ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 13

  A Tale of Two Taxi Rides

  by Roger Horton, England

Roger Horton returned from the Pacific Rim, where he attended the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne and the Malaysian Grand Prix in outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. It was a tale of two taxi rides, to each of the circuits, and a tale of two worlds apart. Take a look at the real world that surrounds the fantasy one, that is Formula One

I have always thought it is a good policy to chat to taxi drivers. In my twenty-five years of travelling the world, I have learnt a lot from conversations conducted on the move. And on more than a few occasions, the knowledge imparted in those few moments of shared intimacy has proved to be invaluable. On other occasions, I am just relieved to arrive at my destination intact, and happy to depart into the welcoming hotel lobby or wherever.

There is often a strange law of supply and demand when it comes to actually finding a taxi when you most need one. This does not feel so acute, perhaps, when you are just trying to get home from the office on a wet Friday night. But, when you are in a city that you are not familiar with, and the local language is Chinese or Japanese, you can only fervently hope that your driver will actually understand the seemingly undecipherable bunch of squiggles that your acquaintance has so helpfully written down as your intended destination.

It was with some relief, then, that I saw the lights of a waiting taxi flash in response to my raised hand as I exited from the grounds of Albert Park in Melbourne, late on Sunday evening, some seven hours after the finish of the race. It's not that I was expecting any difficulties; Melbourne is not, after all, Beijing or Tokyo. But, I was simply very tired, and sweating uncomfortably in the late summer Melbourne heat from the effort of the twenty minute walk from the Media centre to the nearest exit, burdened down as I was with my computer and the seemingly hundreds of press releases that all the teams' PR officers hand out with such earnestness, especially on a Sunday evening.

As I opened the taxi's door, two things happened simultaneously; the first was the realization that the driver was certainly not from anywhere close to Australia, and the second was the crunching sound that came from my stepping on my glasses, that had been dislodged as I bent down to enter the taxi. Neither of these two facts would have mattered individually, but only when the grinning driver thrust the local version of an A to Z street map in my direction, did I realise that perhaps my long day was by no means over.

I couldn't remember the address of the house that I was staying in for the duration of my visit to Melbourne. It was, of course, written down, but without my glasses I couldn't read it. My driver couldn't read the address either, indeed even if I could have read it to him, it would have been of no help. Whatever languages he spoke, English was not one of them, and so for some moments this pantomime of him pointing to the map, and me shaking my head, continued.

As always things worked themselves out. Once we had located my destination on his map (with the help of another taxi driver who gave the impression he had seen this show a few times before) we were off. I arrived at my destination just as fast as on my previous trips, and the metered fare was the cheapest of the week. I was so pleased that I gave him a tip. He gave me another great big smile and drove off into the night.

This small encounter says a lot about Australia. Most Australians are endearingly optimistic; next year will always be better than the one just gone. This 'New Australian' was just another one of the many thousands who were making a new and better life for himself, in what was for him a new and strange country. No wonder that the often repeated phrase "No Worries" seems to be the national motto. So it's a good idea to start the long F1 season 'down under' and in Melbourne in particular, a city which is so used to hosting major sporting occasions, that it takes it all in its stride.

The other great plus point about the race at Albert Park is that it is held, more or less, in the centre of the city. Races like this seem to interact with their spectators in a much more intimate way. The race seems to become 'their' race and it often shows up in the attendance figures. It also explains just why, even after all these years, Adelaide is still so sore at losing their event, which first saw Grand Prix racing return to Australia back in 1985.

It only takes about eight hours to fly from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, host of the second round of the championship. But, the race in the Malaysian capital is a very different affair, it being possible to spend the entire Grand Prix weekend virtually detached from the real Malaysia entirely. The five-star Pan Pacific hotel, home to many F1 people during their stay, is linked to the airport by a convenient walkway. Shuttle buses are available around the clock to make the ten-minute journey from the hotel to the track.

The whole complex - the airport, hotel and the track - is around one hour's drive from the city centre. Everything is new and modern, so no wonder ITV commentator Murray Walker always introduces viewers to the Malaysian race by describing the track as the most modern and wonderful in the world.

It is, but it was built at a cost. Not just in the amount of Government money that was used in its construction, and in the amounts poured in every year by the state owned fuel company Petronas to sponsor the event. But in just what other needs that a developing country like Malaysia has, that haven't been attended to because the politicians are busy spending money putting themselves on the world map by hosting an F1 race.

This year, some of these problems came home to roost. For just a week before the Grand Prix teams came to town, the worst race riots in over thirty years erupted just outside the capital in a squatter area known as Kampung Medan. Six people were killed and many others injured in the disturbances, and the police made over 200 arrests. Basically a dispute occurred between a Malay and Indian family, and the argument then spread into the wider community. So as the F1 cars were prepared for action on the Thursday before the race, some 700 riot and paramilitary police were patrolling the streets to prevent further trouble less than an hour away from the circuit.

I had known about troubles before I flew to the race. Not having the budget to stay at the Pan Pacific hotel, I was staying at a more modest establishment near the city centre. This meant a daily bout of negotiation for the taxi ride from my hotel to the circuit. The rule of the metered taxi fare does not extend as far out as the Sepang track, and again the law of supply and demand was well in evidence. The closer to the day of the race, the higher was the fare charged.

"Everything quiet now?" I ventured, as we drove past a number police trucks parked up by the side of the road whilst on the way to the circuit one morning. "Quiet? It will never be quiet," my driver stated with surprising venom. He then proceeded to give me a long lecture about the shortcomings of the government and all Malaysian politicians in general. He was, I soon discovered, a resident of the affected area and he had more than just one chip on his shoulder.

I had, of course, heard speeches like this before, only this time my taxi driver wasn't complaining about high taxes, or all the other topics that citizenry complain about all over the world. His problem was that he didn't have running clean water, or any garbage disposal, or just about any of the other amenities that most of us take for granted these days. He was part of the 150,000 or so population of the sprawling squatter community that had developed over the past ten years, and as such, much of the dramatic economic progress of the last decade had passed him and his family by.

There are, of course, squatter areas all over Asia, so what happened at Kampung Medan is not really unique. But Malaysia aspires to be part of the developed world. One of the main policy planks of the ruling party is its vision 20/20, the policy that is supposed to result in the country reaching developed country status by the year 2020. The running of the Grand Prix is all part of that policy.

"Lots of rich people and big shots at this Formula One," said my driver, as we pulled up to the Paddock entrance. As this observation was said as more of a statement than a question, I let it pass and headed off into the all-important world of wing angles and driver rivalries. He headed back onto the roads of Kuala Lumpur and to his daily struggle to make a living.

So as the winning drivers celebrated their victory on the Podium, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, joined them in their celebrations. Pleased, no doubt, about the conclusion of another great race weekend. The TV pictures had shown off his country in exactly the manner he would have wished for, and Murray Walker had said all the right things again.

Yes, I thought to myself as I headed home after the race, there are lots of rich people and big shots in this Formula One, but not too many residents of Kampung Medan.

Roger Horton© 2007
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