Nigel Roebuck

Reflections
– Why F1’s ‘regime’ feels threatened by FOTA
– Ron chooses his moment for team handover
– The night The Beatles stayed at Indianapolis

"How come,” goes the old joke, “that there’s only one Monopolies Commission?”

In the same vein, one idly wonders why, in this era of necessarily obsessive cost-cutting in Formula 1, the actual cost of a Grand Prix – the price charged to race promoters – appears to have immunity. Indeed, from everything I hear, that price continues substantially to increase year on year, and I can find no logical explanation for it. If you should come across one, Tony George is one of many who would like to hear from you.

Actually, I’m being a touch disingenuous here. The price of putting on a Grand Prix grows ever greater because CVC Capital Partners – the adorable venture capitalist company which bought the commercial rights from Bernie Ecclestone, and therefore effectively owns F1 – is rather keen to take as much money from the sport as possible.

Hell, why am I saying ‘effectively owns’? The company’s website lists its transactions: ‘March 21 2006: CVC receives European Commission approval for acquisition of Formula One’. This was subject to CVC’s getting rid of its interests in Dorna, the company which has the commercial rights to MotoGP, and clearly that was swiftly dealt with, for six days later there followed another press release: ‘CVC completes Formula One Transaction’.

The words ‘acquisition of Formula One’ are fairly unequivocal, you’d have to say. And given that CVC borrowed close to $2.5 billion from the Royal Bank of Scotland (now resuscitated with government money, which is to say yours and mine) and Lehman Brothers to pay off Ecclestone and others, and so must now pay terrifying interest charges, I don’t suppose we should be too surprised if the sport’s interests occupy a relatively lowly place on the company’s wish list.

What should surprise – nay shock – us, however, is that this situation was ever allowed to arise in the first place, and forget the wretched EU, I’m talking about the FIA. When he sold, on the governing body’s behalf, the commercial rights to Ecclestone for a fatuously long time and a derisory small sum, Max Mosley insisted that the interests of the sport came before all else, and to that end the FIA – by means of the ‘Don King’ clause – retained the right of veto over Ecclestone’s potentially selling on the rights to parties whose priorities perhaps lay elsewhere.

Those who simply wanted to milk the sport, in other words. Imagine that.

For some little time many within the F1 paddock have wondered how it could ever have been considered ‘in the interests of the sport’ for its commercial rights to find their way into the hands of a company like CVC.

‘CVC currently manages funds on behalf of more than 250 investors’, the company’s website informs us. ‘These investors are among the most professional and discerning in the world. They entrust their capital to CVC for periods exceeding 10 years, and expect to achieve exceptional returns.’

Quite. And if that means putting on Grands Prix in countries with little or no interest in F1, at the expense of those where it’s in the blood, well, that’s life, isn’t it?

For some little time purists – a group routinely denigrated by the great and good – have made clear their dissatisfaction with the manipulation of the World Championship calendar. For countless years, since the rush to find new venues began, both Ecclestone and the FIA have stressed how a World Championship should be just that, a series of races across the globe. And that being so, Mosley kept hand-wringingly saying, it was inevitable that some of the traditional European races might have to be sacrificed. Terribly unfortunate and all that, but…

If things continue as they are, though, what we shall finish up with is an Asian Championship. Already that part of the world has a disproportionate number of Grands Prix, and more are in the pipeline. At the same time, the number of European races is diminishing, and North America has disappeared altogether. This – in a World Championship?

Fortunately, there are signs – at last – that one or two people in F1 are beginning to speak out, and not least of those is Luca di Montezemolo, long-time president of Ferrari – and now also the chairman of the Formula One Teams Association.

I have written before that I think the formation of FOTA the most significant happening in F1 for a very long time, and it was a stroke of genius by Ron Dennis to propose that di Montezemolo be its figurehead. Only a year or so ago a state of open warfare existed between McLaren and Ferrari, but the disappearance of Jean Todt greatly improved the situation,
as did his replacement by the genial Stefano Domenicali. Messrs Stepney and Coughlan were consigned to the outer darkness, and the way towards a better relationship beckoned.

