Columns - The Youth of Today

National Passion's a Wonderful Thing


Being a European is quite hard work for us Brits. For example as much as many of us wanted to, drumming up excitement over Bentley's return to Le Mans was a feat that was a little too hard to manage, by virtue of not being German.

The car was beautiful enough to make one's bottom lip quiver and bedecked in an appropriate shade of green, but the engine was from Audi and the money from Volkswagen and that makes it as much of a national treasure as the Reichstag.

Still, we do still have one small corner of our motor industry left in MG Rover, and its small Le Mans car was the class of the field for a while in the capable hands of ex-F1 men Julian Bailey and Mark Blundell, so there was still some source of British cheer.

According to our politicos of course Europe is one giant amorphous blob of regulation issue weights and measures and looming monetary union, the concept of vive le difference seemingly consigned to the history books. Motor racing has never had much truck with the outside world however, and wherever Grand Prix cars gather the host nation goes bonkers.

The following week saw us all in Germany for the European Grand Prix. No matter what the title though this was an all-German affair in a nation where Formula 1 races are what cricket is to Pakistanis and the Olympics are to Americans the meaning of life itself.

It being the European Grand Prix, however, I decided to see a bit more of Europe than a couple of airport terminals and the drive between hotel and paddock. An extra incentive was that we were going to NŸrburgring, which is about as close to Holy Ground as motor sport can reach.

So instead of hopping on a plane to Cologne or Dusseldorf I went to Paris, found the nearest car hire firm and headed north by north east for some continental motoring.

By driving through four countries in a day however you get to appreciate the differences that make us Europeans whole. Not only who spends more of their subsidies on road maintenance, but the little things that matter most.

For example in France the slower and older a car is, the more likely it is to leap out into the overtaking lane for reasons known only to the single occupant who is hunched determinedly over the wheel.

Doubtless these folk are on their way to the local estaminet to discuss what on earth those funny blinking orange lights on the corners of their cars are, and how it is that whenever they pull into the overtaking lane there's a German or a Brit in the rear view mirror, all four wheels locked up and mouthing something foreign.

Belgium is an oasis of calm by contrast, although much as I love the place I only nicked a corner of it to stop at McDonalds for a Pulp Fiction moment: a 'Roy-ale with Cheese', only ever to be ordered through a bad Samuel L. Jackson impression and consumed with fries and mayonnaise.

When in Luxembourg, even for a fleeting visit, make sure you are out of there by 9pm and always have a full tank of petrol. Arriving at about ten with the fuel light's hollow glow already gnawing at the corner of your eye is inadvisable as by then the entire country is in bed and the hard shoulder is a dark and friendless place to be but with the car replenished it's then just a short squirt up the Eifel Mountains to the NŸrburgring.

Arrival - no matter where in the world you're driving to - is all the better when the miles traveled, the hazards avoided and the scenery drunk in are all a part of the adventure. And better still when the very difference in the air tells you you're abroad.

Our hotel was the old Hohe Acht up at the back of the old Nordschleife, a stone's throw from the spot where Manfred von Brauchitsch had a puncture at the end of the 1935 German Grand Prix. Cue legendary race status as a charging Tazio Nuvolari beat the Silver Arrows on home turf in an ancient Ferrari-run Alfa, much to the disgruntlement of the VIPs presiding from the government of the day.

Throughout these hills the air is rich with nostalgia, of great tales of derring-do, a place where even the most cynical old hack remembers something spectacular. For the full effect come here for the Oldtimer meeting and you arrive every morning with nothing on the road but a sea of venerable Mercedes, Bugattis and Porsches - but even with naught but a trail of much abused hire cars and Schumi fans in camper vans it remains a Mecca for all things mechanical.

Only so many places where Formula 1 visits have, like the Eifel mountains, the right sort of air for Grand Prix racing in the grand style as places of pilgrimage for the nation. Monza has it, where the tifosi come to worship, so does Silverstone where the memories of the sort of people power that greeted Moss, Hunt, Mansell and Hill are like the eternal flame, with David Coulthard and Jenson Button the men most likely to keep it going.

Spa has the history and, of course, Eau Rouge. Any absence of Belgian influence in the sport is more than made up for by the Germans who come with Schumi hats and Mercedes flags for a loud, if peaceful, invasion.

Indianapolis is another in that style. Historic, charismatic and brimming with enthusiasm from the crowd - if there was any way that the USA could get up amongst the best in Formula 1 I expect even Schumacher's army would be put to shame. Japan, India and Malaysia are furthering their young hotshoes' prospects as fast as they can, and for any race to really take off there never has and never will be anything to match the hometown hero.