A day at the Silverstone formula one race

Formula 1 is not a two-hour race at Silverstone. It’s a three-day weekend of racing and entertainment.

Avinash Singh

 catches some of the colours, on and off the track.

 

The helicopters descend on Silverstone like invaders from the skies. They all come from one direction, offload their rich and famous cargo, and disappear into the skies, forming a vertical triangle. 

Between 8 am and 9 am, they come down at the rate of two every five minutes; in the next two hours, one a minute. “They must be the high rollers,” chuckles a fellow traveller, as another passenger is ferried into a waiting black Audi. 

The low rollers, so to speak, come from the other direction. In cars and motorcycles, followed by a very long walk. This is race day in Silverstone, home to the British formula 1 grand prix , the biggest day in motor sport in this country. 

Today’s race doesn’t have a championship context. For most people, Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull is a lock to defend his title. In May, one-fourth into the season, Paddy Power, a British bookmaker, even paid out on that eventuality. 

The last time a 77-point lead was erased was in 1976, when Niki Lauda ended up a ball of flames and James Hunt drove in. Still, the British grand prix is a sell out. About 100,000 people showed up for qualifying on Saturday. 

By one estimate, 28,000 never went back home. They just crossed over to the wet fields surrounding the former World War II airfield to their motor homes, tents and cars. They were happy campers, feeding off an excess of motor racing, air displays and music concerts. On race day, 120,000 people troop into Silverstone. 

Most of them are McLaren fans, adorned in stuff that scream, in colour and text, more Vodafone – the main team sponsor – than the decorated independent team. For an F1 team, it is the ultimate national coming together. A top-flight British team, with two British drivers, in a British race. And, today, they are all hoping for some British weather. 

Lewis Hamilton – the McLaren driver for whom they turn themselves into billboards, pitch their flags and blow their horns – is tenth on the grid. But if it rains, Hamilton should surge. It’s a tricky one. If it rains, it will be race on. But it will also be hell in the open stands and areas. They are prepared. 

Most of them have slung on their shoulders a cloth case, about a metre long, and six inches in width and depth. Its primary contents, typically, include a folding chair and a large umbrella, which opens up in its full glory when a dense, black cloud winks at Hamilton and them an hour before the race. 

FANS WANT A GOOD FIGHT 

Aaron Powers wants the rain, even though he is the rare Brit in Silverstone who doesn’t wear his nationality on his heart, or his chest or his head. Or, even on the inside of his arm, which is reserved for a tattoo that is gothic in its look and factual in its statement. 

It says ‘1984’, the year of his birth. A banker by profession, Powers has a Red Bull jacket draped around his folding chair. His contrarian choice is as much a rejection for the McLaren team as an endorsement for Germany’s Vettel. 

“I’m not a fan of either of the McLaren drivers,” he says gently, breaking into a wan smile. “Hamilton is too arrogant. 

Button is ok, but I’m not a fan. Still, more than anything else, I want to see a good fight.” Fans like Powers can be found on parts of the circuit that offer an intimate view of the action. They couldn’t get grandstand seats because they were either finished or too expensive, but they have tickets that allow them to go anywhere else on the circuit. 

Powers says a ticket in a grandstand at Stowe – a pure racer’s corner and a vantage point — would cost 300 pounds for the day. He’s paid 200 pounds for the entire weekend. From where he has anchored his folding chair, he can’t even see the entire race, as there are no TV screens in his line of vision. But he’s here for a different reason. 

As are many others, who sit three deep during the Formula 2 race – one of the side shows – in the morning. Stowe is popular because it combines the two ingre- dients essential to any good motor race: speed and overtaking. And fans can see the cars swish past 20 metres away. 

“This is just a great corner,” says 38-year-old Ben Pereson, who works in land remediation and is here with his nine-year-old nephew. The cars come screaming in at 300-plus km per hour — imagine that, five times the top speed allowed in an Indian city. 

It’s a slightly loopy right turn, which means a gentle dab on the brakes and back on the power. In The Independent, Mark Webber sums up the driver’s philosophy towards this corner: “grab the kerb on the exit.” It’s something Michael Schumacher failed to do in 1999, hurtled into the tyre wall, and shattered his legs and championship hopes for that season. On Sunday, Stowe doesn’t do the dramatic. 

