Sport's Best Soap

TOTAL SPORT, NOVEMBER 1998

“Do you want sugar in that?” 

 

British TV legend Murray Walker is making me a coffee in the Jordan motor home. Behind Murray, Eddie Jordan and Sylvester Stallone are engrossed in a conversation about cigars. Behind them, Mick Jagger has just arrived. Mine is the only head that turns. For everyone else, it’s just a typical day on the Grand Prix circuit.

 

“Er, yes, two please, thanks Murray.”

 

Some say the glamour has gone out of the Grand Prix circuit but the thousands of manic Ferrari fans, or Tifosi, hanging around the Monza circuit three days before the race would disagree. As would the girls pressed up against the perimeter fence to catch a glimpse of their idols, and the paparazzi climbing on tyres and leaning over balconies to get an exclusive shot. 

With its gleefully old school combination of fast cars, decorative women, new money, exotic locales, obsessive characters, and general excess, Formula 1 remains sport’s longest-running soap: tacky but compelling.

Of course, like all the best soaps, the storyline keeps everyone coming back for more. Prior to Monza, Michael Schumacher had accused David Coulthard of trying to kill him; Jacques Villeneuve almost repeated the fate of his father – crashing in practice at Belgium – only to grin: “That was my best one so far!” and Damon Hill scored his first victory since his World Championship two years ago. 

The European tabloids added a little spice by reporting that Villeneuve was enjoying a “close friendship” with tennis star Martina Hingis, while the Belgian press claimed Sudanese terrorists were threatening to disrupt events unless F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone paid them 10 million francs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ITV reported their best-ever viewing figures, with a 51 percent audience share at one stage.

With the scene thus set, the series builds to this year’s climax.

It’s pouring with rain in Monza. The heavens opened after the first practice session of the day, turning the dirt track around the circuit into a sodden mess that makes walking tricky and looking effortlessly cool – normally, a local speciality – difficult. Even young Italians struggle to look sharp in cagoules.

Sauntering through the paddocks without an apparent care in the world is Mika Hakkinen. The current leader of the Drivers’ Championship doesn’t bother with either umbrella or minder as he strolls towards the McLaren motor home. The same cannot be said of Michael Schumacher, who is practically never seen, except on the giant video screens spread round the circuit; even then, he’s invariably flanked by half a dozen bodies. The lack of appearances in the flesh of Ferrari's number one driver only increases the sense that Schumacher is king of the Monza castle. Pecking order is everything in Grand Prix: even the motor homes are arranged bluntly by status. Ferrari, McLaren, Williams at one end, Arrows, Minardi and Tyrrell at the other.

We’ve been invited to lunch at the Ford home, one of the few engine manufacturers to have their own site. Like most things in Formula 1, the motor home is a status symbol, and so everyone has to have one. Big and luxurious, they are similar to a rock band’s tour bus, but with a marquee stuck on the side. The canopied section resembles an exclusive bistro, with beautiful people drinking cappuccinos and smoking gratis cigarettes, courtesy of sponsors. The bus itself is based on the chassis of a luxury double decker coach but provides space for catering teams, offices for PR staff, changing rooms for drivers and assorted other purpose-built areas.

Currently on pole position for the most ornate bus is Ron Dennis' McLaren motor home (round at both ends and nicknamed the ‘Blackpool Tram’ by some). It has spiral staircases, leather bucket seats, conference rooms, private accommodation and electronically-operated doors that make a Star Trek-esque swishing noise when they open, while, naturally, the darkened glass ensures you can see out, but no-one can see in.

The only problem with motor homes is that they’ve been around for some time. Each new season, the teams have to find new status symbols. The latest must-have accoutrement for the well-to-do F1 insider is the scooter. But no ordinary scooter. Hi-tech, ultra-modern, sponsor-branded, state-of-the-art two-wheelers are the order of the day. Noel Gallagher’s Velocifero wouldn’t get past the security gate at the edge of the paddocks.

