My long-suffering girlfriend bought me a pair of tickets to the British Grand Prix as a Christmas present. At first I was annoyed that she’d spent that much money on me (these things aren’t cheap), but after actually going to the race weekend, I’m delighted. I’ve mentioned my many years of F1 following before (and the fact that David Coulthard has such bad luck). And, to be honest, I’d been losing interest this season in watching the races. Michael Schumacher keeps winning and it’s all a bit of a procession really. All this has now changed as I’ve finally seen what the whole thing is like close up, and it’s amazing.
We turned up on the Saturday morning to watch the qualifying session and it was a beautiful day. I had watched the F1 preview show on Sky the night before and one of the things they mentioned was that the traffic shouldn’t be a problem any more (in previous years it could take hours to gain access to the site). We drove in with no delays at all and I kept wondering if anybody was going to be there (the roads were literally empty). Once we got parked (the roads were almost finished as it happens, no crash barriers) we headed onto the circuit. We were told that we could get our free race programme from a kiosk at Beckett’s Corner (which happened to be at the opposite end of the circuit to where we were). So we started to walk around to our target.
After a lot of walking (the circuit is seriously big), we arrived at the kiosk, only to find that it was notable by its absence (I just paid my money and bought one anyway, I couldn’t be bothered to trail all the way back and kick up a fuss). So we grabbed a nice place to sit on a terrace just off the track and waited for the F1 cars to come out and start to qualify. I’ll pause a moment, because the impact that hearing and seeing my first F1 car driving past had on me was quite profound… Okay, it was seriously loud. In fact, so loud that I had to close my eyes. And that was just on a warm-up lap. Once they all started pouring out of the pit lane I realised just what an incredible sport this is. They are way faster than they seem on TV, and although your brain tells you there’s no way anything can get around a corner at that speed, they do. The incredible speed of these things only really hits home when you realise that they are actually driven by normal people with pretty fast reflexes – amazing – don’t let me drive one.
The qualifying hour was over in a flash (and we even saw one guy spin off) so we went for a wander back along the pit straight and further around the circuit to watch the Formula 3000 guys race. The thing that struck me was that it wasn’t nearly as exciting as the big boys racing – just not the power or noise… So we went away to our hotel and had a fun evening (sorry, I’m not even going there).
Next morning we thought we’d leave early just in case the traffic was worse on race day. It turned out that the roads were even quieter than before (those guys have really done a good job with the traffic flow). We turned up just as the Formula 3 race was concluding (fact: my brother went to school with a guy who used to race in F3). There were a lot more spectators there than the day before so there was even more of an atmosphere. We took our grandstand seats at the end of the main straight (we could see all the way down the straight and around the corner – a good spot) and waited as the clock slowly ticket down to race time. In the time between we watched the coverage on a giant screen in front of us and gazed in awe at how many helicopters flew in (more than in your average Vietnam film – including Apocalypse Now).
We watched some other interesting cars driving around the circuit (including one Mercedes that must have had a huge engine as it was comparable to the F3 cars of earlier). Just before the cars line up on the pits they could do a few “installation” laps and that’s when we got to see these beasts again. An eternity later the race began and it was superb. If I’d watched the race from home I would have enjoyed it (the rain always makes it more interesting), but to actually watch Rubens Barichello making his way through the field and overtaking right in front of us was brilliant. To see how fast all the cars are going and then see people actually overtaking is incredible – I’ve been karting, I know how tough it is in them, never mind at 200 mph.
Coulthard was having a real nightmare but rather than switch the TV off (as I’d usually do) I was mesmerised watching the race. It was interesting to see how consistent a driver Schumacher is. He was braking and hitting the throttle at exactly the same point on our corner every lap – they guy’s like a machine. And I note that he was taking it differently to everybody else. What a guy.
I could go on for another thousand words (I’m at 932 already) but I’m trying to be brief, believe it or not! However I will say this, I’ll be watching all the remaining races of the season. I’ve got my enthusiasm back. And I’ll be attending a race next year (hopefully Monte Carlo). And if you’ve ever considered going to a grand prix before, do it. My other half never watches the races at home, but she was hooked being there. It’s a hell of a buzz and is the pinnacle of motorsport. So what if there’s money everywhere and thousands of people who think they’re “very important people”, eating their prawn sandwiches in a tent while the race goes on around them. The sport itself transcends that. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s fast. It’s dangerous. It’s Formula One!