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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.