in Mr. Mateschitz's Neighborhood
By Thomas O'Keefe, U.S.A.
Autosport-Atlas Senior Writer
In the Tilke era of artificially produced tracks, with venues thin on motor racing history, Imola stands out as one of the last treasures on the Formula One calendar. Holding the first European event and being just minutes away from Ferrari's Vatican, few Grands Prix offer as much ambiance for fans and journalists alike as San Marino. Thomas O'Keefe paid a visit to the F1 paddock just when Red Bull Racing redefined the meaning of 'motorhome'; watched the race at McLaren just as Kimi Raikkonen stormed in, helmet still on; and watched the usual suspects go about their Formula One lives
It is fashionable to complain about the Tilke Takeover of Formula One tracks and there is indeed an element of bland sameness to the new venues that makes me treasure all the more coming to Imola and Italy, a real old-fashioned track and a place locked in time that exudes European charm.
It is the atmosphere at Imola that makes it so special - the presence of the enthusiastic Tifosi and its close proximity to Ferrari's factory in Maranello and to Minardi's factory in Faenza, which make it the Oxfordshire of Italy; the tall stands of trees and the winding Santerno river that confine, define, enliven and embrace the track; the fabulous kerbs that make slaloming through the chicanes the best kerb-riding display of the season; and, of course, the tragedy that haunts the place at Tamburello with Ayrton Senna's statue and the flowers and the tributes as tangible reminders - all of which coalesce to make it one of the most evocative stops on the Grand Prix tour.
But from a human perspective, it is the cozy paddock that most distinguishes Imola for those lucky enough who get to go backstage, and the combination of the constricting spaces of the paddock and the fact that Imola 2005 was the first European race meant that the Chatty Cathy goings on within the Perfumed Stockade were almost as intriguing as the on-track activities.
To begin with, we definitely have a new Player in the Paddock with the introduction of the Red Bull Team. The Red Bull Racing drivers may have only finished the San Marino Grand Prix in 11th (Vitantonio Liuzzi) and 13th (David Coulthard), but Red Bull was the big winner in the paddock.
Never has so little been so well leveraged in so short a time. In this one race weekend at Imola, the Red Bull Racing "Energy Station" Hospitality Center somehow became Grand Central Station for the entire paddock in a way that no one else's motorhome has done, surely not the Jaguar Racing Team from which Red Bull Racing flowed, even putting the Starship McLaren into the shade for all but the true stalwarts and McLaren-Mercedes Loyalists.
A happening, inviting place on two levels plus patio and brightly decorated in the Red Bull colors of red, blue, yellow and silver, the place was cleverly designed to accommodate the several interest groups of which the paddock is composed: serious journalists and photographers in for a break from the Curva Tosa or escaping the Media Center madhouse; drivers with their managers and hangers on; Red Bull team members looking to squeeze in a meal; the VIPs who are on Bernie's A-list for that weekend; and the increasing number of fun-loving young people who populate the paddock and were drawn like a magnet to Red Bull Racing. A version of hip hop elevator music provides a constant throbbing background beat but is not turned up so loud as to drown out the V10s.
If this team ever gets the car running as well as their motorhome, look out. It does not hurt of course that the food and drink was flowing in prodigious amounts all weekend long. With a bar set up as you enter at ground level and another bar upstairs, those who come to drink and schmooze and to see and be seen, have multiple areas to kibbitz and preen.
Meanwhile, there are TV screens on both levels of the "Energy Station" showing both Bernie's TV feed plus separate timing and scoring screens that are strategically located away from the bar areas, where journalists and other observers can gather and prognosticate while sipping Red Bull or cappuccino. There are also TV screens over the bars so even the barflies can keep up if they wish.
To top off Red Bull's debut in Europe, it was announced that Ferrari would be supplying the power for the team as of next season, and the red Red Bull Racing jackets being sported by the staff at their motorhome were already taking on the hue of the original non-Marlboro Ferrari red. Arguably, this weekend, with the announcement of the Ferrari engine deal for two years and the introduction of the "Energy Station", was Red Bull Racing's high-water mark for the season (as the disappointing race results of Coulthard and Liuzzi tended to suggest) but the Red Bull splash of dash, color and display sheer spending power was welcomed by one and all, and the prospect of Ferrari power means that the press collectively will defer judgment on the new team at least until Imola 2006 rolls around.
The contrast between Red Bull's HQ and everyone else's motorhomes was stark and painfully evident to one and all and I am sure there will be many a Monday morning meeting amongst the other teams for ideas as to how to regain The Edge.
