My Silverstone experience

 

Right then, let's discuss Silverstone and the 'interesting' experience it offered this past weekend. This is going to be a fairly lengthy one as there is plenty, and I mean plenty to discuss. It was certainly a challenging first experience of attending a Formula 1 race meeting, largely down to the weather it has to be said. Everyone knows by now what a frankly shocking summer we've been having so far in Britain, something which continued over the weekend. The sheer amount of rain that had fallen in the weeks previously meant that even prior to the Grand Prix, the surrounding areas of Silverstone weren't in ideal condition for the arrival of 80,000 - 125,000 fans each day over the weekend.

We'd set off at around 7:30am on Friday morning and made it down to the junction of the M1 that we needed to get off it about 2 and a half hours later. Then we joined a queue. We queued. Then queued a bit more. And then a bit more. Over the Formula 1 weekend the A43 (which runs from the M1 to Silverstone) is only in use for people wanting to get to the Grand Prix. The problem is that with the huge amount of people attending not just Sunday, but Friday and Saturday as well, the road basically can't handle all of the traffic which uses it.

Some way down the A43 towards Silverstone we found that the traffic split; with half staying on the A43 towards the track and the other half leaving it and heading onto the roads through Silverstone Village (the old way of getting to Silverstone). Thankfully we left the A43 and got out of the queue, for all of 5 minutes before hitting another long line of traffic. We were probably there for half an hour or so, but did eventually get into the car park and parked up just outside the National Straight (the old pit lane). We thought it had taken us a long time to get in, but that was nothing compared to others. On the radio that night we heard of people queuing 6-8 hours outside the track before being told to turn around and head home. Some people had been waiting months and years for this event, only to be told they couldn't get in.

Not only did it take a few hours to get in, but leaving the track was arguably worse. In hindsight we took the wrong turning out of the track and ended up stuck in the traffic alongside the new pit straight. The queue was basically caused by people who'd arrived at the track that day and were looking to camp the night or nights. But as you'll have heard, many of the car parks and camp-sites were completely saturated in parts and had become mud baths. It got to a point where they weren't allowing people onto the camp-sites because they couldn't guarantee that their vehicles would get on or off the grass/mud when it came to leaving. The fields and car parks reminded me of scenes from a music festival.

The weather was clearly causing chaos, but other factors certainly didn't help. On the way in and out of the circuit, there appeared to very few stewards, staff and police around to instruct people on what was happening and what to do. There appeared to be next to no communication between the circuit operators and the staff down on the ground, which left thousands of people frustrated, angry and confused. If like me this was your first experience of a Grand Prix, it could well put you off from ever going (or attempting to go) again.

The Friday was a testing day not only for drivers, teams and organisers, but the fans as well. Those who got into the track did at least see some action with the Historics practice session, GP2 qualifying, Porsche Supercup practice and a few minutes of Formula 1 practice. Was it worth it? Probably not for the price, but we did see some action and a tremendous level of skill from the drivers given the horrendous conditions. Barring Bruno Senna's crash in FP2 (see my previous article about Williams "The South American Battle") the drivers across all classes managed to keep on the track without causing damage to their cars. The rain at times was torrential, causing the track to be incredibly slippy and treacherous. Experiencing first hand these conditions from the stands, it made me appreciate more just how difficult it must be to drive in those conditions and how much concentration is needed just to stay on the track.

As was announced on Friday night, 20,000 fans were being asked to not turn up on Saturday to allow the car parks and surrounding areas to 'recover' so that all fans with tickets for Sunday would be able to get into the track for Sunday's big race. We decided to park up away from the track and walk a few miles (well, 5.5). Despite destroying my feet from walking miles in Wellington boots on tarmac, the decision to park up away from the track was a good one. When we got to the track, it took at most 2 minutes to get inside and take our seats. We had the freedom to sit pretty much anywhere, so spent the morning sitting at Vale watching final practice for the Formula 1 cars. We then moved to the next corner, Club, to watch the qualifying session for the Porsche's, Formula 1 qualifying and the first GP2 and GP3 races. The view was excellent, as was the atmosphere. Even during the hour-plus break we had during the Formula 1 qualifying, the atmosphere amongst fans remained excellent. Mexican waves stretching from the pitlane, down through Club and over towards Vale were entertaining; the fans at Vale were raising their umbrellas as part of the wave, and when they didn't the rest of the crowd booed (in good spirit of course). The 'Silverstone Sweepers' (my name for them) got cheered and received a standing ovation when leaving the track; and even the safety car made thousands of fans stand up and cheer. The rain was certainly not dampering the spirits of fans that were there.

The GP2 and GP3 races were really good. The standard of driving was again good, and with a few Brits in each race it kept the home crowd interested in the lower Formula races. Plenty of incidents and spins occurred down at Club corner which saw the crowd 'oohing' and 'ahhing' throughout. I'll write a review of the GP2 and GP3 races across the weekend over the next day or two, stating who impressed and who could make the step up to the main class in the next year or two.

