Monthly Archives: June 2009

Because you’re worth it…

When the annals of great sporting achievement are written, my name will be revered in the Pantheon of greats. I shall rank alongside Baron Pierre de Coubertain, indeed even above him, for he only ‘borrowed’ the idea of reviving the Olympic Games from a vicar in Shropshire, whereas I have created an entirely new sport. Well, sort of.

Speed Pool. Never heard of it? Well you will.

Like the revered Baron, I have ‘borrowed’ liberally from someone else’s ideas but like so many geniuses (genii?) I have taken a concept and extended it so far beyond its humble starting point that the result is so earth-shattering as to be considered utterly different and far superior to the base that spawned it, as indeed Man is to the primaeval slime from whence he came. At least, that’s what my lawyers will be arguing.

Bercause, you see, Speed Pool makes ordinary Pool look – well, tame. Pedestrian. Lame. And please don’t quibble about starting sentences with prepositions. Or splitting infinitives. I am boldly going here, people!

The basic premise of pool, as any fule kno, is to pot all your balls and then the black before your opponent can do the same with his balls. Easy. And slow.

With the cunning addition of just one simple-to-understand rule and one legal doping agent, the game is transformed.

Surely, Martin, I hear you cry, nothing can be so simple. But yes, it is – as all the great ideas are.

Take the telephone. By speaking into a paper cone, attached to a wire, your voice can travel countless miles and a conversation may be held with a person who is not even within ear-shot. Imagine that! Better still, technology has now advanced to such an extent that there is no longer the need for either the wire or the paper cone. The two ingredients considered utterly fundamental by Alexander Graham Bell are now redundant in long-distance hailing. Astonishing!

Television is another example. Simply stand a person in a dinner suit in front of a spinning disc and, as if by magic, their image – and even voice – can be transmitted to a glowing sheet of glass in every drawing room in the land. Without adverts!

Science is truly remarkable but behind every discovery is a man. Without Einstein, racing cars wouldn’t make their peculiar sound, high-pitched as they come towards us, yet lower in tone as they depart. Without Newton, apples would have to be picked from trees and pigs in orchards would have to master ladders in order not to starve.

And so it is with me. You may consider me vain to compare myself to such luminaries but until you have witnessed my otherworldly creation, you can simply have no understanding of its over-reaching magnitude.

As you have to read every paragraph of Steven Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ twice or three times, just to figure out what he’s talking about, so Speed Pool will leave you dazed and awe-struck, wondering how it is that a mere human brain could dream up a concept so lofty.

Enough of the preamble. That can be consigned to the marketing men and ad agency creatives who will struggle to properly convey the mastery of my genius. To the rules; for this is a game you can – and will – play.

The rules of Speed Pool and simple. Pot all your balls and the black before your opponent can do the same.

So far, so normal.

Turns at the table are decided by the normal methods. Winner stays on. Winner breaks. First to put is either ‘spots’ or ‘stripes’. When a player successfully pots a ball, he has another shot until he fails to pot, whence play is taken up by his rival. Mis-cues or other illegal shots result in a free shot for the opponent. An in-off when playing the black automatically costs the player the game.

Again, so far, so normal.

And here is where the magic pixie-dust is sprinkled.

First. To play at World Championship level, all players must be doped. That is, they must be drinking pints of Guinness – with Tia Maria shots in the pints. For a National level competition, lager, bitter, red wine (or even white) are allowable.

Secondly – and here the true master-stroke is applied – each player must take his shot BEFORE THE LAST BALL ON THE TABLE STOPS MOVING.

That’s it.

In its entirety.

Oh. For goodness sake, you say, is that IT?

Yes, that’s it.

As I said, simple to understand – and with the compulsory doping rule, you understand why – and revolutionary.

When was the last time you broke a sweat playing pool? Exactly. Two frames of speed pool and you will be perspiring freely. This is Olympic-class exercise, people. Especially when you involve a racing driver.

Racing drivers, as we know, love to win. At everything.

At ANYTHING.

There are no exceptions.

Within two frames, any racing driver is a whirling Dervish of cue, pint and determination to succeed. They just can’t help themselves. It’s as much in their nature as it is for lions to rip the throats out of Wildebeest. Ever wondered why there are so few Wildebeest in racing paddocks? I think you can work it out!

