Thursday, 8 September 2011

I Love F1. I'd Love To Drive. But I Don't Envy The Drivers...

If you're a regular reader of this blog you'll be aware of my obsession with motorsport and F1 in particular. I really love watching the spectacle of motorsport, and I honestly feel that motorsport and racing is so unique that you don't get the same experience with any other sport. I also enjoy competing in motorsport through off-road trials in Land Rovers. I've done a few rally experiences over the years too, and found that I quite enjoy driving fast, and I love getting a car to go exactly where I put it, whether through slow maneuvering in the trials or the fast-paced actions in rally driving (I turned 18 exactly while executing a handbrake turn in a Subaru rally car). In short, I'd love to drive competitively for a career. However, I don't envy professional racing drivers.

This seems quite an odd thing really - kind of paradoxical. I'd love to drive professionally, however I wouldn't want to be in the same position as a professional driver. This isn't because of the pressure that drivers come under - I thrive under pressure. It's not because of the danger - I can be quite an adrenaline junkie. No, it's because of the sponsors.

Tonight I was watching the television when the ever annoying ad break came on. Alongside the usual 'Cash-for-Gold', 'Have you been injured?' and Hovis ads was an ad for Santander, the bank which sponsors McLaren. Two Santander ads came on, in fact. In the first, McLaren's own Lewis Hamilton was pictured standing on a podium - all three slots on the podium were occupied by Lewis to be accurate (the stewards would have a field day!). The second Santander ad (which admittedly, I quite enjoyed) featured Lewis and Jenson Button building a massive lego F1 car. Once the Santander ads had finished, an ad for the new Fiat 500 came on, this one featuring Fernando Alonso (although not, I noticed, Fernando's voice). Finally, an advert for Head and Shoulders shampoo aired, featuring Jenson Button and the worst acting I've ever seen. This final ad pushed me over the edge.

I understand that F1 is big business, with sponsors galore and lots of people involved in the apparent corporate machine. Yes, drivers need to be sponsored to even get into F1. Sponsorship is part and parcel of racing. However, do drivers really need to feature in adverts like those listed above? Head and Shoulders, Jenson? Really? Drivers should be just that; drivers. While the sponsors obviously need the reciprocity (we give you money, you give us advertising) can't they leave the drivers to get on with their sport? This is one of the reasons why I don't envy the drivers. F1 in particular is getting more like big business and moving away from being a pure sport. (Ok, other sportsmen are involved in advertising, I realise this, however I have to point out this feature in racing too).

A second reason why I don't envy racing drivers was highlighted when I went to the Nurburgring. During my trip to the Nurburgring I attended a pit walk and an autograph session. I also watched the drivers' parade before the race. Now, I had a choice whether to attend these events. I sense the drivers are more limited in their free will. Fair enough, I'm guessing the drivers understand that they have to meet fans, but would I want to walk out to hoards of people screaming my name and hounding me for a signature every single working weekend? I'm not so sure.

A third reason became apparent today on Twitter. The usual suspects were in attendance at Monza, and so for people who are slightly addicted to Twitter we got an interesting insight into a Thursday on a race weekend. Loads of Twitter/F1 people were posting pictures of the media sessions on a Thursday, and it made me realise how many interviews, press conferences and general publicity sessions that the drivers have to go to. F1 is a team sport, however you rarely see the mechanics giving interviews - the drivers are the ones who face the questions. Would I enjoy my every move being questioned a hundred times over by different journalists? I doubt it.

So, on a race weekend a driver has to answer a never ending barrage of questions and meet their adoring (and at times, crazy) public. When not racing, they have to please the sponsors and become the face of a brand - be that Fiat, Santander or, indeed, Head and Shoulders. However, that's not all.

Last weekend I took an unexpected trip to Cardiff to watch the Red Bull Speed Jam for which I won tickets. In attendance were Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo. It was their weekend off, however they were still being made to get back to the day job and entertain us. Don't get me wrong, I loved it. However, it does seem a bit much for the drivers to have to drive around and show off when they're not actually racing. You wonder how much choice a driver has in this matter. No doubt they enjoy the actual driving - if they didn't then they wouldn't be in that career - but do they enjoy having to go to these events? If someone went up to Mark Webber and said 'you have to drive this car round this place at this time and go and sign a hundred-odd autographs', would he be that willing? I doubt I would be, and that's another reason why I wouldn't envy the drivers.

Monday, 5 September 2011

F1, Mark Webber, Chris Pfeiffer, Stunt Planes and Hugs From DTM Drivers... All in a Weekend!

