– Hello Abu Dhabi, goodbye Donington…
– Bridgestone will be missed more than Toyota
– What kind of president will Jean Todt make?
– How Peter Ustinov created a comedy classic
The Grand Prix season ended in Abu Dhabi, where the facilities – of an opulence never before seen – included the provision of air conditioning in the pits, for which the mechanics, so often overlooked, were suitably grateful. A detail worth mentioning. Another was that at this, the first Grand Prix run since the end of Max Mosley’s reign at the FIA, Ron Dennis was back in the McLaren pit, albeit in discreet civvies.
Did the latest of Hermann Tilke’s creations strike a chord with the enthusiast? Not really. If the backdrop was undeniably dramatic, the track itself failed to produce much in the way of racing, and again the thought occurred that it is always the play, rather than the theatre, which counts.
Still, the sands are shifting, and have been for some little time. “In this part of the world,” an Abu Dhabi management person said, “we have a ‘can do’ attitude…”
He might have added – perhaps more pertinently – that they also have a ‘can pay’ attitude, which is what counts for more than anything else these days. A place like Abu Dhabi has its own reasons for wishing to stage a Grand Prix, and they have little to do with making a profit. The ‘full house’ on race day was restricted to 50,000 – not much more than Silverstone would pull on a good test day.
Ah, but the shadow of CVC looms ever large. Over the last British Grand Prix weekend many in the paddock were greatly exhilarated, for on the Thursday night a FOTA meeting had concluded that no more could be taken of the FIA’s machinations, that the time had come to cut loose, to run a FOTA Championship – and, what’s more, in countries appealing to the teams and their sponsors. “The first thing,” said McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh, “is to get Montréal back on the calendar.” And the second? “To get at least one race in the USA…”
It all sounded good to me, but it lasted no more than a few days, for CVC panicked and sought an urgent audience with FOTA, which – to the regret of not a few – was granted. Out of that ultimately came ‘peace in our time’, which appears increasingly to translate as ‘more of the same’. The FIA World Championship continues – and with it a calendar alluring only to the gentlemen of CVC. A ‘can pay’ calendar.
As a sop to the teams, Montréal, which has Formula 1 in its DNA, may return in 2010, but there is no sign of anything else on the North American continent. New, though, is… Korea. Feel the width, gentlemen, feel the width.
Then, of course, there is the ticklish problem of the British Grand Prix. When it was announced – with gratuitous cruelty – at Silverstone in 2008 that Donington Park would be the race venue from 2010 onwards, I don’t suppose there were a dozen people in the paddock who believed that would ever come to be. Where was the money coming from? Debentures. Wot?
And that, of course, was before it emerged that a collection of spivs and incompetents had contrived to ravage the world economy.
In December ’08, at the Motorsport Business Forum in Monaco, I listened to Simon Gillett as he pleaded Donington’s case, and came out bemused. East Midlands Airport, Gillett had blithely claimed, would be closed for Grand Prix weekend, given over to car parking for the tumultuous crowd.
It seemed a touch unlikely that a ‘holiday airport’ would ban flights over a summer weekend, but that was what we were asked to believe. Done deal. Within days it became clear this was not so.
After frantic last-minute attempts by Gillett to raise unlikely sums of money, after countless extended deadlines, it was announced by Bernie Ecclestone that Donington was dead in the water, that if there were to be a British Grand Prix in 2010, it would be at Silverstone, the place to which he had said he would never return.
Ecclestone was proposing the same deal, he said, as had been offered to – and refused by – Silverstone two years earlier, prompting us to wonder what the hell the Donington project had all been about in the first place. Here we were, back to square one, the only difference being that beautiful Donington Park is now a mutilated wasteland. It really was the saddest thing that at just this moment Tom Wheatcroft should pass away.
Ecclestone declared that the deal on offer to Silverstone was the cheapest available to any circuit in the World Championship, and there was no room for any negotiation.
His perpetual beef with Silverstone has been that the circuit facilities fall lamentably short of what is required in this day and age, and while it is undeniable that they don’t compete with those of the modern circuits, it remains a mystery that they attract censure while a place like Interlagos remains on the calendar.
