Jacques and Gilles went down the 'ill

There being a weekend off between San Marino and the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, we decided to have a day cruising around in the countryside outside Paris. It is always a nice thing to do in the springtime and these rambling trips have revealed some lovely places over the years. This time we decided to go west to the Foret de Rambouillet, 54,000 acres of unspoiled oak and pine forest, a fragment of a vast forest that once spread from the north of Paris down to Orleans, 100km to the south.

Rambouillet is the kind of place where one can quite easily see deer in the daytime and where one needs to watch out for wild boar, who like to charge across the roads at night. Just outside the forest we discovered a charming little medieval hill town called Montt, which dates back to the tenth century and began life as a fortress which protected one of the major routes into Paris. It is a nice place to wander around and marvel at the prices that people will pay for property in the modern era.

It was not the kind of place where one expects to run into anyone but as we were wondering where to have lunch, a voice came from across the street.

"Hello, you English!"

It was Jacques Laffite, former Grand Prix driver, TV commentator and all-round good bloke, with his longtime pal Gilles Levent, a photographer with the famed French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe. The pair had been playing golf in the neighbourhood, so Jacques said. This was his neck of the woods.

We explained that we were mere tourists, just out having a good time and asked Jacques and Gilles where best to have lunch. Such requests are always greeted well by Frenchmen and we were taken on a whirlwind verbal tour of the best restaurants in the town, complete with shrugs and pouts if the establishment had failed to live up to expectations at some point or other. Jacques and Gilles were going to their favourite place down the 'ill but said that we should also have a look in the main square up by the church to see what took our fancy. We chatted for a while and then went our separate ways and, having looked at the various establishments available, ended up going down the 'ill in search of the place Jacques had mentioned. It was very nice indeed and we had nearly finished our lunch when the Laffite party showed up with Jacques and Gilles accompanied by Jacques's wife Florence and their two young sons. Happy Jacques was his usual helpful self, wanting to know if we had enjoyed our lunch and, with a little help from Florence, was even able to recommend a good garden centre in the neighbourhood. Then it was "See you on Thursday" and off we went in search of geraniums.

They don't make Grand Prix drivers like Jacques any more. Well, there are one or two, I suppose, who have an understanding of the real world and are happy and charismatic all the time. Back when Jacques was climbing the ladder to F1, it often took years of hard slogging to make it and very few drivers enjoyed an easy path to success. That toughening up process they had to go through created some real characters and today's generations, some of whom go from being pampered kartists to F1 stars within a matter of two or three years, seem a pale version of the men who were at the top of the tree 20 years ago.

Bumping into Jacques was one of those nice things that happen in life and it got me thinking back to the first time I met him which (to my horror) I discovered was almost 20 years ago. We met for the first time a few days before the British GP of 1986. I remember it well because it was one of my first interviews with a real life F1 star. That weekend Jacques was due that weekend to equal Graham Hill's long-standing record of 176 Grand Prix starts and I was sent along to talk to him about his career. Jacques was one of the easiest interviews I ever did.

I was not there on race day - I think I had another race somewhere else - but I watched the Grand Prix on TV and was horrified to see Thierry Boutsen lose control of his Arrows in the midfield. The car bounced off the wall on the right of Paddock Hill Bend and came back into the middle of the pack. Stefan Johansson jinked his Ferrari to the right to avoid it. Unfortunately as he did so Laffite was on his right, looking for a way to overtake. The Ligier had nowhere to go and went head-on into the barriers. Laffite was cut from the wreckage and flown to hospital, his Formula 1 career over. The ultimate insult was that the race was restarted and thus in the record books, Laffite did not start his 176th Grand Prix.

Nine months later Jacques hobbled back to the sport and turned up in my neck of the woods. At the time I was a touring car reporter and was delighted when Laffite became an Alfa Romeo factory driver in the World Touring Car Championship. Since then we seem to have spent most of the last 20 years turning up in the same places. Initially he was a driver and then, when the time came, he became a TV commentator and we still meet in paddocks, hotels and airports.

Not to mention curious little French country towns.

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