On Sunday morning, I met up with a mate who was sampling his first taste of Silverstone and Formula 1. He wasn’t doing it by halves, having arrived with his brother and father-in-law on Thursday afternoon to camp for the whole weekend in one of the official sites dotted around the circuit.
By Friday night they’d been close to packing up and going home. When my friend planned to soak up the full British Grand Prix experience, he hadn’t meant it literally. Like thousands over many years beforehand, he discovered how miserable Silverstone always is when it rains.
But by the time I caught up with him, the sun was out, the sight of F1 cars had blown him away and he was already talking about coming back next year. That’s Silverstone and the British GP in a nutshell: if the weather plays along there are few better places to be, and certainly no other F1 race has an atmosphere to match it.
But if the weather gods frown on the place, the self-styled ‘Home of British motor racing’ doesn’t have the capacity to cope. Just don’t go there!
This year, I spent GP Sunday in the Farm Curve grandstand with my son, partly through my own incompetence (I missed the deadline for my press pass application) but also through choice. With Nigel Roebuck and Simon Arron in the paddock, Motor Sport was more than adequately represented and frankly it was more fun to spend a day with my boy, watching his growing enthusiasm for the sport rather than timing screens in a windowless press room.
At this point, I’ll put my hand up and state clearly that I didn’t pay for our grandstand seats. But by sitting among people who had, this was an opportunity to gauge whether Silverstone has made any progress in its capacity to offer a world-class sporting experience. We’ve been critical in the past and not just when it’s rained – so what would I find?
To add a different perspective, I couldn’t help but compare a recent experience at a contrasting large-scale sporting occasion: the international friendly between England and Ireland at Wembley last month, my first taste of the national stadium since the days of the twin towers.
I hadn’t been to a big football match for years and was struck by how corporate the sport had become, how the experience as a fan feels controlled and homogenised within the stadium. The atmosphere was totally contrived.
Still, it was certainly family-friendly and well organised, and at the end of the night I was impressed at how they managed to shepherd 80,000 people on to tubes and trains, and out of car parks, with a minimum of fuss. As for the cost of food, drink and a programme, it was hardly cheap but I felt less ripped off than I’d anticipated.
Those who run Silverstone, including boss Richard Phillips, have professional backgrounds in stadia sports, and at the British GP it is beginning to show. It’s harder at Silverstone, on a site more than 800 acres in size, but year by year the ‘fan areas’ are more accommodating and pleasant. Then again, they should be given the price of admission. We know responsibility lies with Bernie Ecclestone and that Silverstone’s hand is forced, but the circuit has a clear responsibility to offer the best value for money if it must pass F1 running costs on to the public.
And here, yet again, Silverstone still falls short.
Even in the areas where new buildings are not under construction, the place feels likes a building site. Behind the grandstand scaffolding, fans must still traipse across a mass of loose stone and shingle. As in previous years, I spotted wheelchair users and buggy-pushing parents struggling to make headway. And what is it with Silverstone and its lack of signage? I know where I’m going, but thousands don’t. If I’d never been before, I’d have struggled to find my way.
Navigating the access roads is also a problem that needs addressing, as fans on foot struggled to find a place to cross.
Still, at least members of staff were helpful and friendly. Each time I encountered a bibbed official I was met with a smile. Silverstone has clearly ordered a charm offensive, just as it should, especially after the debacle of last year’s sodden experience.
And the car parks? Again, the weather helped, but as usual there was rage and frustration as thousands of drivers aimed for single farm gates to escape. The attitude of many was a sad indictment of selfish human nature in these circumstances, but officials did their best to manage queues in systematic fashion, and again they did so with a smile. It helps, especially when you wait an hour or more to travel a few hundred yards.
We all come away from British Grands Prix with our own personal stories. Mine was a happy one, largely because my son enjoyed the experience so much, and I saw signs of genuine progress in the organisation around this awkwardly shaped circuit.
But world-class? No, not yet. There is much to do before they can claim that.
So were you there? If so, how did you find it? We’d love to hear your GP experiences, both good and bad. You never know – someone at Silverstone might be reading.