With Eddie Jordan himself no longer coming to the races since selling the team to MidlandF1, about the only identifiable flash and glam ex-Jordan people at the familiar canary yellow Jordan motorhome were the Irvine siblings, Eddie and his sister Sonia. Eddie, by the way, was traveling practically in disguise, wearing disheveled looking baggy pants and an overcoat and turned out with curly tousled hair of the kind he had when he was at Jordan in the early days, but supplemented with a David Coulthard-like beard, the whole ensemble resembling of the character Fagan in Oliver Twist!
Within the Red Bull HQ, Italian Tonio Liuzzi, the coolest of the new breed of drivers, was flitting about on his first Grand Prix weekend as a race driver, thoroughly enjoying being the center of attention in his long-awaited debut. If Eddie Irvine looked like Fagan, Tonio, darkly handsome with long hair and a perfect physique, looks like a Shakespearean character out of the Merchant of Venice, who you can imagine running into on the Rialto, his cap cocked stylishly to the right, a hip hop Mercutio. Originally known as the 20 year-old who beat Michael Schumacher in a celebrity karting event, he is the perfect embodiment of the Red Bull culture and image but he is not All Show, No Go, having dominated last year's F3000 Championship with 9 poles and 7 wins.
Liuzzi's 34 year-old co-driver David Coulthard, nicknamed "Uncle David", made the occasional visit to his team's new HQ but was not a habitue and the Scot was spotted amongst his former mates at McLaren on occasion. Odd man out for the weekend was ex-sheet metal worker, third driver, Christian Klien, who is short and muscle-bound close up, but so youthful-looking at 22 years-old that he easily blended in with the rest of the body-piercing throng. Klien's manager Helmut Marko, himself an ex-Grand Prix driver in the 1971-72 seasons, stood watch nearby, one of the many elders on hand to act as chaperones for the bustling crowd.
My favorite encounter at Red Bull's "Energy Station" was not running into youths with pierced ears but being introduced by famed F1 Photographer Rainer Schlegelmilch to Maria Theresa de Fillipis, the first woman to drive in Formula One and, at 78 years-old, a handsome and elegantly turned out Italian woman who could easily be mistaken for the head of a fashion house in Milan. Still involved in the sport as Vice-President of the Club International Des Anciens Pilotes de Grand Prix F1, she and her husband Theo asked me to urge Bobby Rahal to change his mind and come to the conclave of "Anciens Pilotes" being sponsored by the Club on the weekend of the Monaco Grand Prix even though Rahal's IRL team is running the Indianapolis 500 a week after.
Maria Theresa remembers like yesterday her first attempt to qualify for a Grand Prix at Monaco in a 250F Maserati. Unlike today, when we can barely muster 20 cars on the grid, it was a crowded and illustrious group of 31 entrants for the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix and she was in good company in not being able to qualify her Maserati for one of the 16 spots on the grid, sharing that fate with the likes of Bernie Ecclestone (who was not able to qualify his aging Connaught purchased at auction the year before) and Louis Chiron (who could not qualify his Maserati 250F on a track where Chiron had at one time or other finished 1st through 6th in a variety of machinery, from pre-war Bugattis to post-war Ferraris). In her home race at Monza in 1958, she proved her worth, qualifying 21st in the Maserati 250F but running as high as fifth place in the race before having to retire with engine-related problems on lap 57.
Venturing forth from Red Bull's HQ and my encounter with the First Lady of Formula One, I made a spot check of the other team motorhomes. At Minardi, Paul Stoddart was in evidence getting the two new Minardi PS05s up to speed and licking his wounds from the legal nightmare that dominated the weekend of the Australian Grand Prix and no doubt planning the next round of his battle with the FIA, while Giancarlo Minardi himself held court under the Minardi tent in the usual way he has since the time when he owned the team. While Stoddard is airily dismissed by the FIA officialdom as a harmless crank, the cogency of the analysis of Stoddard's legal team as to the efficacy of the FIA's procedures in adopting Regulations combined with the unanimous vote requirement called for under the Concorde Agreement continues to cast Stoddart in the role of the Mouse that Roared, and the FIA has not heard the last roar from him yet.
At the somewhat subdued Sauber tent, Felipe Massa was exchanging e-mail addresses with one of the celebrities visiting the paddock this weekend, Real Madrid footballer Robert Carlos, while Craig Pollock, Jacques Villeneuve's friend/manager/former teacher, was jawboning with members of the press, explaining that, like Luca di Montezemolo, he does not much like coming to the paddock these days but came at the request of Jacques for moral support. Apparently, it Worked: Villeneuve ran well and finished sixth, scoring his first points of the year. As punishment, Pollock will now have to come to all the races as a good luck charm.
