Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, October 26, 1998

It's a Traveling Circus On Formula One Tour

But Drivers Remain Secluded From Fans

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - After the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, when the 1998 Formula One world champion has finished spraying Champagne from the podium, the pit crews will pack up the sport's traveling home next Sunday for the last time this season, ending a hectic world tour that has visited 14 countries over eight months and run 16 races.

In race weeks, Formula One carries out its business in the paddock, a temporary mobile village. From Thursday morning to Sunday evening, the paddock with its hospitality tents and high-tech motor homes resembles a luxurious traveling circus.

It is frequented by a cosmopolitan crowd made up of company directors, politicians, athletes, movie stars, fashion models, journalists, mechanics and truck drivers.

The paddock is a Babel of wide-eyed people milling about on a cramped parking lot. The only places where star drivers are safe from the demanding hordes are the cockpits of their cars, their team garages and their motor homes.

Many drivers avoid walking through the paddock alone, or only cross it on a motor scooter. Some, like Michael Schumacher, are almost never seen outdoors. They negotiate the moves between motor home, garage and race car as adroitly as they drive.

Paddock life has changed over the years, said Jacques Laffite, who raced two decades ago. Today, he said, drivers have far more work. They must deal with everything from telemetry on the cars to the demands of sponsors. In his day, he said, ''we did one or two hours of briefing, and after that we went fishing, played golf, lounged around swimming pools or went out with women.''

If a driver and team owner exchange words in the open air of the paddock, as Ralf Schumacher and Eddie Jordan did at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, they are sending a signal. Such apparently casual moments become a public-relations move, as the team members are quickly surrounded by journalists, photographers and television cameramen. Ralf Schumacher and Jordan were known to be involved in a contract dispute, but the appearance they gave was one of serenity.

Rumors spread quickly through the paddock. When a local policeman was seen entering Jordan's vehicle that same weekend, bystanders speculated that the cop had been sent by Frank Williams to seize Schumacher's Jordan contract because the Williams team had a claim on the driver. Within half an hour, the Jordan team explained that the Schumacher brothers' courtesy car had been surrounded outside the track and Ralf had become involved in a scuffle with fans.

The teams' motor homes are packed close together, but they are worlds apart. If a driver or team official is seen entering a competing team's motor home, more rumors.

This season, after Craig Pollock who manages Jacques Villeneuve, the Williams driver bought the Tyrrell team, Frank Williams banned Pollock from entering the Williams motor home without an invitation.

Asked if Villeneuve or Williams had been banned in turn from the Tyrrell team's trailer, Pollock responded: ''Jacques is employed by Williams. His time is spent trying to make a Williams car go fast, not trying to make a Tyrrell car go fast. Frankie doesn't have time to come by. He's running his business there. I'm running my business here.''

The paddock is for business. Sport is what happens on the track. But the paddock is also a four-day cocktail party attended by stars such as Sylvester Stallone and former Beatles. It seems to take place in one of those exclusive nightclubs where the bouncers turn away more people than they let in.

Outside the gates stands a permanent cohort of fans such as Uli Wrobel, a German who follows the races around Europe in quest of Jean Alesi's autograph because, she said, he is ''a beautiful man, and a beautiful driver.''

But the ordinary fans do not even get this close to the paddock gates. Wrobel and her friends are part of a choice group of people connected with the companies that sponsor the teams. They spend their time in an outer ring called the Paddock Club, a tented area where the teams host their sponsors, at arm's length from the true paddock.

Jackie Stewart, a triple champion 30 years ago and now a team owner, called the real paddock area the ''inner sanctum.'' Stewart said it ''still represents a lifestyle that's rare in this air that we breathe today.''

Unlike Laffite, Stewart does not think paddock life was necessarily better in his day. ''There were no comfortable motor homes,'' Stewart said. ''There were no acceptable toilets. There were no nice meals to be had. And nowhere to change either. I would change in the back of a transporter.

''Today it's a different scene.''

For a team's rank-and-file, however, paddock life is a job. Dave Dunn, a Stewart truck driver, said driving equipment to and from the tracks was only 10 percent of a truckie's job. Each driver is assigned a role for the weekend, such as cleaning and moving tires or cleaning the garage. The crew's day lasts from early morning until late at night. Its members eat dinner at the track, then return to the hotel and go to bed.

But not before having a drink at the bar, said Michael Overy, another Stewart truckie. ''You've got to have a little bit of fun,'' he said.

While the truckies socialize with each other, few drivers do. That's perfectly normal, according to Bertrand Godin, a Canadian driver in the Formula 3000 race, which serves as the Formula One undercard.

''That's competition,'' Godin said. ''The victory of the one is the defeat of the other.''

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