After witnessing the dramatic last lap of the Brazilian Grand Prix in Interlagos when Lewis Hamilton nicked the world championship off local boy Felipe Massa, 400 yards from the chequered flag, I’ve been bugged by another Brazilian GP I went to back in the early ’70s.
I had been hiding out in Buenos Aires for a couple of years following a nasty divorce. My pitch to the locals was that I wanted to make English-speaking films in Argentina. Things went swimmingly to begin with. Then my patron, Presidenta Isobelita Peron, was deposed by a military junta. In a country like Argentina in the 70s, you either were in with the people with clout or out. It was back to quadro uno. Time to go home.
I had invested so much time in South America that I didn’t feel like just walking away. It was the end of the year so I decided to leave with a flourish. The Argentine and then the Brazilian Grands Prix were only weeks away and it was brass monkey time in England. I knew most of the drivers and movers in motor racing and I looked forward to meeting up with them.
The Argentine GP was exciting and the off-course excursions matched anything that happened on the track. James Hunt had a huge following in BA and lived up to his publicity. When the GP circus moved north I packed my trunk, my newly acquired new husband, Tonio, and daughter, Steffie, and went with it. We all stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Sao Paulo. After Saturday practice we were lounging around the swimming pool, chatting to John Watson, when James turned up in his trademark scruffy, cut down jeans, crumpled T-shirt and sandals and suggested we went to dinner.
I wasn’t consulted. I wasn’t consulted about our final destination – The Munich Restaurant – either. I should have known no good would come of it. The Maitre’d gave James’s wardrobe the usual up-tight look but as usual decided that he wasn’t going to get in a fracas with the bad boy of Grand Prix. We were shuffled off into what looked like an overgrown frieze high above the normal tables. That’s when I got the first shock. Below it was wall-to-wall swastikas. Swastika armbands, flags, funny hats and Horst Wessel.
I wanted to go but I knew that if I did I would be on my own. The others were already slavering over the menu. I did my best to make my presence felt by asking the waiter to get the band to play H’ava Negila. He pretended not to hear. We got through the meal somehow and John and James wanted to turn in. The universal sign for asking for the bill was used to ask for the bill. John looked through it and went a whiter shade of pale. John was always careful with his money. We’d been spoiled by the prices in Argentina and not prepared for the more expensive Brazil. But even taking that into account it was obvious that some one had been playing with the monkey.
Various members of staff filed up and shook their head, including the disdainful Maitre’d. It all came down to the wine. We had chosen four bottles of a fine Brazilian wine. The waiter had given us an imported Portuguese wine with the same name. At ten extra dollars a bottle! That’s it! We were not going to pay. The police were called and we were invited out back to talk to them. We all knew better than that. Brazilian policeman have an unhealthy reputation. So the police came in and marched us out to the flat bed truck with a wire cage on top that stood in for a Black Maria. One thing in our favour was that the two young coppers were Russians and were happy to talk to me in Russian.
At the police station we were marched into one of those holding pens you see in old Hollywood films, crowded with drunks, a fetid smell of urine and a blood covered bloke holding a packet of cigarettes to a half torn off ear. Luckily we didn’t have long to wait before we were dragged off to see the magistrate. Hollywood again intruded. It was a huge room we found ourselves in. At one end was a dais with a table. Behind the table sat a fat man with greased back hair, sporting the obligatory crumpled white suit. Behind him stood a tall elegant man in an immaculate linen suit with a pearl handle pistol stuck in the waistband of his trousers. I thought the casting and wardrobe directors could have practiced a little more subtlety.
As I was the only one who happened to have a passport on them I was called forward to answer the charge. I didn’t speak Portuguese but it is near enough to Castellano to get by. As I stepped forward Tonio whispered, “Remember the Queen”. James was more to the point. “Remember your tits,” he suggested.
All this came flooding back to me when I was given a book about James Hunt, published by Haynes Publishing – Memories of James Hunt. I’m a bit peeved the author, Christopher Hilton, didn’t ask me for the odd bawdy tale. I was probably one of the last to offer James gainful employment just before he died in June 1993 and there was even an outside chance that I might finish up as his mother-in-law at one time. But I suppose you can’t have everything. Anyway, back to our Brazilian adventure.
The Maitre’d did a dramatic pitch to the bench which I only half understood. The little fat bloke peered down at me and waved me forward. I remembered what James had said and took a couple of deep breaths. I managed to convey what had happened. We had ordered Brazilian wine and we had been given imported wine. The judge listened carefully and then beckoned our old foe closer. “Why,” he inquired politely, “Did you give the inferior Portuguese wine to our visitors when they wanted our fine Brazilian wine?”
That was it. The judge asked how much we thought we should pay. John came up with a figure and James whispered in my ear, “Told you.” The Maitre’d stormed off leaving the waiter to field the money. Another problem. None of us had more than a few Cruzeiros on us. I had left mine back at the hotel with Steffie, and the others had expected someone else to foot the bill. We finally almost made it – just over a dollar short. Luckily, the waiter had got so bored with the whole business that he put in the extra to make it up. It had been a good night out but it wasn’t quite over. We still had to get back to the hotel.
The two Ruskie coppers were standing in the doorway as we left. One of them asked us how we had got on. I told him the result. Then I asked him if he could take us back to the hotel. They both roared with laughter. They couldn’t believe that someone actually WANTED a ride in their mechanical tumbrel.
Outside the Sheraton is an open veranda. As we approached I asked the driver to sound the siren. It made a spectacular entrance, fully appreciated by the petrol heads sitting on the veranda. I did try to push our acquaintance with the Russians a little further. Remembering the traffic problems getting into the circuit, I asked them if there was any chance of them taking us to Interlagos in the morning but I think that was a favour too far.
Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.