Tuesday, 24 December 2013

TSP's Obscure Moments in Sport #2

Remembering the relatively important moments which changed my life with the aid of the internet because I've forgotten the exact details of what happened.

#2 - Damon Hill wins Jordan's first F1 GP (1998)

Warning: During the research for this post it became clear that one of the greatest sporting moments of my childhood was actually fixed. It's tears before bedtime at TSP Towers as what has been held up as an epic moment of sporting magic for the last 15 years turns out to have finished in circumstances that even the ICC would shake their head at. But we'll get to that a bit later...

As anyone who has taken the time to peruse this list would appreciate, there are a lot of sports in the world. Some major, some regional, some quite frankly stupid.  It's easy enough to avoid the third category, or at least it was before the internet came along, but if the circumstances are right most kids will at some point at least flirt with many of the sports contained in the first two groups.

One that I should have totally avoided by virtue of growing up in a one-parent family without a father was motorsport. In the late 80's and early 90's if you couldn't play it in the schoolyard then nobody was interested. You couldn't, so like every other child at St Joseph's on Glenferrie Road I wasn't. The excitement of watching cars drive around in circles, crashing into each other every once in a while totally passed me by.

It didn't help that with the exception of two races a year in Japan and Adelaide that the entire sport took place almost exclusively in the middle of the night. Back then if it didn't happen in front of you in real time it didn't happen at all, or was confined to 20 seconds on the 6pm news and you didn't have enough time to get to understand what it was all about.

My decade with F1 started with some random gent ducking in and out of the flat I'd lived in my whole life, at 5/40 Morang Road in Hawthorn (top left).

I paid no attention to what sort of unsavoury activities might have been taking place until a few weeks later when it was announced we were moving... all the way to Flat 6 (top right of screen). In retrospect it was to nobody's surprise that this the flat of our regular mystery caller who had clearly been doing more than borrowing a cup of tea from his neighbour.

Perhaps unfairly almost all of memories of this guy were of him being a bit of a poon. He certainly wasn't violent or abusive in any form, but there was something about him which rubbed me up the wrong way. Maybe it was the way he spoke of himself like he was a master actor only to reveal that his two major appearances had been for one second in the BMX Bandits and as the voiceover 'artist' for a Red Rooster ad. Maybe it was because he got extremely grumpy when some neighbourhood prankster used a piece of paper to alter his personalised number plates to spell something 'rude'.

Maybe I was just being a horrible child, because the man did influence me in a couple of ways. For one he had been roped into the 1980's arcade game boom and took me to play the pinnies every weekend. The standard he set, and the fact that he got my mum hooked on 1942, allowed me to continue weekend trips to venues like the Fun Factory long after he was off the season.

Secondly he introduced me to the joys of Formula One, and more importantly his strange fetish for Japanese 'trier' Satoru Nakajima whose fortunes he followed more closely than seemed necessary. Maybe the voice of Red Rooster's third major influence on me was the freedom to follow terrible sporting concerns? If so I've certainly made a career out of that in the last 15+ years.

I'm not sure at which point during 1988 we shacked up with him, or when I started to take an interest, but the record books show Nakajima's only point of the entire 1988 season came in the first race of the year so there's every chance that we weren't around for that. He was a little bit better in 1989, scoring three points courtesy of a fourth place finish in the last race of the year. So depending on when we moved in, during the time we lived with this guy his favourite driver went about 30 races without scoring ONE SOLITARY POINT. It's almost impossible now considering they give points to nearly everyone for just showing up, but in those days you very much ran the risk of driving for years without winning a cracker - and our Japanese friend did just that.

Not that I was taking all that much of an interest. All I remember from that era was that the footage of Nigel Mansell's tire exploding in Adelaide a few years earlier must have been in Channel 9's opening or closing credits because it seemed like the played it every.. single.. week without fail.

Sometime in early 1990 my mum chucked him, almost certainly due to a surly eight-year-old driving a wedge through the relationship with daily "you're not my dad" speeches, and the last I ever heard from him was after he rang our new house and asked me to pass on a message that he'd called. I never did, and strangely enough the last time he was ever seen was at a Melbourne game during the 2000 season when we realised he was sitting directly in front of us and had to do a family bonding escape without him realising who we were.

If Mr Red Rooster hadn't managed to leave me with a love of Formula 1 then he'd at piqued an interest. The only thing I can remember about the 1990 and 1991 seasons is watching the Australian GP (and I'm not even sure we had a VHS to tape the other races by that point even if I'd wanted to) - yet sometime during '91 I'd acquired a copy of the Murray Walker 1990 Grand Prix Year book (if I recall correctly from a discount book stall at the Royal Melbourne Show of all places) and suddenly a great passion was stirred.

