The Formula 1 calendar becomes ever more cosmopolitan, yet its farthest extremes might be more accessible than you’d imagine…
By Simon Arron
“You want what?” From the look on our interpreter’s face you might think we’d requested something complex, but we sought only a knife to butter our toast… and the hotel appeared bereft of cutlery. Such can be the reality of the itinerant Formula 1 lifestyle. And this isn’t some vague recollection from the 1970s: it happened in Korea last year…
Had the Korean GP been conceived close to Seoul, a wonderful, bustling city with fantastic architecture and attitude, it would probably have become an instant favourite. The financial impetus, though, came from the nation’s southern tip, more than three hours from the capital by high-speed train and a region short on conventional accommodation. Many buildings have ‘hotel’ emblazoned on their flanks in bright neon letters, but they usually rent rooms for hours rather than days. When colleague Mark Hughes and I checked in last October, we were given gift packs containing assorted potions and condoms, but they couldn’t supply breakfast utensils (although they did eventually procure one knife, which every guest had to share). And this wasn’t some run-down shack we’d booked on the cheap, but an official media hotel.
For the past 12 seasons I’ve had the privilege of attending every World Championship Grand Prix, as a freelance, and self-employment taught me much about the practicalities of life on the road. As recently as 2009, when I drove to three races and flew from the UK to the other 14, my total flight costs came to £4600 — pretty reasonable, when you consider the destinations. There’s no magic involved, just patience and a little diligence.
The cost of covering the sport has since increased, with extra long-haul races, associated visa costs and rising aviation fuel taxes, but even the most distant events might be within your reach. Websites such as travelsupermarket.com (flights, hotels, hire cars) and booking.com (hotels) are valuable allies, while budget airlines are not the UK’s exclusive preserve: last year, one writer stayed away during the Singapore-Japan-Korea race sequence, flew with Caterham F1 owner Tony Fernandes’s Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur to Osaka and paid about £75 for more than six hours aloft. It’s a frequently repeated cliche that the planet feels much smaller than once it did, and the evidence supports that.
Here, then, is a glance at the Formula 1 calendar, featuring the races you really should attend at least once — and how.
Australia and Malaysia: Rounds 1&2
These two are best considered as a package. The cost of a return flight from the UK to Melbourne won’t change greatly if you add a Kuala Lumpur pitstop during the return leg. Expect to pay about £800, give or take, and £400 per Grand Prix is very fair in terms of flight expenses. If you have ample time on your hands, you could set off very early and take in the Phillip Island Classic, too, a wonderful historic event one Sunday before Melbourne and about 90 minutes away by road. Australian hotels aren’t the cheapest, but gaffing around is easy, thanks to a fine tram service, and fourday general admission passes start from about £100. Nowhere else puts on quite so many top-class support events (including Aussie V8s and, this year historic sports cars). The atmosphere is wonderful and the setting at least its match: it’s a template all Grands Prix should copy.
Malaysia can’t quite match that, but is a cheaper destination and of-ten generates decent races. The Sepang circuit is close to Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the nearby Concorde Inn is a practical base: it’s the Malaysian equivalent of Butlins, but lies only 15 minutes from the track and the food (usually included in the room rate) is excellent. There’s also a shuffle service to the airport, from where you can catch an express train to central KL.
China: Round 3
Shanghai is a fascinating, vibrant city and the circuit when you can see through its smog isn’t bad, either. The two, though, are some way distant and in the early days this used to mean reliance on shuffles or taxis. You’re not allowed to hire a car without a local licence, but most cab drivers tend to be either deranged or asleep (once, we had to wake ours just before he piled into a bloke changing a wheel in lane three of the airport highway). On the flip side, they’re cheap. More recently, a direct rail link between city and circuit has opened, which might explain why crowd numbers have increased. Note that you will be approached by unfamiliar women when walking around Shanghai: some want to practise their English and will engage you in conversation about tea and cheese sandwiches, which is really quite sweet. The others are hookers.
Bahrain: Round 4
Given that they started with a blank sheet of paper a vast budget and an empty desert, this could have been a wonderful venue. Instead, it is peppered with tedious, slowto mediumspeed corners and relatively few parts are accessible to spectators. For much of the lap you might as well stage a race on the moon (although that would probably generate more atmosphere). Avoid.
Spain: Round 5
There are countless daily flights from the UK to Barcelona and Girona is almost as practical. Hire cars are cheap and you could stay as far away as Lloret de Mar yet remain within relatively easy range, although central Barcelona is barter if you can find something affordable (and it has a good rail service to the circuit). Often fairly empty prior to Fernando Alonso’s invention, the circuit has become a bubbling cauldron. The races are often a bit rubbish, but the long, high-speed sweeps make it a fine theatre at which to appreciate the art of a lone F1 car.
Monaco: Round 6
Again, like Barcelona, the principality tells you rather more about driving than racecraff. The stats reveal that Monaco’s lap speed is the season’s slowest, but drivers claim it feels like the fastest and that’s how it looks from trackside, too, because proximity embellishes the spectacle. It’s not cheap, but you’ll find fair hotel deals in Nice and a daily return train ticket is about €7 (cramped, but practical). Airlines (even the budget variety) ramp up their fees at race time, so you need to book early to pay closer to £100 than £350. Eurostar is a good option, though: online sales open three months before travel and, if quick, you can buy a non-flexible, premier-class return from London to Nice for about £220 (or significantly less for standard). There are worse ways to spend a day than watching France waft by.