As we're lunching, Tyrell rookie driver Toranosuke Takagi’s slick little black number passes. It must have saved him whole seconds in the hundred yard trek from pits to motor home.

Back in the media centre cunningly disguised as a muddy field, the television companies are preparing for transmission. ITV are set up in a corner of the field. Normally, they like their studio to overlook the track, or at least some local colour. At Monza however, they have to make do with the woods behind the circuit. A backdrop of trees seems somewhat inappropriate but there’s little they can do. “It was worse at Belgium last year,” says the engineering manager Nic. “We had to set up in a Portacabin with no windows. Viewers wrote in and accused us of not even being at the race.”

The crew struggle manfully to light the studio, a difficult task with bucketing rain and dim light making early afternoon look like midnight. “We could use some low lights shining up, “ suggests one member of the team. “You know, doing a...[name of middle aged female TV presenter].”

 

Doing a what?

 

“Yeah, she always insists on having low light shine up at her. She thinks it hides the lines under her chin...” He sniffs. ‘But it just makes her look bloody awful...”

 

After practice, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard have a public ‘making-up’ display following their spat in Belgium.

“There are no further problems between us,” says Schumacher imperiously. Coulthard echoes him: "I feel comfortable that we have been able to put this behind us,” he says. 

 

Pointedly, there’s no sniff of an apology from the German. Former driver Johnny Herbert expresses the sentiments of many when he comments; “It leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. Michael should have behaved a hell of a lot better. Alright, it was in the heat of the moment, but still; his reaction was bad.”

 

James Allen is more forgiving. The ITV reporter was in the pits when it all went off. “I can’t remember exactly what I said, ‘He’s storming right past me, he looks furious,’ or whatever, but it was a great TV moment. That’s what you do the job for, those moments. I know they slate Schumacher but he’s a nice guy. He’s got a good heart, very generous. Take this morning. He does the big make-up thing with David – after no little pressure from the teams – then faces the press; answers all their questions, in English, for 20 minutes, then does it all again in German. Comes out of the conference room to a German TV camera being shoved in his face and does it all a third time. Then we come up and ask him to do it yet again. And he does, with no complaints. I’ve spoken to him before, over lunch and things, and he really is a nice guy.”

In an attempt to get the definitive verdict on Schumacher, I ask Jackie Stewart, a man who has seen and done more than pretty much any driver in the sport. “Well, “ says Jackie dryly, “When I was working for ABC TV, I asked Michael if anything had changed since he became world champion. He said: ’Nothing, I am exactly the same.’ But he was wrong.”

 

In what way?

“I had to wait an hour for the bloody interview.”

Sitting in the Ferrari Motor home, waiting with our photographer Paul to take some pictures of Ferrari's number two driver Eddie Irvine, we see the embodiment of Italian flash – a male PR with film star looks dressed in an immaculately cut blue designer suit, talking to a strikingly beautiful woman, until he’s interrupted by his mobile phone – a tiny, bright red, personalised Ferrari phone. The woman looks on admiringly as he proceeds to talk very importantly. As we contemplate how low we are in the natural order of things, he stands up to get a better reception and we notice his shirt is sticking out of his undone fly. “Perhaps, there is a God,” suggests Paul.

 

No such faux pas from Irvine. The man exudes confidence, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind. Even surrounded by prancing horse logos and corporate types, the Ulsterman refuses to play company man.

“I’m in this for myself, “ he insists. “The same as anyone in Formula 1. Yes, I have a contract with Ferrari, and that contact stipulates I have to do certain things but it’s a means to an end. The only reason I signed it was because it was the best contract I could get for me. I’m not doing this because I want to see Michael win the championship. To be honest, I don’t care, except the contract states that I have to do everything possible for Michael to win. And because I work for Ferrari, it’s better that Michael wins than Hakkinen. Personally? I don’t care.”