Dennis’s suggestion that di Montezemolo should be FOTA’s chairman was not only sensible, but also smart. This is the very first association which actually includes all the teams, and Ferrari’s involvement is pivotal to its powerbase.

A few years ago, in the days of the GPMA (later the GPWC), dissatisfaction with their financial lot led the manufacturers to plan seriously a ‘breakaway’ championship of their own, and more than one leading team principal told me he earnestly hoped that would come to be.

Several mistakes were made, however. For one thing, Ferrari, although on board for a long time, failed to keep the faith, and proved susceptible to an offer from Ecclestone – $100 million, no less – to remain with him and the ‘official’ World Championship. For another, the GPWC paid too little attention to the interests of the independent teams, and this Bernie was quick to spot. With Ferrari already in his camp, he made an offer to Williams which Frank – as ever, quite understandably, putting the interests of his own company first – was only too pleased to accept, at which point the GPWC began quietly to fade away. QED.

As we have all known since the beginning of time, like it or not Formula 1 may be defined as the series in which Ferrari competes, and once di Montezemolo had come aboard, Ecclestone had won. ‘Divide and rule’… it had worked for him since the 1970s.

Perhaps, though, the formation of FOTA has changed all that, for now expediency – in the form of the credit crunch – has spawned a unanimity among the teams previously unknown, and di Montezemolo’s chairmanship is crucial to their aspirations. In late December a statement from the Ferrari president suggested he had had enough of the status quo.

For a start, he said, the teams should have a bigger slice of the sport’s commercial income than the 50 per cent currently on offer – only recently, in fact, has it been as much as that. “We want to know more about the revenue coming into the sport,” Luca went on, “so that we can decrease the price of the tickets.

“Then there is the matter of traditional tracks rather than exotic tracks just because they have a nice skyline.” This was a clear reference to Singapore, against which di Montezemolo railed at the time of the inaugural race, citing the virtual impossibility of overtaking at this new venue. But its ‘nice skyline’ was a very secondary reason for Singapore’s inclusion in the World Championship, as Luca well knew.

“We have to discuss the show,” he said. “How to promote. I’m not prepared any more to have all this dictated to us from outside without any control. Theoretically, as in other professional sports, we can have a league made by us, and appoint a good manager to run our own business. Because it is our own business.”

There were echoes there of the GPWC, save that this time Ferrari was on board with the other teams, and apparently resolved to stay there.

Ecclestone lost no time in responding, and with some venom. Speaking to The Times, his preferred conduit to the outside world, Bernie ranted that di Montezemolo was ill-placed to complain, given that already his team received far more money than any other, and he referred back to 2003, when Ferrari deserted the GPWC.

“They were the only team that broke ranks with the other manufacturers – and why did they do that? We ‘bought’ Ferrari – our deal with them was that we ‘bought’ them so they wouldn’t go to the others.”

Although this had been common knowledge within F1 from the outset, it had never been publicly admitted before – Ecclestone is famously reticent about matters of housekeeping – and the fact that he brought it up now was some indication of the extent of his ire.

“The only thing he (di Montezemolo) hasn’t mentioned is the extra money Ferrari get above all the other teams, and all the extra things Ferrari have had for years – the general help they are considered to have had in F1.”

In light of the other teams’ belief that for countless years there has been one law for Ferrari and one for everybody else, this last remark has a particular resonance.

Whatever, if Bernie’s intention were to stir things up between the teams, to attempt again to ‘divide and rule’, he appears to have failed. Toyota team principal John Howett, the vice-chairman of FOTA, swiftly pointed out that this was old news, that Ferrari’s preferential situation had been long known to all the other teams, and would not now be a source of dissension between them.

