Lunch with Honda, life as a gooseberry and F1 contracts

Joe, Dave, Mike and Ned celebrate three years...

Joe, Dave, Mike and Ned celebrate three years... 


Every Saturday at a Grand Prix I spend the qualifying session with my old friend Mike Doodson, a fellow journalist who is a rival in some countries and a colleague in others. We meet - and have done for the last three years - at the Honda motorhome where, notebooks at the ready, we eat lunch as the qualifying action develops. Editors have asked how it is we can do this but it is very simple. Across the world thousands of people watch qualifying sessions in pubs with their mates. The action ebbs and flows, the conversations roam and the occasional libation is downed. The difference with the Honda Qualifying Lunch Club is that notes are being scribbled as well. The media center is a more sterile atmosphere. No-one seems to be having fun. And out on the race track one has no chance of following the action. At Honda Jenny and Clare whizz about pampering. Dave and Ned cook (delightfully) and we all exchange banter.

It is quite simply fun... and that after all is what going motor racing is all about.

At Spa, to celebrate nothing in particular the Honda gang produced two chef's jackets (I am sure there is a proper word for them) for Mike and I to say thank you for coming every Saturday as both of us have declared in the past that we are great fans of cooking.

On occasion, usually during the first 20 minutes of a session, nothing much is occurring. Up in the press room those who had lunch before the session began, fall into a contented heap on their desk waiting for something to happen. That is fatal. We, on the other hand, always seem to find something to talk about. Be it, an argument over wine, Dave's latest gambling win, Jenny's secret supply of chocolate or just food in general.

But one thing we have never discussed is the gooseberry - and we must remedy this as soon as possible.

The gooseberry is a much misunderstood fruit. It is sour by nature and the word is often used as a derogatory term. A gooseberry is something that sours an occasion. "Playing the gooseberry" is to be an unwanted extra person. And a baby found under a gooseberry bush is one that has been abandoned...

Go through the indices of cookbooks and you will find goose fat, goose livers and Gorgonzola but you will rarely find mention of a gooseberry. They are something that the English eat and the world has a sniggering view of English cooking.

There is a place I go in London where there is gooseberry pie on the menu for every meal. I have no idea why this would be the case, except that it is a tradition. Once in a while I will try it and remember each time (as I wince) why it is that the gooseberry is not a stellar fruit like its glamorous cousin the strawberry.

Jenny never sidles up and says "How about some gooseberries and cream!"

This sudden fascination for the gooseberry is actually related to motor racing (lest you think I am sneaking off to other subjects). The other day I was reading about the derivation of the phrase "Silly Season" and I came upon JC Hotten's Slang Dictionary of 1887 which states that it is "the August period when nobody is supposed to be in London, when there are no parliamentary debates to publish, and when newspaper editors are at their wit's-end to fill their papers with readable matter. All kind of crazes on political and social subjects are ventilated: gigantic gooseberries, monstrous births, and strange showers then become plentiful, columns are devoted to matters which would not at any time receive consideration and, so far as the newspapers are concerned, silliness is at a premium."

Ebenezer Brewer's "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" published the following year indicated that The Silly Season can also be called The Gooseberry Season, since that's what newspapers often wrote about during this slow period for news.

These days one rarely hears mention of The Silly Season in relation to August (perhaps because newspapers have become so silly all year round) and it is only in Formula 1 that the phrase seems to live on in all its glory.

It struck me that the term "Gooseberry Season" is actually rather more apt a name than silly season in Formula 1 because as the contractual negotiations take place for next season, there are always people who end up "playing the gooseberry".

Look around the F1 paddock right now and we have Jenson Button who is very much the gooseberry at Renault. Renault bosses are in love with Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso and so Jenson Button has been elbowed out of the team for next year but still has to sit around for the remaining races this year. Olivier Panis is the gooseberry at British American Racing, although one might argue that Jacques Villeneuve is also fulfilling that role as well as the team has made it clear that it is not keen to keep him for 2003 unless he will commit himself to a longer deal at a lower cost. At Sauber Felipe Massa is the gooseberry.

This situation got me thinking. Surely it makes no sense for a team to go on competing with a driver once it is clear that it has been decided that this driver will be replaced. Inevitably a certain amount of compromise creeps in as well as a driver's desire to push to the absolute limit must be affected by the knowledge that the team does not want him. Why would Jenson Button want to risk his neck for Renault?

Is the fact that Button has to go on driving for Renault not a strange and bizarre - and rather false - state of affairs? Is there perhaps a better solution? Would Formula 1 be better off if driver contracts were different. Might it not be more fascinating if there was a rule that a driver could only driver for one team for four consecutive races before having to switch. That would give the Drivers' Championship a lot more credibility and make the Constructors' series interesting as well. And there would be no team orders!

If it all sounds horribly artificial, answer me this: surely the current year-long contracts create a more artificial situation? If drivers had to leap from team to team, depending on who was willing to pay the emphasis would be on the driver to produce the best in whatever machinery he was given and on the team to get the maximum points no matter who the driver might be. There would be a lot more purity of competition.

At a time when F1 is re-evaluating what it stands for and how best to present itself in the future, it could be that there is something to be said for a free-market economy. Contracts are only there to protect those who do not deliver. And what is the point of a Formula 1 contract anyway? The recent years have proved that contracts are largely irrelevant because if a team wishes to break a contract there is not a lot that a driver can do about it - and vice versa. If one looks at the long drawn-out legal processes which are going on between Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jordan and Jos Verstappen and Arrows one sees that the only people actually gaining in all this are the lawyers.

Almost all of the great drivers in the last 20 years have walked out of a deal at some point in their careers. It was necessary at the time to force the issue. Think back: Alain Prost did it with McLaren when he left to join Renault. Ayrton Senna did it with Toleman so he could go to Lotus. Michael Schumacher did it to go from Jordan to Benetton, Mika Hakkinen did it to go from Lotus to McLaren and most recently Kimi Raikkonen did it to get from Sauber to McLaren.

If nothing else it is something to mull over during lunch next Saturday...

...and all thanks to the much-maligned gooseberry.

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