That book got a fierce belting for the rest of 1991, and after I'd read it about 50 times I'd retrospectively become a huge fan of the Leyton House lineup of Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin and their tragic French Grand Prix where they'd came from nowhere to almost record one of the great upset wins. The comic subplot of the Life team, who failed to qualify to enter qualifying 14 times in a row before going bust, was another highlight. Tellingly my interest was more in these stories of disgrace than anything involving greats like Senna and Prost.

Being the weird child that I was (and as a pointer to the weird adult I grew into) the book, almost two full seasons old by that point, became the basis for a Formula 1 dice 'simulation' I devised based on a similar but far less complicated horse racing game I'd come up with in the past. In grade six I went on to invent a WWF themed board game which was, quite frankly, ingenious but the rules of that have sadly been lost to the ages while I could probably break out pen, paper and dice and play my F1 game again tomorrow.

Along with a few old F1 magazines liberated from op shops featuring names that will forever live with me like Joachim Winkelhock, that book was the key to everything. Many, many sheets of paper were wasted on a game that I played on and off until year seven when a) I did the typical rejection of everything from 'childhood' and b) PC gaming came along. New drivers would join obscure, actually defunct teams like Onyx, AGS and Osella on my dice based circuit. Eventually once I discovered Indycar the two circuits were merged together in a glorious motor racing superleague the likes of which has never been seen since. Meanwhile other children were playing games outdoors and making friends with each other.

Eventually the simulation got to me, and by the time of that year's Australian GP I had resolved to become a devotee for 1992 whether or not half the teams that were still 'enjoying' being rubbish in my league (courtesy of a well-designed system of bonuses and penalties depending on past team performance and engine manufacturer) no longer existed.

It was just good timing that for their second season the Jordan team had hired Mauricio Gugelmin - he of the famous 1990 Leyton House team - as one of their drivers. Having read that book so many times, and always cheering him on to points in my homemade game (which was in no way rigged because I had more integrity than the actual FIA), I had to back him and his team. From this point on I was a Jordan fan - and what a fine few years of entertainment that gave me.

The team had been surprisingly good in their first season, despite losing one of their drivers for gassing a taxi driver, and finished fifth in the 1991 constructors championship - but in an early sign that my support was practically fatal to any team they collapsed to a solitary sixth placed finish and one point in 1992.

Gugelmin scored nil, with one seventh place, 11 DNF's and a one way ticket to the Indycar league at the end of the year. Not surprisingly I suddenly developed an interest in this format, where people would often do 500 laps worth of left turns, and would stay up to all hours to watch races on Channel 10. Not only did they have my favourite driver, but they also had a killer - for its time anyway - PC game ("I'm Paul Page FROM PAPYRUS! And this is Indy Car Racing) which finally killed off my dice game.

He would eventually trump Jordan by winning a race a year before they did, and while I loved it (silently, because nobody else cared) it didn't have the same effect on me that Jordan's maiden victory would have a year later because I hadn't ridden the peaks and troughs with his team (and their classic sponsor HOLLYWOOD) like I had with Eddie Jordan and co.

We'd had relatively good times in 1994 and 1995 with the classic lineup of Ruebens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine, and while Eddie went on to bigger and better things in 1996 we were for the first time treated to one of the greatest liveries of them all. Smoking is bad and all that, but thank god for Benson, Hedges and whoever decided to adopt the gold colour scheme. It didn't hit peak quality until the next year when they went full canary yellow, but it was a start.

It was also the year that F1 came to Melbourne, much to the joy of myself and Jeff Kennett and the dismay of a bunch of crusties who looked like (and included) Rod Quantock. Much to my dismay after four years of living and breathing F1 via Channel 9's all-time great lineup of Eastlake/Jones it was the point where I discovered that there's no sport where the live atmosphere fails to match what you see on TV more.

It didn't help that I'd decided to move during the parade lap and totally missed Martin Brundle doing this pretty much exactly where I'd been having my eardrums assaulted just a couple of minutes before, but the experience was disappointing and I've only ever bothered to go twice more on free tickets.

