Canadian GP

Our sport's annual swing through North America kicks off this weekend in Canada, with the US race to follow just one week later. It's a confoundedly inconvenient pair of races for teams whose cars aren't performing up to scratch and which desperately need the time at home to get them sorted out. But as Mike Doodson relates, these two races provide an opportunity for team bosses, drivers (and even an occasional journalist) to let their hair down in a convivial atmosphere conveniently far from home.

There once was a time when it was a pleasure to visit the United States. You don't have to be as old as I am to remember the days when bona fide European tourists were treated politely at US Immigration and waved through with a friendly smile. Bizarrely-dressed scruffs with beards and a nervous tick didn't have it quite so easy, of course, which us understandable. It was a tragedy that this discreet but effective form of screening should have failed the American people so catastrophically five years ago. But that is no excuse for the heavy-handed treatment now meted out to those of us who used to support the American tourist business so enthusiastically, every year without fail.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a convenient way round this dilemma. I travelled to Montreal (convenient city airport, briskly efficient but courteous entry procedures, no visa required for Europeans) and attended the always enjoyable Grand Prix on that splendid city's bijou island circuit. I subsequently avoided all the Homeland Protection malarkey by the simple expedient of staying in Canada while everyone else went on to Indianapolis. In Montreal I had the great good fortune to be staying at the home of a Canadian friend who subscribes to the US Speed TV network.

My friend is a bi-lingual Quebecker who responds to my anti-French prejudices by firing back with his own robust remarks about the shortcomings of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. On race morning I prepared a buffet lunch (I can recommend the local asparagus and strawberries), allowing four of us to sit down for the race with a decent bottle of wine, from New Zealand rather than France, of course. We had been intending to flick between the American Speed channel and the local French-language coverage, but this, you will remember, was the year of the great Tyre Fiasco.

No sooner had the 14 Michelin-shod cars peeled off before going to the final grid than the local channel indignantly pulled the plug on its F1 coverage and switched to some local game involving helmeted thugs on ice. This left us with Speed and its gang of pitlane reporters, led by my friend Peter Windsor, who did a truly outstanding job of covering the complex tyre story while the six-car 'race' droned on in the background. It took considerable restraint on my part not to point out to my friend that on this occasion Anglo-Saxon resourcefulness had well and truly vanquished Gallic impetuosity.

I'm not alone in enjoying the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Canada at Grand Prix time. Many years ago I was regaled by the owner of a top F1 team with the story of an idyllic few days which he had spent in the company of his lead driver at a delightful golf resort in a secluded corner of Quebec. The driver, who was passionate about golf, had been able to unwind completely, which his boss considered to have been excellent preparation for the rigours of the coming summer season.

On the way to the airport and their onward trip to the US, however, the party's exuberance resulted in some horseplay involving their hire cars, which clunked up to the returns area in a state of serious dishevelment. The driver explained to the wide-eyed girl behind the desk how he had unavoidably hit a moose which had jumped out on to the road from the forest without warning.

"My goodness!" she remarked, "I hope nobody was hurt."

"Nothing serious," said the driver, whose prominent nose had been badly bent in a childhood accident. "But look what it did to my nose ..."

(There are no prizes for guessing the identity of the team owner or the driver.)

Far and away the best series of races to carry the title of 'US Grand Prix' were the ones which took place at Long Beach, California, between 1976 and 1983. The event was set up specifically to enhance the image of what was then the ramshackle port of Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, in the hope of attracting hotels and businesses to the city. The project was a huge success and I wish I had been in a position, back in 1976, to have invested in the local real estate.

That first year of the race, the provision of accommodation for the visiting teams and journalists from Europe was the responsibility of the Organising Committee and I had been allocated a room in a motel conveniently close to the city. It was a typical American motel, with parking spaces outside the cabin rooms.

Severely jet-lagged on my first night, I woke well before dawn. Trying unsuccessfully to get back to sleep, I became aware that the couple in the adjoining room were also awake. It quickly became apparent that they were more than just good friends and that they had found a way, regardless of the hour, to expend their energy. It was a bravura performance, too: he grunted enthusiastically, she squealed with delight. The bumping and grinding continued over a considerable period of time, with at least half a dozen crescendos until one final ecstatic climax.

Who, I wondered, could they be? Since the motel had been block-booked for F1 people, they were likely to be known to me. It was my duty to my readers, I decided, to establish their identities. It seemed likely, of course, that this was a one-off liaison, literally one night of athletic passion which might never be repeated. So I tip-toed out of the door of my cabin, settled into the passenger seat of my rental car, and waited until the two of them emerged for breakfast.

When at last their door opened, I was astonished. The inexhaustible Lothario, short, tubby and well into his Fifties, was none other than Carlo Chiti, technical boss of Alfa Romeo. At his side was a pretty blonde woman, a little younger, perhaps, but evidently just as fond of a good breakfast as he was. On her face was an expression of angelic bliss. Later that day, having quizzed some Italian colleagues, I learned that she was the Ingegnere's wife of many years.

Carlo Chiti, alas, is no longer with us. My memories of him are forever coloured, of course, by that incident more than thirty years ago. I sometimes try to imagine what the result would have been if he had put as much skill and vigour into the design of his racing engines as he did into entertaining his wife. Alfa Romeo might have won a few more races, of course, but perhaps the Chitis would have had a much less satisfying life at home.

It is possible, I suppose, to be a great lover and a wizard engineer at the same time. There may even be a lesson here for us all, even for humble journalists. Nevertheless, even today, when I see a racing engine blow up, I can't help wondering what its designer was doing when he should have been making sure that all his engine's components were strong enough for the job. Yet when I am accused of not devoting myself full-time to sleuthing the F1 paddock, as sometimes happens, I like to think that maybe I am the one who has his priorities correctly aligned.

I seem to have wandered off the path of strict racing stories, so let's return to the race at Long Beach. One year, staying at the home of another generous friend in Orange County, we threw a party for racing people. A well known photographer (no longer involved in F1) showed up with a rather faraway look in his eyes which suggested that he had already found some kind of stimulant before we'd even so much as uncorked the first bottle of wine.

I don't know what he had been taking, but he was picked up on his way home by the Highway Patrol. When they asked him if he had any idea what speed he had been doing, he assumed that he had been speeding, and immediately started explaining that back in Europe he was accustomed to driving at well over the US limit, which at the time was a mere 55 mph.

"Sir," said the officer, "we've been following you for the past two miles and you have not yet exceeded five miles per hour."

Whatever it was he'd been taking, I promise you he didn't get it at my party ...