Coco Chanel, monks and the Austrian GP

Start, Austrian GP 2002

Start, Austrian GP 2002 

 © The Cahier Archive

"I am no longer interested in dressing a few hundred private clients," Coco Chanel said at some point or other. "I shall dress thousands of women."

And so she did. In the late 1920s she pioneered "the poor look" with the intention of creating easy-to-wear and simple clothing for women. Her suit aimed to "make the rich girl look like the girl in the street" and the girl in the street look like a rich girl. Things go in and out of fashion but the Chanel-style suit is as popular as ever it. Chanel, in fact, was so powerful a figure in the world of fashion that she survived a wartime affair with a Nazi officer and 10 years in exile in Switzerland and was still able to come back and revamp her 1930s range for the 1950s.

There are various morals in this tale: those who cater to the mass market become richest and most famous and yet those who do the best job never go out of fashion.

When Coca Chanel first began dressing women in sensible clothing, the Monaco Grand Prix was being run for the first time and, as we go into the run-up to the annual festival of glitz and glamour at Monaco, it is worth remembering that outdated though it is, Monaco is never in doubt because Monaco is the perfect Grand Prix.

Any author worth his ink will centre his motor racing novel on the streets of the place.

In fact one has quite recently with the publication of a book called "Miracle at Monaco - The Legend of Chapeau Noir" (S Thomas ISBN: 1-4010-6081-1). This is the story of how a middle aged monk from Charleston, South Carolina with no F1 experience goes to Monaco and wins the Grand Prix (wait for it) at the wheel of a Morgan (which even the author himself describes as "a small, family-owned "no-tech" sports car company somewhere in the British Midlands whose last technological breakthrough was the sliding-pillar suspension - in 1911.")

The publishing trade is a law unto itself but this book comes with the amazing catchlines: "How the enigmatic monk and the eccentric carmaker combine forces to outwit and ultimately vanquish the world's automotive powers at the world's greatest race" and "What we have here is some wild combination of St. Francis of Assisi and Chuck Yeager."

The mind simply boggles...

Anyway there is a point to all this. Monaco is like the Chanel suit. It is a classic thing and will last forever. It is what motor racing is supposed to be about: glamour, money, sex and danger (although I am damned if I know how the monk fits in to this theory).

Alas, Austria does not.

As we head of to what we are supposed to call the A1 Ring for the last time there is an urge to look back at the old days when Austria was a popular race. In those days no-one much cared about Formula 1. The race was in August and the Osterreichring, as it was then called, was a magnificent racing circuit, one of the best in the world. Old farts in the paddock these days say that the place has never been the same since it was rebuilt in the mid 1990s. The grand corners of the old track were gone and the new circuit was a typical stop-go affair. The racing was close but it was not like the old days.

I must say that I agree with the old boys for I used to go to the track back then for Formula 3 and touring car races. My first visit was back in the early 1980s when I went by train from Paris to Strasbourg and Karlsruhe to Munich and then Salzburg and then to Leoben and (eventually) to Knittelfeld. I was planning to stay in a tent but the rain was pitching down and one of the Formula 3 teams took pity on me and stuck me in a spare room which they had available in the little town of Weisskirchen.

Getting a room in Weisskirchen these days is as likely as going to the moon for every hotel room within easy reach of the circuit is grabbed and held on to. Someone has to die if you want a hotel room in a good hotel. Over the years I have stayed in farm houses and holiday chalets and a miserable little agricultural hotel which cannot logically survive but seems to be there every year.

In recent years we have stayed in a marvellous guest house a million miles from the race track where Freddie makes his own Schnapps and makes us drink it whether we like it or not. And we all nod and say "Ja, zehr gut". The view is spectacular and we have spent many an evening over schnitzels and rotwein putting the world to rights.

I like it. But I am willing to accept that times change. The modern Formula 1 circus does not fit in at the A1 Ring.

A study done a few years ago showed that the race has the largest catchment area of any race in Europe apart from Magny-Cours. In other words there is less infrastructure in the area.

It was always a popular venue for the Germans in their camper vans, all the more so in the modern era when they have Michael Schumacher to cheer along. But Austria, charming though it may be, has never really fitted in to the VIP set, who do not much like tiptoeing through the mud on their way to nibble on their canapes. The very very rich can fly their jets right into the old Zeltweg air base which is next to the track but the rest have to struggle down the nearly finished motorway from Vienna or rumbled through the hills from Graz.

The fact is that whether we like it or not the sport is catering to the world these days and not to private clients and so we must go where Coco Chanel once went to where the money is, where the facilities are right and where we need to be. Austria does not fit into any of these categories.

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