– Hamilton and McLaren’s show of strength
– Why Bernie is the only one who won’t miss Indy
– Hunt’s secret Ferrari deal – and why it went wrong
– Redman – still the most underrated driver in history
History suggests that Melbourne can be a touch misleading when it comes to predicting how a season will go. Patrick Head, for one, has always counselled against reading too much into what happens there, suggesting that Sepang, round two, offers a more accurate assessment of who is quick, and who is not.
Maybe he’s right. Whatever, the Australian Grand Prix threw out chunks of the form guide suggested by winter testing. The McLarens were quick all right, and, as anticipated, Williams was more of a force than for a long time, but BMW made a greater impression than expected – and Ferrari fell short.
When I talked with Jackie Stewart, as we previewed the season, he expressed concerns about both McLaren and Lewis Hamilton. All the political upheaval of the past eight months, JYS suspected, must surely have taken a toll somewhere in the team, and it was also possible, he pointed out, that Hamilton could fall prey to ‘second season syndrome’, when a startling debutant falls short of expectations.
On the strength of Melbourne, Stewart’s fears appeared groundless, and he was happy to see them so. Thus far, anyway, the move from Stevenage to Geneva appears not to have affected Lewis adversely, and nor, by the look of it, had a strenuous winter of PR. In both qualifying and race, he was majestic, in a class by himself. “The car,” he said, “was a complete dream to drive, compared with last year’s car.” It should be remembered that, in ‘last year’s car’, he damn nearly won the World Championship.
Nor did the McLaren organisation seem to be in any kind of disarray. Quite late in the day, Ron Dennis announced that he would not be stepping down, that he would be going to Australia, would be on the pitwall, and so he was. And that – together with the news that Mike Coughlan has finally been fired by McLaren – was, for me, among the most pleasing aspects of the Melbourne weekend: after everything he has been through, Dennis was not about to be drummed out of this sport by those – no pack drill, but we know their names – who would wish it so.
As the Australian GP unfolded, I thought back to the comments of many engineers and drivers, who suggested that the banning of the electronic ‘gizmos’, ‘driver aids’, call them what you will, would have little effect on either the visual appeal of Formula 1 or the quality of the racing.
More than anything else Melbourne, it seemed to me, offered proof positive of how ruinous, over the years, such as traction control and electronic engine braking have been to our sport. Suddenly stripped of these ‘parachutes’, as Rubens Barrichello called them, the cars twitched satisfactorily out of corners, and the drivers made mistakes under pressure. Thus, at a stroke, unpredictability – that vital ingredient – was restored to Grand Prix racing, and we had the most stimulating season-opener for many years.
Call it childish, if you will: an F1 car on opposite lock is something endlessly to be savoured, a sight which enraptured me as a kid as I watched Stirling’s 250F through Old Hall, and had the same effect the other weekend as Lewis powered round Albert Park.
The rule changes have taken us some of the way back to what Senna liked to call ‘a human’s car’, and it’s no surprise that Lewis, like Ayrton, is much in favour. The greater the driver, the greater the opportunity to show it. And vice-versa, of course.
There’s another thing, too: gone is the cacophony of a software-induced misfire, offensive in itself to anyone who cares to hear a racing engine sing. The ‘standard ECU’ may be anathema to some engineers; to any pure race fan it is manna.
If McLaren appeared in very good order at Melbourne, Ferrari – save in terms of basic pace – did not, and it would have been a flinty heart which felt no sympathy for the amiable Stefano Domenicali, whose first race as sporting director, in Jean Todt’s stead, this was. A fuel pressure problem kept Kimi Räikkönen out of Q3, obliging him to start 15th, and in the race the engines of both cars failed, as did that in the Toro Rosso of Sébastien Bourdais, who drove exceptionally well on his long-delayed F1 debut, and looked set to finish fourth, ahead of both Fernando Alonso and Heikki Kovalainen.
Like Räikkönen, Alonso failed to make it into the final shoot-out in qualifying, but in Fernando’s case this was because his Renault simply wasn’t quick enough. In the race he was typically combative en route to fourth place, but two years ago – also in a Renault – he waltzed it in Melbourne, and perhaps that thought occurred to him. Nelson Piquet, his new team-mate, made no impression, but in his post-race comments Flavio Briatore was rather kinder than he had been a year earlier, following the disappointing debut of Kovalainen.
