I wrote this post ages ago, and have only just found it on Vesper – so a little late but here it is…
F1 is like marmite; most people either love it or hate it. And those who love it probably always have / will; whereas those who hate it often do so, because they were unable to escape it when younger, just don’t get it, or find it boring. It’s not unusual to hear people say “you just see cars fly past in a split second…” or “it’s just a parade of round and round and round…” but I couldn’t disagree more.
Sure, you do see cars fly past, and they are very fast, and there’s the obvious impression where you scream “neeeeeeeeeeoowwwwwwww” really loudly (yes, I still do that, I’m not proud!) but it’s so much more than that. It’s the buzz – the atmosphere of so many people being at a single event for a mutual purpose / passion, the stash and paraphernalia of food stands, merchandise stands and touts. But the part of F1 not even Sky Sports covers, is General Admission.
Welcome to the cheap seats
Those who think F1 is too expensive to attend, think again. In Monaco (thought to be the most expensive race in the calendar), you don’t have to pay a penny for basic admission. You can simply wander around the streets, soak up the atmosphere, buy a programme if you want to, and sit outside a bar watching the action on screen, whilst hearing the cars less than twenty feet away. For a mere €40, you can get access to the grassy bank behind Rascasse for the day on Saturday and enjoy the GP2 and GP3 races, F1 practice 3 and qualifying – all exciting action, with all the atmosphere of race day. Or for €70 you can do this on Sunday, to watch the drivers’ parade lap, more racing from the Renault series or Porsche and the actual Grand Prix itself. This is what I tend to do, partly to keep the cost down, but more so because I just love the buzz of General Admission. Anyone who has been to a festival – Glasto, Reading, Leeds, IoW – you’ll know what I mean. Even if it’s pouring down, it’s the experience, the people and the anecdotal stories that make it what it is.
Remember the old orange canvas ridge tent?
Have you ever read the Camping & Caravanning Club magazine? Unfortunately for me – despite my better judgement, years of brainwashing, multiple series’ of Top Gear, the emergence of Dave and further repeats of Top Gear, and hysterical mockery worthy of ‘Ball Trap on the Cote Savage’ – my parents have succumb to the activity (note I don’t use the word ‘fun’) that is caravanning. I’ll blog on this another time as, for once, I’m trying to avoid the obvious tangent opportunity. But needless to say that, now being members of the ‘Camping & Caravanning Club’, they have copies of the club magazine lying around their house, which often make for very entertaining reading. And not for the reasons the Editor intends, I’m sure.
Readers are encouraged to send in stories about their C&C experiences. Club members seem very keen to do this, and such articles frequently tell tales of the resourcefulness of club members. Did you ever think of recycling your 1970s ridge tent? And if you did, just what did you manage to concoct? I’d never have dreamt of re-sewing the tatty sun-bleached orange canvas around an old metal coat hanger, to make a useful peg bag for the washing line at home, for instance. Yet I’m sure I’ve read this one at least twice.
Mock this I may, but at the Grand Prix over the past few years, this kind of mentality has amused and entertained me no end, to the degree that I now look out for the most W. Heath Robinson –esque contraptions brought along by the crowds.
An umbrella on a motorbike?
On reflection, my own Father did this at the first GP I ever went to. We rode down to Dover on his motorbike, in high winds and driving rain, on an August bank holiday weekend. We caught the ferry to Dunkirk, then rode along the coast of Northern France and into Belgium, before dropping down and round the Brussels ring road, onward to Leuven, Liege, through Spa to Francorchamps. The weather in Spa is predictable in its variance (ie when it’s raining in the pit lane, the other end of the circuit can be basking in sunshine – this makes tyre selection / management great fun for the teams!). So dad was adamant we should take an umbrella, but whilst we were able to pack two sets of clothing, two lilos, two sleeping bags, a tent and all other essential camping gear (kettle and bottle opener) all onto a Triumph Trophy 900, how were we going to get a brolly on board, when it’s longer than the bike is wide? Obvious – we introduce a cleverly engineered rear downforce deflector system (ie dad simply sawed off the ends, shortening the brolly just enough to sit across the back of the bike without decapitating any passing pedestrians.) Genius.
The best seats in the house
At a number of the races, the track winds through forests and / or is surrounded by trees. With hoards and hoards of people all looking to claim their spot, in some cases they climb the trees and watch from there. Others bring cool boxes strapped to barrel trolleys, deckchairs, sun shades, tents… you name it, they’ll have thought of it!
