GLOBETROTTER

On safari in Belgium and a night at the opera

Belgium is a complicated place - and that is when things are relatively normal. To give you a very brief idea, the country owes its existence to a bunch of Bruxellois who went to the opera one evening in August 1830 and were so inspired by the nationalist themes in Daniel Auber's "La Muette de Portici" that they streamed from the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie and started an insurrection. There and then.

Weird, I know, but astonishingly true.

To give you the full details, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was not united at all as the inhabitants of what had previously been called the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium) did not want to be ruled by the folk who had previously been in the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (the predecessor of modern Holland).

Are you following me?

Anyway, to cut a long and bloody story short the result was a new country called Belgium, which scouted around for a spare king and came up with the 30-year-old German Duke Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who graciously said "Ja" when asked to be King of the Belgians. Speaking in various different languages, they all agreed that this was the way forward. And therein lies the problem for ever since that day Belgium has been fighting over which language it should speak.

At the moment the country is in middle of a political crisis as the unpleasantly-named Flems (who make up 58% of the population and speak a language best described as "Dutch spoken in Belgium") and the Walloons (who make up 32% of the population and speak their own kind of French) quibble over who runs what. To further confuse matters there is also the Brussels area which provides the missing 10%, which is officially a bilingual zone. Let us forget, for the moment, the small German-speaking community that exists in eastern Wallonia.

Since the Belgian elections in June it has been impossible to form any kind of government and as F1 arrived at Spa someone placed the following advertisement on eBay: "For Sale: Belgium, a Kingdom in three parts". The seller offered free delivery but pointed out that the product was coming secondhand and that potential buyers would have to take on over $300bn in national debt. The sale offer was posted by a disgruntled teacher who said that he wanted to show his fellow countrymen what their country was worth so that they would wake up and solve the problems.

And while all this was going on, the Formula 1 troops returned to Spa - blissfully unaware of the world around them. As an illustration of this unworldly attitude, the press conference on Thursday was marked by a question about Iraq. What did the drivers think of the war in Iraq? Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil sat there like a bunch of lemons until Kubica (the bravest of the brave) said: "I think we are in a Formula 1 conference, so I will not answer this question." One can only hope that the drivers are not as one-dimensional as this makes them appear but I guess we will have to try with subjects such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and cuddly bunny rabbits to prove the theory.

Despite this being back at Spa was a pleasure. Yes, the hotel facilities are from the 1970s. Yes, the traffic management was stupid (as always). But, Hell, this is Spa. This is special. Anyone with a racing soul can put up with a few privations to see the cars hurtling through the forests; to hear the engines pulling revs all the way to the top of the hill. Thank goodness that this beautiful noise was able to drown out the jibber-jabber of the F1 paddock and the sanctimonious tosh spouting forth from those who get more excitement from power plays and intellectual masturbation than they do from watching the cars in action.

Spa is what racing motor cars is all about: fast corners, cars teetering on the brink and a sense of danger in the air.

If the track was not as it is, Belgium would have no chance of a Formula 1 race, even if they built a Tilke-ring somewhere in the suburbs of Brussels.

It struck me that to understand what Formula 1 cars are really like, one needs these days to go to strange remote places where the great old circuits struggle to survive. These are the only place where one can see these mechanical animals in the wild. One can go to the local zoo and see lions and tigers but it is not the same as going on safari and seeing them in their natural environment. The Tilke-rings are designed for television with lots of slow speed corners.

And when one follows that analogy one asks whether the animals who drive these machines have also been tamed by too much exposure to the slow-cornered safe places on which they now race. How many of the current drivers would have been mad enough to race the cars from the 1930s on the tracks that were used in that era? If they are not willing to say things about a war because they fear what the media would do with those quotes, do they really have the devil-may-care attitude that was needed in the days when there were regular weekends when some of the drivers did not come back?

And yet, we have had ample evidence in these last days that the top drivers are still throat-slittingly ambitious which, in a twisted kind of way, confirms that our sport is as it should be. It is merely the latest form of a contest that is as old as human record - and probably older. Its predecessor was chariot racing, which was wildly dangerous and tremendously popular. Many of the organizational aspects of sport are paralleled today with teams representing different groups of financial backers, competing for the services of particularly skilled drivers. The four big teams (the Greens, Blues, Reds and Whites) were the focus of intense support among spectators. The Circus Maximus in Rome could house 150,000 spectators and the drivers became so famous that their images are left behind in mosaics, as statues and even painted on pots. They are forgotten now: Scorpus, Crescens, Aurelius Mollicus and Fuscus and even the greatest of them all: Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who raced for the Whites, the Greens and finally the Reds and retired at 42, a wealthy man with 1462 victories to his name.

He was an Hispano-Roman from Lusitania. In what today they call Spain.

The satirist Juvenal wrote at the time that people desired only "bread and circuses" and put his finger on the two most important aspects of Roman chariot racing: its immense popularity and the political role it played in diverting energy that might otherwise be used for rioting.

The sport existed to divert and to amuse. It was not to be taken too seriously.

There is a message in there somewhere.

And a stray thought: what would have happened if the United Kingdom of the Netherlands had been holding a race when the Belgians were getting worked up that night at the opera.

September 19 2007

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