Did you have a nice day at the office? It is a common question, isn’t it? So I thought I might describe what I did yesterday, to give you a little insight into the life of a F1 journalist – admittedly, a rather eccentric one. Yesterday was the launch of the new McLaren MP4-27 and the team invited me attend. I get invited to lots of things, which is very nice, but I only go to events that are cost-effective because there is no great publishing empire paying the bills. To some extent time is money, but then again once in a while it is good to get away from production line, (which goes on wherever I am), and have some time to myself. Thinking time. And there is nothing like five or six hours alone in a car to think about this and that. I could have gone to the airport in Paris at some early hour of the morning, gone through all the check-in, immigration, security and sitting around in departure lounges. I could have caught trains and buses, but when you add it all up, it is nicer, cheaper and about the same time to drive (from where I live), and you can stop for a proper English breakfast on the way.
This explains why I was on the road yesterday long before the larks had put on their coffee machines, passing endless caravans of trucks on the A1 autoroute as I hurried through places that historians could tell you all about: Albert, Bapaume, Arras and Vimy.
It was four below zero but I was kept amused by Autoroute FM (107.7) which tells you about every breakdown on the network of motorways, and every rabbit that has been run over. Every hour they do it in English which is always an excitement. England may have places called Pratt’s Bottom, Nempnett Thrubwell, Ugley and Bitchfield but France (and this route in particular) boasts boasts smile-inducing names such as Arsy, Monchy-Humieres, Canny sur Matz, Crapeaumesnil, Punchy, Chilly, and Ecquedecques. On the way home I would pass by a village called Bouchon (which means traffic jam in common parlance). My favourite piece of motor racing Franglais is Recques sur Course.
It was daylight by the time I reached England and pulled off for breakfast in Maidstone.
“The glamour of F1,” said a colleague when I arrived in Woking. “Breakfast in Maidstone!”
“Just wait until you’ve tried McDonalds in Mannheim at midnight,” I replied. Or Bayramoğlu,Turkey come to that.
The events at McLaren have been well-documented.It is an amazing place and an extraordinary monument to Ron Dennis’s vision. They get a bit carried away sometimes with security men telling visitors that we cannot take pictures of the McLaren machinery in the grand entrance area. I am not sure there is not much secret technology on Bruce McLaren’s first racing car – an Austin 7 Ulster, which sits there amongst the F1 legends, but rules are rules. However, when I got home I did find this on the Internet…
There was also a full-scale mock-up of Maverick, the McLaren Land Speed Record car that never was. But rules are rules.
After all the talk and some battering of keyboards (not to mention some sandwiches), it was back on the road again, passing by Brooklands, bound for Ashford again. On the way home I found myself mulling over history again, but history of a different kind. I see motor racing history being written each year by great teams such as McLaren and Ferrari, but often great events and achievements are forgotten, particularly from the early years of the sport, when there were fewer chroniclers of the sport. Mainland Britain never allowed road races (at least not until the 1980s) but in France, one is constantly passing by sites of great moments in the history of the sport. Rarely does one know…
On the way home, I decided to avoid the trucks of the A1 and headed instead down the A16, which follows the coast to Abbeville and then cuts down to Paris, by way of Amiens and Beauvais. At Amiens I turned left and went across the great plains to Peronne. On this route I went past three celebrated racing circuits of old. The port of Boulogne was a centre for racing in the early years of the sport, and into the Twenties as well. This is not to be confused with the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, where other famous races occurred).
You flash over the old track, not far from the hairpin at Saint Martin Boulogne, where the circuit began. These days the best way to spot it is by looking out for a McDonalds and a Buffalo Grill. This was a 23-mile triangle of roads going out into the country and then coming back to the same hairpin and, if you click here, you will see that it impressed Pathé News back in the old days. Yes, I know there is no sound, but think of it as an automotive version of “The Artist”!
You head on south, passing the windmills of Flixecourt (although the French don’t call them moulins, having adopted a word – éoliennes – for electric-generating devices) and in the darkness you would be forgiven for thinking that the random lights flashing in the sky, to warn aircraft of these vast elegant devices, look a lot like flak. At Amiens you pass another great circuit – the Circuit de Picardie – where they hosted the 1913 Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, the biggest event in the world at the time. The autoroute passes over the top of where the pits used to be, close to a modern industrial estate called the Pole Jules Verne. The town is very proud of Verne, who lived there, and rightly so. In 1863 he wrote a novel called Paris in the Twentieth Century describing a world of glass skyscrapers, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators, and a worldwide communications network. Not to mention his “From the Earth to the Moon”, which was an extraordinary description of how man might go to the moon.
The Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France of 1913 was held at a time when France dominated motor racing with Albert Guyot leading in a Delage until a tyre failure. As the car slowed down Guyot’s riding mechanic misjudged the speed they were travelling and jumped out too early. He fell under the wheels of the car and Guyot had to fit a new wheel and then drive his injured colleague back to the pits. The delay meant that the race was won by Georges Boillot in a Peugeot. Wild, but true. It is probably best remembered these days thanks to a photograph, taken by Henri Lartigue (below), which one seems about these days.
The plains to the east of Amiens were perfect for racing in the old days. It is flat as a biscuit and villages are few and far between. Even today, after dinner on a Wednesday night, one can drive for miles without a car in sight ahead or behind. When you join the A1, not for from Peronne, you are just a stone’s throw from the Peronne circuit, that was used in the 1930s, another triangle of fast roads where in 1933 two celebrated French drivers were killed on the same weekend: Guy Bouriat and Louis Trintignant. The latter was the elder brother of Maurice Trintignant, who would later become a wellknown F1 driver. Indeed, he started his career in racing in the late 1930s in the same car that had killed his brother. One day, when it is not late at night, I will go and find the memorial to them that is out there somewhere. I got home at 10.30 at night, poured myself a whisky and sat down to ponder what a great job I have…