And so it is with Speed Pool. They just HAVE to win. Which means that for everyone else, the game is immeasurably improved, as players and bystanders can enjoy the sight of one of nature’s most elemental forces at work.

Allan McNish is renowned as one of the world’s great sportscar drivers. But his pair of Le Mans wins pale into insignificance compared to the delighted glow of satisfaction he exudes when you mention to him his stature as the reigning Speed Pool World Champion.

Sure, Porsche and Audi pay better; but nothing can replace the thrill of that San Francisco night and lifting the inaugural crown.

Speed Pool. You owe it to yourself.

Nice slogan that. Anyone got a good font we can use??

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Sarthe-bound again

They say you never forget your first kiss.

For me, it was 1967, on the minibus to St Joseph’s Convent, Lincoln but as for the lucky girl – fortunately for her, the name is lost in the mists of time. Still, we were only six!

Some first loves do endure, however and for me 1983 marks one such. It was June and once more, buses played their part – this time transporting me to delights previously not expected… my first trip to Le Mans.

Leaving the office in Teddington on a Friday night, we caught the train to Victoria and boarded a Page & Moy coach. Onto the night ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, then an early morning coach to Le Mans, stopping to change into shorts on the roadside just after dawn. Well, we WERE on holiday!

Little snapshots of the weekend habitually reappear and I can never travel through Alençon without recalling my first trip. Stopped at a set of lights by a square, we spotted an old Frenchman, in blue serge and beret, Gauloises hanging from his lip, taking his early-morning constitutional. He was holding a lead and as he passed an opening in the knee-high box hedge we expected to spy a little yappy dog. He seemed surprised that an entire coach-load of people were staring and pointing, just because he was taking his cockerel for a walk.

We met our colleagues at the pub by the gates of the circuit, grabbed entrance tickets and, after a liquid breakfast, adjourned to the champagne stand between the village and the Esses. Heady stuff to start my first Le Mans.

Of course, it was race morning, so after a Croque Monsieur and Frites, we made our way to bag viewing points for the start. We ended up on the banking outside the Dunlop Curve (no chicane in those days) and began an excited hour’s wait. Seeing the whole field rolling slowly past served merely to heighten the tension. Spotting the Porsches, checking out where the British entries were (aided by our copies of the Autosport guide) and generally soaking up the electric atmosphere…

As we triple-checked our watches, the French voice on the tannoy tested our O-level comprehension but from the restlessness of the crowd, we all knew just how close the field was…

And then it began…

The roar came swelling towards us and now, 26 years later, I confess I can’t remember whether it was the roar of the crowd or roar of the engines which reached us first. Either way, as the first cars charged, flat-out, through the Dunlop Curve for the first time, I knew that only someone long-dead would not have had that prickle on the back of their neck.

In a rush of noise, flashing colours, dust and debris, my first Le Mans started. I remember trying to pick out a number of cars as they flashed by in a long angry, snarling pack, before – all too soon – they were gone.

The Tannoy raged excitedly but we had no ears for it. Excited chatter broke out, silenced only around 5 minutes later when the train flashed past us once more.

And so it went on, for a couple of hours, before moving further along the track towards the Esses and finally Chemin aux Boeufs, to watch them depart onto the legendary Mulsanne straight.

A pause to listen to the speakers at half-past the hour, Bob Costanduros updating the positions and then we headed for refreshment and the fun-fair.

Sometime long after dark, I zipped up my coat and lay down on a patch of grass, falling easily asleep with the roar of the cars ever-present. I awoke with rain on my face and simply rolled under a nearby car, before crashing out again.

Dawn found me stumbling blearily into the village for a Café Crème and another Croque, browsing the shops (the first of many Le Mans t-shirts purchased) before heading back towards the track, walking back past the Ford Chicane to the end of the run in from Arnage.

By the time the sun was high in the sky, I had bumped into a number of equally-bedraggled colleagues (no mobile phones, of course, so we either met each other by chance… or we didn’t) and we gravitated towards the pits straight to enjoy the final few hours before the finish.