Howett also reiterated di Montezemolo’s sentiments about the cutting of the financial cake: “I think people in FOTA feel that the revenue of a modern professional sport is normally distributed more in favour of the participants than the property holder or the commercial rights holder. People want to open that discussion, and achieve a much more consistent balance with the status in many other professional sports.”

At this point Max Mosley put in his two penn’orth. Clearly there was now more unity between the teams, he said, because of the outside pressures (in the shape of the credit crunch) on F1. “The real test of unity will come when there is a significant difference of opinion, or when vital interests are threatened…”

One knew what Mosley meant, of course, for at their meetings down the years the F1 team principals have found it difficult to agree even on whether or not the window should be open. Perhaps in time, when Baroness Vadera’s ‘green shoots of economic recovery’ become apparent to the rest of the human race, the old days of routine dissension might return, but for now the teams have a common vested interest, and Ecclestone’s outburst was perhaps illustrative of a deep concern about FOTA and its united aims.

In January Bernie took the unusual step of turning up at Ferrari’s annual ski camp in the Dolomites, also attended by di Montezemolo. Hug, hug, still mates, etc. Mischievously he said that now that cost-cutting had been implemented in F1 maybe he would pay the teams less than before: “They don’t need so much…”

Luca, though, was not to be swayed.

“I think the unity of the teams has been extraordinary, and it brought – already in 2009, when the FIA hasn’t provided for even one euro in savings – huge savings, with systematic work that will carry on for 2010 and 2011.

“As I’ve said before, we now need to face the issue of revenues. We have a Concorde Agreement with FOM (Formula One Management) until 2012. There will be time between now and then to improve the commercial aspects and especially the show, and then to evaluate what to do after that.”

On New Year’s Eve, immediately before he publicly called for the replacement of both Ecclestone and Mosley, Jackie Stewart told me he was impressed by the unity FOTA had displayed, and believed di Montezemolo’s chairmanship highly significant, both symbolically and otherwise. “The only thing that worries me,” Stewart said, “is that I can’t see, with all his other commitments, how he’s going to be able to do it for very long…”

He was on the mark, as Luca confirmed at his press conference in Madonna di Campiglio. When asked if he thought the birth of FOTA a milestone in the sport’s history, he said, “I think the role I was asked to take up by the other teams – and which I certainly won’t be able to hold on to for very long – has been to convince all the teams to have a healthy competition on the circuits, with a great unity of goals outside, because it’s strange to have a sport with everyone saying it’s in the hands of single people. We need a triangle: without the outfits, the constructors, the teams, this sport wouldn’t exist today.”

All perfectly true, but triangles have never really been Bernie’s style. “In this sport you need a dictator, really,” he said to me in an interview three years ago, and, as with the late Bill France and his NASCAR dynasty, that is what he has always believed.

Stewart, while one of very few brave enough to express the opinion, is not alone in believing that the time has come for ‘regime change’ in the sport, but the evidence is that the Ecclestone/Mosley double-act is not about to surrender power any time soon. At the time of the News of the World affair, and subsequently, Max, who will be 69 this year, firmly said that it had always been his intention to stand down as FIA president when his present term ended, but he has more than once said similar things in the past, and we know better than to take them as read. Thus, it was no surprise when recently he suggested that probably he would step down, but, well, so many people were trying to persuade him to stand again… He will make a final decision in the summer, he says.

As Mosley is fond of saying, we live in interesting times. Indeed we do. And maybe, who knows, a soupçon of that F1 money might one day find its way back into the sport. Just kidding…

*****

The story of the day came only at the very end. We had presented ourselves at the McLaren Technology Centre for the launch of the MP4-24, watched the unveiling of the car by Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, been through Q&A sessions with them, and were now at a press conference with Ron Dennis and Norbert Haug.

“Just one more question,” said the MC, and someone asked Dennis about his own future plans.

This has come up many times in recent years, for Ron has repeatedly said that, while retirement was not even in his thoughts, sooner or later he would change direction somewhat and step back from day-to-day involvement in the running of the team.

