Being there

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174

It’s free on TV, so why spend money on a grand prix ticket? We sent our man to Silverstone with instructions to enjoy himself

By Colin Goodwin

It’s not one-upmanship and it’s not really bragging, but there is something about the feeling that you get when you were actually there. Several of my friends were at the 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington when Senna blew everyone away in the wet. I saw it too, but only from a dry sitting room. I saw the Arnoux and Villeneuve tussle at Dijon in ’79 too, but again only on telly. But I was at Brands Hatch for its last ever GP when Senna was beaten by Mansell. I saw Joey Dunlop win in the Isle of Man, too, and you can’t put a price on that.

And today I am hoping to see Lewis Hamilton win the British GP at his first attempt. ITV’s F1 audience has risen by 30 per cent since Hamilton came onto the scene and a very small eenth of that figure is down to me as for the first time in years I have watched every race religiously.

Motor Sport’s Mr Frankel has suggested that I attend the grand prix as a punter. No helicopter shuttle from my back garden to the paddock, no breakfast with Sir Frank and no advising Lewis on set-up in the sanctity of his pit garage. No, I will be on the outside with the paying fans. Actually, I’m very much looking forward to it. Yes, VIP treatment is very pleasant, but there is one terrible downside to wandering around the paddock with your BerniePass proudly dangling from your neck, and it’s the frightful people shambling about. I was there last year and you are surrounded by over made-up people of both sexes who wouldn’t know Jochen Rindt from Leo Sayer and who are only there because some large corporation invited them along as a jolly. Last year I saw the band Franz Ferdinand (or was it the Kaiser Chiefs?) wandering around the paddock with some PR prancing in the background. And do you know what? Every single one of them walked right past Keke Rosberg without stopping to ask him what the old Woodcote was like flat in a Williams. I asked.

Boris Johnson is going to run for mayor of London. I like Boris, but there’s only one man for the job of sorting out the smoke and that’s Bernie Ecclestone. I’m not joking. Most of us having suffered the traffic misery that was getting into Silverstone. I remember having a massive to-do getting to the British Motorcycle GP in 1978, and only a handful of the population had cars in those days. Anyway, after the great mudbath a few years ago, when many fans were so long in getting out they paid their council tax on Silverstone, Ecclestone got on the case with the traffic.

The result is that I left home in Hampton, Middx, and was strolling through the circuit gates 15 minutes shy of two hours later. Already this makes the day far more enjoyable. We have seats Q46 and 47 in Stand C at Stowe, but because the journey was so easy and I had factored in the possibility of queuing we’ve got three hours until the start of the Grand Prix. We will not be bored. First, there’s the Porsche Super Cup race and then there’ll be some traditional neck-craning for the Red Arrows.

We need a bit of time because not only has Frankel excluded me from the world of canapés and lah-di-dah spectators, he’s also set me a couple of challenges. Here they are, in no particular order of difficulty: I have to touch a genuine F1 car; get the autograph of someone famous; see Lewis Hamilton; join the track invasion if he wins; witness a genuine overtaking manoeuvre that isn’t on the first lap and finally, watch the race from three different and worthwhile vantage points.

How does he expect me to touch a genuine F1 car when I can’t even get to the middle of the circuit with my £199 ticket? Ditto see Hamilton. On the other four I will do my best, but not the track invasion because I don’t approve of that sort of behaviour and don’t want to run the risk of being spotted on telly taking part in tribal rites of passage. Neither do I want to get run down by a Toyota F1 car.

By some colossal fluke it is not raining and doesn’t look as though it will do so. And Hamilton is on pole, so what more can we want? Our plan, from the entrance at Abbey where we have arrived from the field where we parked the car, is to walk around to Stowe via Copse and the various commercial stands behind the pits.

Does it ever pass, this feeling of excitement when one enters an active racing circuit? It hasn’t for me, even when I’m not racing myself. The place is packed – Lewismania no doubt. That said, the crowd appears not to be especially partisan. All the competing teams seem to have generous support.

Toyota has a stand on which is an F1 show car; I doubt  if Frankel will accept this as a genuine F1 car but I touch it anyway. Then I see a sign up behind the stand counter saying ‘Driver Appearance Ralf Schumacher 10.25’. Curse, it is 10.55. Had I not queued for a 99 Flake I would have been able to bag an autograph of someone famous. Red Bull has a stand, too, also with a show car on it but not, alas, any signs promising the appearance of a driver. You can see why Ferrari makes more money selling merchandise than it does from selling road cars. There are at least two official retail outlets here.

One of the greatest additions to the world of F1 in decades is the BMW Sauber F1 Team Pit Lane Park. The idea is to give fans a sniff of what F1 is all about. Proper F1 cars are brought out and doughnutted around (this year by Nigel Mansell, no less) and there are various informative displays and interactive events. It’s quite brilliant and it’s totally free. You even get a VIP-like pass to hang around your neck.

