They said it was better than sex; that I should prepare to get grubby. They said there would be more overtaking than I’d seen all season. They were wrong, and they were right.
This was a step into the unknown. I had been sent to Coventry, Madame Mégane enjoying time in sixth gear on our way north. But it was with some trepidation that I approached the Brandon Stadium for the 2010 F1 Stock Cars World Championship Final.
It’s the noise that hits you first. Picking my way through the paddock, surrounded by throbbing engines and mechanics with more hammers than spanners, I began to sense why so many people are hooked. The place was thick with fumes, brutal exhausts and colourful creatures powered by V8 Chevys, with battered bumpers and what appeared to be huge sunbeds on the roof. It’s vulgar. And it’s intoxicating.
I headed for the terraces, already jam-packed with disciples. It felt like a football match before seats arrived and beer was banned. The cars rumbled onto the oval in squalls of noise, a blur of pinks, greens, purples and reds, snarling V8s and spinning wheels.
“Don’t stand too close, they’ll blow your fag out,” shouted Rob Every, my guide through this mayhem. Then he explained the rules, none of which I understood, except that this is a contact sport. Weaving, blocking, pushing and shoving are positively encouraged. I pulled my hat down over my eyes and turned my collar up. The starter dropped his flag and, well, all hell broke loose. And this was only a warm-up act. The Final is held in the dark. Jeez.
After three races I needed a drink. In the queue I imagined a nice cold Sauvignon. The choice was beer or lager. I chose a pint of Tetleys in a plastic glass which I drank while wandering among the historic cars. Like NASCAR or Indycar, this sport is built on dynasties, dominated by sons of famous fathers. There was Gentleman John Stirk’s six-wheeler from 1976, inspired apparently by the Tyrrell. Super Stu Smith’s Wildcat, he being the father of current champion Andy Smith. Fords from the ’50s, stripped to the metal, perfect for running liquor across the state line…
I had a seat in the VIP Diamond Suite for the Final. Here there was smoked salmon, and wine, and tablecloths. But not much atmosphere. So I stepped back out into the crescendo of noise that precedes a World Championship race. It was getting dark, the drivers parading to a chorus of cheers, boos and catcalls, floodlights casting shadows on the shale. This must have been what it was like for the gladiators. Visceral, highly charged.
The commentator called for silence. Fat chance. “Gentlemen, start your engines,” he instructed, just audible above the tribal drums. The drivers heard though, and 34 Formula One stock cars from Britain, Holland, Australia and New Zealand began squirting, snorting and sliding their way round to a rolling start. The shale is watered, so lap one can be tricky. No sooner had the leaders slalomed through turn one than a huge pile-up ensued. Smoke and steam and flashing lights everywhere. Crowd favourite John Lund was involved, his front axle broken. Mechanics rushed to the stricken machine, changed the axle, sent the eight-times World Champion back out. Lund is no tax exile and he came to Coventry not by private jet but by car down the M1 from his Clitheroe farm.
Andy Smith led from the flag to win a third consecutive world title. The race is a full-on riot of noise, colour and dust, and then it’s done, the infield littered with wrecks. This was not according to the script as seen on the BBC’s Gears & Tears. This year Smith’s nemesis Frankie Wainman Jr never looked a threat, even though he was second. Among the real ales on offer at the bar were ‘Smashing Smith’ and ‘Wobbly Wainman’. And so it proved to be.
It had been like a visit to the opera. You can’t follow the plot, you don’t know what the words mean, but it’s a wonderful experience. And late into the night the racers were still rumbling in the jungle. I’ll be back.