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A very significant event in Formula 1

It is some strange jet-lagged hour of the Australian night. Some salesman from Europe has just called my mobile phone and woken me up, trying to sell me something. He was rather taken aback to be told exactly where to go. And now I cannot sleep. And it is too early for breakfast.

Out there in the night, the planes bringing the bulk of the F1 circus to Melbourne are heading in towards Tullamarine Airport, where the weary folk from Europe will work their way through the ever-increasing maze of sniffer dogs, immigration officers, luggage carousels and X-ray machines before heading into the city.

When you analyse the situation, it seems a pretty bad time to decide to write a column about Formula 1. In a few days we will all have a much better idea of what is really going to happen in 2004. At the moment all we have is a bunch of lap times and a lot of chit-chat which may or may not be true.

And yet I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the 2004 Australian GP is already a very significant event. Significant because, the other day, the Grand Prix Drivers' Association did something extraordinary. They did something for the race fans.

I felt a bit like someone who has spotted an animal that was declared extinct 20 years ago.

The Formula 1 circus tends to forget sometimes that the people in the grandstands are important. They are not there simply to create a bit of atmosphere, as I have heard F1 people say on occasion.

The other day I was chatting with the editor of a magazine I work for in Australia.

"Any news?" he said.

I started to chat about the European Arrest Warrant, tobacco legislation and Max Mosley's move to Monaco.

"No," he said. "News. The fans don't care about all that rubbish. What is happening in the racing?"

It was a very good point.

Motor racing is not about the money that sloshes around the sport, it is about Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Juan Pablo Montoya and Co. It is about people.

The GPDA announcing a competition is significant because it recognises this fact. Six race fans will win the chance of "a money-can't-buy guided tour of the F1 paddock on race day" in Australia with photo opportunities with several drivers, including the four GPDA directors: Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard, Mark Webber and Jarno Trulli.

To enter the competition, fans at the Australian GP simply have to buy a pin featuring Mark Webber's helmet - the proceeds of which will go to Brainwave Australia, the official charity of the Australian Grand Prix. The pins will be on sale at various points around the Albert Park track and in downtown Melbourne.

When you stop to think about, it is a brilliant win-win-win situation. Webber gets a higher profile in his home country; his favoured charity gets more money; the drivers have to spend a few minutes chatting with some fans but for such small effort they will get a great deal of credit. And they will seem a lot more human.

Everyone comes away with something.

And that, of course, led to a question. In the past no-one has paid any real attention to the GPDA because it is hard to feel any sympathy for people who make as much money as the F1 drivers. What made the difference? How is it that after 20 years during which Grand Prix drivers have been bunch of selfish, spoiled millionaires who will rarely stop to sign an autograph, they have suddenly decided to do something positive for the fans?

I decided to find out how the decision came about and, after a little digging, discovered what I had suspected. The idea came from the Webber.

I have long been a fan of Mark not just because I think he is a great driver but also because he has a sound idea of the real world. He travels on cheap airlines. He doesn't care how much money he earns so long as he is making a sensible living. Unlike Ralf Schumacher (the man I think he will replace at Williams) he is not besotted by earning ridiculous sums of money unrelated to the level of his talent. Mark lives, eats, sleeps and probably dreams Formula 1. But he is relatively normal. He does not feel the need to surround himself with "celebrities" with silly facial hair and Barbie doll models. Although he is one of the fittest of the Grand Prix drivers, he knows that eating a chocolate bar or two is not going to hurt him.

He knows how to use a lawn mower.

The difference between him and many of his peers is that Mark did not grow up with no interest in life other than a go-kart. He liked sport. The attitude in the Webber household was that it did not matter if you won or lost so long as you enjoyed yourself competing. Mark was a ball boy for the local rugby club and was proud of that fact. He struggled to climb the racing ladder. He reckoned that he lost the Formula Ford series in Britain because he was by himself, without any emotional support. But he got stronger as he watched his rivals flying home to Brazil every other week to see their Mums.

He scraped together money, turning up at Formula 3 races with bundles of 50 notes to pay the team. He could not afford to crash...

The result of all this is that Webber has an extraordinary mental strength which many others lack. And yet he is a fairly normal bloke - and we can only hope that his influence in the sport will continue to grow so that the people who watch F1 can feel more affinity to those who are racing.

The GPDA plans to run similar competitions at several other races during the 2004 season, which can only be considered fantastic news because it highlights the fact that drivers have woken up to the fact that they need to give something back to the sport.

And if that is not significant, I am not sure what is...

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