On a serious note for those who are following Villeneuve's descent into Hell, Pollock explained that until fairly recently, the rigid Swiss team refused to listen to Jacques' suggestions as to setup and as to the kind of dampers he wanted to use. So it is not about the brakes, as commonly thought: it's the Setup Stupid, and the Swiss and their outspoken Canadian are finally seeing eye to eye - which contributed to the fine showing of Villeneuve at Imola, the Sauber team's best finish of the season. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of the former World Champion's long road back.
Over at the Ferrari motorhome complex, Fiat and Ferrari Chieftain Luca di Montezemolo put in an appearance before returning home to Bologna to watch the race, and the usual coterie of Italian journos were perusing the daily press cuttings Ferrari's press office provides them (along with copious amount of pasta), and not yet abandoning the Prancing Horse for the Red Bull. Even though we brought the race to his front door, Montezemolo, like Enzo Ferrari before him, tends to watch the races in the privacy of his study, citing for a very interesting reason: the Emperor of Passion is the No. 1 Tifosi and gets too excited when watching. He must have hit the ceiling in his Bologna manse that Sunday!
Out front of the Ferrari motorhome, South African Rory Byrne joined our circle when he spotted a fellow refugee from Kyalami-land. Plainly in a pre-retirement mode and looking forward to re-establishing the resort in Phuket that Michael Schumacher and Jean Todt took him away from back in late 1996, Byrne - who does not come to races usually but stays back in Maranello, manning and monitoring the data transmissions being received from whatever venue is in play that weekend - seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself in the paddock on Saturday, and seemed not at all concerned about the race-worthiness of the new car. As Michael Schumacher's mesmerizing pursuit of Fernando Alonso in the last 10 laps of the race on Sunday conclusively showed, the Ferrari F2005 was two seconds faster than the Renault R25, so no need for Rory Byrne to panic, knowing what he is privy to as to the wind tunnel work and test program. Test Driver Luca Badoer was also at Imola. On Tuesday after the race, Luca Badoer would be back in Mugello after a whole day off.
Even before Schumacher's stunning performance on Sunday, the tiresome (or so it must seem to Michael) media encampment outside the bright red but confidential-looking Ferrari motorhomes continued unabated. The stakeout of photographers and film crews is almost comical in this cat-and-mouse game, and because Schumacher waits until absolutely the last minute before leaving the motorhome for the various sessions, the effect is that these media people are actually missing the opening portion of practice and qualification as they wait for Michael to appear. It is literally a waiting game of Chicken: Schumacher waits until the crowd dissipates to the bare minimum of, say, 30 people, and then he emerges from the motorhome and either scooters through the hoi polloi or does a forced march with his informal bodyguard, Gino Rosato, the genial but beefy team member you see holding Schumacher's helmet after he takes to the podium post-race.
Willi Weber, manager of both Schumachers, put in an appearance on Sunday, putting a bear hug on the smallish Jean Todt, his real partner in making all of them rich. Nearby the Weber/Todt hug was 74 year-old Bernie's Last Motorhome, a replacement for the legendary old bus which ex-Brabham man (now FIA Observer) Herbie Blash rescued from ignominy as the Brabham motorhome and had converted into the rolling office that Bernie takes to all of the European venues and from which all Formula One deals emanate. If that old bus could talk, what tales it could tell.
Bernie was his vigorous self and much in evidence all weekend, cell phone in one hand, shaking hands with the other hand and directing traffic all at the same time as he emerged from the adult version of the Red Bull "Energy Station", Austrian Karl-Heinz Zimmerman's motorhome and silver tent, which caters only to the rich and famous in Formula One. One diner at Zimmerman's was absent and much-missed: FIA's Chief Doctor, Professor Sid Watkins, whose habit was to have breakfast with Bernie most Sundays before the race. The Prof, now 77 years old, retired in the off season, leaving Bernie as the OPP; the Oldest Person in the Paddock, but the new motorhome shows that Bernie has no intention of joining Sid on the veranda any time soon.
Over at Ferrari's neighbor, the Bridgestone motorhome, the relief at Schumacher's strong second place was even greater than at Ferrari. In the post-race celebrations, several members of the usually reserved Japanese tire engineer group were celebrating outside the motorhome and spotted fellow Japanese Takuma Sato, whose BAR-Honda runs on Michelins, heading in their direction on his way to the BAR-Honda motorhome. Like Bridgestone, Sato's fifth place finish was his first decent finish of the year so both the tire guys and Sato had reason to be happy and showed it.
