Goons, graves, image and substance

Ferenc Szisz's grave

Ferenc Szisz's grave 


It is funny how things happen in sequence, isn't it? For the last few days I seem to have had a series of interludes involving Renault. On Saturday it was a lovely sunny day in Paris and so, being utterly illogical, my girlfriend and I took our boys for a day out: McDonalds, toy shops and the Starsky & Hutch movie, which was showing on the Champs Elysees. There is nothing better than being cooped up in a cinema on a nice warm day when one could be doing something else, like lolling about in the sunshine, eating ice cream.

After buying the tickets for the movie we had a little while to spare and so we went up the road to have a look in the "Atelier Renault", a showroom where I had noticed that they had one of their F1 cars (or a show-car at least) on display. The Champs Elysee is obviously a good place to sell cars because, in addition to Renault, Toyota has its "Rendez-vous", Peugeot its "Avenue" and Mercedes-Benz and Citroen also have fancy showrooms. As far as I am concerned these are good places to go when you have five minutes to kill before a movie or if you want to stay dry in rain storm. I was intending to show the boys the Formula 1 car close-up. There were security goons on the door, barking orders at those wanting to go inside, and I have to say I very nearly turned tail and walked away there and then. I do not need goons in suits to tell me how to be a consumer. Besides who on earth would want to blow up a Renault showroom? It just does not make sense.

Anyway, we persevered and were finally allowed to enter the "Atelier". Once inside I began explaining to the boys about crash-testing and how the nose of the Formula 1 car is designed to deform in a very measured way. In doing so I dared to lean forward and show how the nose would deform and in doing so put one whole foot on the edge of the plinth on which the great fake F1 car was sitting. Instantly a suited goon was there to snap at the hand that might have fed him. I had had enough by then and departed, grumbling about the stupidity of companies who make visits to their promotional areas less than pleasant.

And then I watched Starsky & Hutch and forgot about Renault completely.

Fast forward 18 hours and it is another beautiful day and so we decided to take a turn in the countryside and headed south to a favourite little valley which we know and love to visit. The skies were blue, the trees were luscious in every shade of green and the butterflies were flitting about as they do on such lovely days. As we were driving along I suddenly had a hunch about something. It was a hunch that needed scratching and so I dragged the poor unfortunates to a small cemetery in a leafy corner of the valley. Somewhere in here, I said, there might be a grave belonging to Ferenc Szisz, the winner of the very first Grand Prix, which was held in Le Mans in 1906.

Szisz, a Hungarian, had been a Renault driver. One might suppose that such a man would have deserved a great memorial but there is no such thing. So little is known of him that most biographies state that he died in Hungary in 1970. In fact he died in France in 1944 and as I poked around in the cemetery I found myself (amazingly) looking at his grave, although there was nothing to suggest that there lay a man who deserved to be remembered.

It was really rather sad and was made all the more so on the drive home. We had reached a little place called Dampierre and from there headed up a section of road which they call "Les 17 Tournants", a series of tortuous curves which take you uphill, through the forest, and pop you out on the plains. Nowadays the 17 Tournants is used each year on the Tour de France cycle race and by the bikers of Paris who think is a good place to kill themselves. Back in the 1920s they used to have a hillclimb there, using the Grand Prix cars of the day.

When you get to the top the road of the 17 Tournants the road leads you on to a rather drab industrial suburb and suddenly you find yourself outside the Renault Technocentre. It is an impressive building. Much more impressive, I thought to myself, than the memorial to Renault's first ever Grand Prix winner; the world's first ever Grand Prix winner. When you have the kind of money to build things like the Technocentre one has to wonder what would it cost for Ferenc Szisz to be properly remembered by the company he helped to build?

Next month, so I read this morning, Renault is going to start spending a large chunk of money highlighting the team's success in F1 in recent years in the run-up to each Grand Prix. I laughed. Yes, that success now runs to one whole victory in Hungary last year. That is as many races as Szisz won... but then I guess it is all about image these days rather than substance. The other day I recall listening to Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore saying that Renault had only been in F1 for three seasons with its own team, carefully ignoring the fact that the team was in existence for 20 years before Renault took it over. It's all image, isn't it?

Who cares what some obscure Hungarian did 98 years ago. Is that going to help sell Meganes, Lagunas or Scenics?

Well, maybe it could. I doubt that anyone has registered the name Szisz for an automobile. Why would you? What better idea than for Renault to put out a model to mark the 100th anniversary of the man's great achievement? Volkswagen has the Veyron named after a little-known racer who won Le Mans for Bugatti in 1939, perhaps Renault might follow that lead by producing the Renault Szisz in 2006.

That would prove that Renault should be taken seriously when it talks about passion and about history.

And while you're at it, get rid of the goons at the showroom...

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