The highlight of my year thus far was lunch in a supermarket café. Not the gastronomy, though I did capitulate at the offer of an absurdly rich pudding, but the company I was keeping.
My friend Robert Dean is an engineer, a mechanic, a racer of vintage cars and generally one of the good eggs of our universe. By our universe, I mean that which is inhabited by those of us who are just crazy about racing cars. Or just crazy. Robert’s role in life, apart from a being a doting father, is to look after a collection of racing cars owned by one Bernard Ecclestone.
I mention this because last year in the desert of Bahrain I did two things I never imagined I would. I slid down into the cockpit of a Ferrari 312 and I perched on the seat of a BRM V16 Mk ll.
For me, these were Big Moments – not only a pleasure, but also a privilege. As a child, I watched Ken Wharton and Ron Flock hart racing this BRM at Goodwood and, while the memory is hazy, I remember the noise and I know it must have left a big impression on me. I know this because I later joined the BRM Supporters Club, proudly wearing the enamel badge at every possible opportunity. There was something about a BRM, so very British in that dark racing green, and so often the underdog until Graham Hill came along and won the World Championship in 1962. By that time you couldn’t keep me away from the racetrack.
Then there was the Ferrari, this the very car raced in 1966 by Lorenzo Banding and John Surtees. You probably remember the cockpit of the 312, that wonderful black leather cladding, and that snaking nest of white exhaust pipes on the glorious V12 engine. Take a look at pictures of Banding in this car, or Ludovico Scarfiotti (who won at Monza in ’66) and if they don’t stir your blood then you won’t get what I’m going on about. The car is so comfortable, the cockpit hugging your sides. Close your eyes and you could be coming down to the Parabolica – if you were brave enough. No belts, remember, and fuel tanks all around you. Eventually I stepped out, but I didn’t want to.
So, thanks to Mr Dean, I have taken a seat in the theatre of dreams. The point, however, of these ramblings is that it is days such as these that remind us why we fell in love with Grand Prix racing.
In recent years I have sometimes struggled to maintain my enthusiasm. They all look the same, they all sound the same. They can’t overtake each other unless there’s a thunderstorm and Lewis Hamilton has a red mist inside that yellow helmet. Wandering among the cars collected by Bernie reminded me that simplicity is good – big fat tyres, tons of power, not very much grip and lots of nice engineering that you and I can understand.
No, I am not bogged down in the past. And yes, I will be watching the Chinese Grand Prix. I’m not giving up on this thing after six decades but I do believe that something radical needs to be done to improve the sheer spectacle, the drama of motor racing at its highest level.
BRM is long gone, but there will be Ferraris on the grid in China. All is not lost.