Considering that, as Jean Alesi puts it, Schumacher does what he wants, and Ferrari does what he says, it’s a surprising admission. But ask Irvine about the whole Schumacher-Coulthard debate and he’s equally forthright.

“David didn’t do anything wrong. People see what they want to see. What was he meant to do? He didn’t know where Michael was; there was a ball of spray behind his car. It’s up to the guy behind to avoid you. I was quite astonished by the reaction some people came out with, to be honest.”

 

But ‘some people’ includes your team, Eddie. Ferrari – and particularly Schumacher – were the ones who reacted badly to the incident. Didn’t you feel under pressure to side publicly with your paymasters?

“No, because I felt they were wrong. It’s just the heat of the moment. Anyway, the day after I said it wasn’t David’s fault, others came out in agreement. If I said something that was wrong and against the team, it wouldn’t be very clever. But if I’m correct, and obviously correct, they can’t tell me off for stating the facts...”

 

Irvine was perhaps fortunate that he wasn’t ‘stating the facts’ in the campsites surrounding the circuit. Groups of Tifosi have camped out for the weekend, and the atmosphere is lively to say the least. Singing, dancing, drinking and plenty of shouting are the order of the day. The site is as muddy as Glastonbury, but without the peace and love vibe: two rival fans debate the whole Coulthard-Schumacher riff. The Coulthard supporter retires with a broken jaw.

“Who are these Italian fans devoted to F1?” asks Martin Brundle, filming a link for a feature. The answer is staring him in the face, literally: off-camera a dozen of them watch intrigued as the ITV man does his piece. It’s our first sighting all day of The Elusive Martin Brundle, as he comes to be known. Perhaps it’s because, as he admits, he still feels more like a driver than a television figure but unlike the rest of the ITV presenters and crew, who are readily available, Brundle is rarely around. Cries of “Where’s Martin?” are so frequent we had started to wonder if he was really here. Rupert, one of the show’s producers, and a regular Brundle-seeker, is just relieved to get something in the can after all the rain. Happy, Rupert?

 

“Happy’s a relative term,” he says.

We head back to the hotel only to find the local roads almost as dramatic as the racetrack. The basic rules of Italian motoring appear to be: overtaking is mandatory; observing traffic lights is optional; letting you in is banned and turning left is an art form. Also, look out for mopeds where the rider uses one hand to steer and the other to hold an oversize umbrella...

 

It’s been a long day but for some the night is still young. Scattered at regular intervals along the Monza roads are prostitutes trying to ply their trade. But the intended effect of the knee high boots, hot pants and skimpy tops is somewhat undermined by the bright yellow brollies they’re all holding. As we drive by, it’s like a procession of limp daffodils in the rain.

“This is Monza, “ sighs Amanda, who’s sorting out sound equipment as she surveys the mud, tents, HGVs, lighting rigs and satellite dishes in the early morning drizzle. “There’s no sightseeing, “ agrees Keith the cameraman. “Just loads of waiting around, lugging stuff about and then fighting your way through the crowd of other crews to get your shot, your quote, whatever.”

 

Keith and Amanda are part of the team who, with James Allen and Louise Goodman, provide the news, gossip and images from the pits and paddocks. As James says:” They are indispensable. It’s such a team effort, everyone has to pull together.” Fortunately, Keith is built like a brick outhouse: that must be pretty useful in the mêlée to get stories.

“I get by, “ he smiles. “Being a cameraman for this type of event is as much about knowing where to go, as it is knowing what to do. You get a feel for anticipating where’s the best shot to get something exclusive. It’s a bit mad at times, but everyone knows everyone. The serious players, like us, Rai, TF1, RTL, and Fuji [from Italy, France, Germany and Japan respectively] are okay. It’s the guys who only cover single GP’s that can be a pain. They try to shoot everything that moves and just get in the way. But a quick jab in the ribs works wonders. Anyway, when it’s all over, there’s a ten-day break to recover before the next one.”