This is not, I hasten to add, to suggest that the São Paulo track should be removed from the schedule. On the contrary, it remains one of few classic Grand Prix venues, but the abiding problem with circuits such as these is that they are situated in countries where the government doesn’t pay the bill – they have to make money in order to survive, yet Bernie, himself the ultimate entrepreneur, seems unable to appreciate this. At Silverstone they have long said that if he were to allow them to make a profit they would then be able to invest in the circuit, to give it the facelift he insists is required.
The killer, of course, is not so much the fee as the interest. Every year the price goes up by seven per cent – and we’re talking compound interest here. In these days of 0.5 per cent interest rates, that strikes one as more than a touch excessive.
By the time this is read, Silverstone’s future as a Grand Prix venue should have been decided, and one hopes that the decision will have gone the right way, that a British crowd will again have the opportunity to cheer on a home-grown driver with number one on his car. It’s unlikely, let’s face it, to happen any time soon in Abu Dhabi. Or Shanghai, Sepang, Seoul, Bahrain, Istanbul…
Press releases from the FIA have had a self-preening quality of late, and we shouldn’t be surprised, for manufacturer teams in Formula 1 are falling like ninepins, and on the occasion of each announcement out comes a statement from the governing body, expressing its ‘disappointment’, and barely refraining from a gloating ‘we told you so…’
They did, too, and there’s no getting away from the fact. Over time Max Mosley’s mistrust of the major manufacturers was ever more barely concealed, and Bernie Ecclestone, too, was under no illusions: “For the teams themselves,” he told me several years ago, “Formula 1 is their business – they have to stay in it. The manufacturers, on the other hand, will disappear when it suits them. They always have, and they always will…”
There’s no arguing with that. In 1985 Renault had a terrible year commercially, and at season’s end Derek Warwick and Patrick Tambay found themselves out on the street.
In 1992 Honda decided to take its leave of F1 for the simple reason that its engines had powered Williams and then McLaren drivers to so many World Championships that no one noticed any more.
As Ross Brawn relates elsewhere in the magazine, Honda again headed for the exit at the end of 2008, this time as a consequence of the credit crunch. In July the BMW directors made a similar decision, and soon after the last Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, Toyota said it was quitting forthwith.
Although this had been rumoured all season long, still there was an element of surprise when the announcement came. The team had, after all, signed the latest Concorde Agreement, giving evidence of commitment until the end of 2010, and only recently made a sizeable offer to Kimi Räikkönen.
Probably no company ever prepared more lavishly than Toyota for its entry into F1. For a whole year, 2001, Allan McNish and Mika Salo pounded round circuits all over Europe, and the following season were on the grid in Melbourne, where Salo succeeded in scoring a point. It was a promising start, but only one more was added that season, and that rather set the tone of Toyota’s Formula 1 adventure.
The company’s competition philosophy has always been to hurl money at a project – WRC, CART, NASCAR – until success materialised, and if sometimes this took longer than expected, invariably it worked out in the end.
Not in F1, though. As Toyota takes its leave, after eight years of staggering investment, it does so without a single Grand Prix victory. There was always the impression of a huge, unwieldy organisation, slowed in its quest to compete by bureaucracy on the other side of the world, and at no stage was the company able to attract a true number one driver.
The impression in F1 at the moment is that Toyota is no great loss, although many regret the departure from the scene of John Howett, whose contribution to the running of FOTA has been very considerable. It was Howett, at Monaco, who came clean about the real source of the teams’ disquiet with the FIA. Yes, there were problems with budgets and rules and this and that, but the fundamental concern lay with the governance of the sport – with the way the FIA operated, in other words. None of Howett’s colleagues was at that time brave enough to go public with their similar opinions.
If Toyota’s withdrawal announcement was disappointing, that by another Japanese company, Bridgestone, was disturbing. Who cares how many cars you have, after all, if there are no tyres on which they can run?
The powers that be have a year to sort this out, for Bridgestone will not quit until the end of the 2010 season, but one has to wonder where an alternative supplier will be found. Goodyear and Pirelli may be ruled out, so one’s immediate thought is Michelin. The problem is that the French company was treated so appallingly by the FIA, and in the end effectively driven out of F1, that many consider it unlikely it could be persuaded to return.
