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Postcards from the edge


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Future Past?

You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!

Blank Canvas
The scene is a room in Turin. A bumbling, fat Brit wonders the streets of Turin, complaining of ‘bloody foreigners,’ draped in a Union Jack flag dropping mechanical devices into dustbins. The television cameras in the traffic control centre switched themselves off. With a very strange ‘Boop’ noise which never, in the history of computers, has ever accompanied a failure of any kind, the screens stop showing the complicated traffic system, and instead go blank.

Table Manners
The chaos was planned to the finest detail, and then implemented by Charlie Croker. With Noel Coward and Benny Hill on board with Michael Caine, how could the ‘Italian Job’ fail? Fast forward 40 years, and we find ourselves in the Donington press room, watching a six-hour Le Mans Series race in the brand spanking new press room. The television screens had exactly the same problems as those encountered by the Italians. Except the television screens did not switch off due to some clever mechanical device. They were just crap.

The put-up temporary tables were still there, too. They had caused so much confusion at a previous Donington FIA GT Championship race when the irrepressible press officer of the event, Dave Fern, who hates four-wheeled motor racing with as much passion as he loves his motor bikes and cricket, struggled to manoeuvre one of these things as the FIA was trying to conduct a press conference. The sight of Fern moving a table through the narrowest of spaces, with the legs periodically and very unhelpfully releasing themselves, reduced the media pack to helpless laughter and it was left to race winner Michael Bartels to step in and help.

Tight Fit
In today’s ‘fattest’ world, it was of no particular help to find that the media corps was expected to weight about 5 stone and be so waif-like as to squeeze through paper thin gaps to reach their desks. ‘Just move the thing’ was the advice. So I did and wiped out the bank of desks in front. Mind you, it was full of Italians, and in the spirit of Croker, I didn’t feel too bad.

The new pit complex was even worse. If you expect journos to weigh five stone, you are in cuckoo land. If you expect Le Mans Series cars to suddenly shrink to fit the brand new garages, you are heading into Eddie Izzard land. The brilliance of British engineering meant that the pit lane was widened to make the whole pit stop area of racing safer, yet half of it was designed to be almost totally unusable for cars. I wonder if there is a plan to convert the centre of the circuit into a cricket pitch, too. All that was left was for the LMS teams to place their pit equipment on the newly widened stretch of tarmac, and work on the cars in precisely the same cramped conditions as they ever had. In short, they were no better off. Worse, actually, as there are now more garages in the same space! Hmm. They do fit motor bikes in there quite nicely, though.

Straighten and Fly Right
If we thought Donington was bad, watch out for Dijon! Or so I was told. Travelling to a race by train was a fantastic experience. No bizarre ploys instigated by the Department of Homeland Security sorry the Home Office to rob us of any more dignity as we seek to get from one place to another. No removing of lap tops from bags, take off belts, watches, shoes, ‘stand in that machine there’, full body searches…oh no! The Americans have no part in European rail travel so we get to set our own security measures. And they work!

Get to Waterloo, they open the gate about an hour before the train is due to leave, you check in electronically, go through a sensible security system, grab some lunch, sit on a train, and later that day, having visited the buffet car and done some work, you arrive! Quicker, actually, in overall journey time, than you would manage on a plane!

Disco Mania
Dijon may not have changed much since 1975, when its facilities were described as ‘ropey’ even then, but there was a charm about it. The memory of Villeneuve versus Arnoux in the French Grand Prix in 1979, meant that I felt it compulsory to head out with Brooks on Saturday morning to see one of the spots where they banged wheels, where they left just enough room for each other, and no more. The modern FIA GT cars, there for the 100th race of the championship, were mighty. The Porsches bounced off the ground, the Maserati looked as stiff as a roller skate, the Saleen was smooth, the Aston Martin V12s sang their song. The Lamborghini earned itself top marks for noise and fire, though almost zero points in terms of performance, despite Christophe Bouchut and Benjamin Leuenberger’s best efforts.

The facilities were basic – it was like going to Snetterton in the middle of summer. Or Mosport. But circuits are cottoning onto wireless access and, unlike Donington’s haphazard system, Dijon’s computer system did not fail. The press room looked out onto the fastest point of the circuit, and the sight of the Maserati coming over the crest of the hill, lights ablaze, and hurtling past the press room flat chat made juices flow. It was a magic place.

Tomas the Tank………Engine
Of course, there were issues on the track. Tomas Biagi was at the centre of most of them. He ran into the back of Rui Aguas’ Ferrari in practice on Friday at the end of the straight, then did the same thing to Jarek Janis in the race. The difference was, Janis was leading the race, a lap ahead of the Maserati thanks to not having made its first pit stop yet. Jamie Davies and Janis had enjoyed a fantastic battle in the first hour, the British driver comfortable in his role as lead driver in the car, but Biagi was trying to make up time and hit the Saleen in the right rear corner.

Janis was furious, unsurprisingly so, and so I won’t bother to print his comments here. What was more telling was the French marshal, who walked up from the last corner and sought out the Czech driver. “Please accept our sympathies for what he did to you,” said the marshal. “We saw what he did.” The race belonged to the Saleen, not the Maserati despite Davies’ efforts.

What happened next belonged in fairy tale land. Biagi was given a drive-through penalty for causing an avoidable accident, and emerged still leading. Sascha Bert, in for Janis, was down in seventh. There was nothing else to do but to drive flat out, so they did. There were times when the Zakspeed Saleen came up on the Maserati, and disaster looked inevitable, but the Saleen drivers acted honourably, and just drove straight past instead. In the end, they missed a podium by one tenth of a second, Andrea Piccini admitting that he could not have kept the Saleen behind. “I needed another ten metres,” lamented Janis, before allowing himself a slight smile. It was a brilliant drive from him and from Bert. A podium was what they deserved, especially as French law meant there was no champagne, so they couldn’t have mischievous squirt at Biagi up there anyway.

So now we look forward to Jarama. The last time we were there, the press room closed early on Sunday night because they ran out of fuel to provide electricity. I wonder what they have up their sleeves this time?

Andrew Cotton
September 2006

Splash 'n Dash
Italian Job
Top of Page
Go Jean Go
Thin Blue Line
French Twins
Daily Commute
Country Joe
That Certain Sound
On Course
There May Trouble Ahead...........
Runway Fever
Aston Skyline
The Right Crowd