Forget Formula One, it's the public roads where all the action is

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2006, 12:00am

The Formula One season got interesting last weekend in Germany as Michael Schumacher finally got within touching distance of Fernando Alonso in the world championship. Shame then that this weekend's race is in Hungary. The Hungaroring is perhaps the worst circuit for overtaking in the whole season. There may well be more entertaining driving amongst the punters heading to the track on the public roads.

Hungary is not alone in this. I haven't had the pleasure of driving in this eastern European country, but I have in some other Formula One venues, and often the result is distinctly scary. Take Bahrain for example. The race may be forgettable, but driving on their roads is an experience imprinted on my memory forever.

Drive in the outside lane of a dual carriageway for just a short distance and you will soon find a car flying towards you at high speed, flashing its lights until it's so close you can't see the bonnet in the rear-view mirror. If you are unable to get out of the way in the required few seconds, the budding nutter will squeeze past on the waste ground between you and the crash barrier.

In fact, I'm not sure why the authorities bother with painting lines on the roads, there is so much swerving across three lanes.

Mind you, it wasn't the first time I've found a car three inches away from my boot, flashing madly to get past. Apparently it's the polite way of doing things in Italy. And being Italians they always do it in style, in an Alfa Romeo or such like (the small Fiat I was driving was no match in either the engine or fashion stakes). I found the Italians drive a bit like Valentino Rossi - they're fast and ever so slightly mad.

Malaysians (like the Italians) love Ferrari and can be a bit partial to speed too. I knew I was getting old when, on a shoot for Star Sports I found myself politely negotiating the speed of the people carrier back down to a relatively boring 120km/h. My producer and director were polite, but I could tell they were disappointed in me.

In the UK, things can be a bit more civilised, but there are always isolated cases of madness, and the usual suspect is known in my home country as 'white van man'. Couriers in their transit vans are by the nature of their jobs in a hurry, although it's questionable whether this entitles one to drive generally too damned stupidly for comfort. No wonder truck racing is so popular there.

In Belgium it's the condition of roads that really stands out.

Within the European Union there are no border posts as such, but I found there is no mistaking the moment you move out of Holland and into Belgium. Basically, you drop off the carpet-smooth tarmac of the Netherlands on to a pot-holed mess. There are exceptions. When I was driving there a while back, my jarred spine was given temporary relief on the smoothest surface I had ever driven on. It turned out to be the public road that makes up part of the Spa circuit.

I would love to comment on whether Michael Schumacher's love of racing is partly down to the lack of a speed limit on the autobahns, but I've only ever driven in Germany for 20 minutes, and that was only because I'd missed the turning for Luxembourg (it's a long story).

Of course, the opposite is true of the US and Canada. Everyone seems to be crawling at a ridiculous pace to European eyes. No wonder they haven't produced too many Formula One greats. Meanwhile, driving in the Australian outback must be a bit like Schumacher's race days at the moment - long monotonous drives with no one else in sight. Finally, driving in Monaco is like the race itself. There's not enough space for it to get interesting.