For 2008, the FIA decreed, F1 would have but one tyre supplier – and that was always going to be Bridgestone, with whom the governing body had long enjoyed a cosy relationship. Michelin departed, meantime, and with justifiable bitterness.
Back in 2005 Bernie Ecclestone told me it was essential that F1 went to a single tyre supplier: “I think we’re going to be in plenty of trouble if we don’t. It’s vital to reduce the necessity for so much testing – most of the teams are testing Christ knows how much, and that takes a big chunk out of their budgets…”
True enough, but testing has now been all but eliminated, and, as Lee Gaug of Goodyear told me long ago, to be a single tyre supplier is by no means all positive: “Yes, you win all the races, but you’re not competing against anyone, so who the hell notices? The only time the company’s name gets mentioned is when a tyre fails…”
A double-edged sword then, and perhaps the realisation of this has played a part in Bridgestone’s decision. Whatever, a new supplier needs to be in place as soon as possible. Perhaps M Todt can sweet-talk his countrymen at Michelin, but it won’t be the work of a moment. For that he can blame his predecessor.
We now have a new FIA president, and in the end it wasn’t even close. Prior to the election supporters of Ari Vatanen had suggested, amid the mud-slinging which went on in the closing weeks and days, that the Todt camp was running scared, that the thing might just be too close to call, but in the event Vatanen was defeated 135 to 49.
I won’t pretend that I had any great enthusiasm for Jean Todt’s candidature for president of the sport’s governing body, and there were a couple of reasons for that. First, while I willingly concede that he was immensely successful in his work, with Peugeot and then with Ferrari, I never found attractive his curiously bloodless way of operating.
No one could stare you out like Todt. At press conferences, difficult questions might bring a flicker of annoyance to his face, but otherwise he was utterly inscrutable. Obviously I encountered him in his Ferrari days, and it was always apparent that the only – the only – thing of consequence to him was the effect of this or that on the fortunes of his employer. Its significance to the sport, as a whole, seemed to be of little account, and for this sort of behaviour he was frequently, and roundly, criticised. It appeared to faze him not at all.
The most notorious example of this came, of course, on the occasion of the 2002 Austrian GP, when Rubens Barrichello, imperious through the whole weekend, was ordered to surrender his victory to Michael Schumacher. This he duly did on the run up to the chequered flag.
A year earlier, also at the A1-Ring, Barrichello had done the same thing – responded to a steel-voiced radio instruction, and given way to Schumacher on the final lap. On that occasion his sacrifice was only second place – David Coulthard’s McLaren was ahead of both Ferraris – but Rubens was extremely emotional afterwards, aware as never before of his standing in a team bent entirely to the ambitions of the man in the other car.
That being so, as the final laps of the 2002 race unwound, conversation in the press room was given over to thoughts of the year before. Surely, most thought, Todt wouldn’t – couldn’t – ask Barrichello to stand aside again, for this, after all, was a matter of victory, not second place, and Jean had promised Rubens that he would never ask him to give up a win.
One or two, though, had no doubts that Todt would issue the command, and they were right. On the podium Schumacher found it hard to look Barrichello – or anyone else – in the eye, and Rubens could only ruefully accept the bewildered sympathies of his buddy, third man Juan Pablo Montoya.
Given the fury of the moment – in the pitlane as well as the grandstands – an ad hoc conference with Todt was hastily organised, and as he faced a very hostile audience his expression never materially changed.
For Todt it was simple: he needed a Ferrari driver to be World Champion again, and the man most likely to achieve that was Schumacher. Therefore, he said, at this early stage of the season it was vital that Michael scored as many points as possible.
You couldn’t argue with Todt’s logic per se, but given that Schumacher had won four of the season’s five previous races, could not a point have been stretched on this occasion? Plainly, he had not a clue of what we were on about: when someone suggested it was a very bad day for the name of Ferrari, Todt implacably said no, it was actually a very good day – the cars had finished first and second.
There was, in other words, no meeting of minds that afternoon. Todt had done his job, his employers would be gratified by the result, and… nothing else mattered, really. It will be interesting to see how this implacable quality manifests itself in his new job.
