The Daily Fail strikes again

Are we in the middle of a news vacuum, or something? I ask because that paragon of journalistic virtue, the Daily Mail, has taken a brief detour from its usual obsessions – you know, burning all immigrants, dole scroungers and single mums at the stake and whatnot – to commit to print what is possibly the stupidest story of the year.

Under the headline The Italian’s job: Abu Dhabi steward’s link to Ferrari… and Fernando Alonso it engages in a thoroughly muddleheaded attempt at a syllogism. I’ll save you reading the Daily Mail’s guff by summing up the proposition here:

- Emmanuele Pirro, the third steward at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, is Italian

- Italians all love Ferraris and are therefore, as well as being institutionally corrupt, all instinctively biased towards the cause of the Ferrari F1 team

- The FIA appointed Pirro even though they’re not supposed to have driver stewards who are linked by nationality to the cause of a championship contender

- Pirro is therefore biased in favour of Fernando Alonso and the FIA smell of elderberries

- Is he a dole scrounger and a single mum as well? Probably – pass the matches, Tristan…

You don’t even have to know much about F1, or motorsport in general, to see this for the codswallop it is. Emmanuele Pirro was a test driver for McLaren and a multiple Le Mans winner (and touring car winner) for Audi. I know him well from my days in sportscar racing and can testify that not only is he a true gent, he doesn’t take orders from anybody.

During his time at Benetton in Formula 1 he was royally shafted by Flavio Briatore. About nine years ago, when Benetton became Renault, I was helping to write an ensemble feature for a magazine in which we contacted all the team’s ex-drivers and invited them to sum up their memories of their time there. When I rang Emmanuele he simply wasn’t interested in doing an on-the-record denouncement of someone who had harmed his career. “It’s a long time ago now,” he said. “In many ways it was a good opportunity for me. I have only good memories.”

Unfortunately the next person I phoned was Roberto Moreno, who spent the next 75 minutes heating my ear up with a full and frank expression of his feelings on the subject. Shame I only had space for 50 words…

Anyway, needless to say, the Daily Mail’s story has been taken up and promulgated by another F1 ‘news’ source with little connection to the real world: GMM. What a surprise!

Another perspective on crime in São Paulo

Having never been robbed – at least in the stick-‘em-up sense – while reporting on a motor race, I felt a trifle left out by all the clamour and brouhaha surrounding this weekend’s Brazlian GP. On Saturday night Jenson Button was spared from a potentially unpleasant encounter with an armed gang by the vigilance and skill of his driver, although the same gang is believed to have held up a group of Sauber mechanics when they left the circuit some time later.

It’s a cliché to describe Brazil as a country of great contrasts, but like most clichés the description has earned its status by being true. São Paulo has a particularly grim reputation, and I vividly remember my first visit there. Like no other great metropolis on earth, with the possible exception of Los Angeles, São Paulo immediately impresses and imposes with its size and the relentless unpleasantness of its architecture as you approach it by car. As we bumped along the freeway in the back of an old Fiat taxi it just grew and grew. The traffic was absurd. Cyclists were riding against the flow in the tiny gap between the lane and the barrier of the central reservation. It was utterly chaotic.

If you believe everything you hear about São Paulo, you’d probably not leave the boot of your taxi. The reality is that it’s certainly grim in parts, but that the fear of crime grips the tourists more firmly than it does the locals. I had to attend a press event in a hotel about a mile up the road. Of course, I took a taxi. It took about an hour. At one point I peeked out from underneath my bulletproof camouflage blanket and saw someone cycling past with an iPod tucked into his belt and the distinctive white earbuds stuffed in his ears. He either had very good insurance or he wasn’t as paranoid about robbery as I was.

After the 2007 race, many of us were late finishing because of the ‘cool fuel’ nonsense. A year or two earlier, a car carrying Toyota personnel had been ambushed and fired upon on the way home. As I left the circuit with two colleagues from AUTOSPORT it dawned on us that we didn’t have transport. We would have to step outside the safety of the circuit gates and hail a taxi. At 11 o’clock on a Sunday night it was a long time coming. We stood, in the rain, three blokes with moderately valuable laptops, waiting for an armed mob to descend upon us at any moment. It didn’t happen.

