Watching World Champions

I spent the weekend down at Yas Island in  Abu Dhabi for the F1 Grand Prix.  Being a huge F1 fan, and an even bigger Lewis Hamilton supporter, it turned out to be a sensational weekend, as Lewis won the race, securing him his 2nd world championship. As Prince Harry rightly said, “…. a legend!”

My Mum and Dad are over at the moment and so were also with me for the weekend. On the boring, straight drive to Abu Dhabi, through the desert from Dubai, we talked about the last time the three of us had  all been to a F1 race together. I’ve been to quite a few F1 events over the years, either races or qualifying and almost all of them at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and the majority of them with my Dad.  1988 I distinctly remember – standing in the pouring rain at Silverstone,  watching Senna slide his McLaren round Copse, wiping the floor with everyone. It was miserable weather, but I loved it!

Eventually  wIMG_1160e realised that the last time me, Mum and Dad were all at an F1 race together was in 1986, 28 years earlier, when on a brilliant, British Sunday afternoon, Nige stormed to victory at Brands Hatch! That was my first ever F1 experience, which got me hooked on the sport ever since.

I can’t believe I’ve been watching Formula 1 for 28 years, and also how much the sport has radically changed between then and now, possibly more than any other. I’m not just talking about the cars which are obviously more technologically advanced, more computer designs than the beautiful pieces of mechanical engineering of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.

But everything about going to a F1 race has changed. In the 80’s and 90’s I can remember queuing for hours to get into the car parks at the circuit and you parked in farmers fields. Getting out after the race was even worse.  Outside the track ticket touts would rattle off their only line, “Any tickets? Any tickets? I’ll buy any spares.” Once inside the circuit, as you walked around,  scantily clad girls representing the whole spectrum of tobacco manufacturers used to hand out free cigarettes to anyone who wanted one!  The only food you could buy to get you through the day was dodgy burgers from a food van followed by freshly fried donuts and a Coke to wash it down.  The exhibitors who would be showing off their wares were run of the mill brands, affordable to the every man. For a professional, global sport, it was really quite normal.

Access to the sport was so much different too. I remember at Silverstone in 1989,  my Dad and I had driven up to Northampton on Friday afternoon and were staying the night (probably in the back of a Volvo estate) so we could be at the track early and get a good spot to watch on Saturday.  So Friday evening, as the sun sets, my Dad and I walking around the circuit and we walk down the pitlane and into the McLaren garage. Actually into the garage.  I have photos taken on my little 35mm camera of Senna’s gearbox, taken from about 1m away! No-one said a word – we weren’t thrown out of the garage, there weren’t hundreds of people or press clambering for photos. We were just stood in the garage, with the mechanics, next to probably one of the best F1 cars ever made! It was F1 up close.

The sport has certainly moved on. If I compare my first memories to my most recent experiences, the shift is seismic. You notice it even before you get into the circuit. Buses ferry fans from purpose built car parks every 15 mins, there are no queues, nIMG_4706o farmers fields and definitely no touts! Inside the circuit, the brands associating themselves with F1 are very different. I no longer see the newest Volkswagen. Now I get to see what flying 1st class (not even Business) with the latest airline from the Gulf is like – and by the way it’s pretty awesome! The Yas Marina circuit is vast, with huge, purpose built grandstands.  The billiard table smooth track loops around the Viceroy hotel which in turn overlooks the marina, filled with million dollar yachts. There are screens everywhere to watch the race when the cars are at different parts of the circuit.  It is the epitome of F1 in the modern age.

Yet, with all the glamour, it feels like the opportunity to really connect with F1 has been lost. Fans are kept at bay from the cars and their superstar drivers by cordons and security guards. Interaction with the drivers now is a distant wave from the safety of his pit garage, behind his obligatory “windows to the soul” sunglasses. Pit walks are largely reserved for “The Paddock Club” – how sponsors and millionaires watch F1.

And what changed everything is the money. The people who run F1 realise fans (and sponsors) will pay a lot of money to watch the sport up close, so why not charge more for it. They want to attract big money into the sport, and brands want to be associated with the global reach they can get from it. To do that they’ve had to improve the show and offer a better experience. If you’re charging more money it has to be cleaner, smarter, slicker, newer and in more glamorous locations. It has to be 1st class.

So, if you want to walk in the pits, you can, it will just cost you more money. If you want a drivers autograph, you can still get one, but at a designated signing session with thousands of other people.  In reality, you can still get as close as you want to the action. It’s just the closer you want to get the bigger the hit on the credit card.