Over time many, of course, benefited from it. While it’s fair to say that most in the F1 paddock had their enthusiasm for Todt firmly under control – and one or two roundly detested him – the same could not be said of virtually anyone who worked with him.
I’m not sure from some of them how much affection comes into the equation, but their admiration for him is almost boundless: when it comes to organising, to pulling things together and making them work, they say, there is no one like him. Gerhard Berger, who was instrumental in bringing Todt to Ferrari, ascribes the team’s mid-90s metamorphosis more to his influence than anything else. By far.
“Jean has such a clear mind,” Berger said. “I was at Ferrari before he was, and I could see the difference he was making. Before he arrived there were lots of very talented people – but there was also chaos! Jean changed all that, and not by shouting. When it comes to organisation, I think he is a genius.” Others, not least Michael Schumacher, would say the same.
Todt’s abilities, then, have never been questioned, but he was always the ultimate dispassionate outsider, and one never truly thought of him as a member of the Formula 1 community. If some believed him cold, even occasionally vindictive, well, so be it. He was there at the circuits to do a job for Ferrari, nothing more or less, and you’d have to say that right well he did it.
From the moment Todt announced his candidature for the FIA presidency many murmured darkly that, should he be successful, it was no more than inevitable that Ferrari would be ‘looked upon favourably’ by the governing body, but that in itself was nothing new – for 20 years the other teams have spoken of ‘one law for Ferrari, one for the rest of us’, and there has been justification for their displeasure. Lest we forget, just this year Max Mosley revealed details of Ferrari’s ‘right of veto’ over F1 regulations: such a thing had long been widely suspected, but to have it confirmed was profoundly shocking.
Given that Mosley, on the very day of announcing that he would not stand for a fourth term of office, declared his profound support for Todt as his successor, it was perhaps hardly surprising that most everyone assumed this would simply mean ‘more of the same’. Max would remain – as president of the FIA Senate or whatever – and it would be a Putin arrangement, whereby the top man stood down, but in reality would continue to run things through a malleable figurehead.
That was the big fear, and in fact Mosley’s unequivocal support in many ways did Todt a great disservice, for the mutual love-in became a little suffocating for some tastes, and went a long way towards hardening attitudes. “If Max is so much for anything,” one F1 team principal said, not entirely in jest, “your antennae tell you to be against it, don’t they? I don’t know a lot about Ari Vatanen, but Max is so much against him that you’re bound to think he might be just the right bloke!”
This fellow, like all his F1 colleagues, had no say in the matter, though, for only representatives of the FIA member clubs vote on who shall be their president. And the perception was that the succession of Mosley by Todt was all too seamless, too… inevitable.
Ironically, no team was more agin Todt for the presidency than Ferrari, where memories went back to Montréal in 2008, to a concerted attempt by the teams, in the immediate aftermath of Mosley’s News of the World episode, to unseat the FIA president, whose conduct, they felt, had brought the sport into disrepute and whose position was thus untenable.
Their plan was to sign a declaration to this effect, in the hope that Mosley, already under pressure, would be left with no alternative but to stand down. When Bernie Ecclestone learned of their intention, he said that if they all signed it, so, too, would he.
Ah, but there was the rub. Unless there was unanimous support for it, a document such as this would carry little weight, and perhaps Ecclestone – as ever – was ahead of the game, for unanimity was denied by Ferrari’s refusal to sign. Months ago a member of the team told me why: “It was Todt who said we shouldn’t sign – because already he had his eyes on succeeding Mosley…”
So he did.
Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that Ferrari will get an easy ride from the FIA in the coming years. For one thing, while the details of Todt’s abrupt departure from Maranello have never been revealed, there are good reasons for believing it was less than amicable.
For another, from what one knows of Todt, and has seen of his modus operandi these many years past, one simply cannot envisage his being pushed around – by anyone, Mosley included. This is a very clever man, but also one firm and resolute, accustomed to running things his way, and to brooking no interference from outside.
Nearly 20 years on, it is ironic now to remember a remark of Mosley’s in his first press conference after becoming president of FISA (then the sporting arm of the FIA): “I don’t expect,” Max said, “to be much involved in the day-to-day running of Formula 1 – it sort of runs itself, doesn’t it?”