Over the course of the day and with the addition of more rain, the state of the car parks, fields and areas outside the grandstands appeared to be getting worse. Wood chippings and pieces of bark were being placed down in the areas where the mud was at its worst, but it wasn't doing much good from the looks of things. Within hours the chippings had turned to muddy slush and the problem appeared to be worsening, especially given the hour long delude we had during qualifying.

Thankfully though Saturday had been a better day for on track action and the crowd that was there got to see plenty of racing. Unfortunately thousands more either didn't get in again or decided to stay away despite having a ticket. The revenue lost from fans not being able to attend will hurt Silverstone. Tickets are not cheap, but it's not only the ticket price that the circuit has lost out on, but the additional costs of food, drink and merchandise (of which there was plenty). It was hard to judge the attendance on Saturday, but it seemed relatively similar to that that was there on the Friday.

Come race day we again decided to park away from the track and walk in, but thankfully this time it was much closer to the circuit, but not too close to get stuck in the traffic getting there and away from the circuit (more in a bit). There was a noticeable increase in traffic heading to the circuit on Sunday, resulting in yet more chaos. The campsites weren't really able to take any more cars, so people resorted to parking there cars (in both directions) at the side of a narrow country road and all the way up to the circuit itself. If anything the mud had got worse in the car parks next to the circuit with cars looking like they'd be stuck there for days.

We arrived in our seats at Becketts in time to see the GP3, GP2 and Porsche Supercup races prior to the Formula 1 race. The view from Becketts is fantastic as you can see virtually half of the track. The cars entered view on the run down to Village and then all the way down the National Straight towards the Luffield complex. The cars re-entered our view through the Maggots, Becketts sequence and onto the Hangar Straight. For the majority of the race we were able to see at least 1 or 2 cars at all times as they spread out around the circuit, which meant we never really had to wait a minute or so to see cars once again.

The GP2 and GP3 races were packed full of action and incident, with plenty of crashes, spins and comings together at the Maggots, Becketts sequence. The crowd loved it, with plenty of cheering and clapping when cars went wide, across the grass or spinning into the gravel. The on-track marshalls did a great job of clearing the circuit as quickly and safely as they could, often under tricky circumstances.

Another great part of the experience was the track commentary provided by Ian Titchmarsh and the rest of the team. I'm familiar with these guys from the British Touring Car Championship where they provide an excellent insight and guide to what is happening around the whole of the track, both when there is on-track action and not. The quirky, humorous and informative style on show makes for a very entertaining experience and keeps the crowd interested during all the races and breaks inbetween. They deserve a lot of credit for the job they did across the 3 days, where at times there was no on-track action for hours at a time.

Then came the main event; the 2012 Formula 1 Santander British Grand Prix. The excitement really began to set in when the drivers parade truck came round. There was a noticeable increase in crowd size and noise from then on in as the countdown began to the start of the race. Entertainment provided by the Red Arrows was mightily impressive and kept the 100,000+ crowd amazed for a good 10-15 minutes. The noise then really picked up when the Formula 1 cars came out for their laps to grid (of which they did about 3 each after going through the pits). Less than half an hour to go and the grandstands were filling up nicely, as well as the banking around the track. By the time the cars set off on their formation lap, all the grandstands we could see from Becketts were completely full, a truly immense sight.

The noise generated from 24 Formula 1 cars is indescribably loud and incredible. We chose (ok, forgot) to take ear plugs, but in a way I'm glad. The noise was so immense that it's something I think you need to experience at full volume to fully appreciate. Yes, my ears are still ringing a little as I'm writing this some 24 hours after, but it was definitely worth it. Not only the speed at which the cars went through Maggots, Becketts and Chapel on the formation lap, but the speed of the change of direction was staggering. The cars were now lined up (minus Vitaly Petrov who'd stopped out on track) and the red lights went from 1 to 5. They went out and we were off; 52 laps of Formula 1 action to experience first hand and live. This was going to be awesome.

The 23 cars were so closely packed when arriving at Village that the noise was simply deafening, even from the other side of the track. By the time the cars came through Becketts they were still close to each other, with the noise even louder. It was simply the greatest noise I've ever heard, especially when the cars changed down a gear. I thought the change of direction was impressive during their warming up laps, but come the actual race it was just outstanding. A left, right, left, right, left sequence taken at over 100mph throughout takes some serious skill to negotiate in a car with a full tank of fuel and relatively cold tyres.

From our viewpoint we could see almost half the track, and for the bits we couldn't see we were able to watch the television pictures on the big screen in front of us. At times it was tricky to keep up with what was going on with so much to watch. As the race went on the cars naturally spread out, so I often found myself watching the screen and the cars coming past at the same time. Saying that it was hard to watch the screen as the noise made the cars as they came past was far too loud to ignore. I don't think I could ever tire of seeing Formula 1 cars going over 100mph through some of the greatest corners in the world. This in a way proved to be the case because I completely lost track of the number of laps left and didn't realise it was the final lap until just before they got to the final corner. That's just how consumed and amazed by it all I was. 52 laps just flew by. I don't think I've ever enjoyed an half and a hour so much in my life. This was the first time I'd seen an F1 race in person, and this past weekend at Silverstone has left me craving for more.