At McLaren they have always liked Finns, and although it’s early days Heikki seems a perfect fit for the team. He couldn’t stay with Hamilton in the race, but had Timo Glock’s accident not brought out the safety car, obliging him to make his second stop under yellow (and thus to drop to the tail of the field), Kovalainen would have been second, and his pass of Alonso in the late laps was the best of the afternoon.
As the new season approached, many team principals – from BMW to Red Bull to Renault to Toyota to Williams – suggested that while McLaren and Ferrari both remained a clear cut above them, the fight to be fifth- fastest was likely to be more intense than for many a year. Broadly, that looked to be the case in Australia, although BMW had startlingly improved on their testing performance, and the Renault team fell somewhat short. Nick Heidfeld and Nico Rosberg, who joined Hamilton on the podium, were superb for BMW and Williams respectively, but the man who most dreamed of it – Mark Webber – was again disappointed in his homeland, victim of an exploded brake disc in qualifying, and of someone else’s mistake on the first lap of the race.
“Mark’s a magnet for bad luck,” remarked Christian Horner recently. “If something’s going to go wrong, you can almost bet it’ll happen to him…” True enough: Webber had been right up there, second-fastest, on Friday afternoon.
Even Honda looked better than expected in Melbourne. Jenson Button (unfortunately nerfed out on lap one) was speaking in terms of a fresh three-year contract, and Rubens Barrichello, buoyed by the presence of Ross Brawn, long familiar to him at Ferrari, drove a fine race to what would have been sixth place – had he not been disqualified for exiting the pitlane under the red light.
The removal of Barrichello from the results elevated Räikkönen, his Ferrari dead, to eighth place – and one point. In 2007 Kimi won the World Championship – by one point. Come November, little things can mean a lot.
Of late there has been much discussion about the future shape of the World Championship, of new venues being picked up, others perhaps dropped. This season Valencia and Singapore are debutants, while Indianapolis – to the mystification of all save Bernie Ecclestone – has disappeared.
Throughout the weekend of last year’s US Grand Prix, Ecclestone and the track owner, Tony George, had meetings to discuss a renewal of their contract. When I encountered George shortly after one of them, he was puce with rage: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a private enterprise, whose purpose was to lay on good motor racing, and – hopefully – make a profit from it. Unlike ‘new generation’ F1 countries, there was no access to unlimited bounty from governments and their tourist budgets.
It was a fair point, and one made often by the British Racing Drivers Club in its unending struggles with Ecclestone over the future of the British Grand Prix.
Bernie has long contended that the facilities at Silverstone don’t match up to what is required of a contemporary Grand Prix circuit, and while in absolute terms it’s difficult to argue with that, the continuing presence on the schedule of Interlagos should provide a certain amount of ammunition for the BRDC.
Should, but doesn’t. For reasons unclear, the Brazilian circuit habitually escapes censure, while others – most notably Silverstone – are always in the firing line.
The battle over Silverstone, though, has become motor racing’s equivalent of The Ring Cycle, and we have become thoroughly accustomed to it. The loss of Indianapolis was more of a surprise.
Why? Because the facilities at the Speedway, while less flashy than those at some of the state-of-the-art ‘autodromes’ built in the recent past, are unimpeachable, and most folk in the business felt that, with Long Beach and Watkins Glen long gone as F1 venues, Indianapolis – a place, like Le Mans, synonymous with motor racing – had become the spiritual home of the US Grand Prix. Compared with some of the execrable tracks toyed with in the past – Detroit, Phoenix – the IMS conveyed the impression of a big occasion, and one always sensed a real effort to make this thing work.
Given that an Indy crowd is raised in the expectation that racing cars will overtake each other, it was no more than inevitable that many of the 220,000 who attended the first Grand Prix, in 2000, should have been disappointed by the procession that was F1, and chose not to come back. But there always remained an audience huge by F1 standards, even after the fiasco of 2005, when only six cars – the Bridgestone runners – went to the grid, Michelin having goofed in a big way, and taken tyres to Indiana unable long to survive the banked turn at the end of the lap.