However, it shines the lingering promise of overtaking as the cars chase each other like maniacs – at a speed so ridiculous, at a noise level so loud and violent, with gaps between each other so small. Every once in a while, a driver boldly takes the inside line and makes a pass stick. It happens so quickly it barely registers. 

BIG PICTURE, SMALL PICTURE 

For those who like to see the big picture as well as the small details, watching live can be an exercise in acclimatisation. The sense of continuity is difficult to establish as only a fraction of the track is visible. In the beginning of the race, the cars are bunched together. 

For about 20 seconds, they create a racket of wailing engines and screeching tyres. Then, for about a minute as they steer though the rest of the circuit, they leave behind a shifty silence. Silverstone has large TV screens placed in front of the grandstands, but they are too far away to read the positions and timings. 

Spectators here can also rent interactive TVs that are basically handheld consoles, with a screen size of 3 x 3 inches. Using one basically means juggling three visual mediums: the live race, the large screens and the console. It takes a while to figure it all out. 

But once it happens and the cars spread out, and one gets sucked into the race, the transition is seamless across the three mediums. The console is a thing of beauty. One can choose a camera angle — for example, the main view, or the view from the front camera on the cars of the leading drivers, which is stunning at the time of passing. One can call for replays. 

One can choose commentary. On Sunday, there is the Silverstone commentary, which is dry and pithy. And then, there is BBC 5, which is deeply engaging in describing and reading the race in terms of variables like pit strategies, tyre choices and weather conditions. And it has the inimitable Murray Walker, a doyen of F1 coverage, as a guest commentator. 

“Faaaaaantastic,” he breaks out. As always, Walker is either a step behind the cars or he paints scenarios that are as predictable as the English weather. But Walker also mutters the line of the weekend, encapsulating a brutal paradox of F1: team-mates don’t race each other. On the last lap, when Mark Webber was crowding his team-mate Vettel for second place, BBC 5 catches the former’s radio. 

The team, which likes to proudly affirm that they let their drivers race each other, says to Webber: “Mark, hold your position.” Amid the last-corner frenzy, Walker says, in near slow motion, picking each word for careful construction and emphasis: “I have just heard the four most bitter words in formula 1, ‘Mark, hold your position’.” 

OVATION FOR ALONSO 

Before the race, when the drivers are all smiles and being interviewed while being taken around on open truck across the track, Fernando Alonso puts F1 racing into some context. He’s just done two gingerly laps of Silverstone in a Ferrari that won its first race 60 years ago here. 

The 1951 Ferrari looks like an extra-large bathtub, incredibly flimsy and anything but a racer. It’s more upright and higher than the current car. The tyres look like a motorcycle tyre. There is no protection on the sides and a bad mishap can easily fling a driver out. When the race announcer introduces Alonso, boos ring out. 

The fans here see the Spaniard as the evil one, who duelled with their British driver (Hamilton) in their British team (McLaren) in 2007. When he is asked about the car he just drove, Alonso expresses awe. “Modern cars have 200% more grip,” he says. “But the power is the same.” Hours later, after Red Bull botch it up for Vettel in the pits, Alonso drives home a 2011 Ferrari as winner. 

As he returns to the pits, he even manages an ovation — his first of the weekend. As does Schumacher, more as an acknowledgement of a glorious past. But the biggest cheer is still reserved for Hamilton, who shines in the rains; but as the track dries up, so do his chances. 

As the race nears its end, the giant monitors flash a sign: “Please don’t invade the track.” Fifteen minutes later, someone finds a way through the fences and barriers. And the teeming hordes follow and park themselves right beneath the podium, with their chairs, umbrellas, beer and food in tow. 

Not everyone is going home. A 20-something tells a friend on the phone: “Yeah, we met these three guys in the camper next to us. Yeah, five of us. Yeah, I got a case of cold beer.” The official weekend schedule says: “After-race party and the classic rock band, 3.15 pm to late.” The race is over, the weekend isn’t. 

(The writer attended the British Grand Prix as a visitor of the AT&T Williams Formula 1 team.)

Copyright© 2011 Times Internet Limited. All rights reserved

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