Features - Column

MAY 18, 2006

A Yank tries the fast track, Part III


Tom Sebastian relates his adventures driving Formula 1. We left our hero sitting in a Formula 3 car ready to go with his engine running when fog rolled in across the circuit.

At this point, many things entered my head, not the least of which was the fact that I had let my health insurance lapse just before leaving for France. An image of the cavalry of St. Cyr charging the German machine-gun trenches of WWI, sabres drawn and wearing white gloves - all proof of their inimitable elan - was no help.

"These people are Nuts!" I yelled inside my helmet (I actually did), but only added to the condensation already on my visor.

ButÉ if this is how I get into the F1 car in the afternoon, and then on to the party scene with Eddie, Alain and Gerhard in Monaco. Well, then, OK. Survival is the key.

As I headed into the first series of turns - a sweeping left followed by a hard, 90 degree right - I checked my mirrors. Nothing to be seen (of course!) but I did hear someone behind me and hoped - no, prayed - that he was not French.

I survived that one and, just as I headed through the second right-hander expecting to rear-end anyone playing it safer than I at the moment, there he was, trying to pass me without actually seeing me!

"Formidable!" I yelled in my most sarcastic French.

Sanity took hold and I let the fool through. I watched this lunatic scamper full-bore into the unknown and upped the pace. I had my rabbit, so to speak; a buffer for any accidents. Besides which, the thought of this nut lapping me was simply too much to deal with.

I was well into the fifth lap when the sun shone through - at least in parts - and the fog lifted enough to reveal some invaluable bits of track. I had survived this far, the one, certifiable, head case was nowhere to be seen. It looked as though the rest of us had found the speed at which the odds were better than even that we would survive until lunch. But I was fairly certain that the powers-that-be would have - by now - have seen the insanity of this and would soon be hailing us into the pits to wait until the fog lifted.

Going by the pits I was able to make out, for the first time, the guy running this fiasco. There he was, flag tucked under his arm as if this were just your normal race day in the fog. Had the car come equipped with a communication link, I should loved to have inquired as to the location of the switch for the Hella fog lights. I was still shaking my head wondering if, perhaps, an earthquake would be the ticket that finally would have forced this guy to alter his precious schedule when a chicken (Yes, a real chicken!) scampered across the track just out of harms way of my front wing. Entertaining myself with thoughts of just how folksy all of this was, I made it through Lap 9 when, lo and behold, the warning flag was up indicating that there was just one more lap to go. The fog was well above the car-level now, and I could see how well-spaced we all were. Sanity and the survival gene had, somehow, prevailed. And then seemingly from out of nowhere, Monsieur Whacko was on me once again - playing at being Keke Rosberg but without the commensurate skills. God must love this guy, I thought. But I didn't. I did what I normally do not - an insider's secret, if you must know - and lowered the outside mirror so as to be of no effect. Now, in case you are wondering, the effect of this is for the driver behind to say "What the!?" and then begin to wonder about his suicidal resolve. If you know that the guy in front cannot even see your intimidating moves, let alone be able to react to them, then anything you try is left to Fate.

Yes, I know it is a rotten Yankee trick but I guessed correctly. This was no St. Cyr warrior (or, as I say when watching Barrichello non-contesting corner, this is no Ayrton Senna). He faded without risk to either himself or, more importantly, to me.

At lunch, I took a closer look at this character (and, truth be told, at everyone else connected with the business. He was overweight and a tad insane-looking. I suspected fetal alcohol syndrome and resolved that I would stay clear of him when we moved up to the bigger game in the afternoon. Lunch was no less a shocker than the morning had been - at least to a Yankee Puritan such as myself. I didn't quite believe my eyes. We're drinking wine. Lots of it.

Mentally, I shot back to that day at Monza where the owner/manager of the ex-Leyton House cars lets us go into the unknown with great faith in our driving skills but with virtually no intelligible instructions as to the particular vehicle's characteristics. Here, by contrast, we've had plenty of instruction - plus the opportunity to go completely blotto around the Circuit du Var, as the track is known locally.

The food and wine were excellent and lived up to all expectations from this part of Europe (no one cooks or ferments like these people). And, frankly, my fourth glass of wine was so good and the conversation so cheery, that I was beginning to forget what disaster all of this bacchanalia could lead to when was 600+ horsepower strapped to one's back. It was all but brought home when, wine glass raised in the final cheer for the afternoon's run, my eye caught El Whacko, the Fog Monster, all glassy-eyed and raring to go. Very, VERY scary.

To be continued