It's Monday afternoon, I'm sat in front of my PC absolutely exhausted but happy from the weekend that I've just had. As you may have gathered from my previous blog post, on Friday I won tickets to watch the Red Bull Speed Jam in Cardiff on Saturday. The win was a complete shock - not least because I had to make provision for getting to Cardiff from Kent in less than 24 hours. Luckily, I had won two tickets to the Speed Jam, and so of course I told my Dad and we drove from Kent to Cardiff at 9am on Saturday morning.

We arrived in Cardiff around 12:30, and there was none of the stress of traffic and finding parking spaces that I was expecting. We pulled up, parked the van and then went for lunch at one of the restaurants in Cardiff Bay. When searching for a restaurant, I was surprised to see that nobody else in the Bay had arrived for the Speed Jam. I was in my usual motorsport attire of Vettel hat and Red Bull shirt and couldn't see anybody else wearing anything like this... Until I saw a Red Bull mechanic waiting outside one of the restaurants! Reassured that the Speed Jam was taking place, and pleased that I wasn't the only person in Cardiff wearing Red Bull attire (alright, the other person worked for the team but still...), we found a restaurant and had lunch.

After this, we had an hour to spare and so wandered around the bay when all of a sudden we came across the streets which would be holding the races and demonstrations later. The arena itself was quite big, and we could see a whole lot of Red Bull displays. While we were standing there, I heard a familiar voice - that of Jake Humphrey. I looked around and then actually saw Mr Humphrey! He managed to trick a crowd of fans who had gathered into thinking that the Red Bull Matadors (the air display pilots) were flying while the sun was shining. Sadly, we'd have to wait for this spectacle.

We watched the show rehearsals for a while, then decided that we'd be best off getting in the queue early for the gates opening at 2:45. We were glad we did - the queue had extended up the road towards the hotel even once we arrived. People arriving after us eventually went past the hotel and around the corner - again, before the gates were due to open! We queued for a long while when the gates finally opened and we swapped our printed tickets for a wristband (which is now adorning my wall of memories in my room) and grabbed a spot from which to spectate.

I was really pleased with the fact that we could get so close to the track. We positioned ourselves near the fountain outside the Millennium Centre so that we could see along one of the straights and could see a screen. Although the gates opened at 2:45, it was ages before the action started at 4:30, so I engaged in my favourite pastimes of photography and people watching. During my people watching, I noticed that some people entering the circuit had printed programmes. I am a bit of a hoarder of programmes, and so I set off to find out where to obtain one for the Speed Jam. There were no stands for merchandise near where we were standing, and so it was a mystery to me where people had managed to get a programme. Determined, I managed to summon up the courage to ask a Red Bull fanatic couple where they got their programme - luckily Red Bull fans are a friendly bunch and I grabbed myself a souvenir for the day at the entrance where the programmes were being handed out for free.

On my way back to Dad (who was saving my space by the track), I noticed that security were stopping people from going up to where Dad was stood. This worried me, as I wanted to get back to Dad, and wasn't sure whether security would be very forgiving. Luckily, a large group of people had just entered the track and were being redirected to the other side of the circuit. I made a break for it and ended up back with my Dad, ready to watch the event, and while we were waiting a golf buggy was making its way around the circuit. We didn't really realise what was happening and nobody paid much attention to the buggy until it got up close and started bibbing. Then, we realised that the buggy was piloted by none other than Mark Webber! Waves and applause from myself and my Dad ensued and the event got underway.

The first things to appear were the Red Bull Matadors. These guys are something else. They fly their planes so close to each other that every moment they are flying is impressive. All sorts of stunts are incorporated into their routine; flying upside-down, flying up and then coming to a halt before tumbling towards the earth and, my personal favourite, sliding the planes so that they look as though they were drifting. If you've never seen the Red Bull Matadors, I suggest you go straight to YouTube and look them up - you won't regret it! As soon as I've finished writing I will upload my videos from the Speed Jam so you can see exactly what I've seen.

After the Matadors came the first of three qualifying heats for the Red Bull Kart Championship. The Speed Jam played host to the finals of Red Bull's mission to find the best amateur kart driver in the UK in 2011, and so the qualifying heats were so important to the men and women driving. Unfortunately, just as the first heat got underway the rain started to fall. I say unfortunately, however for the spectators this was fantastic. You could easily tell who was at home in these conditions and the driving prowess of the karters came through. Heats two and three came later on and a grid was formed for the final of the Kart Fight.

