GLOBETROTTER

Chilled condoms and other stories

OK, I admit it, it has been a shockingly bad year for the Globetrotter column. There has just been too much going on to keep up with the discipline of writing a column once every two weeks. In F1 these days one is constantly running from pillar to post and that is without taking into account any sense of normal life; of boy scout meetings, soccer matches and summer holidays.

I do have a number of computer files with notes about the year which are quite amusing when read one by one. These little notes say things like "British academics have proved that cows moo with regional accents. What is the point? A bit like advanced F1 aerodynamics. Serves no purpose" or "It is a bit odd going to work at Istanbul Park, surrounded by Special Forces men in black combat gear and sniper rifles. Not quite like going to Silverstone". There is also an oddity about Muslim countries: "The word alcohol is derived from the Arabic language (al kohl or alkuhl), which is odd considering that a large proportion of the Arabic population is forbidden from consuming alcohol for religious reasons". There was a note of a quote from Bernie Ecclestone in Shanghai last year: "You will always get a straight answer from me," he said. "Even if it's not the truth."

My personal favourite is another note from Istanbul which questioned the logic of the mini-bar in my hotel room. "It's a strange place, Istanbul," the note said. "Who in their right mind puts condoms in the fridge? I guess they want to open the eyes of the visitors so that they see Istanbul as a liberated, party town. Chilled condoms would certainly widen the eyes!"

There is also a note about never trusting statistics - written no doubt after the FIA Survey came out.

"There are 700,000 physicians in the United States. There are 120,000 accidental deaths caused by physicians. Thus accidental deaths per physician is 0.171. The number of gun owners in the US is 80,000,000. The number of accidental gun deaths per year is 1500. Thus accidental deaths per gun owner is 0.000188. Thus doctors are 9000 times more dangerous than gun owners."

Yes, it has been a colourful few months and after the delights of Shanghai, it was off to Suzuka for the Japanese GP. It is 20 years since Formula 1 first visited Suzuka and created the first serious F1 presence in Asia. There had been two Grands Prix at Mount Fuji in the 1970s but these were before the days when F1 became a serious business.

Despite this we have yet to see the sport really take permanent root in Japan. We are told that viewing figures are fine but you don't see the same kind of passion for the sport as there was in the old days when Ayrton Senna was the star. Not even the presence of Honda, Toyota, Takuma Sato and others has lifted the interest levels in F1 in Japan.

"We need a Japanese F1 superman," my Japanese editor said the other day. "Nothing else will work."

The problem is much the same elsewhere. There have been attempts to build up racing industries in various places but for the moment there is little sign that the European industry will be troubled by anyone other than NASCAR in the years ahead. It would make sense therefore for F1 to be very careful to maintain and nurture its roots. Europe is where the sport began and where it is still strong but there are signs that things are weakening all the time.

The 2006 season is significant in that this year there have been nine races in Europe and nine races outside Europe. It will be the first time in the history of the sport that the balance has been equal. The growth of the sport outside Europe has been dramatic with only six non-European events in 2003, eight in 2004 and nine in 2005. Ten years ago the ratio was very different with 12 races in Europe and five elsewhere.

That trend will probably continue, despite the fact that there is a clause in the contract between the FIA and the commercial rights holder which protects certain traditional events such as Monaco, France, Britain and Italy. In Europe the races in Britain and France are both struggling to make money. Belgium is scrambling to survive after the previous promoter went bankrupt, Germany has cut back to just one race a year and Italy is only keeping two thanks to the government intervening. Perhaps more significantly there is little sign of new European races beyond some ideas to hold a race at Valencia in F1-mad Spain and a government-backed plan in Greece.

Out in Asia there are plenty of projects: Korea has agreed to spend a fortune for a race in 2010 and Singapore is thinking of going down the same route. The Japanese also want a second race. Elsewhere there is still talk of a race in India and vague but underfunded plans in South Africa.

The sponsors love the idea that the sport is spreading into new markets but it is significant when one analyses F1 that the new races have not brought new media. The Japanese have long had a core of F1 reporters but we are not seeing large numbers of Chinese, Malaysians, Turks or Bahrainis following the F1 scene around the world. Journalists and TV companies tend to come only when the country involved has a driver and it will be a long time before we see any serious F1 drivers from these countries.

The F1 media has been griping about the cost of reporting the sport for some years and there are beginning to be signs that the number of reporters in the future will be dropping away. It is just too expensive to continue. The Internet has not helped, slashing the circulation numbers of the major specialist magazines, many of which are now dangerously close to to extinction. In their place has come a band of amateur websites which do not have reporters at the race tracks and which survive by stealing information from wherever they can find it - or by making it up. They lack understanding of the sport and contacts but can survive because their overheads are low.

Sadly that means that the general quality of F1 journalism is dropping, which is bad for the sport which needs a strong media to remind those involved that there is more to the game than money and that it must listen to the fans or risk losing them. In F1 circles the television remains dominant, despite the fact that more often than not the quality of the reporting and analysis is bland and innocuous. The Internet is restricted in its development by outdated attitudes and lack of support from the industry and the urge within the F1 industry is to try to control the media either by offering commercial "carrots" or threatening "sticks" such as restricting access to drivers and trying to coerce the media into not rocking the boat.

If the sport was more honest with itself it would throw open the doors and stand on its record rather than trying to hide behind false walls.

F1 however remains a sport of aspirations. A world of fantastic machines and fantastic people. F1, obsessed though it is with arguments about freezing engines and whether one can build cars from unobtainium, forgets that it is ultimately a business about people. Technology is also essential to the image but it is the characters that make it popular and special. It is the heroes in the cars. It is a sport that, despite exalted and misplaced claims about technology, exists for no reason other than to lift the human spirit. F1 is gaudy and wasteful - and that is part of its attraction.

And it should remain that way to help normal people escape to a fantasy world. Going to faraway places is part of that image but we need to be sure when we land on a new shore that we are careful to explain to the locals why we are there.

And they can explain to us why they chill their condoms.

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