Sport on TV : The Blobbymobile and the Crinkly bottom line

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The Independent Online
One of the most overwhelming objections to motor racing as a civilised past-time - aside from the smell, the noise and the tedium - is the calibre of celebrity that the sport seems to attract. Prince Michael of Kent, for instance, is a big fan, as is Chris Rea (the sentimental songster, not our rugby man), who has just made a not terribly good film about Ferraris.

But what lingering air of social cache remained in the pit lane at Le Mans, scene of the annual 24-hour sports car race, will have been blown away by the arrival of Noel Edmonds, the diminutive former disc jockey, famed for the crinkliness of his bottom.

Edmonds, it seems, has long harboured thoughts of glory at the great race. Noel's Le Mans Dream (BBC1) opened with Edmonds strolling down the Le Mans pit lane during last year's event, reminiscing about the greats of the past with Jeremy Clarkson. The two have much in common, being inordinately fond of (a) gasoline and (b) themselves.

Noel was determined to enter the race, declaring: "This is not the most stupid idea I've had." Clarkson advised him that he better get a Porsche, then, and this was not the most stupid idea Clarkson has ever had, since the German cars have a proven track record, tending to go fast without breaking - which is de rigueur at La Sarthe, as they say in Le Mans.

But Edmonds had other, more patriotic, ideas, and visited TVR in Blackpool and Lotus in Norfolk, declaring: "I want to have as British an effort as possible - what can we do?" Not a lot, it seems, for shortly he was agreeing terms with Don Panoz, a decidedly un-British sports car manufacturer from Atlanta, Georgia.

No matter: the designer of the startlingly ugly front-engined contraption, Adrian Reynard, was British, and it would have at least one British driver in Edmonds himself, who was determined to get behind the wheel.

The problem here was that motor racing has moved on a little since Edmonds achieved moderate success in saloon cars in the 1970s. When he persuaded the gentleman racer Ray Bellm to let him try a contemporary Le Mans machine, a McLaren, Edmonds proved not so much Mr Blobby as Mr Wobbly, finally exiting the car on hands and knees and deciding wisely to let the professionals do the steering.

So Andy Wallace, a successful British sports car driver, who bore a striking resemblance to David Seaman, especially with his driving gloves on, was brought in to haul the recalcitrant machine through pre-qualifying, an audition session designed to exclude the weediest cars from the race.

Twelve cars of the 15 in the session would go through to qualifying proper, and with minutes remaining the Blobbymobile had registered only the 13th quickest time. "Not even getting through pre-qualifying," an ashen-faced Edmonds admitted, "that would be a serious amount of egg on face." And a serious amount of delighted viewers.

But it was hard to wish ill-fortune on the plucky Wallace, who had endured a croaky engine, a persistent water leak and flapping bodywork in his quest for that elusive 12th place. If the Panoz were human, it would have been in intensive care.

Instead, with an intensive and somewhat frightening effort, Wallace lugged it into the top dozen, whereupon the team went into an orgy of hugs and high-fives, as if they had won the great race rather than scraped through qualifying for the qualifying session. Wallace marched arm in arm into the garage with Mr Panoz, where he no doubt gave him a few pointers in essential motor maintenance.

The continuity announcer mentioned afterwards that viewers could find out whether Noel and Co actually made it to the race by tuning in next Thursday. Those of you who don't have the patience could do worse than tune in to Eurosport's coverage of the race today - and keep an eye out for the car with the Crinkly bodywork.

Live tennis is back on the BBC, with coverage of the Stella Artois tournament. This means that Bill Threlfall and John Barrett have been exhumed from the refrigerated ball cabinet at White City where they spend 48 weeks of the year under cryogenic preservation, de-frosted and wheeled up to the commentary box. Unsurprisingly, there were one or two short circuits, but Barrett soon got up to speed. By Friday afternoon, he could confidently assert: "It's all very well to go for big returns, but the most important thing is to keep that ball in court." Attaboy.

The players at Queen's Club were quaffing enthusiastically at the little bottles of water from the fridge between games. Nothing odd about that, you might say, except that the fridge and each bottle bore the logo "Thames Water". You can forgive the foreigners their ignorance, but a true Brit like Greg Rusedski should know that you think twice before knocking back that stuff.

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