In between heats we saw what I was most looking forward to - Mark Webber taking the Red Bull F1 Show car out for a spin on the streets of Cardiff - quite literally! The first time he took the car out the rain was falling and so we didn't get to see the car driven in anger, however being two feet from one of these machines while it's being driven is always special.

The second demonstration to take place in between kart heats was Chris Pfeiffer giving us a stunt display on his motorbike. This was absolutely amazing. I'd seen Chris Pfeiffer once before at the Race of Champions a few years ago, however I'd not seen him this close. Armed with my camera I managed to film him right as he was coming round to where we were stood. He came along the straight on one wheel and right where me and my Dad were stood he stopped the bike by lifting its back wheel in the air and then proceeded to spin around on the bike - again, with only one wheel. Chris Pfeiffer is definitely another recommendation for a trip to YouTube, he's absolutely insane but clearly brilliant as well.

A third demonstration right before the finals for the kart fight came from Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull Nascar. The car was surprisingly big and noisy! The size of it was so big in comparison to the track that it was a worry whether Ricciardo would actually make it round some of the tight turns. Of course, Daniel is an F1 driver and therefore he managed it with no problems and we got to hear the noise of the car. It's great when you see drivers really enjoying themselves, rather than just driving for the day job and we perhaps saw this the most with Daniel Ricciardo. Just as the presenters thought he'd stopped, he span the car around to do so many doughnuts that we lost him in the smoke, and then came around for a second lap of the track. Once back at the arena, he asked the mechanics whether he could do a third lap, however he was told to switch off the engine - much to his disappointment! To make up with a swift end to his runs, he grabbed a bunch of Red Bull hats and ran off to the edge of the crowds and rewarded some lucky fans with free merchandise! It's safe to say that Jake Humphrey had to wait for Daniel to stop having fun before he got his interview.

With Ricciardo's display over, the final heat of the Kart qualifying took place, immediately followed by the final. The race was quite intense, with the top three men constantly swapping places. Some of the track was still wet from the earlier rain, and so the drivers had to be careful to stay facing the right way. After much overtaking and lots of fast paced racing the kart winner was crowned and Red Bull had their champion!

So, you'd have thought with the final race over that Red Bull would call it a day. But, knowing this team, we were treated once more with a display from Mark Webber in the show car. This time though, the rain had stopped and so Mark got his chance to really show off. I had made a video of Mark on his first run and so this time round I decided to photograph the car. Just as Mark got around the corner before our spectating point I had my camera ready. As soon as he got right in front of me and my Dad, he decided to give the engine a rev and perform a burnout. I had no ear defenders and leapt back about three feet! I've never heard something so loud as an F1 car burnout two feet away from me and it's something I'll never forget! Thanks Mark! On Mark's second lap round I decided that my ears had taken enough of a beating and so my Dad became my ear defenders - it must have been funny to see. I gave Mr Webber a wave as he went past, and that concluded our day at the Red Bull Speed Jam. We arrived home around midnight and had to go straight to bed - the next day we were due to go to Brands Hatch for the DTM!

After around seven hours of sleep I got up and gathered everything I needed for my trip to Brands - camera, sunhat, coat, but typically I forgot my umbrella (possibly the most vital thing for the whole day as it turns out!). We set off to pick up my nephew at 8 in the morning to arrive at Brands in time for our 9am pit walk.

My Dad and I have been to Brands numerous times and so we know that the best plan for a day there is to get Southbank parking. We arrived at 8:30, pulled up at Southbank and wandered over to the megastore. During the walk around Druids, my nephew asked what the queue was for. I asked him what queue and he pointed out the people standing at Paddock Hill Bend. I said to my nephew that they weren't queueing, they were simply waiting for the racing to start. Oh how wrong I was. It turns out that my nephew was right and there was a queue for the pit walk extending from the end of Hangar Straight towards the middle of Paddock Hill. Inevitably, we had to join the back of the queue and my hopes of getting into the pit walk fell. I needn't have worried. As soon as we joined the queue the people in front of us started to move forwards and in less than five minutes we were walking around the pits.