Le Army Barmy
At Valencia, I splashed out on qualifying and bought a grandstand ticket. Now this wasn’t a pit straight grandstand or turn one, this was at M7 – Malvarossa. This is the last turn, by the beach, before the cars fly round to the right and head out around the harbour. Whilst the outside of this turn hosts a huge stand with Santander hospitality, the inside has a totally different view. The beach sure looks good, but the track view is limited. I therefore get why this is the cheapest grandstand available! But in the same way as the Yorkshire crowd at Headingley, the entertainment comes as much from the stand itself, as the track in front. And in this case, it’s Lola.
Lola is a 6-foot blonde, in red stilettos, a short, tight red dress and a red sun hat. Not quite what Chris de Burgh had in mind, I’m sure, as this Lola is a chap. The muscular physique, flat chest and stubble give it away a bit, and his/her (in)ability to walk in the stilettos is matched only by my own. Lola has no handbag, instead her hand luggage comprises just a pink parasol and a white sign showing her name. And every 20-30 minutes, she struts (I use the term loosely) down the steps to the bottom of the stand, waving her sign at people and ‘conducting’ the crowd into a Mexican wave to the roar of “Loooooooola, Loooooooola, Loooooooola…” Marvel or mental, Lola is entertaining and strangers in the crowd are suddenly engaged in banter with each other, far more so than before – great ice breaker!
Grass roots fans
But perhaps the most impressive I’ve seen to date, was from Jacques. Jacques’ name has been assumed, based purely on the fact he was French. The assumption that he was French comes purely from the use of French language on his marketing material. The fact this was in Monaco made this a plausible scenario and one I’ll therefore go with for the purposes of this article. Anyway.
Jacques was sitting beside me for the Monaco Grand Prix in May. He looked about 10 and was accompanied by his Father (?) and they had each come prepared with rucksacks and stools to sit on. Whilst Jacques disappeared for a few minutes, I noticed that on his chair was a home-made sign, depicting a union jack with Lewis Hamilton’s face on it, with the words “Allez Hamilton!” above and below. The sign appeared to have been printed out of an inkjet printer (running a little low on ink, I must add… *anorak*) and was protected in a plastic wallet, the kind with holes down one side for storage in a ring binder.
Anyway, after smiling affectionately at his little sign – I should call it a banner, the effort in its production far outweighing the impact it’d most likely have – I realised where Jacques had disappeared to. He was now hanging over the wall in front of us, attaching a bungee rope to a tree? WTF? But he knew what he was doing, and in the following 30 minutes, he strung up a climbing rope infrastructure worthy of I’m a Celebrity Get Me out Of Here in the trees before us. Not quite sure what he planned to do with this, I was intrigued! I’d previously seen people watching from the trees, building ingenious contraptions and doing all sorts to equip themselves for the afternoon, so I was gripped to see what this little boy would do next!
Anyway I thought his banner was cute enough, bless him. That was until I realised the full extent of Jacques’ efforts. Oh yes, he had not only prepared his banner, but his rucksack was more impressive than Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. He proceeded to extract from it, a ball of string, a roll of masking tape, cable ties, a Swiss army knife and further bungees. And all this was so he could attach his A4 banner to his rope infrastructure! Was this on the off-chance Lewis would see it? Or was he marking his territory? Was he showing his allegiance? Or was he just being a young boy having fun? I’ll never know (I didn’t strike up conversation with his Father, as he bore a scary resemblance to Eric Cantona choking on a wasp having missed a sitter in the cup final), but regardless of the reason, for me, Jacques summed up what General Admission at the Grand Prix is all about – it’s fans supporting their teams / drivers and having a great day out in the process.
Clearly, there’s far more to it (pit stop strategies, tyre management, fuel calculations, car reliability, overtaking manoeuvres, pushing the car and drivers to the edge of their abilities – and the track – and the circus show that follows all this around the world. And I love all this for completely different reasons. But in General Admission, it’s about the experience, the day out, the fans and the banter. And that’s why I love going to the races, rather than just watching Jake, the real DC and Eddie’s shirts on the BBC.
So after the Olympian summer break, it’s T minus 1 week until lights out at Spa Francorchamps… #letsgoracing!