After the annus horribilis of 2007, in which the ‘Spygate’ affair led to McLaren’s being struck from the constructors’ championship, in which the company was fined $100,000,000 by the FIA, in which Hamilton lost the World Championship by a single point at the last race, and also in which his 22-year marriage ended, Dennis not surprisingly looked like a man at the end of his tether, and some suspected that now might be the time he would choose to take a step back.

Those of that mind, however, did not know the man. Whenever questions about his future came up, Ron always said that, whatever else, he would never quit as a loser, and ruthless pressure (from other quarters) that he resign as chairman of the company served only to strengthen his resolve. As and when he stepped down, it would be at a time of his choosing, after a season of triumph, such as he had in 2008 when Hamilton – again by a point – won the World Championship. The very day after that crucial race in Brazil he dropped hints that his role at McLaren might imminently change.

These things being so, we shouldn’t have been surprised by his announcement, matter-of-fact as it sounded, but we were. Teddy Mayer may have run the team for the first few years of my involvement in F1, but in my head Ron Dennis is McLaren, and the thought of his not being the team principal any more was quite hard to take in.

What of his future, then? “Well,” he said, “the first thing I’m going to do is work harder. I intend to raise my own game because I think everybody in our organisation realises this a tough period in which we’re going to work. And, of course, we are a very diverse organisation now. We have a very clear intention for our production car programme. I will take on greater responsibility in certain key areas in the group.

“It’s nothing to get excited about, but it is absolutely time for Martin [Whitmarsh] to take over the job of team principal, and, as of March 1, he will adopt that responsibility. It’s a job that in practice we have shared for years, anyway. I will still go to races, but not all of them…”

So there it was, and afterwards it was all anyone was talking about.

Earlier Dennis had spoken about the season to come, and about the changes in procedure necessitated by the multiplicity of new rules – and the credit crunch, one consequence of which, agreed by all teams, is the ban on in-season testing.

‘Run what you brung’ was a phrase from the early days of stock car racing, when many of the competing vehicles were unsanitary, let’s say. But in a way it has some application in the F1 of 2009, in the sense that your car, if it proves to be a dog in the build-up to Melbourne, is more likely than before to remain that way to the end of the season. Even with ceaseless testing, Honda was in that position; without it, developing a car is obviously going to be more difficult again.

That being so, simulation techniques are going to be even more crucial than before, and the feeling is that McLaren can only benefit from this, for the company’s simulator is widely believed to be superior to anyone else’s.

When Jacques Villeneuve came to F1 in 1996, it was his practice, before going to a circuit new to him, to get some idea of it from his PlayStation. Helped him a lot, he said; of course it wasn’t a true representation of Spa or wherever, but it was certainly valuable in putting the sequence of corners into his head.

Dennis admitted that initially he had been sceptical about the worth of a simulator, but swiftly came around. “To give you an initial perspective,” he said, “probably 95-plus per cent of every development of the car is the result of development and research and simulation conducted in this building. Track time is very often to correlate that information.”
The day after the launch of the MP4-24, Pedro de la Rosa drove it for the first time, at the new circuit in Portimao. “I’m happy to report,” he said afterwards, “that the car behaved just as we believed it would from our data.”

As Dennis pointed out, though, “Simulation is not just about having a simulator. It really takes place more as a result of computer analysis and the software tools you develop to understand what the car does. The simulator plays an important role, but it is one tool only.

“It would be wrong to say we pioneered this technology because it’s found everywhere in environments like aerospace. But we did really bring it to F1 more aggressively than anyone has in the past, and hopefully that will give us an advantage this season.”

Before joining McLaren Whitmarsh was employed in a senior capacity by British Aerospace, and the simulator was his brainchild 10 years ago.

Apart from the very obvious benefits of being able to turn up at a Grand Prix with, all things being equal, your cars’ set-up already close to perfect, simulation offers other blessings, too.