I've been going to Brands Hatch for many years now - I think I went to my first race when I was around 4/5 years old. However, I've only been in the pit lane once, and it was so long ago that I don't really remember it. I was determined to get a good look at nearly everything this time around. There were loads of people in the pit lane - however it wasn't nearly as crowded as the Nurburgring pit walk. My nephew was completely in awe of the cars, and because he's so young people were more than happy to let me and him through to get a good look. To my delight, the drivers started coming out to give autographs when we were looking at the cars. I managed to get the autographs of Renger van der Zande, Oliver Jarvis, Susie Stoddart, Mike Rockenfeller, Mattias Ekstrom and Jamie Green. I also got photographs and hugs from Mattias Ekstrom and Jamie Green - something which put a massive smile on my face! We stayed in the pits until we were ushered out, and as we were walking out over the Hangar Straight I took the opportunity to pick up some tyre marbles and a small spring that I found lying on the ground - definitely interesting souvenirs!

The pit passes that we'd bought also enabled us to go around the paddock. I've walked around the paddock a few times at Brands, however the last time I watched the DTM (in 2009) it was completely off limits. It was nice then to finally get a look at the cars of the support races. We were photographing the various Lotuses, Eurocars and Nippon Challenge cars, and stopped to have a look at a Subaru. While we were looking, the driver of the car came over and asked us whether we'd like to sit in it! Of course, my nephew jumped at the chance (as did I come to that!) and we had our photographs taken inside a real racing car. The driver of the car, Richard Senter, was a really nice guy and we cheered him on in the Nippon race - many thanks go to him for making our day that little bit more special! During the rest of our time in the paddock, my nephew got his chance to sit in his dream car - an AMG SLC Mercedes - and we saw a hell of a lot of amazing machines. After the ramble around the paddock, we went and watched the last of the DTM warm up, ready for the races.

There was so much on at Brands in terms of support races. We saw three Lotus Elise races, the Racecar Euroseries race (which features some spectacular slides at Graham Hill Bend), two Formula Ford races (which were surprisingly well behaved - not like the other races I've seen with them!), the Nippon Challenge (in which we cheered on Richard Senter) and a demonstration lap of the World's Fastest Ice Cream Van (yes, really!). All of the races were spectacular, with the Nippon Challenge being the best of all.

The DTM race took place in the pouring rain. Martin Tomczyk went on to win the race, with Mattias Ekstrom coming second. We cheered on Jamie Green and Susie Stoddart during the race, and it was awesome to see Ralph Schumacher, Gary Paffett and David Coulthard racing as well. The noise of DTM cars is also an amazing experience - it was lucky that we remembered to bring ear defenders and so we're not deaf one day on!

Brands Hatch is always a good experience, and if ever you get a chance to go then once again I'd recommend a visit there without hesitation. Getting to walk around a racing paddock and pit lane is a rare experience and you have to get this experience at least once.

So, overall a brilliant motorsport weekend and one that I won't forget. The Speed Jam was so unexpected, and hopefully I'll get a chance to visit this event again. Brands Hatch, while not a surprise, once again reminded me why I love that circuit. Oh, and being hugged by DTM drivers was great! Bring on the next motorsport weekend!


Friday, 2 September 2011

A Weekend Of Motorsport - Even Without F1!

I've been very excited over the past few days, as this Sunday I'm off to my spiritual motorsport home of Brands Hatch to watch the DTM! I've been going to Brands every couple of months since the age of 5, and it's one of the main reasons why I'm such a petrol head. I last saw the DTM in 2009, and it certainly was an exciting event! The sound of a car is the best thing about it I think, and these cars are certainly no exception and it's something I am definitely looking forward to!

So, today I was getting ready for the weekend's entertainment when an email comes through. It's from Ticketmaster. Thinking that it was some promotional thing, I opened it up without really expecting anything much. Oh how wrong I was. As I was reading, I noticed the subject said 'Your Red Bull Speed Jam Application 2011'. The next thing I read was the words 'We are pleased to inform you that you have been successful in applying for tickets for this event'! How surprised was I?! I re-read the email a few times, pinched myself to make sure I was dreaming then I was certain I'd managed to win tickets.

Once this had sunk in and I stopped jumping up and down and giggling like a lunatic, I read the time and location for the event: 2:45 on the 3rd of September in Cardiff Bay. Could be an issue I thought, as I live in Kent. I phoned my Dad, managed to garble that I won tickets and informed him of the location for the event... Luckily, my Dad's a petrol head too and so tomorrow I go to Wales to watch a celebration of motorsport in the streets! Woohoo!

See, my nerdiness does pay off - all I had to do to get the tickets was answer the question of 'Who got pole position for the 1975 British Grand Prix?' - Tom Pryce. Thanks Red Bull, I'll be seeing you tomorrow!!