Bob McMurray remembers when long-haul F1 travel was fun
Security checks have put paid to carefree shenanigans, but they haven’t dulled the spirit of epic events.
After all the excitement of being part of the 100th running of the Indy 500, I had to return home to New Zealand which involved a 36-hour journey, door to door, from Indianapolis to Auckland via Los Angeles and Sydney.
The Los Angeles to Sydney leg took 14 hours in a Boeing 747-400. Compared to the smooth, efficient giant Airbus A380 on the outward leg, it was like travelling in an old 1950s charabanc.
I don’t sleep on flights and my mind drifted to reflections of recent events.
The emotional pole position for the Indy 500 for James Hinchcliffe and Sam Schmidt ... the extraordinary win for Alexander Rossi and being a part of what must have been the largest crowd for a sporting event ... the Monaco F1GP and the win for Lewis Hamilton and the “loss” to Daniel Ricciardo due to a team error.
From there, I remembered flights I have been on, travelling to and from various F1 GPs.
The memories all date from the days of minimum, or non-existent, security.
On one trip, I was sitting in a British Airways 747 cockpit on approach to Beijing airport and was asked by the crew to look out for rogue aircraft, with transponders turned off, trying to jump the approach queue.
The pilot saw a Russian military aircraft doing the same as us and we had to try to stop the 747 in mid-air to avoid a collision.
There was a particularly rowdy flight to Sao Paulo for the Brazilian GP when, after a few glasses of red wine, my colleagues persuaded me to try sleeping pills. It proved a bad combination as they had to carry a completely asleep me through immigration and customs by draping my arms over their shoulders as if I was some imported cadaver.
Having never taken sleeping pills before, I was unaware the second pill was for the return journey.
The Williams F1 team truckie, nicknamed Biggles, with an impeccable accent and a large handlebar moustache, would wait until boarding had just about closed and then stride purposefully, brown briefcase in hand, on to the plane and turn left, not right, and sit in the first available First Class seat as if he owned it.
He had a strike rate better than 75 per cent.
Thanks to some friends in the airline business I was occasionally upgraded but it backfired on one long-haul flight when I was plucked out of my economy seat and escorted to First Class, walking past the royalty of Business Class to get to my seat — Messrs Ecclestone, Tyrrell, Mosley and, worst of all, my boss, Ron Dennis and his wife. It was awkward.
The airline gave me an outfit to sleep in but I was too self-conscious to wear it... The sight of some of these people in identical sleep suits still haunts me.
One flight stands out in the annals of Formula 1 history. It was a South African Airways 747 charter flight to New York for the Watkins Glen GP with the usual collection of mechanics and drivers on board.
The drinks were flowing and the flight attendants were pleading with people not to congregate at the rear bar area and to return to their seats. Paper planes manufactured by the dozen were flying through the cockpit.
On the way back to their seats someone substituted a pillow for a plane.
A retaliatory arms race began with pre-emptive strikes, led by a couple of Formula 1 drivers incidentally, and soon the cabin was inundated with flying pillows some of which broke open and feathers filled the cabin.
On arrival in New York the aircraft was grounded and taken out of service for a couple of weeks so feathers and debris could be cleaned out of the ventilation and pressurisation systems.
The teams, with “contributions” from the mechanics, paid the resulting enormous bill.
In these security-minded “professional” times, much of the above cannot happen.
I have to confess I am glad to have experienced the camaraderie that existed among the paddock through that era.
All of this was juvenile, childish, even infantile with only the very brave falling asleep on flights, as waking up with a crown made of strawberries and cream was an ever-present threat.