Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Why I'm a motorsport fan - the first in an occasional series.....

A few years ago, I think in the Spring of 2003, I found myself at a premier league football match. Football's not really my cup of tea, and I was only really there because my brother fancied seeing a game. The teams were, if I recall correctly, Sunderland and Chelsea, although I wouldn't stake my life on that. It could just as easily have been Middlesbrough and Arsenal, though I was definitely staying in Northumberland at the time, and it wasn't at St James Park, which narrows it down to one of the two other north eastern clubs.

The match was distracting enough, if hardly inspiring. The home side were on the verge of relegation and put up a half decent fight but Graham LeSaux (he was with Chelsea wasn't he - guess it must have been Abramovich's lot then) soon equalised, and a while later, Chelsea scored again, pretty much ending Sunderland's hopes of remaining in the Premier league. What really caught my attention though, was the crowd. Being among the home supporters (the away fans' enclosure looked a pretty terrifying place to be, and for those who don't know, casual spectators going to football matches always get put in with the home fans) you'd hardly have guessed that they'd each handed over £25 or so for an afternoon's entertainment, rather they looked like they had all collectively been punched in the face. Most of them, I figure, took no pleasure in the football itself, the quality of the play, the way the goals were scored - the only thing that counted was the result. I remember asking my other brother, a Manchester United fan, a while ago, whether he could take any enjoyment from seeing the best team in the world (whomsoever that may be, and I offer no opinion here) playing the best football in the world, and beating his team 5-0. He muttered a reluctant "well, I suppose I might kind of appreciate it, but I wouldn't enjoy it". I suspect, as football fans go, he's probably something of a moderate too.

One of the aspects of motorsport I like the most is that, aside from the teenagers on the internet message boards, such attitudes are largely absent from F1, and all but unheard of among fans of other formulae. It helps that the drivers and, to a lesser extent, the teams change over time, making it harder to build up a life long, irrational loyalty to a particular team or driver (more or less a cornerstone of football fandom. Nick Hornby writes very well on how his lifelong obsession with Arsenal football club affected his life in the frequently funny Fever Pitch). It helps too that motor races are not competitions between two rival teams, but between a dozen or so teams and two dozen drivers.

Like all sports, Grand Prix racing in particular (and to a lesser extent, all major forms of motor racing) occasionally becomes subject to outbreaks of nationalist fervour. In the early 1990s it was the track invading hooligans of Mansell-mania and the death threat issuing thugs on the fringes of Schumi's army, but these people are not the real fans, and tend to disappear as quickly as they arrive, once the object of their jingoistic fervour has gone. And nothing in motorsport has ever been as vomit-inducing as the hordes of fairweather tennis fans (ok, to be fair, there's not much point in being an all-weather tennis fan) responsible for the largely media concocted phenomenon that was Henmania.

So am I a totally dispassionate, disinterested viewer, sat in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon, stroking my chin and thinking "hmm, interesting race"? Not caring at all who wins?

Well no. We all have our prejudices and favourites, and I am no exception. Certain drivers I like to see do well, and certain teams I appreciate more than others. There are some common threads. I prefer drivers who are racers to those whose modus operandi is to cruise and collect points. I prefer those who keep a low media profile to prima donnas and drama queens. I prefer teams, such as Williams, who appear passionate about racing, rather than faceless corporate entities (see my last article....)

But I don't have to stay forever loyal to any particular team or driver unlike many football fans, who appear to feel obliged to stick forever with whatever team they were misfortunate enough to pledge playground allegiance to at the age of 8 (Macclesfield Town, in case you're wondering). When the passionate, chaotic, classically Italian Ferrari morphed into the dully efficient, bland winning machine of the early Noughties, I found myself willing on the old school racers at Williams. When Benetton slowly changed, under Pat Symonds, from a team seemingly operating on the borders of illegality with their constant troubles over fuel hoses, traction control systems and undertray planks in 1994, to one of the best run, leanest Grand Prix teams in the business over the last year or so, I couldn't help but admire them. When Jordan, who had once been the plucky underdogs achieving considerably success on a small budget, seemed to morph into a hideously tacky extension of Eddie Jordan's huge ego, I found myself hoping it would be the quiet cigar-chomping Swiss ex sportscar builder who would threaten the regular front runners instead.

Of course, anyone reading this who has known me for long enough, might at this point be yelling "hypocrite" and pointing towards my fanatically partisan support of Senna against Prost and Mansell as a kid in the late 80s and early 90s. Well, sure, I was, but even as a kid, the end result never affected my enjoyment when I actually went to see the races. For one, just watching 26 Grand Prix cars on the track in person was a novelty and a spectacle in itself, and secondly, I always enjoyed a good race, regardless of who came out on top. Indeed, one of my favourite races was the 1987 British Grand Prix, watching Mansell's remorseless pursuit of Piquet and wondering whether he could really reel in a 30 second gap before the end - it probably helped that my father had bought us grandstand seats at Stowe that year. But in any case, I was a child, and such fanatical devotion to a team or player is, well, childish......

....And I don't care how many of you disagree with me, but an F1 car on the limit through the old Stowe, or Paddock Hill bend, Eau Rouge or the Craner curves is far more exciting, far more of a spectacle, than 22 men chasing after a pigs bladder can ever be.


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