The Bridgestone boys coaxed their countryman to join them in a celebratory drink and Sato graciously complied and joined in the fun, drinking a toast, and then bowing to his hosts in the manner of the House of the Rising Sun before taking his leave and heading back to BAR-Honda. The diehard fans in the Variante Bassa grandstand overlooking the edge of the paddock who were still whooping it up saw all this and began a congratulatory "Sato! Sato!" chant, which Sato enthusiastically acknowledged with a wave.
When Sato arrived, brand new BAR-Honda Sporting Director Gil de Ferran, ex-Penske driver and Indianapolis 500 winner was on hand, still learning the ropes of Formula One with team principal Nick Fry as his tutor. As it would turn out, de Ferran would have a crash course in Formula One politics and regulations before the weekend was over.
While Red Bull Racing's HQ raised the bar as to hospitality centers on Imola weekend, I was among the pre-hip hop Old Guard fuddyduddies who found themselves slouching by force of habit and cuisine to the McLaren Communications Centre for qualifying and the race. For some of these sessions, the current Formula One Wisemen from the British print and TV media were gathered together at the same table, developing their Groupthink for the rest of us to hear and read in due course - Alan Henry, Nigel Roebuck, Matt Bishop and Peter Windsor - and it is clear that despite a kind of creeping cynicism amongst them that should be an antitrust violation they continue to enjoy each other's company in coming to and watching these races, though collectively they have seen literally thousands of them.
For my part, I lucked out at the Finnish table at McLaren for the race coverage and had the pleasure of hearing ex-McLaren driver Keke Rosberg's blunt, running commentary on the race in his characteristic clipped, guttural voice. Keke's sunny-looking and much less gruff son, GP2 driver Nico Rosberg, joined the group after awhile, and father and son seemed very close and chummy with one another in a Finnish kind of way, without getting sappy about it.
Rosberg Jr. had been leading the second GP2 race earlier on Sunday but dropped down in the order due to everyone's problem of the weekend - brakes - finishing in 13th place. Nelsinho Piquet could also be seen in the GP2 pits and ultimately finished in 6th place in the race on Sunday morning, but his father was not in evidence in the paddock. The other entries in the GP2 Father/Son Championship amongst the Rosberg, Piquet and Lauda families, Niki Lauda, was, as usually, everywhere, sporting a new "Superfund" jacket at one point in the weekend as his latest sponsor, before donning his RTL Commentator togs.
To be sure though, even after only one GP2 race meeting, paddock wags had anointed Heikki Kovalainen as the brightest of the GP2 runners: it should be remembered that Kovalainen beat Michael Schumacher in the January 2005 celebrity Race of Champions in Paris and so he, like Tonio Liuzzi before him, can be expected to parlay his "I beat Michael" and "The Next Flying Finn" credentials all the way up to Formula One.
Sitting with the Finns I was treated to a demonstration of the latest in Nokia technology, which Keke and the Finnish journalists all had in hand: a phone/palm computer-like device that was barely larger than the dimensions of one of Keke's cigars, but not nearly as life-threatening.
Hans Stuck, Jr., also came to the McLaren digs for the thrilling closing laps and I was half-expecting a yodel out of him as Michael Schumacher closed up on Fernando Alonso lap after lap, Stuck saying aloud, "Michael is two seconds faster . . . " astonished that the cars and track were such that the seven-time World Champion could still not get by.
One of the benefits of being at McLaren's motorhome was that within minutes of seeing on the TV screen Kimi Raikkonen retire from the race while in the lead for the umpteenth time in his short career, the man himself determinedly marched into the McLaren Communications Center after reportedly having his way with the MP4-20 steering wheel in the garage area: Kimi was so frustrated at being forced out on lap eight by the CV joint failure that he did not even take his helmet off as he headed for his private quarters without grabbing a cake or Coke.
Not even the Finnish journalists could summon up the courage to go up to Kimi and ask, "So what went wrong out there today?" For all of the vaulted professionalism that Ron Dennis is so proud of as the mark of the super-optimized McLaren-Mercedes team, Kimi must be beginning to wonder why all these dopey little things happen to him - a duff tire valve at Malaysia and a broken CV joint at Imola - and when the team will finally get everything right as it was when Senna and Mika Hakkinen were there.