Anecdotally, 2010 seems to have been a pretty bad year for crime at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Is it actually worse, or are we just being tense? Once, on a charity bike ride through Kenya with Eddie Jordan (amongst others) I was alone on the road when I encountered a man loitering with a rather large machete; I sized up the situation and realised that the road wasn’t wide enough for me to evade him if he was intent on doing me a mischief. Instead, I stuck to my trajectory and gave him a cheery greeting as I passed within a machete’s swing of his position. He just looked at me as if I was slightly peculiar.

Sometimes the fear of crime is as intrusive and repellent as the act itself.

Don’t underestimate Sergio Perez

You know it’s a funny old world when the winner of GP2, Formula 1’s premier feeder series, is beaten to an actual F1 seat by, er, the bloke he beat to the GP2 title. Welcome, then, to the funny old world of Pastor Maldonado.

In spite of a management contract with Nicolas Todt (if that’s not a VIP ticket to a plum F1 seat, nothing is) and backing from Venezuela’s state oil company, not to mention a high-profile pat on the back from President Chavez himself, Maldonado has failed to secure a seat alongside Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber in 2011. Instead that place will be occupied by 2010 GP2 runner-up Sergio Perez in a move that has been eased by a considerable injection of funds from Telmex, the Mexican telecoms concern.

But exactly how big an injection are we talking about?

It’s perhaps a reflection on the sort of traveller who regularly commutes between London and Shanghai that the British Airways 777 employed for this purpose has a mammoth First/Club section, while Economy occupies about 10 rows down the back. Nevertheless it was in this cupboard-sized vestibule that I found myself sitting next to Perez on the way back from the Chinese Grand Prix a couple of years ago.

Back then, Perez had just kicked off his GP2 Asia campaign with a DNF and a seventh place, hot on the heels of flunking the lead of the British Formula 3 Championship. Still, everyone was talking about his potential, and plenty of people were excited about (and keen to get their hands on) the reputed pot of gold that Telmex brought. This was just as the financial crash was just crashing, but Honda were yet to withdraw from F1 – in fact, Nick Fry and Ross Brawn were sitting several rows ahead, beyond the gilded curtain, in altogether comfier seats.

He wasn’t the most talkative chap, but he owed me a favour. I’d woken him up as they came round with the boxes from the laughably misnamed ‘All Day Deli’. I made the slight tactical error of asking him what had happened in the closing rounds of British F3 (cue a screed of excuses, thankfully lightened by the arrival of some liquid refreshment – diss BA cabin crew if you like, but they’re generous with the vin rouge). I then asked him what on earth he was doing ‘down the back’ of a 12-hour flight when he had a fair bit of sponsor’s wedge behind him – especially when various unimportant persons and hangers-on, such as TV pundits and marketing types, had ‘turned left’.

He replied that it was more important to spend the money that was being disbursed on his behalf wisely, ie on the business of racing, than to swan around like a VIP when he hadn’t earned that status yet.

I was impressed by his attitude. Impressed by his raw pace during races, too, although his results have been patchy. For the latter reason you may read some hemming and hawing from the kind of pundits who do their research on Wikipedia. Ignore them. This fellow has talent.

And after all, Kamui Kobayashi didn’t set the world aflame in GP2, did he?

Free Formula 1 photo exhibition in London this weekend

Giuseppe Farina's Alfa Romeo 158, winner of the first F1 World Championship Grand Prix. Photo by James Mann

Giuseppe Farina's Alfa Romeo 158, winner of the first F1 World Championship Grand Prix. Photo by James Mann

Do you like great pictures of Formula 1 cars? This weekend (2-3 October) James Mann, my collaborator on the Art of the Formula 1 Car book, is hosting an exhibition of his work as part of the Lambeth Open Festival.

Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari 312T3

Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari 312T3

The exhibition is free to enter and you can find it at Plough Studios (Park Hill, Clapham, SW4 9NS), where many of the cars were shot for the book. You’ll be able to see the ‘cove’ and gain a real insight into how cars are photographed in a studio. As well as photographic prints there is a real F1 car, a recently restored Leyton House CG901 – one of Adrian Newey’s early works.

On Monday the prints will be auctioned off in aid of The British Home charity. If you like the pictures you can also order copies and there will be autographed copies of the book available too (assuming I don’t get mown down on the way there tonight).

Michael Schumacher's Ferrari F2000

Michael Schumacher's Ferrari F2000