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Postcards from the edge


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I’ve Been Sent Up By The Producer…………………..

Here at SCP’s European HQ we believe in innovation……..not for us the non groovy way of posting pieces when they arrive, oh no. We prefer to hang the meat till it gets good and gamey……..but this time I think we went a little too far……things are getting curly at the edges……Andrew Cotton, who with his father Michael, are the Homer and Bart of the site, sent these two sketches ages ago, and has been moaning ever since about my sloth in dealing with them…….so if you wonder why they are only appearing now, well blame me…………regulars will not be a bit surprised…… is Petzel Logic.

John Brooks, July 2007

Speed & Money
They say that speed kills. Well maybe, but in most cases they are wrong. It costs money. If you are caught speeding in a car, you get fined. It you want priority boarding on a plane, you pay. If you get into a taxi in Romania, you put your life into their hands, and they have their hands in your wallet. We reckon we set the record for the FIA GT Championship weekend in Bucharest when our taxi cost us (me actually, ed) 200 Lei (£40) from the airport to the circuit in downtown Bucharest when the going rate was 60, but we did it in less than half the time thanks in part to an ambulance chase, an unfinished motorway carriage and the President of Romania’s escort which swept past us on his way to a referendum by the people on whether or not to impeach him.

Bed and Breakfast
Sunday dawned grey, and a coffee to get going before we left the hotel was a brilliant idea from Brooks. Life slowly ebbed into our beer-filled veins before a stunning woman, dressed to kill in a skimpy, black cocktail dress, rucked up to the hotel in a cab. At 7:30 on a Sunday Morning. Even the normally deadpan reception staff were nonplussed. We doubted she was visiting the hotel to pray for salvation; Brooks concluded she was here because some lucky bastard punter had ordered breakfast in bed.

The race was sponsored by Playboy magazine and the bunny girls were prominent. It was obvious from the moment we landed that our taxi driver, Christian “call me Kimi”, was only interested in Ferrari. It rapidly became apparent that the bunny girls shared the sentiment. On Sunday morning while in conversation with Dirk Muller, who was resplendent in Ferrari overalls and Ferrari jacket, the bunny and grid girls filed past, smiled and gamely flirted. Somehow, I don’t think my silken lined press jacket was the look that was working for them.

Perhaps it was the visit of the President on the grid on Sunday, having survived his impeachment vote, that brought a published 69,000 spectators, though I guess that was the figure for the whole weekend. The weather was not kind, and was in part the reason for so many millions of Euros worth of damage caused mainly to the FIA GT3 and British Formula Three championship contenders.

Crash Course
The street circuit layout, in particular those concrete blocks, worried some drivers, particularly those who both owned and drove their €1.5m Maseratis, or Aston Martins. For some teams, such as BMS Scuderia Italia, Hexis Racing, AF Corse, Team Berlanga and Tech 9, heavy losses were suffered after big crashes…on Saturday. Sunday brought more damage, particularly to the GT3 series which counted Aston Martins, Lamborghinis, Ascaris and Porsches with terrible damage.

The red flags and safety car periods on Saturday gave time for us to soak up the luxury of the People’s Palace, built by Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1983 and which is the third largest building in the world behind the Pentagon and the Tibetan Potala. It took 20,000 labourers and 700 architects to design and erect this fabulous building, working around the clock to get it finished, but they failed to do so before Ceaucescu was executed on Christmas day in 1989.

A House Is Not A Home
The Romanian citizens were restricted to 2kg of meat per year, and two eggs a month. Fuel shortages meant that if you needed an ambulance but were over the age of 70, it would not come. Romanians were not allowed to speak to the outside world and so could not broadcast the ban on contraception and divorce, or the check ups on women who were not producing children. The Romanian orphanages filled up with children whose parents could not afford to keep themselves, let alone their compulsorily large family. AIDS was rife, power cuts meant that operations in hospitals were disrupted and, against this backdrop, Ceaucescu thought it would be marvellous to use one million square metres of Romanian marble in his iconic building.

The dictator ordered the construction of a building that served only his ego, wiping out 26 churches, 7000 homes and a chunk of medieval city to clear the way for his project, which is now the parliament building. Two marble staircases either side of the lobby were built in order that he could descend one side, his wife the other, in perfect symmetry. No fewer than 4,500 chandeliers hang throughout the building, the heaviest made from crystal and weighing five tonnes. It was called Casa Populari, or House of the People, but the people called it Casa Nebunului, or House of the Madman.

It was perhaps appropriate, then, that in the centre of this building sat the press office. Lit by 19 of those crystal chandeliers and with a gold-edged ceiling it was magnificent, but a pig to get to. A long hike up a hill, complete with slippery wooden steps, led to major grumbles from those who had to make the journey regularly, particularly if they were carrying camera gear.

Sheikh Ratel turned up for the qualifying press conference because he had not been into the place before, but the drivers’ briefing was rescheduled to a portakabin in the paddock so that neither the drivers, or the clerk of the course, had to make a hazardous journey up the wet grass hill. Airport-style security at the entrance to the palace infuriated those who had to go in regularly but given the history of the place, I might have been tempted to bring the whole thing down too.

A press room in the paddock, or in one of the government buildings that lined the Boulevard Unirii, an unfinished Romanian version of the Champs Elysees, would have been an improvement from a media standpoint though I do appreciate the effort to house us in such splendour. Minor changes to the track, particularly the narrow but fast Playboy chicane would receive a vote from many of the drivers, and a change in the weather would be an improvement for all, including the spectators.

