Meeting people

"Where are you?" said the e-mail which arrived on the weekend between the Australian and Malaysian GPs. "On the top floor of the Regent in Sydney or on a palm-fringed beach in a country where terrorism has been virtually eliminated?"

The answer was decidedly less glamorous.

I was down at the annual second hand bicycle sale in the very unsexy Swiss town of Langenthal. I was vaguely looking for a bike for my son when I bumped into my favorite Formula 1 sponsor. He is called Andy and he was doing the same as I was.

When not buying bicycles Andy runs a big company which supplies most of the Formula 1 teams with equipment and which does many millions of dollars worth of business in the sport. It is a partner and a sponsor of several teams.

We began chatting and Andy said that he wants to give his godson a special present this year and thought that going to a Grand Prix might be a good idea. He had the possibility, he said, to get access to the Paddock Club via one of the teams. The only thing that he did not like was that they were asking for $3000 per person for the weekend and, being a sensible CEO, he was finding it hard to justify that sort of expenditure. He wanted to know the best thing to do. I launched into my usual speech about how difficult it is these days to get paddock passes and said that at best I might be able to organize something on a Thursday or a Friday at a quiet Grand Prix. I added that I thought the Paddock Club offers a very decent package, which combines a view of the cars with an element of luxury and a certain amount of access. But I have never understood how the huge cost can be justified beyond the obvious conclusion that there is no alternative.

We discussed the best races to attend and then Andy went off to have a think about it and I went down to the Crazy Cow to eat lunch and had a thought about what had been said.

It struck me that people like Andy should be welcomed into F1 circles with open arms. Instead they are presented with restricted access and a whopping great bill if they want more. Any corporation which comes near the sport must, it seems, be willing to leave its shirt behind.

The F1 bosses shrug their shoulders and say that there is still plenty of money about but the current tightening of belts and the reappearance of sponsor-free spaces on the cars would seem to suggest that there is a finite number of people willing to be fleeced over and over.

I guess I have been quite lucky over the years because only a few journalists ever get the opportunity to see the Paddock Club in operation. Until a few years ago my only visit was when I went through the gates while interviewing Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, surrounded by so many security guards that even the Paddock Club security men did not dare grab me.

One thing I have always loved about being around Formula 1 races is one gets to meet the most unusual people. There is a constant stream of people, ranging from politicians to chefs, film stars to athletes, with the occasional spy thrown in for good measure. The conversations that result

can be weird and wonderful. Over the years I have discussed the South African elections with the secretary-general of the African National Congress and talked about comedy with George Harrison. I have even knocked Michael Douglas off his feet (admittedly by accident). Still, I think I surpassed myself the other day when discussing the Battle of Stalingrad with the grandson of a Panzer General. You would not have known it although he had a very definite Aryan look about him but beyond that he was as Australian as a duck-billed platypus and was busy producing an all-new TV show about cars.

It was a very pleasant evening and, after discussing Stalingrad we moved on to a lively discussion on the subject of Australian menus. One of the reasons that I love going to Melbourne is because one is guaranteed a good laugh over dinner. They offer wonderful food but with perfectly ridiculous descriptions of each dish. It is my belief that in the 1890s a ship filled with serial exaggerators went down off the coast of Australia and the whole lot had to swim ashore. They spread across the continent and their descendants are today busy running restaurants in all the big Australian cities.

One cannot eat any object which does not have an adjective attached to it.

Fennel, for example, cannot just be fennel. It has to be baby fennel and even then it often needs to be shaved as well. Balsamic vinegar has to be aged and from Modena. And salsa cannot just be salsa. It has to be made from collapsed tomatoes.

Oh my God, this tomato has collapsed? Is there a doctor in the house?

My favorite this year was a dish which, the menu said, featured tea-soaked muscatels.

What is a muscatel? we asked. "And why has it been soaked in tea?"

The waitress (obviously a direct descendant of a serial exaggerator) waffled a bit about tenderizing beef and how it was good to soak it in tea before cooking. It sounded ridiculous and so I ordered it... and I duly discovered after some probing around this beautifully-constructed concoction that a muscatel is in fact a grape which, of course, is used to make Muscat, the sweet dessert wine.

On another evening I rushed off to catch a taxi to get to a rendezvous. The taxi queue was full of people who had drunk rather more than was perhaps necessary but eventually I climbed into a cab all of my own. At that point a woman shouted.

"Are you going south?"

I was too tired to do anything other than nod and before I knew it three people had jumped into the cab with me. They said they would pay the fare as they needed to go past where I was going. I did not mind that much. They were merry and, seeing my briefcase, started asking me questions about what I was doing in Melbourne.

When they found out they asked me just one question.

"Can Formula 1 survive?"

I was somewhat taken aback because the idea that F1 could not survive had never even entered my head. The sport is an international institution, I argued back. It has survived for 52 summers and is much bigger and stronger than many people think. It needs to sort out all the politicking that is going on and needs to stop being destabilized by one side or the other.

From where I am sitting it seems to me that it might be wise for some more of the revenues to be put back into the sport. The opinions of the press rarely seem to matter to some of the F1 bosses but I cannot help thinking that F1 bosses should think about people like my friend Andy... while they are still around.

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