 

Amanda’s workload over the next week is rather more relentless. “I’ll be at Aston Villa for the BBC on Tuesday, then setting up for Red Dwarf’s new series at Shepperton, then with the Mavericks at the Albert Hall. I was in the Falklands the other week for a new candid camera series.”

Like many of the crew, she comes from BBC Resources. Any argument about whether ITV’s coverage is better or worse than the Beeb’s used to be is something of a red herring as many of the staff are exactly the same, from Murray Walker down.

Amanda explains the tangled politics of the coverage to me twice, just to make sure I’ve got it: “ITV Sport have the rights to F1 but they employ a production company to make the programme, MACh1- a consortium of Meridian, Anglia and Chrysalis (an independent production company). “MACh1 employ a variety of freelances [Murray, Martin, certain camera crew, etc.] and a facilities company – who could be any one of a number of such companies but happen to be BBC Resources Ltd. Which is handy because they’ve done it before and have the right trucks and stuff, and staff wouldn’t be on such a steep learning curve.”

Such practice is common in the incestuous world of television production. “People don’t understand how it works,” Amanda continues. “For example BBC Scotland will provide Sky with their coverage of certain football matches. But then you’ll hear someone in the pub say how much better Sky is than BBC. You ask them why and they say better pictures, better sound. They don’t believe you when you tell them it’s exactly the same cameras and people, whether it’s on Sky or BBC Scotland.

“Yeah, the BBC will do anything, “ adds Nic sagely. ‘they could do your wedding video if you forked up the cash.”

 

By now it’s time for qualifying proper to begin after the practice sessions of Friday. Standing in the Arrows pit, you start to realise just how important this is to the teams involved. There are some 34 crew members, two pit stewards, and a few press officers in a space not much bigger than the width of three cars but no-one’s talking to each other. they're all intently watching the practice. You can feel the tension in the silence.

The sheer number of personnel is eye opening. Each car, including the spare, has a chief mechanic, plus a couple of wheelmen. Then there are the gearbox guys, again for each car. Behind them against the wall, are the spare parts team and the race co-ordinator in charge of them. The team manager supervises everyone, including the ten men stuck at the back who never get to see any of the race or the qualifying sessions. They’re too busy staring at the computer monitors displaying every feasible item of engine information – from air and water temperatures to the revs per second.

Arrows had a disastrous weekend at Spa, practically writing off both cars and the spare. Tom Walkinshaw, normally the most amenable of team bosses, was due to talk to us just before qualifying began but dashed out of the motor home muttering about “technical difficulties”. Having hung around the pits, we now know that could mean anything.

The track is still a bit damp from this morning’s rain and the teams are all being even cagier than normal, with no one prepared to make the first move. The minutes tick by, helicopters fly overhead and the tension grows, as impatient air horns blare out from the crowd (a full house) and Louise prowls the pits in search of a story.

ITV’s woman in the pits seems slightly incongruous within the very male atmosphere of the various garages. But the former Jordan team press officer insists she’s very comfortable in the role.

“It might sound ridiculous but I don’t think it is a man’s world. The pits are predominantly male but more and more of the media are women. And most of the girls in F1 tend to be ‘one of the lads’ anyway. You get used to it.”

 

A few hours in her company and it’s obvious Louise can look after herself: “When I began, I was very cool for the first three months or so – any comments got a frosty look. But now a one-liner gets one back. It’s not a problem.”

But if sharp treatment’s unproblematic, how about if a driver gets a little too friendly? 

“Relationships? There’s sex in every workplace and Formula 1 is no different. But I’m far too selfish to be with someone as self-centred as a driver. The have to be that way, and aggressively so to a certain extent, to do well. Basically they’re all selfish bastards.” She laughs. “They say TV’s the land of the ego, though, so I’ll be a stroppy bitch myself in a few years.”

 

We hit the half-hour mark in the pits and still there are no cars on the track. In the commentary box, Murray is busy talking through all the great incidents that have happened at Monza in the past, history being somewhat more action-packed than the present.