For as long as I can remember, Ecclestone seems to have had an equivocal attitude towards the US and Grand Prix racing. Back in 1983, during the Long Beach race weekend, he and promoter Chris Pook were locked in debate about a renewal of the contract, and Pook – as George did last year – found the process plainly frustrating. “The fans here love F1,” he told me, “and the Grand Prix has become an established event, which I want to keep. But I’ve told Bernie what I can pay for a race so it makes financial sense to me, too, and I’ve also told him that if we can’t agree on that, on Tuesday I’m announcing that in future the Long Beach Grand Prix will be a CART race. Hope he believes me…”
He didn’t – and a couple of days later Pook duly went ahead with his promised announcement. F1 never went back to California, and many in the sport were angered by that, just as they are now about the loss of Indianapolis. When Tony George sorrowfully announced that his talks with Ecclestone had come to nought, that there would not be a Grand Prix in 2008, Bernie was flippant in his response: “Well, let’s see if we need America, shall we?”
That necessarily infuriated the likes of Mercedes, Toyota, Honda et al, who quite like selling cars there. “Of course we should be in the States,” said Frank Williams recently. “It’s the world’s biggest marketplace, for Christ’s sake! It’s crazy that we’re not there…”
I’m told that Ecclestone and George were separated by the little matter of $9,000,000, which gives some idea of the monies involved in securing a Grand Prix these days. And what has changed the whole picture, of course, in terms of significantly raising the tariff, is the advent of countries such as Malaysia, China and Singapore, who were persuaded that a Grand Prix was exactly what they needed, and used government money both to build ever ritzier circuits and to meet the hefty stipend required by F1’s ‘commercial rights holder’.
If you wish to continue to have a Grand Prix, therefore, but don’t have access to government funding, down the road you could be in trouble. “We keep going to all these new places,” said Williams, “simply because Bernie gets so much money out of them.”
Sentiment, assuredly, is not a factor, as they can tell you at Imola, for example. The latest country to come under scrutiny is Australia, for so many years considered one of the jewels of the F1 season. After 11 extremely successful years in Adelaide, the Grand Prix was transferred to Melbourne, for no reason other than a higher bid, but whereas Adelaide completely embraced F1, Melbourne – where major sporting events are ten a penny – never went for it in quite the same way. Although the crowds have always been healthy, the race has lost a substantial amount of money for a very long time.
The contract comes up for renewal after the 2010 race, and Ecclestone has been making discouraging noises of late: “Let’s see if we need Australia…” A familiar ring.
On this occasion, though, the problem is not one primarily of money. Bernie has told the Melbourne organisers that if they wish to continue with the Grand Prix beyond 2010, it must then become a ‘night’ race.
The Victorian Government has rejected this on grounds of costs, instead putting in a counter-proposal that the race should start late in the afternoon, at 5pm. It is thought unlikely that this suggestion will be favourably received.
Why is the start time of such crucial significance? Well, because Ecclestone has apparently become deeply concerned about the plight of European TV viewers, for whom it is the middle of the night when the race gets underway. “The only way,” he said recently, “that the race could stay in Melbourne, or anywhere else in Australia, is if it is staged during the night so that the public in Europe can watch it. At the moment, it’s ridiculous that people are asked not to sleep in order to see it live. That can’t carry on.”
Quite why, after 23 Australian Grands Prix, this has suddenly become a matter of surpassing importance is not clear. Were one cynical, of course, one might consider that, even allowing for Bernie’s wish to extend the World Championship to 20 races, ‘new’ (ie cash-rich) countries appear to be queuing up for Grands Prix – and that Singapore is to stage the first night race in September, with Malaysia well disposed to following suit.
A few days ago I watched MotoGP’s inaugural night race, in Qatar, and everything appeared to work seamlessly, with no ‘vision’ problems whatever reported by the riders. It must have been a touch bizarre for those on the spot to begin watching a race at 11pm, but otherwise it was a Grand Prix like any other, and Singapore will doubtless be the same.
Aerial views of the illuminated circuit were spectacular, but there of course lies the rub: lighting systems of this power are prodigiously expensive, and, in the case of Melbourne, prohibitively so. If you can dip into a government budget, fine; if not, good afternoon – or, rather, good night.
In 1984, George Orwell envisaged sport in the future, looked ahead to a time when games were played, and races run, in vast, faceless stadia, with no spectators on the spot. Given that the rest of his nightmare vision has taken flesh (albeit a few years late), perhaps sport will fall into line, and perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of it here.
