesting that he was wrong.

I doubt it would even work in a Florida court.

In recent weeks Formula 3000 driver Rob Nguyen has given Webber and me the chance to disagree some more.

"You'd better look over your shoulder Webber," I said one day. "That bloke Nguyen is really a fast Australian driver."

"I'm not worried," he said (looking over his shoulder).

When I suggested that Nguyen would be on the podium at the Nurburgring in only his 15th ever motor race (including karting) Webber and I nearly went financial again. As he owes me money I had nothing to lose and I happened to think that Nguyen could do it. And he nearly did. The guy's raw speed is extraordinary. His F3000 team are shaking their heads in disbelief (and joy). He is a phenomenon. He may not have the experience and racecraft to compete with the guys who have been racing for 15 of their 20 years but he is naturally faster.

"We'll see," said wise old Webber, admitting after the race that Nguyen would have been third but for a silly challenge by Italian charger Enrico Tocacello which dropped him to fifth.

There are many dangers for a young racer who gets too much too soon and Nguyen's biggest threat is actually his own attitude. It takes a very tough character not to get carried away by sudden fame.

With Webber doing good things at Minardi, Nguyen creating fairytales in Formula 3000, James Courtney winning British F3 and Ryan Briscoe testing for Toyota and looking to improve in F3000 Australia stands on the verge of a great new era.

What a lucky country...

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