Saturday, 11 July 2015

Single-seaters... proper racing cars?

These days, I admit, the majority of my focus on motor sport tends to be on sportscars. Sports prototypes, Grand Touring cars competing over longer distances in races that usually involve more than one driver and several classes of cars with a variety of potential – that’s what catches and holds my interest.

It was not always the case though. Devoted readers (do I have any?) might recall that the first race I ever went to was a Formula 1 race (here) and it was Grand Prix racing and the World Driver’s Championship that filled my thoughts in my youth. Even when I became involved in commentary work, there was little doubt that F1 was the pinnacle of motor sport and I although the strategy, tactics and drama of endurance racing came to enthral me, I was always interested to watch young drivers rising through the ranks of Formula Ford, Formula 3 and into the highest echelons. I watched many such, and they became personal favourites: Ayrton Senna, Derek Warwick, Johnny Herbert, Mika Hakkinen, Jenson Button – they all came from somewhere. Some never made it to the top: Tommy Byrne for example, or Marc Hynes … Some had raw talent, other sparkling personalities, but one somehow built up a knowledge through watching drivers go through their formative years.

But for a number of reasons, my attention has wandered off single-seaters recently and I find myself struggling to keep up with the plethora of junior categories and Formula 1 seemingly populated by drivers who hardly warrant the same level of hero status that I conferred on the Grand Prix stars of my youth.

Despite that, in recent weeks I had the opportunity to visit both Battersea Park to witness the Formula E race and Silverstone, for practice day of the British Grand Prix. In both cases I spent the day wandering the spectator enclosures, rubbing shoulders with true enthusiasts: folk who had widely differing experiences but who were all united by a passion for racing.

Inevitably, Formula E at Battersea was an adventure into the unknown – not only because I hadn’t seen anything like the cars before, nor had I seen anything like the track through the park before. Initially, I have to say I was impressed. Arriving on public transport, walking over a bridge into the centre area; it reminded me more of the atmosphere of the London Olympics than a motor race. The raceday programme was a curate’s egg affair: only £8, printed on environmentally-friendly re-cycled paper, reasonably interesting articles (including one about previous races in London, at Crystal Palace), some good pictures, but no proper entry list. True, there was a full page description of each driver, but no entry list on a single page that you could have open as the cars went past.

Who was that in car number 21? Black, red and silver: yellow helmet? Er… look through the pages, find Mahindra Racing (oh, that's really Carlin)... aha! Bingo – Bruno Senna! It wasn’t helped by the fact that the PA commentator (not sure who he was) wouldn’t refer to the car numbers when talking about the cars either – it was all Nelson Piquet this and Loïc Duval that. And although we had paid for “Silver” tickets, the view of the track was rather limited: cars flashing between trees, and no big screen to see the rest of the action.

Another note to the commentator, you need to establish how much of your audience can actually see a screen before you say “you can see the damage on Chandhok’s car!” No I can’t – I need you to describe it to me!

I knew before I set off that there wasn’t much of a support programme, so the fact that there was a lot of hanging about with nothing to do came as no real surprise. Merchandising and fan areas were nicely laid out though – in very much more of a village fair way than one usually gets at a race meeting. What I found particularly annoying was the loud, modern music which was played through the sound system during the lead-up to the race. I’m probably being old-fashioned though – many of my fellow-spectators seemed to be enjoying it and dancing away the hours before the race.

But here the commentator let us down again: the build-up to the start, with cars obviously on the grid and drivers preparing themselves was not described at all. That increasing tension before the race was not communicated to the crowd at all: surely an opportunity missed. Once the race was underway, though, I have to say the atmosphere in the stand changed – and it was a real treat to watch the cars at close quarters, even if it was through a veil of trees.

Sam Bird was particularly impressive (I was there on the Saturday and was pleased he won Sunday’s race), and generally the racing was what racing should be. Only, if I may be allowed one final gripe: I would have far preferred to not have had to listen to an accompaniment of background music for the entire race. I know the cars are quiet, but actually being able to listen to them would have been nice…

What I found particularly pleasant, was being able to leave the venue at the end of the race (around 5pm), walk to the station and be home in less than an hour.

Silverstone, the following week, seemed initially to have slipped back into all its bad habits with traffic. I’ll admit I may have timed it badly, arriving at the traffic jam at the Green Man on the A43 at 10am on Friday, (Practice Day), but I did not expect to spend more than an hour to get from there to the circuit entrance. Traffic management was chaotic, I’m afraid.

However, once safely inside, Silverstone was at its best. The sun shone, the grass was green and everyone seemed in a good mood. When I mentioned to someone about traffic problems, he said that he had had no problems at all: arriving a little later, as he had, seemed to have done the trick.

The raceday programme was expensive – £15 – but at least included the traditional insert, with entry lists for all the support races as well as the GP itself, spaces to fill in grid positions, etc. Of course Formula 1 cars are too important to have numbers on the side (except for the Saubers), so knowing that the Hamilton and Rosberg were 44 and 6 was of little use. What was useful was the PA commentator telling us that the first-named driver had a black camera mount above the driver’s head; the other driver having a yellow one. Knowledge of that might have saved the crowd giving a resounding cheer to Fernando Alonso as he brought the McLaren-Honda round on one lap!

Although the two weekends were very different from one another in many ways, there were many similarities too – not least in that typical British weather at both venues meant shorts, suncream and umbrellas were all required. I would be interested to know how many people actually attended both events, how many of those at either event were attending their first-ever motorsport event, and how many will be inspired by their experience to come back.

I have always been of the opinion that witnessing motorsport (in fact witnessing anything first hand) is better than watching it on a screen from afar – even if the actual view might be better on TV, nothing compares to actually “being there”. But to make it worthwhile to be there, the event has to motivate the public in order to make people undertake the effort of paying the cost and going to the trouble of making the trip, rather than simply pressing a button on the TV remote control.

In that vein, it was not the technology of Formula E that attracted them to Battersea Park, it was the show; the novelty. The same is more or less true of Formula 1: regardless of the noise, the quality of the racing or whatever, it is the fact that it is the British Grand Prix that draws people to Silverstone every July, no matter what the weather does.

What about you? Were you there? Did you have fun? Will you go again? Answers below!

No comments:

Post a Comment