Back in 1977, when Gilles Villeneuve made his F1 debut for McLaren at Silverstone, he had experience of neither a Grand Prix car nor the circuit. There was a lot to learn in a short time, and Villeneuve’s way of doing that was to go through every corner until the car let go: “That way I knew how fast was too fast!” On a pre-qualifying day before the race Gilles spun many times – but he never hit a thing, and was conclusively fastest. Then, for his first Grand Prix, he qualified his obsolete M23 a remarkable seventh.

Lewis Hamilton did even better than that, of course, starting fourth at Melbourne in 2007. Folk were aghast at the confidence, the sheer readiness of this rookie, but in reality of course he wasn’t a rookie at all, at least not in the Villeneuve sense, for already he had spent untold hours in the McLaren simulator, and run countless laps of Albert Park. It has many times been said that Lewis was more prepared by far than any F1 debutant before him, and in that his team’s simulator played a consummate role.

One has heard tales from Niki Lauda of pilots emerging white-faced and sweating from 747 simulators or whatever, and by all accounts a session in the McLaren simulator is as close as it gets to the real thing. A while ago Mika Häkkinen, twice a World Champion for McLaren, was offered a run in it, and the story went that at the end he decided playfully to hit the wall – and damn near broke his wrist…

*****

In this day and age Grand Prix drivers are just that, and they take part in no other form of motor racing. It has been this way for many years, in part because the almost ceaseless racing and testing schedule of F1 has left little or no time for anything else, but don’t start thinking that perhaps that situation might change following the recently-introduced ban on in-season testing: F1 contracts preclude anything that might interfere with a driver’s commitment to his team, and there’s an end to it.

While we might regret that, it’s hard to blame the F1 team principals for their stance. For one thing, most of the drivers are paid handsomely, to say the least, and it’s not unreasonable to expect their full-time attention to the job in hand; for another, it’s bound to be a little irritating if your driver is off games because he has hurt himself in the pursuit of other interests.
This need not necessarily apply to other forms of racing, of course. Think of Patrick Depailler, for example, who in 1979 began his new life with Ligier superbly and after seven races – one of which, at Jarama, he won – was lying equal third with Gilles Villeneuve in the World Championship.

Hard to believe now, but there was then a five-week gap until the next Grand Prix, at Dijon, and a free spirit like Depailler was not about to sit on his hands. Patrick’s hobbies were always of the ‘Action Man’ kind, and although, through his four years with Tyrrell, Ken turned a blind eye to Patrick’s taste for red wine and cigarettes – “Well, he’s French, isn’t he?” – he took a strong line elsewhere.

“Patrick was a like a little boy all his life,” Tyrrell smilingly remembered. “He lived for the present, and was always wanting to go skiing or motorcycling or whatever.

“I gave him his first F1 drive, at Clermont in 1972, and then offered him a third car for the North American races the following year. This was a big chance for him – and 10 days before he breaks his leg falling off a motorbike! Later, when he was driving full-time for me, I had it written into his contract that he had to keep away from dangerous toys…”

By 1979 Depailler’s newest passion was hang-gliding – and Guy Ligier had not had the foresight to follow Tyrrell’s example. Soon after the Monaco Grand Prix, Patrick was blown into a mountainside, and the injuries to his legs were so severe that for several weeks he stared at the possibility of life in a wheelchair.

For the rest of the season Depailler’s place at Ligier was taken by Jacky Ickx, then well past his peak as a Grand Prix driver. While Jacques Laffite continued to be a front-runner, Ickx scored only three points, so you could understand why the patron was angry with Depailler, who never drove a Ligier again.

More recently, of course, Juan Pablo Montoya missed a couple of Grands Prix in 2005, having broken his shoulder while… playing tennis, apparently. “He must,” a McLaren man drily observed, “have fallen off his racquet at a hell of a speed…”

Fundamentally, therefore, F1 drivers are today required to confine their dangerous activities to driving F1 cars, and it’s hardly surprising that, when I tell them how Mario Andretti used to operate, many folk respond with disbelief.