It was the first time I had invaded a track and it felt slightly odd to be doing so but since I was just one of many thousands, I figured it wouldn’t do any harm. My first trip to La Sarthe ended under the podium, cheering as the champagne sprayed down like a misty drizzle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have little recollection of the trip home. Doubtless, we made the coach before it left at 6pm, crossed on the ferry and rattled back from London on the train. I do recall just how long Monday felt in the office, though. Probably not quite as long for us as for the people in the adjoining offices, though, as we were loud, over-excited, over-tired and probably over-smelly.

Since that life-changing trip, I have made the pilgrimage almost every year. Travelling with friends or strangers, by coach or car or plane or train, camping, sleeping rough, in motorhomes or hotels, working on radio or TV or looking after guests. Every year is different and yet every year is the same. Echoes of that first trip always return and sometimes all I need to do is think of it and I’m right back there – 23 and in awe.

Two nights ago I once more dragged out the seminal ‘Le Mans’ DVD and yet again, it struck me how little has changed since 1971. Sure, the cars are faster, the pits are larger and the crowds are even bigger. But Le Mans remains Le Mans.

We’ve had our rough patches but it’s still the greatest motor race known to man and I love it more and more every time. I’m aching to be back there…

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This just in… Lazarus spotted

Dead and buried for a quarter of a century, superseded by the brave new world of Formula 3000 and then GP2, Formula 2 returned last weekend in Valencia.

Strictly speaking – and striking exactly the right historic note – F2 actually returned to full public gaze a couple of weeks earlier on the streets of Pau, the French city that for many years was the F2 equivalent of the Monaco GP- the race that everyone wanted to win – but the first race weekend in Valencia marked the official start of a new era.

There to witness the historic moment were the penultimate F2 Champion and the man who won the last F2 race – Jonathan Palmer and Philippe Streiff. Both won their national F3 titles in 1981 and graduated to F2 in ’82, Palmer with Ralt-Honda and Streiff with AGS. Palmer won the title in ’83, while Streiff claimed the last-ever F2 win, at a cold and rain-swept Brands Hatch in September the following year, winning a race that was red-flagged twice on aggregate over Michel Ferté and Roberto Moreno.

Both had also been present in Pau to witness the new F2 car’s first run in public, almost 25 years to the day after the final race there for the category, when the Frenchman had stood on the second step of the podium, his AGS well beaten by Mike Thackwell’s Ralt-Honda.

Palmer and Streiff – F2 rivals and later F1 team-mates – were on the grid in Valencia for the first race of the new era, along with the architect of the revival, FIA President Max Mosley, who handed the winner’s trophy to Robert Wickens, while the car’s designer, Patrick Head, was on the podium on Sunday, presenting the race two awards.

For Mosley (himself a former F2 racer and car constructor, as partner in March) it must have been a blessed relief to be able to walk through a paddock without F1’s attendant headaches and constant pressure and he looked genuinely impressed by the F2 set-up that filled half the Valencia pit-lane in one vast, slickly-detailed, open garage.

The 25 cars and a sea of impeccably-uniformed engineers and mechanics were the public tip of the iceberg that Palmer’s Motor Sport Vision concern has put in place to run this series, which differs from other high-profile championships by providing what is essentially an arrive-and-drive package and by doing it to the sort of budget that would have Luca de Montezemolo reaching for the smelling salts.

Drivers pay a set fee for the season and MSV supplies everything – from chassis, tyres and engines, to mechanics, data engineers and spares back-up. The driver simply needs to get himself to and from the races. Oh, and find the money. But, compared to £500,000-plus for national F3 or around £750,000 for GP2, £195,000 for F2 is much more affordable.

Almost entirely free from mechanical woes (I should probably have put money on Serb Milos Pavlovic being the unlucky exception) it was a successful first race weekend for the new venture and a source of obvious pride for Palmer. And it’s well-deserved: when Mosley first floated the idea, the general reaction was that the driver budget-cap was way too low for it to be profitable, professional or even possible… but Palmer has proved the doubters wrong on at least two of those counts. And knowing that his attention to the bottom line is focused as acutely as it is on the front-of-house, I doubt he’ll miss his third target.

Welcome back F2… it’s been a long time.

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