French lessons

Columnists love columns which write themselves and, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, this is one of those rare beasts, for it wrote itself as I stood beside the Champs Elysees on Sunday afternoon waiting for the Tour de France to arrive. I didn't have a pen (journalists never do) but I was busy all the time tapping ideas into the electronic note section of my mobile phone, a creation of those clever people at Motorola.

When you think about it the idea of standing for a couple of hours to watch a two or three second flash of colored shirts on high-speed bicycles makes very little sense but, I guess, it is one of those things that one just does in order to say one has done it. Not surprisingly, I spent most of the time trying to amuse a small boy who kept saying "I'm getting bored waiting" and being moved on from all the good viewing spots by efficious members of the CRS (the French riot police who are sworn to kill their own grannies if they have to).

It was, however, something of an education.

What they don't tell you about the Tour de France is that wherever the two hundred riders (a number which decreases by the day) go they are preceded by an extraordinary 200-vehicle advertising convoy, known as "le caravan publicitaire". This promotes around 40 companies which have all signed up as partners to the Tour de France. It takes 45 minutes for them all to pass by and it is a very odd thing to watch because it features a bizarre combination of unlikely vehicles designed to promote the product in question. This can range from a string of big red trucks with Norbert Dentressangle written on the side to mobile pork pate pots or butane canisters on wheels. It is a carnival and while the TV audiences are the thing that the sponsors are really after, the caravan publicitaire certainly gets the crowd in the right mood with its 600 drivers, dancing girls, tumblers and rollerskaters. And it is a bargain because to have three vehicles running in the caravan costs only $18,500. The dancers are not paid a huge amount but do it because they get to tour France with free board and lodging and they enjoy whatever partying goes on when the race ends each day...

It is estimated that there are 15m people who line the roads of France in the course of the Tour and the advertising convoy makes the most of it. There are a wild selection of official Tour partners including a bank, a sausage company, a department store and a cheese firm.

The idea dates back to 1930 when the Tour switched from commercially-backed teams to national entries and it was retained when the commercial teams came back again in the 1960s. It was felt at the time that the publicity caravan was as much a part of the show as was the sudden flash of cyclists. The caravan certainly helps entertain and enliven the crowd when it passes an hour before the riders even if it is mindless entertainment.

As we watched this curious stream of logos and bouncing bits and pieces I found myself wondering why Formula 1 does not do more to create income from official suppliers and products. I am sure that out there somewhere is a company which wishes to be the official insulation company of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship and I would bet that there would be plenty of sausage companies in Germany just begging for a link with Michael Schumacher, no pun intended.

The status of official banana drink supplier to F1 would be worth a few dollars for the collective coffers and while advertising convoy opportunities are limited in F1 (have you ever tried to get a Norbert Dentressangle truck around the Grand Hotel hairpin at Monte Carlo?) there would be plenty of opportunity for the companies to use the F1 link on their thousands of delivery vehicles across the world. It might also help at races as a parade of silly vehicles in the empty hours before each Grand Prix would help to create more of a carnival atmosphere rather than the sterility that exists today.

Up in the Media Center we are usually working on Sunday mornings but we all tend to pause for a moment to watch the Porsche Cup races, known as "the hairdressers' race" or by its more cosmopolitan title "La Coupe des Coiffeures".

I must say that I have often wondered what all the people in the grandstands do while waiting for a Grand Prix to start. There is a drivers' parade and sometimes an air display and the occasional race but otherwise there is nothing to do except to tell the kids that "it won't be long".

In the circumstances, a carnival would be a neat way of keeping the public interested - and earning a pile more money, which of course people in Formula 1 love to do.

I know that there are people in the upper echelons of the sport who have forgotten that Formula 1 is about grease-monkeys and machines and sneer at such suggestions, saying that the appointment of an Official Sausage Supplier to Formula 1 is not the image that the sport likes to promote but there is no reason why these highfalutin types cannot create a carnival of upmarket items: sunglasses, executive jets, overpriced suitcases, nose-hair removal devices and so on.

The point is not the product as much as the spectacle.

There are one or two Formula 1 official supplier deals knocking around, negotiated by Allsport Management (which looks after such things) with the champagne company Mumm enjoying a monopoly on podium sprays, Foster's having purchased the "pouring rights" at various Grands Prix around the world and TAG Heuer taking credit for the timing system. Mercedes-Benz gets a pretty good TV plug for supplying Safety and Medical Cars, while Siemens seems to supply the computer equipment to the F1 stars.

The other thing that struck me on the Champs Elysees was the number of Tour de France vans which travel ahead of the tour and park up along the route, flogging Tour de France merchandise to the punters.

And they buy it.

I have never understand why it is that Formula One Management does not embark on F1 merchandising, given that it spends so much time and money to protect the use of the F1 logo.

Formula 1 may be a world which prides itself on its ability to raise money but in a lot of ways it still has a lot to learn... even if it is from the French.

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