GRAND PRIX INTERNATIONAL, 22.04.1981
A driver inside his car, concentrating on setting up his car or solving some sort of problem in the pits is often far too preoccupied to remember just why he's there in the first place: because of the public. The enthusiasm, the warmth and in fact the presence of the Argentine public brought it home to me just how depressing it can be to drive in front of empty grandstands. The Argentine fans aren't everyone's favourites and Jones and Piquet perhaps have more reason to dislike them than others. So rather than talk about fanatics and the less pleasant connotations of that word, I prefer to talk about enthusiasts.
The Argentines, apart from their chauvinism, are perhaps the most knowledgeable motor sport enthusiasts that I've ever met. I think it would be wrong to embrace all South American peoples in that description. The Brazilians aren't as infatuated with Grand Prix racing as their neighbours. And they're not experts compared to the Argentines. In Buenos Aires, everyone from taxi driver to restaurateur knew all about the recent Jones-Reutemann rivalry, and knew just what kind of contract bound Reutemann to Frank Williams. And they were all charming about it too, providing you didn't try to explain to them that Reutemann was actually the number two driver.
On Thursday evening I went to pick up my hire car from the car park. I'd parked it rather carelessly when I'd arrived at the circuit, but then these things happen. The policemen recognised me and swore to me that if I'd been Alan Jones, they would have picked me up on some trumped up charge like headlamp adjustment and put me in prison until Sunday night. And I am not sure they were joking. But then that's the other side of the coin. Sometimes their enthusiasm carries them a little too far.
I remember seeing some photographs of the Mexican Grand Prix many years ago I was in short trousers at the time - when the spectators were quietly eating their picnics at the side of the track. They just wanted to see the cars close up. But I prefer the Argentine spectator's mentality - from a distance - to that of the Europeans who aren't real enthusiasts and are rather too secular for my taste. When an Argentine likes a sport, it doesn't mean he claps his hands together occasionally in appreciation. I used to play football when I was younger, so I went to see the Buenos Aires derby of Boca Junior versus the River Plate team. It was incredible in those grandstands. I've been to Division One matches at Saint Etienne but they were never like this one. It's more a question of temperament than the actual quality of the game. They're hot blooded people, the Argentines, and the action doesn't just take place on the field. Physical contact is transmitted to the stands. And slowly, the people round about me began to recognise me. I found myself surrounded by a hundred people, no kidding.
Their questions and comments showed just how much they knew about motor sport. They knew all about me, about the various stages in my career, and where I lived. Actually they got that slightly wrong because they thought that I lived in St Etienne. But they chatted about the streets and buildings of the town, even mentioning them by name. It made no difference that the papers had it wrong that I lived in St Etienne. If they'd known that I live in St Chamond they would have been just as knowledgeable about that town. I found it incredible. And to think that I walk around St Chamond completely untroubled and scarcely recognized...
At one moment, Maradona, their idol, scored a goal. The fellow behind me was so happy that he rammed his hat down onto my head and only my ears stopped it going any further. That's typical of the Argentine public. They all wanted to shake my hand and slap me on the shoulder. It was raining in the stadium so they all but buried me under a mountain of newspapers and bits of plastic trying to keep me dry. I left the stadium at half-time and as he drove me back to the hotel, the taxi driver asked me how I rated Reutemann's chances in the race. Then we heard on the radio that Maradona had scored another goal. The driver had to take both hands off the wheel to applaud his hero.
This time I managed to get through the entire race but I could imagine the atmosphere in the stands. The simple fact that to perform well in front of such a knowledgeable crowd drove me on to do better all the time. It was as though I wanted to thank them for being such great motor sporting enthusiasts.