Features - Column

MARCH 23, 2006

A Yank tries the fast track, Part II


Tom Sebastian relates his adventures driving Formula 1 cars, in the hope that some movie producer will be impressed and agree to finance production of his over-the-top racing script, Miracle at Monaco.

Tom Sebastian relates his adventures driving Formula 1 cars, in the hope that some movie producer will be impressed and agree to finance production of his over-the-top racing script, Miracle at Monaco.

It's lunchtime and as I slip the cold bologna ham between the dry white slices of Wonder Bread, the howling winter wind bounces the shudders off the house yet again. I resist the urge to shake my fist at the elements of this cold, New York winter and, instead, slather the ersatz meat with some French's Mustard, the only haute cuisine in sight.

I pick up a copy of a racing magazine and sit down with a fizz-less diet Coke. There, right there on page four, is Eddie Irvine showing off his (three!) gorgeous dates as he hits the Dublin night scene during his first off-season. I stop chewing; the shudder hits the outer wall again, and suddenly, I am back at Monza again, racing with Irvine.

OK. It was his track and he could probably drive it at night. But shooting down pit row I swore I was reeling him in. When we both tore out of Curva Grande that notion became fact: he couldn't pull away from me. We were Even Steven. It was his turn to play the mirrors. Aside from a slight ÔS' turn up ahead, this end of the circuit was as good as any to pull the trigger. Which I did. But he didn't fall. Like the Shaolin masters of old, he went into his magic bag for the moves they never teach their students, just in case they ever meet one on the field of battle. He held me off through the next two right-handers. Not blocking exactly but something close to it. Not until we slipped through the slight indentation known as the Variante Ascari - nose to tail did he succumb to the superior break-away speed of my F1 car. But no sooner did I pass him and begin to assess my first laurels earned in F1 that I realized that it was just possible that I had not earned it. I could see in my mirrors that he was entering the pits.

Nuts! Was he simply beginning his slow-down at Ascari, while I was going at a full gallop? Or did he simply need an excuse when he saw that resistance was futile? Anyone familiar with Monza knows that that is still quite a way from the pits to begin braking for home. But he was the teacher and to be passed thusly by a student. Now, it did no good to tell the other drivers what I knew to be true: He couldn't have held out for long. And even if he did not legitimately succumb where I passed him, in less than a mile, perhaps right there in front of the pits and before their very eyes, that would have been it!

But I was preaching to the converted. Namely myself. To the others, I fear, it may have looked like, well, another Yank skipping over some much needed experience. Too much too fast. Another Michael Andretti mashugunah (Yiddish Lunatic). As they handed me the certificate that said I did the Monza circuit in the expected time, I bared them far less than my full set of teeth in appreciation. I realized then and there that I not only had to beat the clock, I had to beat someone!

I awoke from my trance. It was all too much to bear! I leapt from my chair spilling the coke; I threw the abominable sandwich at the wall and tossed Eddie and his girlfriends into the Ôcircular file'. Once again, I was on a mission from God!

Aficionados who know AGS (Automobiles Gonfaronaises Sportives) only as the F1 training school for spoiled Frenchmen and French-speaking Brits to hone their Renault Turbo or Porsche driving skills on the C?te d'Azur, should know that, at the very beginning, it was different. AGS was a real racing team with real pedigree in F3000 and in F2 before it entered F1. But after Philippe Streiff, the team's main man, was crippled while testing in 1989, the team fell slowly into painful disarray. Ownership shifted and financing started to look like a flowchart in fuzzy math. They even tried selling wine! While still on shaky ground, they managed one last shot pour la gloire in 1991. It was, of course, futile and AGS descended into Formula 1's Valhalla.

Yet the dream still lingered, it takes time for cognitive lag to catch up with reality, and all those who came for training at this new school realized that the torch could be relit at any moment if only the right driver were found. A driver who could attract the right sponsors, who could then bring the team back to life! And there wasn't one of us there that day in the early 1990s who didn't think that they had the key to the back entrance to our dream of hanging out in F1 with Eddie, Ayrton and all those women!

The trick, if memory serves, was to get us out in Formula 3 cars in the morning, preceded of course by class work regarding the differences between our high-powered Porsche road cars and open-wheeled racers. Everyone was sleepy and, for those of us with English as our lingua franca, just nodded our heads through the more technical stuff. In any case, it seemed as if no one was fazed by F3 driving dynamics.

But everyone was fazed by what happened next! As we sat there awaiting the signal to proceed on our 10-lap familiarization run, each lap to be quicker than the last, all gearing us for the inevitable afternoon run in F1, a fog rolled in off the Mediterranean and covered the track. First the signalman up ahead disappeared, and then my neighbor, no more than three feet to my right on the grid, was gone! My visor was completely filled with mist.

But what's that I heard!? Holy ^%$#@!!! We're going off into the fog!! We're going racing anyway!!!

To be continued