It’s a fact, though, that for years Andretti competed in both F1 and Indycars, and assuredly no one used Concorde more than he. “I remember May of ’81,” he said to me once. “Imola one Sunday, qualifying at Indianapolis the next, Zolder the next, the race at Indy the next, Monaco the next… I’d wake up in the morning, look at the ceiling, and think, ‘Jeez, where am I? The Speedway Motel or the Hotel de Paris?’”

A typical Andretti remark, and while it well conveyed what he was trying to get across, it was not to be taken too literally.

I have never stayed at the Hotel de Paris in Casino Square – such a thing would require the involvement of a building society – but I have several times dined there, and, trust me, I never once confused it with the Speedway Motel.

And yet… and yet… there is something they share. Walk down the steps of the Monegasque hotel, and you are a couple of yards from a Grand Prix circuit; close the door of your room (if it is at the back) at the Indiana motel, and you look upon the towering stands at Turn 1.

There is otherwise nothing remarkable about it – indeed, it resembles motels without number across America, unpretentious, somewhat dog-eared, not expensive, resolutely not in any way plush. But everything works and there’s plenty of space, and for sheer convenience it is hard to beat. I stayed there several times, although never at a race weekend, and I’ll concede that décor was not a factor in my decision.

No, it was the feel of the place, the ambience. Every room in the Speedway Motel, after all, inevitably has a thousand stories to tell.

The place was built in 1963, just in time for Team Lotus, then competing in the 500 for the first time. My late friend Jabby Crombac remembered it well: “That first year I shared a room at the Speedway Motel with Jimmy, Colin [Chapman] and Cyril Aubrey, the timekeeper. Jimmy and Colin had the two beds, Cyril had a cot, and I was sleeping on a blanket on the carpet!

“There was nothing else – it was that, or sleeping in the car.

“We were new to the place, you see, and could only get one room. The mechanics were in dormitories…”

Clark finished second on his Indy debut, beaten only by Parnelli Jones, a certain ignorance of the Brickyard rulebook – and a chunk of Hoosier establishment prejudice. Had it been Jimmy’s Lotus, rather than Parnelli’s roadster, leading in the late laps and dropping copious amounts of oil, one suspects that the black flag just might have been pressed into service…
Still, Clark gained everyone’s respect, not least because he didn’t make a fuss. And in 1965 Jimmy dominated the 500 – with Parnelli in second place.

A dozen years on, when I checked into the Speedway Motel for the first time, the lady on the desk smiled confidentially as I signed the register: “We’ve given you Jimmy Clark’s room,” she said. May or may not have been true, but I appreciated the thought, and that for me was really the whole point of the place – it could have been Clark’s room, but if not his, then Foyt’s or Unser’s or Andretti’s…

Or, for that matter, Paul Newman’s, at least for the purposes of filming. In 1968 he made a movie called Winning, set around the Indy 500, and in one scene returned early to his room at the Speedway Motel to find his wife (played by the real Mrs Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward) in bed with a rival driver (played by Robert Wagner). Needless to say, Newman went on to beat Wagner in the 500…

In the halcyon days of the USAC National Championship, many of the races were run on classic, one-mile dirt ovals, and one of them, the Hoosier 100, was in terms of prestige second only to the Indy 500. It was – and still is – run at the nearby Indiana State Fairgrounds, and many competing drivers would stay at the Speedway Motel for this race, too. In 1964, on September 26, A J Foyt won, followed by Rodger Ward, Don Branson and Jud Larson.

Twenty-three days earlier, the grandstands at the State Fairgrounds had again been packed to capacity, but for a very different reason. The Beatles were embarked on their first US tour, and on September 3 they played Indianapolis.

Originally the plan had been for just one show, at five o’clock, at the nearby Coliseum, but such was the clamour for tickets that a second was hastily scheduled. As the Coliseum was committed to another State Fair event that evening, a temporary stage was erected on the grass in the middle of the oval, and additional chairs placed on the race track in front of the stands. Seventeen thousand people watched the boys that night, and believe it or not there is bootleg footage on YouTube.