Bernie Ecclestone’s own TV crew wander past. White shirts, black trousers, very neat. Sauntering past garages as though they own the place – which in a way, of course, they do. Host nations may film the race, TV companies may send crews for interviews and the like, but all the pit stops and on-board camera views remain the property of B. Ecclestone Esq.

Louise grabs Tom Walkinshaw for a chat. His mood appears to have lightened. Not so the crowd, who have taken to booing the lack of action. A shot of Schumacher flashes up on the giant screen and the boos turn to cheers in a second. It’s quite surreal, like Vic and Bob teasing Les with celery. “Boo... yeah... boo... yeah!” The crowd flicks from dismay to excitement every time the German’s face is shown on a screen.

A deafening roar behind us indicates Arrows are getting ready to move. Almost simultaneously, a wall of sound erupts from the other garages, as though the entire pit lane had just been waiting to pounce, hanging on for someone to make the first move.

Within seconds, half-a-dozen cars are on the track. The complimentary earplugs we got from Jordan reduce the noise from unbearable to painfully loud as the petrol fumes waft around us. It doesn’t smell quite the same as your local garage, it's headier – more like someone’s shoved half-a-dozen marker pens under your nose.

Schumacher’s appearance on the track raises the excitement to a new level. It’s all too much for one fan, who we see collapse on the floor clutching his chest. An ambulance is swiftly dispatched to wade through the crowd. Meanwhile, Pasquale, a kind of pit police officer, gets into an altercation with a photographer, who is promptly thrown out.

“Pasquale takes no crap,” advises Tim, ITV’s production manager. “He’s been known to just snip your accreditation if you piss him off.” Keen to avoid the snip, we behave ourselves. Qualifying ends with Schumacher on pole. The crowd goes crazy. The Arrows finish 16th and 20th on the grid – ahead of Minardi.

 

After qualifying, Keith, Amanda, Murray and The Elusive MB (first sighting of the day) head off to interview Eddie Jordan for the Murray and Martin F1 Special. We sit in the background, staring fascinated at Eddie’s intricate sideburns and trying not to be a nuisance.

 

Not so the guy behind, who keeps asking me for pens and paper to write his script, then he asks his questions while filming the interviewee. Then he turns the camera on himself and films his reaction to the answers he previously obtained: a raised eyebrow; a knowing nod; a gasp of surprise or maybe a wry smile. It’s pretty entertaining.

As per usual, Sylvester Stallone and Gerhard Berger are wandering around the paddocks together (“I think they’re joined at the hip, “ suggests Johnny Herbert). Sly comes into the Jordan camp and lots of “My man!” greetings follow. Eddie grabs Sly’s neck, Sly playfully paws him away. “Hey Giselle,“ he booms at the Press Officer, “where’s my new threads?” No one knows what he’s talking about but we all laugh and smile like he’s our best friend.

 

Stallone is, predictably, smaller than you would imagine but still exudes a healthy dose of Hollywood charisma. Unlike Mick Jagger, who appears to resemble his Stella Street greengrocer-persona more with each passing day. Nonetheless, the veteran hell raiser is consistently followed around by an array of girls young enough to be his grand daughter, at least.

Having had our quota of showbiz thrills, we head off to the Stewart motor home for a reality check. Jackie Stewart's seen too much to get carried away by any of it. Although even he enjoys the Monza ambience.

“It’s fairly mighty isn’t it?” he says. “The partisan crowd are so passionate and this place is part of the history of motor sports. It always spells excitement, colour, glamour – it never disappoints you.”

