Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Being There...

Standing on the banking at Pouhon on Sunday afternoon, with just five laps to go in the Belgian Grand Prix. Kimi Raikkonen leads by around 2 to 3 seconds from Lewis Hamilton's Mclaren. In the normal course of events, there would be little prospect of this changing before the chequered flag. There's little to choose between the combination of Mclaren /Hamilton and Raikkonen/Ferrari around Spa and it looks like this will be the order in which they finish. Or will it? The chill wind suddenly blowing over the circuit, the dampness in air and the menacing clouds overhead though, they threaten a wild card. If there's a wet track in the dying laps, all bets are off. It's not a question of if but of when. It will rain, but the question is - will it rain before the chequered flag falls?

Felipe Massa
Felipe Massa in action during Friday free practice.

We all know how it ended, of course. A scrappy moment at the chicane, a fine out-braking manoeuvre at La Source, a grassy excursion for Hamilton at Fagnes and then finally Raikkonen goes into the wall at Blanchimont and that settles it. At least until the stewards saw fit to interfere and hand victory to Felipe Massa, who hadn't really figured all afternoon. My point, though, is not to go into that farce in any detail. Others have said all there is to be said on the matter. Rather it is to illustrate one of the many little things that you can only fully appreciate by actually being at the race. Those watching on television might have known that there was a chance of rain, but only those who were actually standing in the hills in the Ardennes could actually feel it.

Of course, if a better appreciation of the local weather conditions were the only thing to be said for going to a Grand Prix, then I for one would have stayed at home, saved myself a fortune and tuned in to ITV on Sunday afternoon. An awful lot of people, though to be fair, mostly people who are not fans of the sport, could not understand why I was going to the effort of camping out in the rain in Spa when I could simply have watched the race from the comfort of my own living room. "Surely you don't see as much if you go to the track? Isn't most of the action happening somewhere else?". Ironically, a lot of the people who ask me this are football fans who go to matches regularly. I can't say I am, but I have been to a few games with my brother over the years, and one of the things that struck me was how much harder it was to follow what was happening on the pitch when the TV director is not doing the work for you.

Nick Heidfeld
Nick Heidfeld had the edge over Robert Kubica for once.


One of the big things, for me, about going to a Grand Prix is what I suspect is the biggest part of the appeal for football fans - the atmosphere and the sense of being at an event. From the moment that the thousands of fans come pouring into the track early in the morning, waving (and sometimes wearing) flags and wearing the colours of their favoured team or driver, through the morning support races, to the driver parade and the final build up of the driver parade, it builds a sense of anticipation that can't easily be replicated on the television.

Another benefit is the chance to swap stories with other race fans in an atmosphere which is a good deal more friendly and relaxed than you will find at any football match. Whether it was the Danish vet who had come to her first Grand Prix to see Kimi Raikkonen in action, or the guy in the tent next to mine who had been coming to Grands Prix since the early 1970s, and was hoping for a Lewis Hamilton victory I found plenty time in the evenings to talk to other race fans about the sport.

Crowd Scene
Spectators awaiting the race start at Pouhon.

In my view, F1, far from being a sport which only works on television, is one which can only be fully appreciated by watching trackside. The wide-angle shots used by television directors kill the sense of speed that is such a vital part of Grand Prix racing. Walking along the path that takes you from the Bust Stop down towards Stavelot on Friday morning during free practice, something that really struck me was just how quick the cars were, and watching them into the braking zone at Les Combes in the afternoon, the rate at which they could slow down - the sheer power of the brakes on a modern F1 car, took even me, a seasoned F1 fan aback somewhat. Things have certainly progressed on this score since I last went to a race, back in 1999. Then there's the noise. Either my hearing has been dulled, or the cars are not quite as loud as they used to be (someone I spoke to on Saturday evening at the campsite agreed with me that they are rather quieter these days, at least off-throttle) but they still make a formidable racket running flat out, which is enough in itself to generate a frisson of excitement in any real race fan.

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton on a damp track on Saturday morning.


Being up close to the action (even within the constraints of modern circuit design, with its high fences and its acres of run-off which tend to keep spectators a little too far back from the track) also gives a chance to observe F1 drivers practicing their art in a way to a degree which is difficult to replicate on television. Through the fast left hander, Pouhon, a corner which to my mind is rather more of a challenge in a modern F1 car than the flat-out Eau Rouge, it was notable that on Friday morning, Piquet and Nakajima were struggling a little - taking too much kerb on the inside and losing time through the exit as a result. Interestingly, it was these same two drivers who appeared to have most difficulty hitting the apex at Bruxelles/Rivage (or whatever the hairpin after Malmedy is called these days).

Giancarlo Fisichella
Up close with Giancarlo Fisichella


You have to be looking carefully - there aren't wild differences in the lines being taken by any of the drivers (the same was not true of the Porsche Supercup drivers in wet practice on Friday evening, who were trying all kinds of lines through Rivage) but differences could be seen. Nick Heidfeld seemed to be earlier back on the throttle than anyone else and there appeared to be a particular smoothness to Lewis Hamilton's approach into Rivage. Regular readers of Mark Hughes Trackside View column for Autosport will know that watching the drivers' approach through free practice is one of his favourite pastimes. Appearances, though, can sometimes be deceptive. On Saturday afternoon, it looked to me as though nobody was quicker into Rivage than the Toyotas of Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli. And yet neither driver made Q3. Was this because they were losing time elsewhere in the lap? Or was it something about the engine note, or the lines they were using, which created a false impression of how quick they were really going? I don't know but it does show up the limits of observation.

Timo Glock
Glock entering Bruxelles

There is much that I could complain about when it comes to how modern Grand Prix races are run - from a spectator's point of view. The fact that you can no longer get anywhere near the pitlane or paddock in the evening after the races - something I used to do all the time as a kind in the late 1980s. The way that almost all of the really good vantage points are reserved for grandstands where seats cost upwards of £300. The ludicrously expensive camping and plenty else besides. Thing is, in the end, none of this seriously affected my enjoyment of the event on the day. It did help, though, that I didn't hear about the nonsense in the stewards' office until Monday morning. I certainly don't intend to leave it another 10 years before I go to my next Grand Prix.

All photos are author's own. More here.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Nicebloke said...

Wow, sounds like you had a great time. I am, as you know, a great proponent of going to see racing live, and you communicated very well the excitement of the experience. So which track are you going to next?

1:40 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

I'm really tempted by Le Mans - just need to have quiet June at work for once. And a friend who had been intending to come to Spa with me has invited me down to Goodwood as for the Revival meeting as its nearby her family - so that might be next.

2:49 PM  
Anonymous Peter White said...

Really enjoyed this first-hand account of Spa. Everything you said was true and it all communicated the awesome nature of the sport when you see it unfiltered by the deadening nature of TV.
But television has its merits, particularly the modern in-car shots, so I hope you could see one of the big screens from your spot at Pouhon.
It really is hard to judge who is really quick from the trackside. This isn't club-racing and nobody is actually slow behind the wheel. My main success in this area was to point out to my son at Silverstone years ago that I thought that young Felipe Massa looked pretty good. It took a few years but eventually my opinion stopped looking so daft. Ciao

5:07 AM  

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