Getting sick, getting better

Halloween is a creepy time of year for Formula 1 people. Not because of the all little horrors dressed up as witches and zombie soldiers but because there is nothing happening. It is a wasteland. In a few weeks there will be the usual self-congratulatory parties and award ceremonies at which everyone will hand over awards to people from Ferrari (if they can get them) and there will be lots of videos with throbbing music which people seem to think are always necessary at these occasions.

If this sport was logical there would be one big FIA-organized bash which would be the big event rather than a bunch of small galas from country to country all with very little relevance.

There will be a little testing in the next few weeks but nothing to get excited about. This means that for a lot of the F1 circus this is a time to get bored or do that other favorite F1 pastime in the winter - getting sick.

It seems to happen every year. I found myself with a raging fever the other day and ignored it, as one does. On the third day I realized that things were not going well and that this was not just a flu that was going to go away and so I called the French equivalent of The Flying Doctors and a man with a bag was at my door just after I put the phone down. The Doc looked me up and down, mentioned that he was a fan of Formula 1 and asked me why the Renault F1 team was not very successful. I told him not to hold his breath. He told me much the same.

"You are quite ill," he said. "You are completely run down. Your batteries have run out. You need to rest."

He gave me a long list of pills I should take and departed with a cheery wave.

If the truth be told I could not do anything other than rest for I had no energy at all. I spent several days lying on the couch. I did not want to eat. It was better than any health cure. After a while I started eating again and gradually day by day I felt a little strength returning. It was a good lesson. I have just finished my twentieth season in motor racing and up to now I have never had my batteries run out before. I don't exactly follow what you might call a healthy diet. There are those who nibble on lettuce leaves and drink vegetable purees but I have always found that eating well and regularly when on the road is the best way to stay healthy. Exercise is a concept that I have never much admired. Instead I lug my baggage around airports and keep vaguely in shape that way. But you cannot do it forever. You have to rest occasionally and if you won't listen to logic, your body will tell you the rules of the game.

Still, being confined to the couch, gave me the chance to read rather than just write as is usually the case. I worked my way through a variety of books and enjoyed one in particular, a strange offbeat book called "A Wild Herb Soup", the story of the life of a French peasant woman in the course of the 20th century. It is a masterpiece and I had an abiding memory of her description of walking down by the river gathering wild herbs to turn into a delicious rich soup, better than anything else she ever tasted, which she also saw as a metaphor for the richness of her life.

I understand that connection for cooking has always been one of my fascinations. As my strength returned, I headed for the kitchen to try my hand at a little "comfort food" to aid my recovery. And as I played around with herbs and spices and flavors I began to think about what a rich and fascinating world Formula 1 I live in. In his book "Grand Prix People" a few years ago, the journalist Gerry Donaldson concluded (with a little help from Bernie Ecclestone) that the people in Formula 1 are "all a bit mad".

I have always considered life in F1 to be like every kid's dream. It is running off to join the circus. Donaldson interviewed 110 people for his book and admitted that he was constantly surprised at the stories he heard. Having done much the same work (without writing the book) I reached the same conclusion. There is almost no-one in F1 who is dull. Most people took huge risks or made enormous sacrifices to be where they are. The tendency, therefore, is for strong colorful characters. They are people who take life by the horns and enjoy it.

During my illness I did not work much but one day I did receive a press release from someone in F1 listing his motor racing exploits and as I read it, I smiled. The man in question was, it said, second in the European Touring Car Championship in 1984. In other words, he was a driver of a decent level of talent. The only problem was that I was there at Zolder in 1984 when Tom Walkinshaw won the ETC title in a Jaguar XJS. And the guy in my press release was definitely not in the running. I expect I have a book somewhere which will tell who was second in the series but it wasn't him. If I was guessing I would probably come up with a name like Hans Heyer or Helmut Kelleners and then I would start remembering all kinds of stories that people these days do not want to be remembered about the old days in touring car racing when there were more lawyers per square inch than there are in California.

Nothing really surprises me about motor racing people. Sometimes you hear a story and you want to say: "I don't believe a word of it" but when you check you find out that the story is true. And then there are times when you find out that what they say is definitely not true. Thinking back I can recall examples of people claiming the most amazing things. I remember one guy telling me that he had spent several years "at Oxford". The implication was that he had attended the University.

I understand that his time was actually spent in the prison.

Scratch the surface of Formula 1 just a little and you always find something extraordinary. I have always believed that this is the strength of the sport. At the moment it is the fashion to talk down the sport but the fundamental strength of F1 is the people in it. All the money may disappear but the extraordinary people will still be there and to that extent the money is just a side issue. A little less money will help to shake some of the trash out of the branches of the F1 tree.

The occasional illness can do one good...

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