Meals and wheels at the F1 ball

'You could make that tyre into a coffee table,' said the chap next to me, patiently, as if he were talking to a child.

Yesterday I filled in one of the glaring gaps in my spectating CV by attending my first grand prix, at Hockenheim in Germany. And very exciting it was too, once I had got used to the blitzkrieg on the eardrums. Imagine standing in the middle of a plague of turbo-charged mosquitoes. Add Bernie Ecclestone. And that's a grand prix.

Yesterday I filled in one of the glaring gaps in my spectating CV by attending my first grand prix, at Hockenheim in Germany. And very exciting it was too, once I had got used to the blitzkrieg on the eardrums. Imagine standing in the middle of a plague of turbo-charged mosquitoes. Add Bernie Ecclestone. And that's a grand prix.

On Friday night I went to the German Grand Prix Ball at Schwetzingen Schloss, a splendid stately home not unlike the Von Trapp residence in The Sound of Music. The £250-per-ticket evening was organised with panache by the British concert promoter Chas Cole, whose brainwave it was to start the ball rolling with an outdoor penalty shoot-out, featuring Germany's notorious ex-goalkeeper Harald Schumacher.

One of the penalty-takers was the flamboyant driver Eddie Irvine and the contest was cutely billed as "Can Irvine beat Schumacher?" Except that Schumacher didn't turn up and his place was taken by a Ghanaian central defender from FC Cologne, Anthony Baffoe. "Can Irvine beat Baffoe?" didn't have quite the same ring. Still, it was a nice idea. And the answer, if you're wondering, was a resounding yes. Baffoe was wearing his dinner suit and quite reasonably refused to dive, not least because it had been raining katzen und hunde, as they don't say in Germany, all afternoon.

The ball-goers were, at a rough guess, two-thirds German and a third British. Formula One is huge in Germany - indeed virtually every German I saw at the weekend wore a red Ferrari cap in homage to Michael Schumacher, and I admit to the slightest twinge of schadenfreude, as we say in England, when the great man crashed before reaching the first bend.

As for the ball, dinner was a surprisingly Anglocentric affair. It even included a main course of Beef Wellington, but then perhaps it is known in Germany as Beef Bismarck. Either way, I tucked in alongside a group of British Formula One enthusiasts known in racing circles as petrol-heads, in other words men who speak of Murray Walker rather as members of the Unification Church speak of the Reverend Moon. But if they considered me, a man who barely knows a pit lane from Penny Lane, to be beneath contempt, they generously did not show it. For two hours or more they talked with wine-fuelled gusto about Senna's manoeuvre in the rain at Donington Park years ago, and what Villeneuve did at Jerez in 1997, only briefly veering off track, oddly enough, to discuss Charlie Dimmock's breasts.

Somewhat to my surprise, I was never bored. On the contrary, I found their passion - for motor racing as opposed to Charlie Dimmock - extremely engaging. They were anoraks, of course, but then I can wax just as anoraky about Tom Watson's brilliant two-iron shot to the 18th in the 1983 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, not to mention Neville Southall's miraculous save at White Hart Lane late in the 1985 season.

And yet for all that, Formula One mania is different from football mania. There is something fittingly high-octane about it, and I gained an insight into this phenomenon during the raffle, in which second prize was a weekend for two at a luxury hotel deep in a Bavarian forest. To my disappointment, green ticket 719, for which I had shelled out 15 marks, was not drawn. But never mind. The first prize was yet to come and would surely be a doozie. So I thought. In fact it was a bloody great Goodyear tyre, which, as part of Eddie Irvine's Jaguar, had apparently once clipped a Monaco kerb.

Naïvely, I suggested to my dining companions that the raffle organisers had goofed, that nobody in their right minds would covet a used tyre over a weekend in a swish hotel. They looked at me as if I had asked who Mika Hakkinen was, or taken Murray's name in vain. I realised my crime. "But what on earth would you do with it?" I spluttered. "Lots of things. You could put some glass on it and make a coffee table," said the chap next to me, patiently, as if he were talking to a child.

The proceeds of the raffle and subsequent auction were to be divided between the British Brain and Spine Foundation and a local children's charity. Expectations were high. At the Monaco Grand Prix Ball, the auction raised over £50,000 in 10 minutes. But Germans, by the admission of the German co-organiser, are not a particularly charitable lot. A drive at Donington in an Orange Arrows two-seater valued at £10,000 went for just £5,000, the first bid. Which still seemed a lot of money to me, but what do I know? Actually, quite a lot more than I did this time last week, now that I think about it. I can even tell you what happened to Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997, if you're interested. Or even if you're not.

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