Columns - The Youth of Today

F1's Purple Patch


At the age of 16 my classmates and I gained entry to the hallowed third floor of my school: the sixth form. In quite possibly the greatest rite of passage known to man all bottle green sweaters and ties were abandoned, grey Farrah slacks cremated and citrus colored exercise books swapped for A4 folders. Miss Pickering became Kay, essays swelled to 1500 words, opinions were encouraged and some began speaking in iambic pentameter as schoolchildren mutated into students.

Quite the most precious of these new privileges was the sixth form stereo, another opportunity to experiment with freedom of expression. At lunchtimes those who were lucky enough to have just enjoyed a free period, or who were more concerned with playing the latest treasure plundered from the shelves of Spinadisk than grabbing a surf burger and chips among the snotty-nosed plebs in the second year, were able to play one track from whichever cassette or LP they had tucked away in their rucksack.

Unfortunately for the other inmates, my friends and I all had only one tune on the brain: Grabsplatter by Deep Purple. This long-forgotten classic was a ten minute instrumental opus with Ritchie Blackmore almost setting the fretboard alight to a whirl of Hammond organ and cow bells that only appeared on a rare anthology we'd each bought for a laugh. At the stroke of 12 the opening staccato cowbell sounded 'ting ting, ting tingtiting ting ting' and I'd be drumming along on Coke cans as Kempy played air keyboard, Stevie Ken strutted with his air guitar and Jez nodded along on his imaginary bass while others queued impatiently clutching copies of the latest offerings from Yazz, Bros and, for the fey intellectuals, The Smiths.

The best thing about this record though, the thing that caused the girls to almost chew their fingers off with frustration, was that after the first ten minutes concluded in a gigantic crescendo and the other kids charged towards the stereo there would be another eruption. The rule was that nobody touched the buttons until the song was over, and Grabsplatter had not just one false ending: it had three. In fact, after a night spent hunched over twin tape decks, we actually raised the stakes to 12 false endings in a remix that lasted an entire lunch hour, but this was confiscated after one day when people's hair began falling out.

It's towards this happy time that my mind now turns in the aftermath of the US Grand Prix. You see everyone has gone demob happy since they got home. After 30 weeks of endless, repetitive hauling around 15 countries it seems impossible to go on. Many people have even taken a little holiday, grabbed a few days to try and remember what life can be like without it all. Meanwhile in England there's a gathering in London to meet up with old friends - journalists, PRs, photographers, drivers and the like - who inhabited the British Touring Car Championship between 1992 and '99. A party of all things!

Many of us who'll be there were doing more than one series at the time - pairing the BTCC with rallying, GTs, Formula 3, ITC, superbikes and whatever else - doing anything up to 40 events in a season as we earned our spurs, yet those now in Formula 1 can barely manage 17 any more. 'I've never known a season like it,' said a photographer at Indianapolis. 'It's never-f***ing-ending.' And if it's bad for us, imagine how the mechanics, designers, technicians and crew chiefs are feeling right now as their teams redouble their efforts to end 2000 on a high note.

The pressures on the backstage bods go far beyond putting on a two hour show every second Sunday. My other half, for example, flew back from America on Tuesday - and, after three days in the office, flies out to Japan this Saturday. After two days in her firm's Tokyo office and obligatory evenings out with the local reps she's putting a press conference together for 800 people. Then it's off to the circuit to organize more press conferences, paddock club appearances, pit tours, news releases, press dinners and public appearances. This is followed by another day in the Tokyo office before a four day stopover in a makeshift office in Bali en route to Malaysia to take it from the top one last time.

This has been the pattern since March 7 when she set off for Melbourne: a day's travel, three or four days pre-event PR, three days on-event crisis management, a day's travel, four days preparation in the office, a weekend, a final day's prep and then off again. Seven to nine days out of every fourteen spent on-event and now, after three short days in her own time zone, she's off again not to return until November 3.

It's not an uncommon schedule in this, a season which has seen Schumacher's early dominance, the arrival of Jenson Button, soggy Silverstone, Coulthard's winning streak and tragic plane crash, the first corner squabbles, Hakkinen's renaissance, Barrichello's day of days, that move at Spa, the press conference at Monza and the Indianapolis experience. This year more than any the struggle for dominance has been greater, the show even bigger and the demands on the people even harder than ever before.

They think it's all over... but it's not. At the top of the championship tables every nerve and sinew will be pushed further than ever in a showdown which will undoubtedly surpass Schumacher and Hill in '94, Hill and Villeneuve in '96, Villeneuve and Schumacher in '97 and Schumacher and Hakkinen's last two bouts - but in the paddock those still capable of paying attention frankly don't care. They just see one last, gruelling month ahead and want it all to be over with, and that is something that needs to be redressed.

Eddie Jordan is spearheading a campaign to stop all testing and racing for at least three weeks every August, and for this he is to be applauded. Already his team leads the way in looking after its staff, with team members allowed to take holidays during the season even if they are forced to miss a race, whilst elsewhere workers aren't even allowed to take two consecutive days off between the end of February and the end of October. By their very nature racing people aren't whingers as they're doing something about which they care passionately. Commercial pressures to entertain more people more often can't be ignored - and nobody wants to see the sport succeed more than the people whose lives are so devoted to it - but rather with a clear chance to recharge than the maddening prospect of a false ending.