Todt has recently said much the same, but before we rush to judge him, let us see what he makes of life at the Place de la Concorde. Let us, in other words, give him time to settle into his new position. Already he has said that, in order to keep out of the ‘day-to-day running’ of the various branches of the sport, F1 included, he will appoint a specialist commissioner for each, and that sounds like a promising idea – so long, of course, as the right people are appointed in the right jobs.
When Mosley took over from Jean-Marie Balestre, Ayrton Senna was one of many to proclaim a new dawn in motor sport, a new freshness and transparency. In many ways – but by no means all – it proved to be a false dawn, and in Max’s later years the sport has been riven by bitterness and dissent on a scale never before seen.
Todt arrives without many of the attributes which served Mosley so well for so long. He is not a charismatic figure, and lacks the charm and wit of which Max – in the right mood – is so readily capable. If ‘people skills’ (God forgive me for writing that) are not Jean’s strong suit, however, what we know is that he is extremely tough, extremely single-minded – and, let’s say it again, consummately good at repairing damaged organisations. It is a skill upon which great call will be made in the coming months.
You will all, I hope and trust, savour the CD of Grand Prix of Gibraltar which accompanies this issue of Motor Sport. One Christmas in the late 1950s, aged 11, I was given by my parents a copy of the LP, and we played the late Peter Ustinov’s masterpiece that morning, laughing till the tears ran. I have the record still.
Originally produced by Riverside Records, Grand Prix of Gibraltar was for many long years out of print, but in 2002 another company acquired the original tape and proposed to re-release it. That being so, one day I got a phone call, asking me to talk to Ustinov about the recording, then to write the sleeve notes for the CD.
Thus I called Sir Peter at his home in Switzerland and spent most of a memorable afternoon in conversation with him. It is fortunate that I taped it, for note-taking would have been impossible – and, of course, I have what amounts to my own personal recording of Grand Prix of Gibraltar.
Before we set to discussing it, though, we simply talked racing. A few days earlier, in the Austrian Grand Prix, Rubens Barrichello, after dominating both qualifying and race, was forced by Jean Todt to give up victory on the last lap, this in the interests of Michael Schumacher’s latest title quest. Ustinov, like most everyone else, was outraged.
“I loved racing in the ’50s and ’60s, and I still do – but I thought what happened in Austria was absolutely scandalous. In fact, I sent a message, through a mutual friend, to Bernie Ecclestone saying, ‘If this is to go on, I’m never going to watch another GP’.
“Racing has certainly changed, hasn’t it? Undoubtedly it’s a lot less human than it was, partly because it’s managed – if that’s the right word – so completely by Public Relations. Mind you, not even that can help in a situation as appallingly gauche as the end of the race in Austria – when Schumacher took his helmet off, and suddenly realised the temperature of the crowd! He saw them with their thumbs down, which prompted him to make Barrichello stand on the top step of the podium – while the German National Anthem was played!
“I was delighted to see the reaction of the crowd. However professional you are, you can’t run a popular sport and then allowing cheating of that kind – and cheating is what it was, because the crowd was cheated, particularly the poor souls who’d put bets on Barrichello…”
In the era in which Grand Prix of Gibraltar was recorded, Ustinov was a frequent visitor to the races. “Believe it or not,” he said, “I saw Ascari’s Lancia go into the harbour at Monaco in ’55. I remember this car shooting out of the tunnel – and then nothing! You couldn’t see the car any more, and then there was suddenly a huge column of smoke and steam from the water. The next thing we saw was Ascari coming to the surface and swimming to a rescue boat – that was quite something. Of course he survived that, and then killed himself a few days later…
“Peter Collins told me the most terrifying story about the Commendatore. He was with him in the office one day, and suddenly the phone went. Ferrari picked it up, and said, ‘Pronto! Ferrari…’ Then he listened, and he became pale. ‘Non e possibile… Castellotti… Castellotti morto…’ A slight pause. ‘E la macchina?’ Now that’s what’s called a one-track mind!”
Ustinov enjoyed friendships with many of the drivers and team owners of the time, including Collins and Moss – indeed Stirling, I said, once told me he believed Ustinov had introduced Peter to his future wife, Louise.
