ALMANACK: Fast talkers' formula for success

APPEARANCES can deceive.

Motor racing is a glitzy sport, and Autosport International, an annual jamboree at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, was upbeat and colourful and noisy. But motor racing is about business as well as sport, and behind the bright lights the show was as dark and slippery as a dungeon full of eels.

This is the off-season, and drivers, designers, mechanics, team-owners, sponsors and hangers-on don't have any actual racing to distract them. So they get on with the business of rumour, every bit as fascinating to some of them as watching cars circulateon a track. The most fascinating rumours concern who is going to be driving what for whom next year, and (usually the determining factor) who is going to pay the bills.

Motor racing people are arch deal-makers and the air in Hall Nine of the NEC was thick with bartering. All sorts of things were on offer, from grand prix drives ("we've signed two guys. I can't tell you who they are yet, but let's say they know their wayaround the tracks") to second-hand bits of cars.

Punters love the second-hand bits, although it is very difficult to understand why. We visited the show last Thursday, supposedly Trade Day, but the majority of the crowd seemed to be fans rather than practitioners. It struck us that a racing driver would be unlikely to part with £12.50 for a chunk of long-dead Tyrrell-Ford grand prix engine if he had his own functioning car to play with.

Anyway, the drivers were too busy selling themselves to do much shopping. There is a distinctive conversational tactic employed in this environment. The knack is to give the impression that you have a first-class drive lined up for next season and that everything is absolutely hunky-dory while subtly making it clear that a substantial injection of funds wouldn't half come in handy.

Jamie Davies, 1994's McLaren/ Autosport Young Driver of The Year, gave a copy-book example of the technique. "Well, obviously I'm looking at Formula Three for 1995," he said, "and it's looking very good. We're still talking to a couple of teams at the moment, and I should know in a couple of weeks or so - but I can't say anything more." These games of musical chairs inevitably lead to some rather cynical behaviour. We couldn't help overhearing representatives from two lesser teams in conversation. "Haveyou signed your guys for next year?" "Nah. We're going to wait until a fortnight before the first race and see who's left."

Scotland's favourite square-jawed smoothie, David Coulthard, was the guest of honour on Trade Day. With a Williams contract tucked snugly away in his pocket at least he could spare the crowd the looking-good-but-can't-say-anything-yet routine. Those attending the show last Friday got that patter from Nigel Mansell, the man Coulthard had seen off.

Next door to the trade arena was a go-kart track where punters could attempt to match the lap-times of celebrity drivers. Inevitably, those most confident of emulating their heroes ended their laps with extravagant pirouettes and much squealing of tiny tyres, which was highly amusing.

In another hall there was an exhibition of 60 grand prix cars from the past 30 years. It was packed with fans, shuffling past the cordoned-off vehicles like relatives paying their last respects at a wake. Now, unlike many people, we rather enjoy watchingmotor racing. But we utterly fail to grasp the point of gazing at a racing car when there isn't a driver in it and it isn't going anywhere. Perhaps they can be appreciated in abstract terms, but to our mind the best that a modern racing car can look is purposeful rather than beautiful.

We found the people more interesting, especially the team owners: "Uncle" Ken Tyrrell; gangly Nick Wirth, boss of grand prix fledgling Simtek; the immaculate Paul Stewart and his fellow former driver Martin Donnelly. All ducking and weaving, wheeling anddealing, keeping their shows on the road . . . "Of course I can't say anything yet, but it's all looking good." Racing people like to say that "Fast" Eddie Jordan, whose team will have the boost of Peugeot engines next year, could sell heaven to the angels.

Outside the hall was proof of one team owner's sales ability. Rachel Edwards, from Lincoln, was clutching, with some difficulty, a used grand prix car rear tyre, the size and shape of half an oil drum. How much had she paid for that? "Twenty-five pounds," she said, "for charity." And what was she going to do with it now? "I thought it would make a nice coffee table."

Anglers have been targeted by cunning thieves posing as National Rivers Authority bailiffs. The felons pounce on innocent fisherfolk and collect "fines" for imaginary offences. You have been warned.

A shame that Peter Shilton's time in charge at Plymouth appears to be at an end. The club has been running "The Peter Shilton Story" every week in home match programmes - and they've only got to 1982.

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