The Feast of Fools and the warm woolly season in F1

Over the Christmas break, for reasons which I cannot really explain, I read a lot about Christmas and how the modern festival developed. Back in good old fashioned pagan times they had a similar festival in December called the Feast of Saturnalia, no doubt designed to cheer people up at the onset of winter. Lots were drawn and the winner (or loser depending on how you look at it) was named The Lord of Misrule. For the next few days the person chosen was in charge of all revelries and could order anyone to do anything.

As you can imagine, things often got out of hand with much drunkenness and debauchery, not least because the Lord of Misrule ended up having his throat slit as a sacrifice to the god Saturn. In time that tradition faded as people realised that a person with nothing to lose was a bit of loose cannon. And then along came Christianity and Saturnalia was turned into Christmas. Rather than drawing lots, the king was chosen by putting a bean or a sixpence or a little statuette into a cake. That traditions seems to have disappeared in Britain but goes on today in France with the Galette du Roi (the king's cake). The Lords of Misrule (also known as the King of Bean, the Abbot of Unreason or the Prince des Sots) wore a paper crown and told jokes (hence what one finds in a Christmas cracker these days) and everyone enjoyed themselves. There were presents, feasting and fun.

The Feast of Fools, as they were known, culminated in Twelfth Night (hence the Shakespeare play) when things got quite out of hand as the population left their houses to sing, wassail and drink to their neighbours, their animals and their fields.

After that life went back to normal and a new year began.

It is funny how in the weeks leading up to Christmas the idea of a new Formula 1 season seems still remote and yet as soon as the Christmas trees are thrown away, the mood changes. The new season seems suddenly to be just around the corner. I like this time of year because this is when everyone is talking in warm and fluffy terms about the year ahead. Team bosses, engineers and drivers have yet to discover how good (or bad) their new cars really are and they say some pretty silly things. It is a time of dangerously-contagious optimism. Teams are united and yet to become disillusioned with one another. New partnerships are being formed and new promises made. It is a time of good cheer and enthusiasm. A time when all the good things about Formula 1 are on display, most of all the incredible passion that those involved have for this most wonderful of sports. The danger is that one becomes swept up in this world of woolly optimism and enthusiasm and starts to believe that teams will get a podium/win a race/win the World Championship and so on.

Ovre the years I have become more and more convinced that car launches are really only for the sponsors. These events cost a lot of money and are highly-orchestrated affairs during which it is hard for the media to get any really good information because too many people are trying to do the same thing at the same time. With the Internet, things are now so fast that after a few hours there are no stories left to tell, no interviews left for the paper publications.

Over the years I have seen just about every kind of launch you can imagine: I have seen cars come through the roof and through the floor. They even come through the walls. The concept is always the same with lots of flashing lights, dry ice and thumping music, designed to get the sponsors excited.

A couple of teams have tried the idea of having "virtual launches", the first as I recall being Sauber way back when broadband Internet did not exist and it was hard to join in. Still, the Sauber people win the prize for being the most inventive as the team sent out a little lunchbox to all the F1 journalists so they could have the free lunch without having to do the travelling. The thing that one needs to remember is that with modern F1 regulations the cars never look very different and so people these days get more excited about the liveries than they do the aerodynamics tweaks. The aero is now so complicated that even the biggest poseurs in F1 journalism are having trouble convincing people that they understand it.

When all is said and done, therefore, I think it would be a brilliant cost-cutting idea if the FIA was to ban launches as this would save both time and money.

Watching the testing is one way of trying to figure things out but even that is dangerous. We do not have any real idea about fuel loads, tyre compounds and there may even be teams running light cars to give a good impression if they are trying to sign a sponsorship deal or whatever. And let us not forget that on the other hand we have teams which have been known to deliberately sandbag the opposition with the drivers doing lap times which start and finish at different places on the track so that their real speed is not obvious.

Every day there will be different people showing different levels of speed and while this provides journalists with endless silly stories about Ferrari revivals, Toyota breakthroughs, World Championships for Rubens Barrichello and all the rest of it, one must never forget that the only things that really matters is when we start the practice sessions in Bahrain in about eight weeks from now.

The warm woolly season which we are now in - Formula 1's Feast of Fools - comes to an abrupt end at that point - and not before.

Print Feature