 

Leaning forward conspiratorially, he adds: “You know the difference between Monza and Monaco? In Monaco the rich don’t dress down, they dress up. But in Monza, the very rich want to look poor. They turn up in their Fiat, not their Porsche. They don’t want you to know how rich they are. This Grand Prix is almost an anti-society event in many ways. It’s wonderfully classless. The fans here are passionate and happy to show their passion. Most people aren’t.“

 

Come the morning of the race, the Italian race director is wishing the fans were perhaps a little less passionate. Last night some 10,000 of them decided to have a party on the back straight. The evidence this morning points to a good time had by all-except the race director. “It looks like Beirut,” he groans, confronted by a trail of broken glass and assorted debris. But while his staff goes to work on cleaning up the track, there are other problems to deal with.

Since the crack of dawn, ticketless fans have been cutting holes in the fencing and letting themselves in for the race. Emergency fence repair teams are sent out to mend the damage, but as soon as one gap is sealed, another appears. This isn’t the work of a few teenagers but Tifosi of all generations: grandfathers and grandsons, anxious to see Ferrari’s 600th Grand Prix, and hopeful of a home victory courtesy of their hero, Schumacher. The final estimate of fans on the circuit without a ticket hits 50,000.

ITV too enjoy a taste of Monza madness. While doing a radio camera sound check, the crew get accosted by an irate Ferrari engineer who accuses them of broadcasting on the wrong frequency, thereby interfering with Schumacher’s radio contact with the pits. The situation threatens to turn nasty. As one of the crew admits: “If you pick a fight with Ferrari at Monza, Italian authorities aren’t going to come down in favour of you.”

The Italians take radio frequencies very seriously. While at most races TV crews pay around £200 for a frequency (a necessity to communicate pictures and sound from pits to studios and all points in between), at Monza they’re charged around £3,500 and things are closely monitored by the Frequency Police, a division of the Italian post office.

ITV are still seething over a misunderstanding at Imola during the European Grand Prix, where the Italians claimed that the required frequency had been requested by BBC Resources and, as everyone was in ITV clothing, there must be some mistake. The Italian solution? To fine ITV £25,000. Nothing so drastic occurs this time. Ferrari mutter something about the problem having sorted itself out although, like their driver, they offer no hint of an apology.

 

The Frequency Police, guns gleaming in the sun, take it upon themselves to make an inspection of the ITV camp. “Hardly Postman Pat, is it?” mutters Bill, the communications assistant.

 

Oblivious to the backstage tribulations, fans arrive in their thousands for the real event of the weekend, the race. The home crowd ensures the stands are a sea of red, although there are pockets of resistance. The white and blue Finnish flags, some German banners and even the odd Union Jack provide a few reminders of the worldwide appeal of Formula 1. Sunglasses, ice creams, caps and T-shirts are the order of the day as the sun finally puts in an appearance of note, hardening the damp mud around the circuit and generally putting everyone in good spirits

.

A group of face-painted fans happily pose for photographers then jokily demand payment. The mood is good, Schumacher is on pole. The mere mention of his name gets them going. Schumacher? “Uno, uno!”

Long before the race has begun, teams of adolescents are dispatched under the scaffolding of the stands to bag the already mounting piles of coke cans, bottles, newspapers and assorted junk.

 

In the commentary box, Murray is clearing his throat and coughing – his usual warm-up before a race. In the studio, Jim Rosenthal and Tony Jardine are furiously scribbling down last-minute notes. In the pits, teams hive around looking intensely busy – although, surely, all the important adjustments, strategies and preparations have already been completed.

 

The paddocks are less than thriving for the first time this weekend. All the VIPs are in the posh seats around the track, all the crews are occupied and all the drivers are, of course, in their cars.

Around the circuit, fans bustle for the best view of the start. The brightness of the sun makes it difficult for eyes to adjust to the poorly lit tunnel that runs under the track near the main stand. Still, people scurry through it, hoping to find a better vantage point on the other side. Fenced off from the motor homes, a group of girls stay pressed against the wire, holding a banner that says, “Please don’t go”. Asked what it means, Sandy from Germany and her “letter-friend” (we think she means pen pal) Sylvia explain: “We’re saying, please don’t go, come and talk to us.”