It was a pleasure to see so many people watching the race, and what a good race it was. Maserati won, as did Ferrari in GT2, but Lamborghini was second overall, and genuinely earned the position. Porsche’s 996 RS made it onto the GT2 podium in the hands of Marc Lieb and Horst Felbermayr. Sure, there were problems over the weekend, but there were many positives too. The circuit was overall well liked, the setting magnificent if flawed, the crowd was curious and watched a good race. This country had never hosted a major motor race before, and there were always going to be flaws in the organisation but, if we return, I shall look forward to it.

And even though we got to the airport on time on Monday, the taxi fare was 53 Lei.(he paid, ed)

Dedicated Follower of Fashion………
OK, it was my fault. I have to admit it. I have tried to blame the French, I have tried to blame Brooks but, ultimately, it is my fault for accepting fashion advice from someone who more than once has been referred to as the Swamp Donkey. It was not entirely the fault of the ACO that we had to wear overalls in the pit lane at Le Mans this year. I endorse the sentiment, especially after the Luc Alphand bonfire in the pits at Monza. But upon the suggestion of Brooks, while the pure white overalls from AWS, yours for 69 quid mate, 79 if you want the box stitching, looked OK on their own, the bright yellow bib to be worn over the top led to repeated calls up and down the pitlane for ten gallons of paint, three gold tops, and from the Corvette team some advice on my sex life.

What made the whole experience even worse was that, as we had floundered around looking for the cheapest suits that matched the flame-proof requirements of the ACO, I strongly suspect that the French club made a job lot with the makers of retro firesuits somewhere in the locality. Even the French looked pretty good in their get-up. The Brits, to put it bluntly, looked appalling. Glenn Dunbar, top LAT snapper, complete with his bumbag strapped to his waist, looked for all the world like an extra out of A Clockwork Orange.

Picture Post
The real bummer was the phone call I received while on the train home Monday morning from Brooks who had his first laugh of the day at 8am when he opened the local rag while at the pain au chocolat avec cafe. Some bloody cheeky editor had decided that the best useable picture of Sebastien Bourdais also included in the frame yours truly apparently trying to stuff a Mars Bar up the Frenchman’s nose, it was my tape recorder. The invitation to the Aston Martin hospitality for the race included the caveat: “but not in those overalls. Take some advice from someone with some dress sense before you try to come in.” Daniel Perdrix merely giggled when I explained to him that whoever chose the colour yellow for the bib would receive a sharp poke in the eye with my luminous pen, and then denied that it was him before he ran off.

More than 20,000 spectators piled into the circuit, braving a new security system which failed on the test day and which will undoubtedly lead to huge queues during the race week. Brooks was told by the lady on the gate, who had processed us out two hours earlier that, according to her supermarket check-out machine bar code reader, he had never left the track. On full grumble alert, Brooks pointed out that there was no way he could still be in the track given the direction of our travel. At least, I think that is what he said.

Crystal Balls
The Peugeot performance may be all that it can achieve this year, but maybe not. Le Mans is an unpredictable race, and stranger things have happened than a Peugeot holding together for the full 24 hours. Remember 1995, McLaren? Or perhaps 1999, when no one predicted that all the Toyotas and Mercedes would break or fly in one way or another, leaving BMW to claim victory? The question is whether or not Audi will risk it? They have three cars to play with – one with a bunch of hotshoes, two with experienced personnel. Who will they send after the two Peugeots? Will they have the speed to do so? How much were they holding in reserve? Ralf Juttner observed that Peugeot had never completed 1000kms when they won the first LMS race in Monza, and then three weeks later did the same at Valencia. If they have now only ever managed 3,500km, that would take them to Sunday morning before they entered unchartered territory.

“The only thing that I see is that they race two races, 1000km each, and they won both,” said Juttner. “I am sure it is a very quick car. I assume they will be as lucky as we were last year and have one car run cleanly, and we will have to run like hell to keep up with it. If they had two non finishes in the LMS races, I would think that we did not have to care too much about them. I think there is a good portion of understatement in what they say.” Will Audi keep one car in reserve? “When do you decide that you have to hurry up? I remember Toyota in 1999, they had three cars, and once they decided to hurry up with the third car it was too late. I don’t think that Le Mans can be decided with a strategy like this.” Flat out, then, until the Peugeots break?

Perhaps Christophe Tinseau’s theory is the best. While Audi averaged 12 laps per tank of fuel at the test on one triple stint, the Pescarolo could perhaps do 13. “If they can do 14 laps and go four seconds per lap faster, they may only be able to do 13 if they go five seconds faster,” said the Frenchman, or six seconds faster and just do 12 laps, was the inference. While Jean-Christophe Boullion got into the top four, 1.8s off Bourdais and three tenths off the Audis, it was an heroic lap while Bourdais put together more than one lap in the 3m27s. The next fastest gasoline-powered car, by the way, was Jan Lammers’ Dome, 7.3s off the pace…though Stefan Johansson’s eighth fastest time in the Zytek was set with a car that steered itself for much of the lap thanks to a knackered steering arm.

We hoped that the test day would provide some answers and in a way it did; no one was saying anything. Marco Werner was a little worried that Peugeot would be able to do four stints on a set of tyres, while the Audi most certainly could not. Not true said Peugeot driver Sarrazin before it was explained to him that perhaps engaging in telling the odd white lie would increase the fun. “We can do 15 laps on a tank of fuel, then,” he said, finally getting into the swing of things.

What was indisputable was that the Peugeot is exceptionally quick and is able to match the Audi on speed. Should Audi send all three cars after the Peugeots? Almost certainly not, so who gets left behind to fight the battle of economy over speed? Will the diesels all push each other so hard that they will break? Will the Peugeots show weakness early enough to allow Audi to back off, or will it be a flat out race between two manufacturers at Le Mans? Who is telling big, fat porkie pies, and who is telling the truth?

We will find out.

Once everyone stops laughing at the overalls.

Andrew Cotton
May/June 2007

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