My friend Donald Davidson, who was formerly USAC’s official historian and now runs the fabled museum at the Speedway, knows more about Indianapolis folklore than anyone I have ever met.

“As I recall, the boys had come from Philadelphia, and then the next day they were going on to Milwaukee. They had an overnight stay in Indianapolis, therefore, and the problem was where to put them – Beatlemania was at its absolute height at that time, after all.

“I don’t know,” Davidson went on, “how much of an entourage they would have had at that time – probably not too big, because there weren’t these laser lights, or any of that stuff. Anyway, what happened was that three rooms were booked at the Speedway Motel! Brian Epstein had one, and the boys shared the other two. They were at the back, downstairs, by the pool.

“Of course most people figured they’d be staying at one of the big hotels downtown, all of which were staked out by fans. There was a place called The Essex House, and that was used as a red herring – word was put out that they’d be staying there.

“There was a bit of a crowd on 16th St, but they never saw the boys arrive, because an arrangement had been made with Clarence Cagle, the track superintendent, to open the gate up at the north end of the Speedway. They brought them in off 30th St at around midnight, down through the infield in darkness, and into the motel the back way, so no one saw them arrive.

“The following morning, around daybreak, a door opens and out comes Ringo. There were State Troopers lined up out the back there, and that was all. Ringo started talking to them, and they asked him if he’d like to take a ride, and he said sure. He got into one of the patrol cars, and slid down to the floor so that when they got out onto 16th St the kids – even if they were awake – wouldn’t see him. Another police car went with them.

“Away they go, and one of the cops starts to commiserate with Ringo, saying, ‘I realise you fellows are prisoners of your own fame, and you can’t go anywhere.

My little daughter thinks you’re the cat’s whiskers…’ So Ringo says, ‘Where do you live?’, and the cop says, ‘A little way north of here…’ And Ringo says, ‘Well, let’s go!’

“The cop’s place was quite some distance away, and it’s about 7.30 before they arrive. Once they’re in the house, the cop goes into his daughter’s bedroom, and she’s got all these Ringo pictures up, all over the wall. He wakes her up and he says, ‘Honey, there’s someone here who wants to meet you…’ And she opens her eyes – and there’s Ringo standing at the bottom of her bed!

“They all went out to a restaurant for breakfast. It was very rural in those days, and apparently there were some disparaging remarks about Ringo’s hair – until someone recognised him, and then everyone wanted autographs!

“Then it was time to go back, and it turned out there was some concern that they’d gone away. They took Ringo to the airport, and he got on the plane, and they obviously thought that was the end of that. But the officers were hauled over the coals…”

Donald related this saga to me several years ago, and a matter of weeks later I was amazed by something I chanced upon on eBay. Acquired from the widow of the cop who had brought Ringo home that morning 40 years earlier, two items were on sale: a ticket from the Beatles concert at the State Fairgrounds – and an ashtray from the room shared by Ringo and George.

Thus, a Speedway Motel ashtray – and a very particular one – sits on my desk to this day.

Last June, after dinner one evening with friends in Indianapolis, on a whim I drove over to the Speedway, and I took my camera with me. It was close on midnight, and pretty black, but the lights – ‘Indianapolis Motor Speedway’ – over the main entrance stood out well. Then I went to the Speedway Motel (a few years ago unforgivably renamed the Brickyard Crossing Inn), parked around the back, and took some pictures in the almost deserted car park, with the motel to the left, the Turn 1 stands to the right.

God knows why I went out there that night, but I’m glad I did because recently it was announced that the Speedway Motel was to close immediately, that its demolition would follow soon afterwards. As I said, this was no Hotel de Paris, and nor did it claim to be more than it was, but the place resonated with fable and spectre, and I’m sad to see another piece of racing history torn down. Whatever they build in its place, the ghosts will remain. Ah, if those walls could talk…