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For unlikely revheads, F1 is simply A1

The Sunday Age

Sunday March 20, 2011

Gary Tippet

The sport has supporters in unexpected places, writes Gary Tippet. IT WAS nearly 10 years ago that Matthew Townsend got the message that his motor racing days and whatever remnant childhood fantasies of formula-one fame he still had garaged in his imagination were over.He was at Sandown, coming hard into a turn in his highly modified Golf VR6, when he saw the sign. There was a single cross at the side of the track. "I realised someone had obviously come to grief there and it was: 'What the hell am I doing?"' he recalls.The first of his two children, Lily and Harry, had recently arrived, and with them reminders of mortality. Townsend had begun finding racing, particularly in the wet, increasingly scary: "I'm the primary breadwinner in my family, so I couldn't risk wrapping myself around a pole. So I gave it away."But it didn't end his lifelong fascination and enthusiasm for motor sport, particularly F1, nor his admiration for the people willing to risk their lives doing it.Though far from the typical, often disparaging stereotype, the slim, suited and spectacled environmental lawyer and lecturer is an unapologetic revhead. He has been following the F1 circuit for as long as he can remember, has been to at least one day of every Adelaide or Melbourne grand prix and says he could count on one hand the number of live GP telecasts he has missed on television in the past 20 years."I watch the races live on TV . . . even if it's the Brazilian Grand Prix at 3 or 4am," he says. With wife Liz distinctly uninterested, that could be a solitary existence but for the community of like-minded friends who power up their laptops to chat, bicker and analyse online as each race progresses.His father, Ken, a motoring enthusiast, took him to his first race at Silverstone in Northamptonshire, in 1970, when he was three years old. "We sat close to the start/finish line, and apparently when the race began I started to cry," he says. But it was a first impression that clearly did not count.His friend Susan Young has been to grands prix at Silverstone, but the event that counts most for her was the 2003 race at Albert Park. Not because it was won by her Scottish countryman David Coulthard, but because it brought her to a new life in Melbourne.Young grew up in a village at Melrose in the Scottish Borders and says unless you were into horses there was little to keep kids entertained. Her father was interested in horsepower of a different kind as a "huge" McLaren Mercedes fan, and his passion rubbed off on the children so much so that each, except for Susan, now drives a Merc.In 2002 a school friend who had moved to Australia was nagging her to visit. The arm-twister, she says, was a promise to catch the grand prix at the lake. "I found myself enamoured of Melbourne, its culture and lifestyle, the people and the fashion. I said I think I might stay a little while longer."That's now eight years and I've become Australian."Asked what attracts her to F1, the global recruitment worker with a sideline in image consulting and fashion styling laughs: "Fast cars and hot men with a lot of money!"No, just joking," she says. "Though this'll sound probably a little ridiculous, for me, there's something slightly exclusive about it. Everything's hard to make: the cars are incredibly well-engineered, the drivers are supreme athletes like you wouldn't imagine. There's the noise and speed and it's one thing, formula one, that as a woman you imagine you can't do. I'm a little bit in awe, if you like."But you'd be safe to assume, says Susan, "if you were judging a book by its cover", that she wouldn't be into cars at all. "I suppose I'm very particular about my appearance, style, how I behave: you'd never see me in a McLaren Mercedes T-shirt necking a Bundy."For Townsend, it's a host of things. There's the skill, athleticism, dexterity and bravery of the drivers: "F1 drivers are among the fittest athletes in the world, having to maintain complete concentration for hours on end," he says. "It's one of the only sports in the world where you can be guaranteed that none of the participants are using performance-enhancing drugs. Nobody has come up with any drugs that make you a demonstrably better driver."Then there are the implications of even the finest errors of judgment. "Retiring former world champion Nigel Mansell once explained that F1 drivers are different from athletes because every time they go out to compete, their lives are on the line."And if I'm frank, I'm also fascinated by the politics and shenanigans off the racetrack, whether its Max Mosley getting a spanking or Bernie Ecclestone coming up with more hare-brained ideas to encourage overtaking when all he has to do is strip the cars of their front and rear wings."He has little time for the anti-Albert Park crowd. "I run around the lake a couple of times a week and sometimes feel I have the place to myself. I feel a great sense of pride that people travel halfway around the world to come and share one of Melbourne's greatest public open spaces. This park belongs to all of us and the more people that enjoy it, the better."

© 2011 The Sunday Age

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