Although both Ecclestone and Max Mosley have repeatedly stressed the importance of a World Championship, already we are being told that America and, apparently, Australia are of little significance, and increasingly one wonders if we shall finish up with a series overwhelmingly situated in the East – but with the races run at night to suit the traditional ‘European’ F1 fan, from whom the opportunity of actually attending a race is increasingly withdrawn.
This is all, of course, about TV. The bedrock of F1 has always been Europe, and perhaps always will be – a glance at the ‘crowd’ at the Malaysian Grand Prix, after all, suggests that people cannot be told to embrace motor racing. And while watching Grands Prix on the box has for years been a ‘middle of the night’ experience for Australian F1 fans, the TV figures for far-off Grands Prix have long been lousy in Europe.
Tape it, and watch it when you get up, is what most people do. The hardcore, of course, blearily stick with it, saying that it’s not the same when it’s not ‘live’, but there aren’t enough purists around.
It’s interesting though that, with more and more ‘Eastern’ races coming into the picture, still Ecclestone clearly considers the European televison audience crucial. “Perhaps,” murmured one team principal, “he’s aware of screwing them, in terms of taking their races away, and he’s trying desperately to keep them on board…”
Perhaps that’s what it has been about all along. Actually stage the races in places where there’s no cultural link with motor racing, but where money is no object, and then beam them to the countries where it’s in the blood at a time that suits them. Does it really matter where the race is actually taking place?
Or did Orwell get it right on sport, as he did on everything else?
Over dinner at Monza’s Hotel de la Ville one night last September, Daniele Audetto dropped something of a retrospective bombshell. Or so it was to me, anyway.
The genial MD of Super Aguri was, in another life, the team manager of Ferrari, and he was reminiscing about those days, in the ’70s, when he worked for Enzo.
“Towards the end of 1976,” he said, “Ferrari were going to sign Ronnie Peterson, but Niki Lauda – who had driven with Peterson at March – wouldn’t have it, so in the end we signed Carlos Reutemann. Niki didn’t really want Carlos, either – he wanted us to keep Clay Regazzoni – but he was more acceptable to Niki, who knew just how quick Ronnie was!”
There were no real surprises there, for I vaguely remembered the Old Man’s interest in landing Peterson at that point. Why, I wondered, did Clay, the world’s best number two, and a man quite capable of winning Grands Prix, have to go?
Audetto smiled. “The problem with Clay was that he was not committed enough. He was a very nice guy, and he had a lot of natural talent, but he… loved life too much…”
Daniele then paused a second or two. This was the moment, and he well knew the effect his next words would have on us.
“Did you know,” he said, “that at Monaco in 1978 James Hunt signed for Ferrari?”
We were, not to put too fine a point on it, thunderstruck, and Audetto was highly gratified. “You never heard that before…?”
No, we said, we had never heard that before.
“Well,” he went on, “you will remember that at the time Ferrari’s drivers were Reutemann and Villeneuve. Gilles was very new, very quick – but also very wild. In time the Old Man came to love him like a son, but at that moment he was very worried about him, and not at all sure he wanted to keep him. We were already thinking ahead to 1979, and we knew that Hunt was not so happy at McLaren.
“Therefore Piero [Lardi] Ferrari and I had a meeting with James in a villa in Monaco – it was all very secret, and no-one knew. And by the end it was all agreed: James was coming to Ferrari in 1979. Everything was signed…”
That being so, of course I had to know what went wrong. Hunt indeed left McLaren at the end of the season – but it was to Wolf, not Ferrari, that he moved. Indeed, at Monaco in ’79, one year on from his meeting with Audetto, he stepped from his recalcitrant car, and announced his immediate retirement from racing.
“James was very serious about coming to Ferrari,” said Daniele, “but everything fell through because he had an existing contract which got in the way.”
With whom, I asked?
Audetto burst out laughing. “With Vauxhall, believe it or not! I can’t remember now what he had contracted to do for them, but anyway [Gianni] Agnelli was not willing to get into conflict with General Motors, and so Ferrari’s agreement with James had to be dropped…”
I have always had a fascination for ‘what if’ stories, the bits and pieces which one learns – sometimes, as in this case, years after the event. And the Hunt-Ferrari story came back to me at a recent Williams lunch, at the RAC Club in London, when Frank began to talk about McLaren’s attempts to sign Nico Rosberg – and when Patrick Head revealed that, in 2004, Williams could have signed none other than Lewis Hamilton.
