Monday, January 18, 2010

Show Business

Last weekend I went down to Birmingham for the Autosport International Racing Show for the first time in twenty or so years. Its heavily promoted through Autosport, who make it out to be something not to be missed by any real race fan, though this is hardly surprising given that it is organised by the 'exhibitions' wing of Haymarket Publications. But the fundamental reason I've not bothered paying a visit in a very long time us that I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for what is essentially a trade fair with a few celebrity guest appearances thrown in. Of course, its a motorsport trade fair, so it's more my cup of tea than a show for the farming trade might be, but as someone not involved in the industry, I was never that convinced of its merit as a public entertainment event.

I'm not alone. There was an article over at Sidepodcast last week in which Mr C explained why they weren't bothering this year, and to judge by the comments left on the article, it appears there's a fair degree of scepticism about the value of the event for people like myself - race fans, with no intention right now of hopping the fence and becoming competitors.

Nonetheless, as I was in Birmingham for the weekend anyway, and a couple of old friends were dropping by the event as a break from their house-hunting mission in the city, I thought it worth paying a visit. Two things struck me instantly on arrival. The first was that, at nearly £30 for basic admission, it's on the pricey side. That's more than I paid for to see the BTCC at Knockhill - and all for an event that doesn't feature any actual racing - the more so as they'd sold out of tickets for the Live Action Arena by the time I got there. The second thing that hit me was that the venue - the NEC, is absolutely huge - it has the cavernous feel of a vast aircraft hangar and is much bigger than I remember it being when I last went as a 12 year old child.

Still, as the selling out of the 4,700 seater arena shows demonstrates, it's a popular event with the fans. I'm sure it helped that world champion Jenson Button was putting in an appearance, and yes, there's not a lot else happening in the motorsport world at this time of year, but all the same, I was surprised just how busy the place was. Perhaps, in this modern age in which Formula 1 is so uptight about letting ordinary fans get anywhere near the cars, it was simply the chance to see the cars up close. F1 Racing Magazine's stand had succeeded in collecting examples of all ten of 2009's F1 cars to display.

That said, it's hard to ignore the fact that, if you're not in the market for a racing car yourself, there isn't much to do at the show besides gawp at the machinery. There was some seriously tasty machinery on display with Lotuses of various vintages being among the highlights. Ronnie Peterson's Lotus 72, as fine a racing car as ever there was made, was joined by a Jim Clark Lotus F2 car, Martin Donnelly's 1990 Lotus-Lamborghini (which despite the vile yellow livery, looked rather better than it went) and Mario Andretti's 1978 title winning machine. There was quite a collection of rally cars to ogle too - from the elegant Lancia 037 to the brutal looking Metro 6R4, with plenty of more recent machinery on show too - including the title winning Subarus of both of Britain's late World Rally Champions, Richard Burns and Colin McRae. And, if, like me, you have a taste for curios and oddities, there was a red GTP Nissan Group C car, a Lotus Carlton and a fair smattering of stock cars and drag racers hidden away at one end of the vast hall.

To be fair, staring at parked cars wasn't quite all there was to do at the show. The Autosport Stand did a fine job of interviewing as many people as they could get hold of, and Martin Brundle's observations on the upcoming F1 season were well worth catching, even if his racing-driver son, who was sat alongside him, didn't seem to know quite what to do with himself. Richard Noble enthused on the subject of his plan to break the 1000mph speed barrier, and Oliver Gavin and Johnny Mowlem talked about their year in sports car racing. Though, as it happens, you didn't have to be there, because Autosport have kindly uploaded the interviews to Youtube.

People with a lot more money to spare than I have could even buy a historic racing car. Coys were auctioning off assorted exotica on the Saturday afternoon and the friends I had met up with were keen to watch because, in amongst the Ferrari sportscars and Surtees F2 cars, was a Mark 1 Capri very much like the one that they have slowly rotting in a garage, and they were intently interested to see how much it might be worth if they ever got around to restoring it.

Those with considerably more patience and willingness to stand in line than I had could also queue up to drive assorted racing simulators - the most impressive of which involved a six-poster rig which threw its 'passengers' around quite violently as they drove a Ferrari F430 around a virtual Elkhart Lake.

So, all in all, it was a reasonably entertaining way to kill a couple of hours, but if I had gone all the way to Birmingham solely to see the Autosport show, I would probably have felt a little cheated. Unreasonably perhaps. After all, what, besides the chance to have a look at a few parked racing cars, can one really expect from a racing car show? But I don't think I'll be hurrying back next year...

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