“That I’m not sure about. I knew her father, Andy Cordier, very well – he was Executive Assistant to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, and occasionally I had lunch with them and Adlai Stevenson in New York. I think they all liked to get things off their minds with somebody who was completely out of their world, and vaguely irresponsible!
“Now I think about it, I also went to a lunch at the UN building in ’58 given by Andy Cordier, in celebration of Peter’s victory at Sebring with Phil Hill. Stirling may well be right: it’s quite possible that I introduced Peter and Louise.
“They made a striking couple, and I was extremely fond of both of them. Peter was remarkably good-looking, in a Rupert Brooke sort of way, but somehow he had a vulnerable quality that made you fear for him – one somehow knew he wasn’t going to survive, and of course he didn’t. They’d only been married about a year when he was killed at the Nürburgring. Louise had been a Broadway actress, and a very good one, and I later asked her to play Juliet in my play, Romanoff and Juliet, when it went on the road in America.
“Taffy von Trips was a rather similar type to Peter. He was an awfully nice man, and very un-Germanic – in fact, he was one of those Germans who spoke English too well to be true: ‘You know, we’re all going over for the weekend after next, und, er, we shall enjoy ourselves…’”
The accent, of course, was exquisite, as were all the others – and the sounds – which graced Ustinov’s conversation. “I had a bad cold when I recorded Grand Prix of Gibraltar originally,” he said, “and probably that was no bad thing: it helped me very much with the sound of the Ferraris – for some reason, a cold seems to help you simulate 12 cylinders! Normally, you can only do eight…”
When he walked into the studio in Manhattan that day in 1957, Ustinov had little idea he was about to make a record for the ages, with a cult following as strong now as when it was originally released.
“We did it in the same studio where I recorded Peter and the Wolf with Karajan. That was another adventure, because Karajan was not present at the time – he’d just done the track and left it, not knowing who was going to do the voice. I began to learn a bit about the record business then…
“Anyway, there was this strange company called Riverside Records, which specialised in jazz but also produced a number of records of racing engine noises. They had the idea of my trying something, a sort of satirical record about motor racing, and in order to tempt me they gave me a selection of records, of Alfa Romeos farting, and so on! Quite honestly, I never really played them much, because I found the sound unattractive out of its context – without the smell, and so on. But, anyway, I agreed. They had no idea what I was going to do – and I, frankly, had no idea, either…”
It was all done in one take, and it proved to be a gem of universal comedy. If the racing devotee can relish Ustinov’s obvious love of the sport, and affectionate ‘insider’ jokes, so also the record may be readily savoured by anyone who takes pleasure simply in the quirks of human nature and differing nationalities.
Consider the manager of the German Schnorcedes team, Herr Altbauer, who has thought everything through in the minutest detail, who runs his team like a military operation, who has Wagner playing in the pits continuously. Interviewed before the race, Altbauer concludes: “I would ask you not to ask any more questions. There will be a formal press release after our victory.”
For the character of Altbauer, Ustinov drew on Alfred Neubauer, the legendary team manager of Mercedes. “In fact,” he told me, “I gave Neubauer a copy of the record. He listened to it glumly, and said, ‘It’s very kind of you – but I don’t see what’s funny’. Which I thought made my point very well…”
Then there was Orgini, the French team, and an absolute counterpoint to Schnorcedes. “I separated ‘the cast’ into groups in my mind,” said Ustinov, “and so we had the French, who never had enough money even to clean their cars, who had girls everywhere, who brought inflammable liquids into their pits, yet smoked constantly: ‘Oh, it’s all right – the cars are insured…’
“The inspiration for Orgini was Amedée Gordini, who ran a perennially under-funded team in the 1950s. I knew him, and he was absolutely the prototype of that kind of Frenchman… rather dirty hands, with oil encrusted in them, a cigarette in his mouth the whole time…”
Ferrari may be a model of discipline and orderliness in today’s era, but it wasn’t always so, and Ustinov’s ‘Fanfani’ team perfectly reflects the Latin chaos of times gone by.
‘Commendatore Fanfani, have you got a moment?’ asks the commentator. ‘I have all the time in the world, since I am-a retiring from racing,’ snaps Fanfani, and again Ustinov is borrowing from reality: time was when Enzo was always threatening to withdraw from the sport.
