A strange cocktail

Juan Pablo Montoya, Malaysian GP 2003

Juan Pablo Montoya, Malaysian GP 2003 

 © The Cahier Archive

In Australia a "hoon" is a mad car fan. Hoons drink beer, go to Bathurst and support either Ford or Holden. They cannot imagine engines with more than eight cylinders and like to hear those V8s rumble. There are no dainty canapes in the Paddock Club for these blokes.

A Hoon is also the British Minister of Defence. The Rt Hon. Geoffrey W Hoon MP.

He seems a funny fellow. Well, not exactly funny. In England funny can mean a lot of different things. Funny means bizarre as much as it means humorous. And Hoon is a bit bizarre.

The other day he remarked in the House of Commons that the Iraqi city of Umm Qasr is rather similar to the British city of Southampton.

"He's either never been to Southampton, or he's never been to Umm Qasr" a British soldier fighting for Umm Qasr remarked for the TV.

"There's no beer, no prostitutes and people are shooting at us," said one of his mates. "It's more like Portsmouth".

The British have a way of keeping their spirits up in time of war. They are funny lot. Funny as in bizarre.

The night before the war broke out we were flying along the Iran-Iraq border en route to Kuala Lumpur, wondering what was going on 33,000 ft. below us. It seemed a rather bizarre place to be but as far as we could tell the captain of the Malaysian Airlines 747 did not seem to have to take any avoiding action for passing U2s, AWACS, B52s or even B2s (although how one spots them coming is quite beyond me).

A few hours later we landed in KL and by the time we reached the hotel the war had started. The government of Malaysia carefully warned its citizens not to take any violent actions against visiting Americans and Britons.

Down at British American Racing they no doubt considered changing the team name for the weekend.

That afternoon some of the Formula 1 drivers appeared before the international media (or what was left of it) at Sepang and were asked what they thought about the war. The replies were very sensible and it was clear that the Malaysian GP weekend was going to be one during which discretion would be important. As things went on there were one or two reports of unpleasantness downtown but it was nothing serious.

But out at Sepang it felt decidedly odd.

The paddock was a world in which the war did not seem to be real. We were too busy writing about racing cars to worry too much about B52s and Tomahawk cruise missiles. Each night we went back to the hotel and turned on the TV to see what had happened in The Real World. We were bombarded by what the BBC thought about the war. In the morning the newspapers were full of anti-Western rhetoric and the same stories but seen from a different angle. It was interesting to see propaganda from both sides. And then we went off to work and forgot about it all.

Malaysia is a moderate Muslim country and is proud of that status but let us not forget that the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington were conceived in a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000. Let us not forget also that this piece of information came to light because Malaysian intelligence officers supplied information about the activities of Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni al-Qaeda member, to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Malaysia has always tried to walk the delicate line between the two sides.

There was it seems quite a lot of talk in the days before the event about whether or not the race should go ahead, and Bernie Ecclestone and the Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad had several meetings to discuss the issues involved. In the end the race went ahead as it should have done.

Formula 1 wanted to walk the delicate line as well and so no-one made a fuss that Minardi ran with "Malaysia for Peace" stickers on the sidepods. British American Racing was in the garage next door. That seemed like a balanced arrangement.

All through the weekend, if the truth be told, I felt vaguely unsettled about it all. I felt that being there and racing was important to show, once again, that sport should not be dragged down by messy international politics. Throughout the weekend there were many discussions in the paddock as views about the war were many and varied. Some agreed with it, some disagreed with it. Some went into that lovely warm world where it was easy to say that they did not agree with it but were unable to come up with an alternative.

Some tried to laugh about it.

"How do you know that the world has gone mad?" someone asked me.

"I have no idea," I replied.

"Well," he said. "You know that the world has gone mad when the best rap singer is a white man; the best golfer is a black man; the Swiss have won the Americas Cup, the French are accusing the Americans of being arrogant and the Germans do not want to go to war."

On the Friday I was approached in the paddock by a German, asking me to sign a petition to stop the Malaysian military planes doing their air displays above the track. It was, he said, not appropriate in the circumstances.

I don't like air displays. I get no thrill at all from being scared witless by some testosterone-drenched jerk in an FA18 trying to graze the top of the flagpoles or flying head-on towards a fellow pilot. It is not new and it is not clever.

Once a year I do get a thrill out of watching the air display at the French Grand Prix because the Mirage pilot who does that has shown amazing abilities to maneuver his aircraft. It is very impressive and probably highly dangerous but it is not just a series of fast fly-bys.

Perhaps given what is happening in the world such displays are not such a good idea. I thought about it and I concluded that signing a petition was a fundamentally bad idea. No-one in power ever pays any attention to a petition so all you are doing is making a point. But what was the point we were making? I explained to the German that as guests in an Muslim nation at a time of war it was best not to make a fuss about anything. We should do our jobs and then we should go home. To do anything else would seem like we were arrogant Westerners...

There is an argument as to whether sports journalists should discuss what happens in the real world or whether we should simply concentrate blindly on the sport. I feel very strongly that our job is to put things into perspective. The fight between Jacques Villeneuve and Jenson Button at BAR is trivial at best when bombs and missiles are falling.

Formula 1 team people are fond of saying that the sport is like a war. The difference is that people are not dying. Formula 1 is a game. So what does it matter whether Jacques knowingly sabotaged Jenson's race?

What does it matter who wins? Where does one draw the line?

I do not claim to know the answer to that but I feel uncomfortable trying to pretend that nothing is happening.

Wondering about it all, I looked back in history to 1939 when World War II broke out. That weekend the Belgrade Grand Prix was being held in Yugoslavia. On the second day of practice news came that Germany had invaded Poland. The next morning the wirelesses announced that Britain had declared war on Germany. Manfred von Brauchitsch, the Mercedes-Benz star who was on pole position for the race, headed for the airport, telling his team mate to inform Mercedes-Benz that he had gone home.

As the plane was getting ready to depart Mercedes-Benz competition manager Alfred Neubauer arrived and dragged his star back to the race track.

Clearly Neubauer felt he knew what was more important.

The hoons must be kept amused...

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