That didn't detract from my interest though, and after two years flirting with supporting ex-Indycar star Jacques Villeneuve my heart was still with Jordan going into the 1998 season. They had just scored the signature of Damon Hill - the man who beat Villeneuve on that first day in Melbourne and beat him for the championship - fresh off a novelty season with the traditionally awful Arrows team for whom he had almost pulled off one of the most absurd victories in history before a last minute mechanical issue relegated him to second.

Hill partnered Ralf Schumacher, who I distinctly remember hating at the time but who history shows actually had reasonable results, and for the first 10 weeks of the season Damon did about as well as he had with Arrows - failing to score a point. Ralf wasn't much better, but finally opened the team's account with a 6th in Great Britain. Damon finally got on the board with two fourth placed finishes in a row before the Belgian GP, but for loyalists such as I all we could realistically hope for was a cheap podium finish here or there as Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher fought out the title and the canary yellow Jordans proved about as useful as Ligiers, Footworks and Larrousses had in the past.

In all honesty I can't actually remember much of the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix itself. It certainly didn't occur to me, looking back all these years later before watching highlights again, that this great drought breaking success might have had more to do with tire flying, panel beating carnage in pissing rain than any actual skill on behalf of the team. Or that, as we will soon discover, that there were dark forces at play even in the most triumphant of moments.

I feel that by 1998 we'd graduated to four hour VHS tapes, and that would have paid off this morning as the race was stopped for an hour due to a 13 car melee on the opening corner. Gloriously the Belgians had decided to go ahead with the race without a safety car despite the fact that the circuit looked like it were a swimming pool, and the resulting "oh that's terrible, but nobody got hurt so I actually enjoyed it" paved the way for motoring gold.

Sadly the rules of the day said that any race stopped within two laps didn't count, and so instead of the two Jordans surviving and 13 drivers being eliminated it was a mere four who failed to make the restart an hour later. So in the end it wasn't really the rain what won it. Or was it? Reviewing the video of the race for the first time since that day shows that a lot of weather related luck did seem to go Damon's way.

Hakkinen spun and was taken out by another car, and Michael Schumacher tore half his car off (giving us some classic commentary from Murray) by blindly driving straight into the back of David Coulthard . They weren't the only ones to be eliminated - by lap 26 of 44 only eight cars were left and as well as Schumacher and Hakkinen, big hitters like Eddie Irvine and Jacques Villeneuve, medium hitters like Johnny Herbert and complete nobodies like Estaban Tuero (me neither) had all been forced to retire through collision damage or mechanical trouble.

With the remaining field consisting of Hill, Schumacher, Coulthard a mile back after repairs from the Schumacher debacle, Jean Alesi (one career win), Heinz-Harald Frentzen (one), Jarno Truli (none to that point), Pedro Diniz (nil) and Shinji Nakano (nothing) the BREAKTHROUGH WIN alert level was set to high. If not for one of the Jordans then hopefully for Diniz or Nakano.

When Michael committed racing suicide it gave Damon the lead, and put the two Jordans into a 1-2 battle. This was it, my modern version of the 1990 French Grand Prix. Leyton House/Jordan - Gugelmin/Hill and Capelli/Ralf first and second. That day the novelty team had been forced to settle for second place only, and with the circuit still carrying a deadly amount of water it was no guarantee that we'd even get that.

It would have been a fair bet though. You could have foreseen one piece of nasty luck (hopefully to Ralf) but two was just taking the piss. Given where the team had come from it would have been rude not to accept a Ralf win, but at this point all my emotions were invested in Damon winning - and the idea that it would be stolen in the last few laps was too much to bear.

By 1998 I'd already come to terms with the fact that I'd never see any of my teams win anything ever. The Atlanta Braves 1996 World Series win may as well have happened on another planet as far as coverage went, and it would be another seven years before I saw the Wests Tigers - who at this point didn't exist - win a premiership right in front of me. It would have been So Adam (even way back then) for it to all go horribly and unnecessarily wrong.

Somehow it didn't though, the TV coverage shows that with a few laps to go Ralf was right on Damon's tail and no doubt I expected him to confirm all my prejudices by crashing Damon out of the race, but he never even got close and the win was Damon's and Jordan's. A win I'd been waiting the best part of eight of my then 17 years for.

Remembering nothing else about the race what I do recall quite vividly was having tears in my eyes as he crossed the line to win. Having wasted so many mornings and been late to school on more than one occasion because I was watching a tape of the GP to its natural conclusion instead of bothering to feign interest in maths it seemed like an appropriate payoff.