“Lewis and his father asked if they could come and talk to us,” said Patrick. “They said, ‘Ron Dennis has dropped us…’ It was obvious the guy was pretty good, but unfortunately we just couldn’t afford to finance his racing – he was in F3 at the time – and so it came to nothing. A pity, you’d have to say, but it’s water under the bridge, isn’t it?”
As for Rosberg and McLaren, once Fernando Alonso and the team had taken their premature leave of each other, mere days after the final race of 2007, Messrs Dennis and Whitmarsh set to the task of finding a replacement, and their first choice was Nico, who had recently driven a superb race at Interlagos, getting the better of the BMWs and finishing fourth, beaten only by a couple of Ferraris and a McLaren.
It was known at the time that McLaren duly offered an eye-watering amount of gelt for Rosberg’s contract, and that it failed to have the desired effect. “Frank,” I was told, “didn’t even blink…”
At the lunch FW was unwilling to mention McLaren by name, but allowed that there had been, “an offer of majestic proportions from you know who”. He then went on to confirm that it had indeed not been considered even momentarily. “Why,” he said, “would we give away the crown jewels? Why bother improving the car by a second a lap, if we then give away half a second with the driver?”
It was a very fair point, which spoke volumes for the regard in which Rosberg is held, and confirmed yet again that, in the case of Williams, nothing comes before the team. Without too much effort, I can bring to mind team principals who would have banked the cheque, and bade the driver goodbye without a backward glance.
Not so Francis. When it was decided that the team needed a second wind tunnel, he concluded – at a time when the company was less well financed than it is now – that, in order to pay for it, the private jet would have to go. Given that, in light of his physical restrictions, Williams needs such a means of travel rather more than most folk, it was a particularly selfless sacrifice, yet one he never hesitated to make.
Everything has its price. “Flying ‘scheduled’ is such a hassle when you’re in one of these things,” he said, looking down at his wheelchair. “I’m not going to Australia or Malaysia – I’ll start my season in Bahrain.”
After too many years away from the sharp end of the grid, Williams people are confident that a sizeable step has been made with the latest car, the FW30, and Frank has ample faith in his 22-year-old team leader’s ability to make the most of it. It was, he said, ‘an absolute no-brainer’ to reject the offer to buy Rosberg.
“He was under contract to us until the end of ’08, so he couldn’t have left this season under any circumstances. But there was an offer to him from McLaren for ’09, and I feared he would take it – to be honest, I was surprised when he didn’t take it. We had an option on him for ’09, but it was by no means certain we would achieve the results this year which would enable us to enforce it. I was delighted when he said he was happy to sign firmly for ’09, but if we’re going to keep him beyond that we’ve certainly got to get ourselves up front again, no doubt about that.”
The teams likes Nico, and Nico likes the team, that much is clear. And FW30 pleased its driver from the start. “It’s much better than last year’s car,” he said, “especially in the aerodynamics, which have been a bit of a weakness at Williams recently.
“As for the Toyota engine, I wouldn’t say it was the best in F1, but it’s certainly not the worst, either. And one thing I must say: from talking to other drivers, it seems that quite a lot of them are struggling with the response – now we’re without traction control, thank God – of their engines, but the Toyota is extremely good in that respect. I think we’ve got a pretty good package, actually.” Rosberg’s team-mate this
season is Kazuki Nakajima, also 22, and also a second-generation F1 driver – and one, of course, who comes very much with the blessing of Toyota.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that he’s pretty quick,” said Frank Williams, eyes twinkling, “and he seems to have the right attitude for an F1 driver. On his debut, in Brazil last year, he came into the pits a bit too quickly at his first stop, and knocked down one of the mechanics. Later in the race he set the fifth-fastest lap – and he never once got on the radio to ask if he’d hurt anyone. I thought that was a bloody good sign!”
Over in Florida Brian Redman is working on a book, and I much look forward to it. Maybe the fact that I, too, am a Lancastrian has something to do with it, but Redman’s self-deprecating sense of humour has always strongly appealed.
