Paul Kimmage: Formula One still sells, it's just that we're not buying it like we used to
Money was always tight at the Sunday Tribune but we started to feel the squeeze in the autumn of '93.
There was constant pressure to keep expenses - especially travelling expenses - to a minimum, and on that Friday in September, when the editor Vincent Browne finally tracked me down, I could sense the angst in his voice:
"Lisburn! What are you doing in Lisburn?"
"I said Lisbon, Vincent, not Lisburn."
"The line is terrible. What's all that noise?
"I'm in L-I-S-B-O-N!"
"I'm at the Portuguese Grand Prix."
I thought of that conversation on Wednesday during a brief visit to London and an evening stroll past the posh shops on Regent Street and the large cardboard cut-out of Lewis Hamilton in the window of Bose. Then, a few doors on, a portrait of his team-mate Nico Rosberg looking very Jay Gatsby in the Tumi store. The message was clear: Formula 1 still ticks all of the corporate boxes, its drivers still sell.
So why aren't we buying anymore? Whatever happened to our obsession with Formula 1?
Twenty-four years have passed since I first succumbed to its charms. The month was July 1991 and I had been sent by the Sunday Tribune to the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours to write a feature on Eddie Jordan, the ebullient Dubliner whose nascent team had been making headlines since the start of the season.
He was sitting on some tyres, chatting to one of the mechanics after the qualifying session on Saturday when I decided to introduce myself. He looked at me quizzically: "Are you anything to Christy Kimmage?"
"I used to watch him in the Circuit of Bray."
Then he said: "What do you know about Formula 1?"
"Nothing," I replied, sure it was the wrong answer. But he put his arm around me with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Perfect," he smiled.
My education started with a tour of the pit lane and the giants he was competing against - McLaren, Ferrari, Williams, Benetton - then we returned to the Jordan garage where John 'Boy' Walton, a Dubliner from Coolock, was supervising work on one of the cars. They went back a long way.
"What team were you with last year, John Boy?" Jordan asked.
"Benetton," Walton replied.
"Why did you leave to come back and work for me?"
"Coz you're my hero, EJ."
"Stop fuckin' about," Jordan spat, feigning indignation. "Why?"
"I'm tellin' you, coz you're my hero," Walton smiled. "I always said I'd be back when you came into F1."
Such was the enchantment of Jordan. He swore like a trooper but made it sound like an art form and was the greatest salesman I had ever seen. His goal, he insisted, was to blow these fuckers - Ferrari, McLaren, Williams - out of the water and make Jordan Grand Prix the best team in the world. And by the end of the weekend I had joined the bewitched.
A year later, I sold Vincent the dream. "This is a huge story. We have got to get on board Jordan for the season." I persuaded him to send me to Kyalami for the opening race of the season - the South African Grand Prix. It nearly broke the paper. The race, and the others that followed, were a disaster, and by September it was rumoured Jordan was about to lose his sponsors, Sasol and Barclay.
"Not true," he insisted.
He paused: "I have to be careful how I say this; they (the sponsors) have to make their own release. Sasol will make it quite soon but as far as Barclay are concerned . . . Barclay are of course continuing. They have a contract which they . . . for next year with us and we are delighted to be with them."
"You were going to say, 'which they can't get out of'."
"I didn't say that."
"But you were going to say it."
"No I wasn't, you're trying to get me to say it."
"No, I'm just asking the questions."
"Well then, you have to accept the answers."
He was always a great interview but access became more difficult once you had been lured into the honey trap. One year, at the Belgian Grand Prix in Spa, I was left twiddling my thumbs until 10.0 for an interview that had been scheduled for lunchtime. It was almost midnight by the time we had finished. My car was five miles from the circuit, the shuttles had stopped running and it was a two-hour drive to my hotel in Liege.
"You can come back to my hotel and stay with me," he said.
A contact at Porsche had given him a 911 Carrera Turbo for the weekend. We jumped into the car and my knuckles turned white as he ripped around the circuit in the dark. There were two single beds in his hotel room. He threw me a spare toothbrush and a pair of slightly worn but recently laundered Hugo Boss cacks that I wore, religiously, until the crotch was in shreds.
In the weeks and months that followed it was our running joke: "I f**king made you," he'd spit. "Are you still wearing my knickers?"
The best bit was that the results and stature of the team had started to improve. Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, was a huge signing and delivered the first win for the team at Spa in 1998. A year later the German, Heinz-Harald Frentzen won twice and the team finished third in the constructors' championship.
The sport had rarely been more popular: "How did the Jordans go?" was part of our sporting lexicon and then, slowly, after failing to secure an engine deal with Honda and an ugly sponsorship squabble with Vodafone, the team went into decline. In 2005, when Jordan sold the team to the Midland group, everything changed. "How did the Midlands go?' did not have the same appeal and our interest has been dwindling ever since.
Three years ago, in February 2011, I travelled to Valencia in Spain to interview Paul di Resta, a talented young Scot who was about to make his debut with the Force India team. I had met Michael Schumacher in Germany once, visited Senna's grave in Sao Paolo and interviewed some of the sports biggest names: Jackie Stewart, Flavio Briatore, Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell, Jenson Button, Mark Webber, David Coulthard.
I'd never met anyone like di Resta. Ten minutes had passed and it felt like a scene from a Monty Python sketch…
(Man knocks on door)
Doctor: "Come in."
"Is this the right room for an argument?"
"I've told you once."
"No you didn't."
"Yes I did."
"No you didn't."
"Yes I did."
"Sorry, is this the five-minute argument or the full half-hour?"
It wasn't that di Resta was rude or combative, it was his almost comical reluctance to engage, and within ten minutes of shaking his hand, I was scratching my head.
Is this the ten-minute interview or the full half-hour?
I haven't been back since.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I could have delivered chapter and verse on the Italian Grand Prix last week but I can't remember when I last watched a race, or heard the sport discussed on Off The Ball.
But I know Hamilton is sponsored by Bose, and that Rosberg is sponsored by Tumi.
And clearly that's all that counts.
Sunday Indo Sport