No Finn has won Imola yet, but anyone who saw Raikkonen's blinder of a qualifying lap at Imola and did not know better would have though it was Mika Hakkinen riding those kerbs, with the chassis half-way onto the grass. Although Fernando Alonso and Renault have justifiably been grabbing all the headlines for the first four races of the season, Kimi's form is such that when the McLaren-Mercedes Quality Control group finally gets the MP4-20 right, he will be back in the fight for the first time since 2003, when he finished second in the World Drivers' Championship. And Juan Pablo Montoya's return from tennis elbow will, luckily for Montoya, come at a time when all the annoying little details have been sorted out by the boys from Woking and he can just get on with his redemption by putting in some good performances for the McLaren-Mercedes team that has endured the injury layoff with relative equanimity.
But one person in the paddock was hoping that Montoya not make the mistake of "coming back too soon" from his sports injury. Third Driver Extraordinaire Alexander Wurz, after testing McLarens for 70,000 kilometers and not having been in a Grand Prix since Malaysia 2000, finally got his chance at Imola 2005 to show that he still has the goods and, like Pedro de la Rosa before him in Bahrain, Wurz acquitted himself very well, running in the Top Ten in all sessions and finishing fourth in the race, the fifth time in his career this Third Driver has finished fourth. If BAR-Honda's Jenson Button is disqualified by the FIA for being underweight, it will mean that Wurz will have a podium finish.
I have always had a lot of respect for Wurz, from the moment he took it to Michael Schumacher at the old Station Hairpin at Monaco in 1998, accelerating his Benetton right up next to the sidepod of Michael's Ferrari as they exited the hairpin to retake a position Schumacher tried to take away from him. Though this imaginative move ended in splintered carbon fibre, the too-tall Austrian got high marks from me for giving it a whirl.
Other than abandoning the one red boot, one blue boot apparel he fancied when racing at Benetton ("McLaren would not allow that," he told me good-naturedly), he is the same intelligent, fit and skilled driver he has always been, but the maturity he now has at a still youthful 31 years old really makes him a complete Grand Prix driver whose talents will hopefully be recognized by one of the kingmakers up and down the pitlane.
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After such a fabulous race at Imola my Autosport-Atlas colleague Dieter Rencken and I, and others who had not yet had enough of Italy and motorsports, headed for the heart of the matter - Maranello - for post-race extras before winging our way home, and more magical events unfolded in the town that Ferrari built. After paying our respects to No. 27 Fiorano and the test track, we drove by Rory Byrne's wind tunnel and caught a glimpse of the Sauber Petronas transporter making its way back to Ferrari for fresh engines for one or both of Villeneuve and Massa. En route to the factory, the eagle-eyed Dieter spotted two Bertone-bodied originals - a rare 1965-ish 1,032 cc ASA 1000 GT painted bright yellow (originally going to be a mini-Ferrari before rights were assigned to ASA) and an orange 1968 Miura on trailers outside a Ferrari Club garage.
We were invited in, and once within the inner sanctum an incredible collection of serious race cars and Ferrari restoration projects could be seen: a completely restored Ferrari California Spyder that Ferris Bueller would have fancied was under a tarp, but its beautifully restored Borrani wire wheels were poking through, and over in the corner was Chris Amon's F2 Ferrari from 1967, complete with powder blue wheels and a rudimentary still -experimental rear wing of the time, fixed to the top of the engine block. And in still another corner under a car cover was an ex-LeMans Martini and Rossi racer. Up on one of the lifts the engine-out, frame off restoration of a Ferrari Mondial was in progress and the exquisite work being done to the brakes and suspension of this delicate-looking car could be appreciated close-up.
After this serendipitous visit to the Ferrari Club's "museum" we headed for the official Ferrari museum, the Galleria Ferrari, where historic Ferrari Grand Prix cars were lined up all in a row, from the rare Lancia D50 with pannier tanks driven by Ascari and Fangio to the Prancing Horses driven by Lauda, Scheckter, Gilles Villeneuve and of course, Michael Schumacher. Ferrari has made a policy decision at the Galleria to display these priceless cars without any ropes of barriers of any kind between you and the machine, requesting in signage that people not touch the cars and even the children seemed to get the word.
After visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Maranello, we chanced by the Ferrari factory gates across from the Cavallino restaurant and there, as light rain fell, sat two jet-black Enzo cars, being readied by Ferrari test drivers, having just rolled off the production line at the factory. What a sight; what a sound, as the lead left-hand drive black Enzo, driven by a woman with blond hair and Ferrari symbols as epaulets on her Ferrari-Factory shirt, blasted off in the rain past the Cavallino and off to Who Knows Where.
Behind the Two Enzos was a red Ferrari F430 Maranello chase car, presumably in case one of the Enzos broke down. Only in Italy can you still see such a thing. Somehow, work a race at Imola or Monza into your life and you will see what I mean. Arriverderci.