Number one driver at Fanfani is Jose Julio Fandango, and his opposition comes from such as von Grips and Fling (Schnorcedes) Girling Foss and Toby Cooks (Pinfall), and Bill Dill, in the lone American Wildfowl.
“I can’t remember where the name ‘Wildfowl’ came from,” said Ustinov, “but probably it had something to do with the Americans’ rather romantic view of these things – even if they call their aeroplanes ‘Thundercloud’ and rubbish like that! ‘Wildfowl’ seemed like a name that had been missed by others…”
Guest of Honour at the race is to be the Duke of Edinburgh, who will drive a lap of the circuit in his detuned Morris, and the race is started by the Governor of Gibraltar, Lord Weeps of Sebring. ‘The Governor’s dropped the flag!’ exclaims the British commentator, Roland Thaxter. ‘That is, the Governor dropped, and he carried the flag down with him…’
“Lord Weeps was so old that he couldn’t really remember a sentence,” said Ustinov. “I got that idea from Montgomery, who once said, ‘There are four cardinal points: education, discipline – and courage’.
Sir Peter’s genius for mimicry was surely never heard to better advantage on this recording. Quite apart from all the different voices, he contributed the engine sounds, the marching feet of the Royal Fusiliers, the band’s playing of Land of Hope and Glory, even the klaxon warning of the race’s imminent start.
“Riverside came in afterwards,” said Ustinov, “with a few noises that are really impossible to do, like a hammer against a piece of metal. But everything else was me – even the window being opened in the drivers’ meeting!”
The whole thing fits together so seamlessly that it was the more astonishing when Ustinov revealed that he had no prepared script when he arrived at the studio. “I was appearing in Romanoff and Juliet on Broadway at the time, and because it was difficult to think clearly about anything else, I did ‘Gibraltar’ very quickly. It wasn’t scripted at all – the whole thing was improvised, and done in one day. I remember later having to go to another studio, and climb inside a very oily Jaguar for the cover photograph, and that was that.
“I made a few notes before the recording, working out drivers’ and teams’ names, but that was all. Of course it had a sort of shape in my mind, because a race has a definite shape: they’ve got to practise, they’ve got to start, and they’ve got to finish. The Governor has to make his speech, and then falls down – presumably dead! – in order to start the race, and everything was under way.
“I didn’t write a script, because I’m much better without one in circumstances like that. It’s really like thinking aloud – I mean, what is a script except what you put down when you think of it? I’ve always been rather keen on improvisation. The Riverside people didn’t know what they’d got until they put it together. Then – rather too late to help them, unfortunately – it became a sort of cult thing. They themselves went bust…
“I chose Gibraltar because it’s an ideal place for an absurd motor race. I mean, once you’ve got Monaco, you might as well have Gibraltar! It’s pleasantly absurd – the track going up the rockface, and coming down the other side, through pedestrian zones, and so on.
“Gibraltar has a strange aroma to it, I’ve found. I once went to a shop there, where a genial, red-haired Jewish gentleman had four suits ready-made – and one fitted me like a glove. I said, ‘I’ve never had something off-the-peg in my life’, and he said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you!’”
It may be long ago now, a single day in a long and extraordinarily varied career, but Ustinov remembered the Grand Prix of Gibraltar with pride. “I haven’t listened to it for years,” he said, “but I remember it, of course, more or less. Certainly it was of its time – there was a Russian spy at the race, pretending to take pictures of the cars, but actually photographing the military installations of Gibraltar – but some fundamentals of human nature never change, and I hope it still amuses people.”
I wondered if Sir Peter could imagine a similarly satirical piece about the sport in the 21st century. He had his doubts.
“Because of the rules, everything in GP racing is much more similar than it used to be, isn’t it? There’s much less originality than there was, and I think that applies to motor cars in general. All these damn wind tunnels, m’boy! I don’t think Colin Chapman would enjoy himself much these days.
“Perhaps I could concoct something about racing as it is today – but I rather doubt it would be suitable for public consumption, and I’d probably have to watch my back for ever afterwards! As I said, I’m still a great fan, but I think it’s all become more sinister now. Less innocent. I mean, there’s no place for Gordini – or Orgini – these days, is there?”