So, all hail one a great triumph of the human spirit then eh? Well, maybe not because this is where it all goes horribly wrong. In searching for the video footage of the race I also came across the following documentary footage which reveals that the final result was actually the product of mobile match fixing:

And it was goodbye to one of the great moments of my life when I saw that. RIP 30 August 1998 - 23 December 2013. Of course Damon might have won anyway, but we'll never know because like a IPL game the result was phoned in from elsewhere.

I'm not imagining the fact that Ralf used to crash a lot, and while the results will show that he'd successfully finished five races in a row before Belgium he'd also gone out to collisions or spins seven times in 29 races to that point so there was something to Damon's suggestion other than the fact that he was trying to lock down a win - but mostly the fact that he was trying to lock down a win.

He didn't win a world championship by being stupid and he obviously knew that Ralf was a loose cannon who could bring the whole thing down, so he put a dodgy deal to Eddie Jordan and suggested that the two cars stay in formation and bank the first two places instead of letting the quicker car challenge for the lead.

Eddie, being the sensible man that he was, realises that he could very well come out of the race with nothing and bans Ralf from attempting to pass/punt both of them into the wall. These days you'd get hung, drawn and quartered for even suggesting something like that but in the good old days of F1 open cheating like this was not only allowed but almost openly encouraged. Eventually after about three attempts to get him to acknowledge, and the suspicion that he's about to rogue and do whatever he likes, Ralf finally agrees to pull the pin and do the right thing.

With the only chance of a spoiler removed, and third placed Jean Alesi much too far away to do anything but motor around and collect four championship points, there were three victory laps to be had - as long as Damon's car didn't suddenly exploded in a ball of flames which engulfed both the leading cars. He managed to pilot his way around the track unharmed, and with a replay of Murray Walker's call of the race confirming that at least for the last few laps there was no talk of the dubious dealings taking place at the time across team radio he crossed the line to win.

There were no recriminations after the race, so how was I to know it had been a swizz? If Ralf had leapt from his car and decked Eddie Jordan with a right hook there'd have been some indication that shenanigans were afoot, but the only person in any danger of being injured was the mentalist who ran across the track at the end and almost got cleaned up by our old friend Pedro Diniz.

As the winners stood on the podium in those magnificent yellow outfits (who said cigarettes never did any good?) Ralf gamely waved to the crowd, engaged in some shenanigans with everyone including Alesi and everything was alright with the world - I probably didn't need to know then (or at any time until now) that it was tainted.

In the video at the top of screen the team orders do get a mention immediately after the national anthem plays - but we can only assume that I was already running well late for some pointless Year 11 class and had stopped the tape by then. Incidentally it should be pointed out that (look away Richmond fans) it was an all-time great sporting weekend for me on more than one front because this also happened.

That morning represented the high point of my interest in motor sports, and I started to drift away almost immediately afterwards. It's a worrying trend that three times in my life teams I follow have won something major (if we count this as major, which we might as well for the sake of the story) and I've rapidly lost interest soon after. In this case walking away was actually quite silly because Jordan got even better the next year and won two races. Sure I was still watching, and was happy when they won but by 1999 I had bigger issues to deal with. For instance the time I had a teenage nervous breakdown triggered (but not directly caused by) Wimbledon losing a Premier League match 2-0 to Charlton Athletic. But I'm saving that one for my autobiography.

By 2002 my relationship with Formula One had as good as ended, and the times I did tune in usually ended with Takuma Sato smashing into a wall because he was NOT VERY GOOD AT DRIVING A CAR QUICKLY. I'd given up for good by the time Jordan scored their fourth and last win under controversial circumstances in 2003, and while the team soldiered on with rapidly diminishing returns through 2004 they were pretty much completely shot. 11 of 12 points scored in their last year came from finishing 3rd and 4th in a farcical race where only six cars, including two Minardis which by that point would have lost to a Lada, started.

Having bought a really bad second hand Renault (it made a sound like jungle drums when you drove at low speeds) I started following them from 2006, a rare time when I've successfully jumped on the bandwagon of a successful team and not destroyed them, and for a couple of years it was glorious. They shut the door at the end of 2011 and I gave up on F1 for good, maybe someday a team or a driver will come along that inspires me to follow but for now it's a case of turning on, watching for five minutes, going "ooh Vettel's won again", hoping to see a non-lethal stack or two then moving on.

But at least, thanks to the voice of Red Rooster, I got a few good years out of the sport. And for that I am now prepared to concede that he wasn't such a shit bloke after all.

Next edition - I'll probably have more childhood memories shattered by YouTube


#1 - Tim Zoehrer's comeback at the WACA (1994)

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