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.
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.
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!
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?