Vroom-vroom in heat of the night

 

A curious sort of nocturnal creature has evolved in recent years and, personally, I lay the blame for it on Eddie Jordan. There have been occasions when hushed, almost conspiratorial, whispers have inquired about attendance at something called a "Grand Prix party" and, invariably, such gatherings only occur in the depths of the night.

How anyone can have their senses about them at such an ungodly hour as the Australian Formula One Grand Prix was beamed into our living rooms in the early hours of yesterday morning is beyond me, especially if a party mood - and excesses - is involved; but it all seems to be part and parcel of this motor-racing bug (traced back to the formation of the Jordan team) which has gripped otherwise sane individuals.

Yet, the culture is there. Jim Rosenthal, fronting UTV's coverage of the race, opened his remarks to the "night owls" who had stayed up for the season-opening race. "Having a party? Have one on us," he said. And, over on RTE 1, Peter Collins was also sending his best wishes to the party-goers back home, although you knew by the tone of his voice that he'd got the better invitation: at trackside.

From an Irish perspective, though, so much of the mania surrounding F1 these days has been generated by Eddie Jordan. The Buzzin' Hornets have opened the weird and wonderful world of hi-tech, big-time motor racing to a new generation of Irish men and women and even Bertie Ahern - like Forrest Gump, liable to crop up anywhere these days - was able to talk knowingly about this "growing sport, enormous event, enormous business event" when speaking to RTE's pit-lane reporter Declan Quigley.

RTE can be a little sycophantic when it comes to the Jordan team, but similar accusations can be thrown the way of ITV when it comes to British drivers. Now that Damon Hill has jumped out of his fire-resistant driver's suit, the guys and gals in ITV - in Australia celebrating their 50th race since winning the television rights to screen F1 in 1997, Rosenthal informed us - have been looking for a new darling.

They didn't have to look too far. Jenson Button is young, handsome and (a bit like Tiger Woods in golf) has video footage dating back to his very early days, in karting, when he voiced his desire to reach the very top in motor racing. His meteoric rise to a F1 drive is the stuff of boyhood dreams to be sure.

Button has some way to go yet to be the polished article, but ITV were only too willing to give him the star treatment in the build-up to the race. His dad, John, was wheeled into studio where studio guest Tony Jardine informed him that his son was "too young to get insurance to drive a hire car." And Murray "Vroom-Vroom" Walker interviewed the kid with some suitably sweet questions that created the required image of an ambitious young tyke who happened to have manners.

One of the more bizarre interludes in the run-up to the race was Martin Brundle walking around the grid, microphone in hand, looking for suitable bait. George Harrison, the former Beatle, was more than willing to talk about his love for racing and took up so much time that Brundle was thrown into a race of his own to find more victims - and only had the time for one, a certain Mika Hakkinen, who appeared flummoxed by Brundle's assertion that McLaren wouldn't be up to Ferrari. "Look at the grid," replied the Flying Finn, pointing to his team's one-two position.

Racing is a fickle business, though, and despite all the millions put into testing and research, these finely tuned racing machines remain pretty temperamental. When ITV's Louise Goodman asked Jaguar's Eddie Irvine about his chances, and the possibility of winning a race he had won as a Ferrari driver 12 months previously, he replied: "It'd be nice, but I'm not holding my breath."

Mr "Vroom-Vroom" himself was also emphasising the point as the early stages of the race took its toll, and, with the two McLarens out of the running before you almost had time to blink, Walker extolled: "You can test until you are blue in the face, but you don't get the same sort of pressure as you do in a race . . . . testing is one thing, racing is another."

Murray's excitement is contagious, his use of language deliciously vivid. The heat, of course, was a factor in Melbourne and the commentator explained the punishment on the drivers by comparing their discomfort to a "couple of boiled lobsters in suits".

When Jarno Trulli made his exit, Murray Walker's voice reached fever-pitch as if he had been waiting too long for just such a moment. "Trulli blows it . . . . " roared the voice of motor racing, only for sidekick Brundle to correct him before he lost the run of himself. "Actually . . . . it's a mechanical failure, not a driver error," remarked Brundle. A race can only be interesting as long as it is competitive, however, and once Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Jordan made what Brundle described as "a disastrous stop", there was only ever going to be one winner. "A stuck nozzle," reported Goodman from the Jordan pit as the excuse for the bad stop. Meanwhile Walker, excited that his newest, youngest protege jumped into fourth place on the track at this juncture, yelled: "Jenson Button in fourth place. Incredible! This race is getting red hot."

But it wasn't, and not long later Walker was conceding that "Michael Schumacher only has to keep going to win the Australian Grand Prix for the first time."

Jordan's race was run, too. On RTE, David Kennedy revealed that Frentzen's car was struggling with a gear-box problem and Peter Collins said that he was destined to join the "star-studded sideline." Walker, on UTV, said that the "Achilles heel of the Jordan is testing has struck again. His own, imitable way to saying that the gear-box problem is an on-going one.

To be honest, with Jordan out of the race, much of the interest went too and the race developed into little more than a training spin for the two Ferraris. Much in the way that David Coleman could keep interest going by making Freudian slips - or just plain and simple mistakes - so too does Walker possess an ability to allow his tongue run ahead of his head. When Rubens Barrichello nipped ahead of Michael Schumacher, Walker went into overdrive until reminded by his copilots Brundle and James Allen that it was actually part of team strategy because the Brazilian required another pit stop. Murray seemed disappointed.

If any car epitomises the mystique of Formula One, that car is Ferrari - and Schumacher's win had the crowd in flag-waving mood. "Michael's goal is to bring Ferrari back to the front," reminded Walker, who informed us that they haven't captured the driver's title since 1979. "When he's happy, he's very, very happy," added Walker of the first winner of the season, adding: "He's saying, `I'm number one, and I am a happy man'."

Hopefully, the newly-converted generation of motor enthusiasts who used the Australian Grand Prix as an excuse for some latenight partying were also in happy mood. Me? I couldn't wait to get back to bed. Getting old(er), you know.