Canada: Round 7
Montreal would be one of the world’s most appealing cities even if it didn’t have a Grand Prix, so the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is an added bonus. Hotels vary from reasonable to outrageous, but booking.com usually unearths something to suit all budgets. The city’s efficient metro network runs to the track, and generally this is a venue with great spirit and very few downsides. There aren’t too many direct flights, but it’s a bit cheaper to fly to Newark, New Jersey and the drive through upstate New York towards the Canadian border is a landscape-rich, five-hour treat. Recommended.
Britain: Round 8
Oddly, this is the one about which I’ve probably learned least. When I first offended, in 1977, a three-day ticket cost £16 and paddock security knocked off at about 5pm, so everybody could get in and mooch about behind the pit garages. Some bygone traditions are overdue for reinvention.
Germany: Round 9
Hockenheim and the Nurburgring are reasonably easy to reach from Calais although that’s more practical if you hail from Tunbridge Wells rather than Tayside or Truro. It’s worth the effort, though: proceed towards Hockenheim via eastern France and you can stop awhile at Reims, perhaps to take a picnic lunch on the old pit counter. And the most efficient Nurburgring route takes you past Spa: win-win, basically.
Hungary: Round 10
Let down only by the fact that the circuit isn’t as inspiring as the city that spawned it. As F1’s lone staging post in eastern Europe, though, Budapest has a fantastic atmosphere (most of Finland pops down to watch). It also benefits from low-cost flights and, if you choose carefully, cheap accommodation. Last year three of us paid £18 each per night for single rooms close to the urban hub. They were in an old apartment block, up about 120 stairs, but wifl was included and it provided everything you might need (a bed, mainly).
Belgium: Round 11
Nearby hotels are few and far between, but independent travellers can still find quaint guest houses within much easier reach. Stout boots and stamina are required to appreciate the whole lap, but the rewards justify the endeavour. Spa is only about three hours from Calais and you can buy splendid wine and cheese on the way back. What’s not to like?
Italy: Round 12
Low-cost airlines fly from several main UK airports to Milan Linate and Bergamo, both of which lie 30-35 minutes from the Monza car park. There are many hotels within striking distance, but deals flit from year to year and so have I. First time visitors are advised to reach the circuit early on Thursday, to allow ample time to wander around the old North and/or South Banking. It’s steeper than it looks: last year, GP2 racer Johnny Cecoffo Jr tried to run up with his physio and tumbled awkwardly. At least he took the trouble to explore: such appreciation for the past is all too rare among his peers.
Singapore: Round 13
Shows how a new race should be. A wonderful venue that permits Monaco-scale proximity, but costly too. Flights from the UK are likely to nudge £600, the ancient art of hotel price-hiking is well understood, and quoted rates might not include taxes. As luxury weekends go, though, it’s preffy special (some food markets offer fantastic fare for a piffance). The local light rail system stops close to several circuit gates. A good thing, this: in the fierce humidity, long walks are not advised.
Korea: Round 14
Read the intro. There’s not much wrong with the circuit, which blends elements of Silverstone, Monza and Monaco, except that it’s in the wrong place.
Japan: Round 15
A long trip from Europe, but not overly complicated. Nagoya is the closest major airport from here take a shuffle towards the central rail station, then an Osakabound Kintetsu Line service to Shiroko to pick up a bus or taxi. You could fly to Osaka and reverse the above, or else Tokyo (although Narita Airport is an hour from the main rail hub, from where you catch one of the world’s finest inventions, a bullet train, to Nagoya). At the end of it all lies Suzuka, the Spa of the Orient, a wonderful asphalt ribbon that remained totally unspoiled when facilities were upgraded a few years ago. Nearby hotels are few, far between and monopolised by teams, so quite a few folk commute from Nagoya. Note that rail fares aren’t cheap, not all stations take credit cards and many ATMs refuse European plastic. Take plenty of cash, then.
India: Round 16
Buddh International is a fine circuit, but was built miles from anywhere. Access from the closest towns (Noida and Greater Noida) hinges on erratically driven cabs that will encounter flocks of sheep being led the wrong way along dual carriageways and other local clichés. Fresh hotels are being built and the opulence of fresh construction clashes starkly with rampant poverty nearby. The mood is engaging, but prices are quite high and smog levels worse still. The best advice is to fly to New Delhi, cross your fingers and accept it for what it is. India had many more pressing needs, though, than a racetrack.
Abu Dhabi: Round 17
The local desert might one day disappear such is the rate of construction in the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit was built on a spare bit of sand and is distinguished by its architectural conceits. You can fly to Abu Dhabi or Dubai for about £350 and some people choose to stay in the laffer, because it’s a liffle cheaper and the circuit is only 45 minutes away if your hotel is at the right end of town (it takes almost half an hour from central Abu Dhabi). Hire cars cost next to nothing, although cameras automatically debit your credit card for speeding and parking fines that are easily incurred.
United States: Round 18
There are various travel options, but direct flights from the UK to Houston deposit you a couple of hours from Austin by road and from there you can proceed via the Interstate network or else interesting back roads that pass through quaint, quiet towns. Last year there were all sorts of scare stories about a shortage of accommodation in Austin (and the prices), but three of us paid £200 per night for a triple suite, despite only booking it upon arrival. This year there might genuinely be a problem, given the race’s clash with a major college football match, but the circuit is exquisite and Austin a compact, friendly city with live music driffing from every bar window is the perfect complement. Just go.
Brazil: Round 19
Interlagos has changed liffle in spirit since the 1970s and is all the beffer for it. The flight is long and can be expensive, a taxi ride from airport to city takes forever and you are advised not to walk around wearing expensive jewellery. The circuit is surrounded by armed police all the more so since Jenson Buffon was victim of an affempted carjacking in 2010 but you forget the potential hassles once you’re inside, for there is no finer track on the schedule. Magic, but with a hint of menace.