“A good bloke,” Denis Jenkinson would say, “and a bloody good driver.”
How good? Well, I remember an evening years ago, in the little pensione where we always stayed for Imola weekends.
That particular day we – Jenks, Alan Henry and I – had left the track earlier than usual and taken the hire car up into the mountains, where the road signs read ‘Raticosa’ and ‘Futa’. A glass of wine at a village café, and then Jenks started to reminisce about the Mille Miglia.
It was a ritual repeated many times over the years, and it never lost its savour. “Can you imagine,” Jenks said at dinner, “what it would have been like to do the Mille Miglia in something like a Porsche 917?”
‘Hot’ was the first thought that came to mind, and he conceded that, yes, 1000 miles round Italy in a closed car with a tiny cockpit might have been too much even for him: “Mind you, it would have been bloody good fun, wouldn’t it?”
The next question, inevitably, was about the ideal driver for the enterprise. Think of the 917 era and the names of Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert come instantly to mind, but Jenks shook his head. Neither, he said, would have been his choice for the Mille Miglia.
“I’d have gone with Brian Redman,” he said. “He’d have been as quick as them – and safe! Brian was a far more intelligent racing driver than they were, and we’d have had a much better chance of getting back to Brescia…”
Quite an endorsement, I thought, but on reflection not a total surprise. Although John Wyer kept it from him at the time – “My dear Redman, just think what I’d have had to pay you!” – Redman was quite a bit quicker in a Gulf 917 around the old Spa-Francorchamps than either of his highly touted team-mates.
I once wrote that I considered Redman perhaps the most underrated driver in history, and later Mario Andretti brought the subject up: “I saw what you said about Brian – I couldn’t agree more…”
When I called Redman recently, he talked about Jimmy Clark, and the impact on the sport of his death, 40 years ago.
“I don’t think,” he said, “that today’s drivers have any comprehension of what racing used to be like. It was a different world, in terms of safety – and money, come to think of it!
“Starting with Jimmy, four drivers were killed in consecutive months in 1968, all of them on the seventh, and one, Ludovico Scarfiotti, was my team-mate at Cooper. We were at Spa on June 7, but he wasn’t there because he had a prior commitment to Porsche for a European hillclimb round. We finished qualifying, with everyone intact – and then word came through that ‘Lulu’ had been killed at Rossfeld. Charming, charming, man.
“The thing is, quite apart from the famous drivers who died in that period, there were a lot of lesser known people, too. I went testing at Silverstone in early ’69, and Chris Williams was there, too.
He said, ‘I’ll just do another couple of laps, and I’ll see you in The Green Man’. Never came back…
“In those days it was always said that drivers coped by saying to themselves,
‘It’ll never happen to me’. But I wasn’t like that – I always thought it was going to happen to me!
“When Gerhard Mitter was killed, in 1969, we Porsche drivers had to go to the funeral, wearing our racing overalls – that’s what they always did in Germany. I was standing there, with the coffin on my shoulder, and his wife and children were there, all of them crying – I was crying, too, and afterwards Udo Schutz said to me, ‘Brian, I could see you were very upset by the funeral of Gerhard’. I said yes. He said, ‘I never knew that you cared so much for him’. I said,
‘I didn’t care for him at all – I didn’t like him! I was thinking, it’s going to be me next…’”
Redman is 71 now, and ‘still at it’, as he puts it. “I drove an Audi R8 the other day – you know, the ‘petrol’ one that won Le Mans so many times. It was four or five years old, and I thought it was fantastic… Jesus! In these modern cars, so much is easier than it was, like the gearchange – I mean, you can’t make a mistake! It’s instantaneous, and you don’t even take your hand off the wheel. I think back to the gear change on the 917, which was terribly slow – and if you went 200 revs over the limit, the engine broke!”
Wasn’t that what happened to Siffert at Le Mans in 1970?
“Yep! Seppi only ever drove flat out. We had a lead of four laps, with only a few hours to go. But he was such a great guy, I didn’t say anything to him – and he wouldn’t have if I’d done it.”
Redman will be attending both Goodwood events this year, and will race a Scirocco-BRM, of all things, at the Revival Meeting. “It’s actually quite a nice car, quite sanitary, and the handling’s decent. I might race it at the Monaco historic weekend, as well.”
A good bloke, as Jenks said.
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