The French GP

If you had believed what the organisers of the French GP were saying this time 12 months ago, there wouldn't be a race to be writing about this year. Far be it from me to suggest that you should never believe a word a Frenchman says, but I am happy to report that no sooner had we all written the obituary of Magny-Cours and its race than a bout of arm-twisting by local dignitaries unlocked some secret funds, and we're all going back yet again to enjoy the farmyard smells of La France Profonde.

Well, actually, I won't be there. A couple of years ago I agreed to let fellow scribe David Tremayne take over my long-standing squatter's rights in the attic room of the private house where the titans of the empire have been taking up residence, in the very heart of Magny-Cours village, for the past 15 years. Last year, having had to decline me, our hostess kindly arranged for her next-door neighbour to let me have a room. Unfortunately, the neighbour also had a grown-up daughter who had been unlucky in love, which of course is none of my business. But it got complicated when the family discovered that their weekend lodger, a perfidious Englishman (me, no less), could speak half-decent French. Now I daren't go back because I'm worried that if I reappear they'll be asking the local priest to call the banns. On my honour, I swear I did nothing at all to encourage the (not so young) lady.

This year it really does look like curtains for Magny-Cours, if only because Mr E has said he's not prepared to go back there. I understand our Great Benefactor is under pressure from the teams, who are sick and tired of the shortage of decent hotels in the area. Instead, they have to rent glorious but crumbling chateaux which can only be reached by helicopter and tend to run out of hot water after the first guest has taken a shower. Bernie says he's only really interested in a French GP if it's going to take place on a circuit near Paris, and since there are no signs of work having started on such a facility, the country which gave the world the whole concept of Grand Prix racing could be out of the loop for a long time to come.

This week, however, the Editor has unearthed a story which suggests that the region's politicians are minded to prolong the agony and are about to brandish in Mr E's face the contract which supposedly 'guarantees' them a race for another two years. While I would never lay money on the outcome of a squabble between Bernie and a small-town French politician, this still promises to be an interesting confrontation. See you in court, chaps.

France has always been an interesting place to find accommodation. When I joined good old Motor magazine back in 1974, our chief photographer, Maurice Rowe, had some great stories to tell about his travels with Rodney Walkerley, a flamboyant (and thirsty) hack whose time as Sports Editor, under the splendid pen name 'Grande Vitesse,' actually went back to pre-war days. At the hotel in Reims which had become the magazine's regular home in the Fifties, Maurice recounted, Madame never failed to collect the room keys when he and Rodney left for the circuit in the morning. It was a couple of years before the penny dropped and they realised that Madame was, well, a madame, and employed a couple of working girls for the lunch-time shift. The beds in Motor's rooms were getting what you might call double use.

While France may claim to be the home of motor racing, the venues where it ran its races until comparatively recently were always old-fashioned open-road circuits. Just think of the great names: Reims, Clermont-Ferrand, Rouen, even Le Mans. All of them were ferociously dangerous, consisting of obstacle-strewn public roads which have been closed for the weekend and marshalled by ignorant cops, a commodity which France possesses in huge multitudes. I particularly remember the weekend of an F2 race at Reims in 1970 when a gendarme barred my way as I attempted to cross the track at the beginning of the lunch break (this being France, a minimum of two hours) and instructed me that "for reasons of security" I would have to queue with the punters and use the footbridge.

Given that I was wearing a credential which promised me access to everything short of the President's current mistress, this idea did not appeal, especially because I was aware of several incidents in which inadequately constructed footbridges had collapsed at other French circuits. I therefore unwisely mumbled something, in French, about the difference between French and British racing circuits.

"At our tracks in England we have one policeman for every 100 toilets, while here you have..."

The cop put up his hand and informed me that if I insisted on completing the sentence as he expected me to do, he would be inviting me to spend the rest of the weekend as the guest of the CRS, the notoriously unsympathetic national riot police who are wheeled out whenever the populace get restless.

So, back to Magny-Cours, or more precisely to Menorca, the Spanish island where Senora Hack and I enjoy spending our leisure time. My local friend Peter, who is such a keen follower of F1 that he actually gets up before dawn to catch TV broadcasts of races from the Far East, has set up one of those computer games which allow him to match his skills against the current stars of F1. In his case, an unwillingness to update on his 1998 software means he's been racing, and beating, the likes of Shinji Nakano and Pedro Diniz. He says that Magny-Cours is by far the least interesting of the current F1 tracks.

After a brief and inglorious attempt, I tend to agree with him. The corners are mostly featureless, with acres of gravel trap which trick you into taking big risks. Peter is something of an expert now, and last week, over four death-defying laps, he beat a bloke called Schumacher. Anybody remember him?

We are certainly looking forward to Sunday and to seeing how young Mr Hamilton copes with the ten-places-back penalty which has been inflicted on him for his carelessness in the pitlane two weeks ago in Montreal. I suspect that the McLaren-Mercedes boffins will prescribe a multi-stop low-fuel strategy which requires him to pass all those awkward mid-field types, then to stop around lap 15 and have to do it all over again. In such circumstances, even a couple of points would represent a good result for the lad from Hertfordshire.

What with Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa on such good form for Ferrari, McLaren's hopes must surely rest on Heikki Kovalainen, who - in case we forget - has already demonstrated an uncanny talent for stepping into the breach when the occasion requires. Then there's my personal favourite, Robert Kubica, whose Canadian win underlined the progress made this year by BMW. If he wins another one, Robert will be in serious danger of getting his name pronounced correctly by the gang responsible for the BBC's F1 coverage on Radio Five.

Yes, I listen to it in the intervals in the ITV coverage when they're trying to sell me products which I have sworn never to buy.