Good neighbours pit their wits

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ONE of the greatest challenges facing grand prix teams is logistics: how to transport cars, engines, spares and personnel thousands of miles to each grand prix and still have every nut and bolt to hand at a moment's notice. Much of a grand prix mechanic's life is therefore spent packing and unpacking, sitting on aeroplanes or sweltering in trucks. This is perhaps why the lads from the Jordan team were looking so happy on Thursday evening, the night before official qualifying for the British Grand Prix started. While the other teams had travelled from as far away as Hinwil in Switzerland and Faenza in Italy, the Jordan factory is over the road.

So down the pit lane they strolled at 6pm, unpacking complete, laughing and joking and exchanging wisecracks with the staff of other teams, who still had some catching up to do. We'd arrived to spend two days with Jordan expecting hours of unremitting moonlit toil, so an early night was an unexpected bonus. But the sauce bottles laid out ready for breakfast reminded us that tomorrow was going to be a long day.

Breakfast was early: the mechanics were back on the track at 7am, and half an hour later sat down to bacon and eggs under the canopy next to the team bus in the paddock. Chris Lees and Henny Collins, the Jordan chefs, served two sittings: one lot for the mechanics, and another for the rest of the team, guests and hangers-on.

There was barely time to digest before the cars were due on the track. It is a short walk from the team bus to the pit, but the change in atmosphere is extraordinary. Around the bus, the mood is one of relaxed bonhomie. In the pit, everyone goes about their business with deadly seriousness and total concentration.

It is spooky for the outsider: the team appear to operate in silence. Not that it's quiet - the noise a grand prix car makes when it is fired up is physically painful, not just to the ears. The mechanics all wear headsets and communicate with each other and the drivers by radio because of the racket. But their synchronised movements suggest that some telepathy is involved as well.

The early-morning warm-up session is intended to allow teams to get to know the track. But Jordan hardly needed to do that: they test at Silverstone week in and week out. Instead, the drivers, Rubens Barrichello from Brazil and the Irishman Eddie Irvine, used the session to try out minor modifications. Every time the cars returned to the pits, the mechanics fell on them to fine-tune them to the drivers' requirements: Barrichello wanted his suspension tinkered with; Irvine tried an extra flap on a wing.

The two are difficult to split on the track, and have a similarly laid- back approach to life once out of their cars. Barrichello is impish and affable, and passes the time chatting with Brazilian supporters at the back of the garage. Irvine, for all his mercurial reputation, is happy to shoot the breeze with team supporters: the singer Chris Rea, a long- time Jordan fan, often had the ear of "Fast Eddie".

Between the end of the warm-up session and the first timed practice the mechanics stripped down both cars and polished every surface with meticulous care. Meanwhile, back at the bus, the team owner, Eddie Jordan, was hosting a lunch for sponsors and supporters. Jordan, other F1 people like to say, "could sell heaven to the angels", and he was on great form as he dispensed the Mouton Cadet 1991 and explained to a wealthy-looking chap in a suit the way the team operated. A smoothness contest between Jordan and one of his much-polished cars would be a close-run thing.

Then it was all back to the pit for the first official timed qualifying session. Irvine and Barrichello wound up seventh and ninth respectively: "Not bad," John Walton, the team manager, told us. "We can find a bit more pace."

The mechanics finally had a chance for a break. "We need the rest," Tim Gulland said. "We got here at seven and most of us went out to the Aussie bar in Northampton last night." He leant on a pile of tyres. "Now we've got engine changes so we'll be here until eight or nine this evening." It may be their home fixture, but nobody at Jordan gets home early.

FOR last year's grand prix we stayed at the gloriously eccentric Wicken Country Hotel, a little chunk of Northamptonshire that is forever Japan. We returned last week. Also staying was the charming Tyrrell driver Ukyo Katayama, a friend of the hotel's owner, Mr Sato. Long after Katayama had retired, Sato appeared in the lounge. "I go to fetch a curry," he said. "You come for drive?" No, no, we said. We're off to bed. But he was insistent: "We take Mr Katayama's car." He led us to an outrageously bewinged Toyota sports job. "He says it's all right." It was hair-raising. Sato is a dab hand with the raw fish, but he's not much of a driver. At one point he managed to switch the headlights off at 140mph, and he never got the hang of the gears. As we lurched back into the hotel drive with the fastest takeaway in local history, Sato sighed. "Next year," he said, "I hope they give Mr Katayama an automatic."

ON Thursday evening Damon Hill was entertaining David Coulthard with the story of his encounter with the Batmobile at the Harrods sale during the week. "It's an absolutely fantastic car," he said, passing around the snaps, "but when I pressed the ignition switch, nothing happened." Let us hope he avoids a similar caper today.