Thoughts at the beach




Motor racing reporters are used to getting up early on Sunday mornings to get to where they need to go before the crowds arrive. We know little short-cuts in and out of all the racing venues across the world and we hate to get stuck in traffic jams.

Last Sunday there was no Grand Prix, a blessing in this rush of six races in eight weekends, but I was up and about at some unearthly hour nonetheless and found myself trying to sneak into another venue without getting caught in a traffic jam. The Formula 1 circus may have already started to decamp to Canada but I had other plans. No, it wasn't a motor race. It was Omaha Beach in Normandy, I was taking my 10-year-old son to remember the D Day landings 60 years ago. We had an invitation to be guests at the American event at Omaha and it seemed like a good idea. My son is a great fan of history and D Day is his favourite subject of all.

On the Saturday we met a veteran who had told us what it was like to be there. He lasted eight days before being badly injured in the hedgerow battle inland from the sea but was one of the first wave of the US First Division (Big Red One) when they hit the beaches at 0630 on June 6 1944. The stories he told were chilling and yet had a humility about them which was astonishing. He did not need medals nor berets nor any of the other paraphenalia which thousands of others were sporting, whether they had a right to them or not. There were thousands of "re-enactors" wandering around dressed as paratroopers and getting a kick out of being looked at it. We saw some weird and not very wonderful people, the oddest probably being a bunch of Germans driving around in a Kubelwagen, dressed as their forefathers would have been.

The following morning it was actually an accident that we found ourselves walking along a quiet leafy path overlooking the beach, working our way towards the cemetery, at 0630. The same hour that Big Red One had hit the beaches down below us. In a few minutes hundreds of men had died. I stood there for a few moments and watched the sun, muffled by the morning mist, reflecting off the waters and was struck by the beauty of the moment and thought how lucky I was not to have been of that generation.

Occasionally we would bump into soldiers, hidden away in the trees to make sure that no terrorist was lurking there with a rocket launcher, intent on blowing the President's helicopter out of the sky. If we had not had the right passes, I am sure that we would have been in trouble but all went well and we duly arrived at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, where thousands were gathering. Later in the morning we listened to President Jacques Chirac, a great orator, deliver a fine and eloquent speech. Then we listened to President George W Bush give a powerful speech of his own, remembering the thousands of young men buried all around us. And then, after the 21-gun salute, the playing of The Last Post, the national anthems and a flypast by jets, the VIPs took off to other ceremonies in Normandy and we were left to ponder.

I don't know if you have ever walked in a field of 9386 identical crosses, in rows that seem to go on forever, but if you have you will probably understand the feeling. We walked from grave to grave looking at name, units and dates. And as we were doing this, I remembered back 30-odd years to my father telling me in some other graveyard somewhere in France about the sacrifices made and what they meant and why they were important. And I found myself explaining to my son that these men had died so that we could lead the life that we now live and that we must never forget what they did.

Afterwards I felt that I had achieved something important and as we wandered back on our shortcut to the car, I reminded myself that as much fun as it may be, motor racing is really not important in the overall scheme of things even if I am one of the lucky souls for whom it pays the bills.

We must never lose sight of that fact. Motor racing is just a diversion, an entertainment. It can be a force for good, but rarely is. It does not stop wars, nor do the people involved finds cures for cancer or send men to Mars. In terms of great human achievement, motor racing is of minimal importance. It may inspire some to greater deeds but in these days of safe Grand Prix cars even that has ceased to be what once it was. We may think of racing drivers as heroes but we need to keep things in perspective. They are not heroes. They are good drivers.

They have millions of fans out there yet the world is not going to stop if Formula 1 gets itself into such a mess that it all falls apart. Yes, it can make you rich, but it is not worth sacrificing values and trust to be successful. Selfishness and cynicism may be essential to survive in the F1 world as it is today but these are not attributes that make great people. Formula 1, in its modern form, is a sport in which there are very few rounded and happy people. Often when I look at the "successful" people in Formula 1 I see lonely people, hanging out with like-minded souls because the rest of the world does not wish to know, surrounded by hangers-on who care for nothing but the money they might be able to make.

Formula 1 should remember the words of Andy Rooney, a Stars & Stripes reporter who landed in Normandy a few days after the first troops went ashore. He has returned many times to Normandy since then.

"If you think the world is selfish and rotten," he wrote, "go to the cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach and see what one group of men did for another group on D-Day."

Good advice.

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