The atmosphere in the Becketts grandstand throughout the race was great, especially for the British drivers. Unfortunately it didn't last long for Di Resta after he retired on lap 2, but for Hamilton and Button the support never died down, despite their lowly showing and even when they were overtaken. During the spell that Lewis was leading the crowd were brilliant; waving and cheering as loudly as they could whenever he came through. Unsurprisingly there wasn't much support for Alonso, so when Webber went past we probably heard the loudest cheer of the race. Every driver got a great reception as they came by on the cooling down lap, but the biggest cheer of the day was saved for Lewis and Jenson as they came by the crowd together. A nice touch from the drivers was welcomed for a crowd who had been fantastic throughout the challenging weekend. I'll be writing a review of the race itself after I've watched it back either today or tomorrow.

Yes, there were problems, of which Silverstone chiefs have apologised for. Whilst a bit of the blame can be placed with them, the weather had a huge role to play. The ground was simply not ready for 80,000 fans + a day for 3 days, leading to utter chaos outside the circuit. There was poor communication though and fans were left understandably frustrated and angry. Communication needs to be worked on not only over the weekend, but in the run up to it as well. It was well known that the rain was probably going to be there, so better planning was really needed to deal with it. I appreciate that tarmacking large parts of Northamptonshire is not practical or financially viable. More hard surface parking is definitely needed around the circuit to deal with the British weather. It will rain again for sure at the British Grand Prix, and they need to be better prepared. The fans deserve it. It's good that they're going to give people their money back for the days they couldn't make it, but I'm not sure how much comfort that'll bring to them.

It's estimated that it's going to cost Silverstone a seven figured sum to revive the car parks around the circuit ahead of further meetings this year and next. If this is going to happen once every 5 or 10 years, then they need to look at alternatives to grass parking. It simply isn't practical when rain is involved. Thankfully most fans did get in on Sunday and got to see 4 great races (including support events), so not all was bad. I don't fully blame Silverstone for what happened, you simply can't, but they need to do more. Access isn't great; and a local man told me on the way out that the country road on the south side of circuit was opened to the Grand Prix traffic for the first time this year to deal with the conditions. Unfortunately cars had parked on both sides of the road down a narrow country lane; the two just don't mix so it ended up with grid lock and hundreds of cars being stuck for hours in the middle of nowhere. They have come out today saying they'll be investing more in infrastructure so that if this happens again they'll be better equipped. Some will argue this should have been done before, but I've been assured that had it been dry the problems would have been nowhere near as bad, and much better than they were years ago (specifically the 2000 meeting).

So, that's my first Grand Prix weekend. The weekend can be summed up in three words; fantastic, incredible and fascinating. It's given me even more drive to be part of this awesome sport. The noise, the skill on show, the atmosphere and the sense of speed were just brilliant and it's something I want to experience and feel again (well, 19-20 times a year). A special thanks to my parents for the best birthday present I've ever had, it was definitely one of the best weekends of my life to date. It is something which I think every motor sport fan needs to do at some point in their life. It is absolutely fantastic. Yes, I've destroyed my feet, my ears are ringing and I'm full of cold, but who cares? I've seen a live Formula 1 race. I've watched for 15 years on television, but I can honestly say I like it even more (if that was even possible) now that I've seen it live. My advice to people; just go. Go and have a great time. Make the most of it and stay around to see all the races, it makes it so much better. You get to see the 3 premier single seater series in the world (in my opinion anyway) all within the same weekend. You see the stars of the future racing around the same circuit as the current Formula 1 stars and may even be able to spot someone you think will make it, I know I have.

Some of the places I'd recommend to sit (especially if you get a weekend ticket) are Club, Luffield and Becketts. When you go, try to visit as many different areas as you can to view the action. It gives you a better idea of the track and the speed involved across all sections. Becketts is a great sport for the race itself though as you can see so much of the track just from one seat. Silverstone is a superb track for both drivers and fans as you can lots of it from just one area. Also, make sure you walk around the whole of the circuit and get a feeling of the sheer size of the place.

Thank you for staying with me and reading this, I appreciate it's rather long, but there was plenty to discuss. If you're a Formula 1 fan and haven't been to a race yet, then make the 2013 British Grand Prix a priority, you will love it I guarantee. There's nothing I'd like more than to be there at every meeting across the world writing and talking about the greatest sport there is. Formula 1 is fantastic and the experience you get from attending a Grand Prix is one that just can't be repeated anywhere else. Live > Television.

Paul Godley

Image source: Mud. Lots of mud. Everywhere - via the Daily Mail

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