 

Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if the banner said, “Please come here”?

 

“I suppose," says Sandy, clearly not convinced.

Paul the photographer has decided (possibly encouraged by me) that this article won’t be complete without a photo of the strikingly beautiful Italian girl who looks like a movie star and has unenthusiastically guarded the entrance to the press enclosure all weekend.

He marches up to her.

"May I take your picture?"

“Why?” she asks, already bored.

“Because you are obviously very beautiful.”

She shrugs, accepts that logic, and agrees to the photo.

 

While we take holiday snaps, and the fans find their seats, the ITV production team is coming to the most serious business of the week, the live transmission of the race. The tiny control room is practically in darkness apart from the flickering light from 34 TV screens which cover everything from the world feed to studio interiors, helicopter shots, computer read-outs and ‘wallet edits’ (a mystery).

 

The panel in front of the production team is a myriad of switches, faders, microphones and other intimidating hi-techery. You really wouldn’t want to spill your coffee on it.

The producer is barking half a dozen conflicting pieces of information to Jim, as he’s counted back in from the break. “No problem, “ he acknowledges, a second before he’s back on air, smiling to camera as though he’s just been killing time until the ads were over. As the cars line up for the start, ITV switch from their own shots to the world feed from the Italian production team. It comes in late, resulting in a few seconds of dead air. Tuts and groans all round from the perfectionist ITV mob. Jim passes over to Murray and Martin in the commentary box.

“One light,” says Murray. “There’s going to be five. They’ll go out and then the race will start. And it starts… now! Inside the control room, the atmosphere is strangely just like someone’s living room, whoops, cheers and yells going up from the crew, F1 fans all. Sniggers break out when Martin corrects Murray, disappointment when the McLarens appear to be shooting off into the distance.

The computer display indicates Hill is moving up the field, which is duly pointed out to Murray.

“And Damon Hill’s come up from 14th to 8th position in four laps. He is really flying! And we’ll take a break.” But Murray does not take a break. His commentary continues for Australia.

Gerard the producer is aware of the unpopularity of the commercial breaks. “It was a culture shock for fans but the whole deal brokered by ITV was on the basis of commercials. During a race, we have to take five breaks of two minutes, 10 seconds. The skill is to try and read the race and recognise where you can put them. When the Belgium Grand Prix was stopped for 50 minutes, we took three breaks.” And as Jim points out: ”Without the ad breaks, these races would be on a dish somewhere.”

During the break, Coulthard overtakes Hakkinen but the world feed misses it. When ITV come back, Murray tries to head off letters from angry fans by pointing out: “We didn’t see it, the cameras didn’t catch it.” Unfortunately, as he’s talking, the Italian director decides to show a replay of the move.

Trying to get back to the track proves nearly impossible. Coulthard’s engine has blown up. Schumacher has brilliantly overtaken Hakkinen. Ferrari’s number one has gone from third to first in a matter of seconds. The crowd threatens to riot. And then they do. Hundreds of Tifosi outside the main gate decide they’d rather be inside the main gate. They surge forward.

 

Being caught in the middle is a strange sensation. Screams in the ear, feet not touching the ground. The gates start to bend. On the giant screen, Nakano’s car has gone up in flames. It’s all very bizarre. This isn’t an angry mob, but an indignant one, who feel it’s their right as Italians to be allowed on the other side of the gate if Ferrari are threatening to win. Security men turn up en masse to quell the disturbance, take one look at the crowd and decide simply to open the gates.

The crowd is rewarded for its trouble with a Ferrari 1-2 from Schumacher and Irvine, the first in Italy since Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto ten years previously. Both drivers are at Monza as part of Ferrari’s 600th race celebrations. The party is still going on long after our plane has touched down back at Heathrow. More importantly, the result ensures this year’s championship should go down to the last race. Once again, the soap has ended on a cliffhanger.

© 2020 by Aubrey Day.