In one area they’ve set up a wheel-changing competition. Okay, Frankel, the car is not a genuine F1 car but the wheel and hub is and I’ve just changed a wheel in 9.5sec. Put me in your pit crew and you will lose the race, but as far as I’m concerned I touched a bit of F1 machinery, so that’s one off the list. Then just as we’re about to leave I spot English rugby star and Zara Phillips’ boyfriend Mike Tindall. He’ll do. Two down.

So am I having fun yet? Very much so, and even more when the Red Arrows do their stuff. Concorde, a Spitfire, a Jaguar D-Type and the Red Arrows make me feel incredibly patriotic.

It seems as though everyone else is having a nice time, too, even the ones who aren’t already into their eighth can of lager. On our way to Stowe I sport three fans sporting Ronnie Peterson ‘Superswede’ T-shirts. Must be Swedes themselves, which they turn out to be. After chatting about Mad Ronald (as Hailwood called him) for a few minutes the lads asked, no doubt spotting the grey, if I’d ever seen Ronnie in action. You see, the perfect ‘Yeeesss, I was there’ moment; but unfortunately I never did see Peterson drive. Just a few years too early for someone with a non-enthusiast dad.

Our stand looks perfectly placed for some action. Our tickets would have given us roving access for Friday and Saturday as well as this grandstand seat. Not cheap – but then neither is Glastonbury and I’ve heard that the overtaking there is not easy. On seat 48 to my left is a chap called John, who is very tall and wearing a sun hat. His view is rather better than those sitting directly behind him. Like me, he has been stirred out of his sofa by the brilliance of Hamilton. And he too admits that ‘he wanted to be there to witness a little bit of history’. 

Warm-up lap, and then another as Massa stalls on the line. What does that feel like? I stalled on the start line at the Brighton Speed Trials one year and felt so silly that I felt like jumping into the sea and swimming to the Azores. The good news is that we’ll see him tearing through the pack. They’re all through the first corner safely and Hamilton is in front. Wild cheering. A few laps later and it becomes obvious that I have left two very important items at home. First, a pair of binoculars. There is a TV screen in front of us but I can’t read the leaders from it. And I have very good eyesight. Second, a small radio and earpiece because I can’t hear Bob Constanduros’ commentary. Many spectators have foam ear defenders crammed into their shell-likes, which is not a bad idea if you don’t want to spend the next week in the office hearing only a 2.4-litre V8 at 19,000rpm. On the other hand…

At around the first pitstop when Hamilton jumps the gun to make the first visible mistake in his F1 career and gives himself a mountain to climb, we leave our seats for a stroll. I don’t think these uncovered stands are worth spending the extra money on. I don’t want to spend the whole race in one place even without today’s challenge of finding three different viewing places. So we start walking back towards Copse where, if we time it right, we will watch the final laps of the race.

Last year I went to the MotoGP race at Donington. Like Murray Walker, my first love is motorcycle racing. MotoGP in the flesh, however, is a bit disappointing. You get more drama on the telly. Formula 1 is different. Television doesn’t capture anywhere near the full ferocity of a Formula 1 car at its limit. We walk past an ambulance station and gateway just down from Stowe. Peering through a gap in the fence I get an incredible view of the cars going into Stowe. This is the trick with F1. To appreciate fully what these cars are doing you need to view a snapshot as if looking through a camera and find an angle. The speed at which the cars – all of them – change direction is quite incredible. And the more you walk around the circuit the more of these snapshots you find. They’re incredible through Becketts, for example. The only snag is that I feel myself getting further and further from knowing what’s happening in the race, especially as since the field is now totally spread out it’s impossible to catch even a word from Bob.

As we reach Copse we’re down to the last couple of laps. No place at Silverstone better shows the incredible downforce of these cars. They come straight at you and then dive right. Hamilton will finish third. Incredible; it feels like an anti-climax. What happens when he finishes fourth? He won’t know where he’s supposed to go. There’s no track invasion, thank God, so that’s another of Mr Frankel’s challenges I’ve failed to meet.

No matter, what he also instructed me to do was to have a good time and I’ve certainly done that. There has only been one negative and that was watching our photographer being told to f*** off by a group of drunken youths who then threw a bottle of water at him. There is, sadly, a small number of people for whom the British Grand Prix is just another excuse to get drunk and behave badly.

Another negative might have been an almighty queue to get out. After all, the massive crowd arrives at different times but departs as one. Even so, it took only about 40 minutes to get out of the car park, and then it was plain sailing down the A43 to the M40. The only hitch on the trip home was a jam on the M25. Not even Bernie could fix that.

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