The Ben Evans Column: Spectator sport

Renault specators, Sepang, 2005Once upon a time motor racing was a spectator sport.

By this I don’t mean TV spectators, but actual physical live human being fans at the track.

But now every meeting from the humble clubbie to F1 race struggles to pull in the fans and keep them interested.

The woes of modern F1 for spectators have been well documented and I won’t bore them with you here except for two points.

First for the price of a weekend grandstand seat you could go to every single round of the British Touring Car and F3 championships and still have some change left for a couple of Superbike meetings. Watching a Grand Prix is a rip off and I would urge fans to vote with their feet.

Second I hope against all hopes that F1 does not have this mooted ‘VIP-only’ race at Paul Ricard as holding an event a spectator-free venue would kill F1 as we know it.

Let’s instead have a look at racing in the UK.

Now, despite my 10 racing weekends per year, I still love going to watch the action whenever possible and living near Brands Hatch means I’m ideally situated.

Enrico Toccacelo, A1 Grand Prix, Brands Hatch, 2005Brands is the ideal spectator venue, set in a natural amphitheater with great views of the whole track, superb amenities and an anorak friendly parade of shops it’s a great day out. It is reasonably priced, close to London and so even the tiniest clubbie (e.g. the ones I race in) can draw a reasonable gate.

Contrast this with Pembrey in West Wales – a place so remote most OS maps give up long before you reach it. In terms of amenities the toilets are one step up from a bucket, and the food available on site is little better than the contents of said bucket.

Furthermore the track is flat and featureless with the major point of spectating interest (the hairpin) out of reach to most viewers. It’s no surprise therefore that the crowds at the 750MC meeting in July were marginally smaller than the membership of the Ken Livingstone fan club.

Most UK tracks are somewhere in between. Castle Combe draws the largest crowds in the UK, but is somewhat rustic, but then being near Bristol that is to be expected.

David Coulthard, Red Bull-Ferrari, Silverstone, 2006Silverstone on the other hand is the home of the British GP but one of the worst tracks to watch racing in the country. Vantage points are limited and amenities outside the paddock area are poor – but then again there’s hardly ever anyone there except for the competitors so it matters less.

Doubtless fans of second division football clubs would have similar stories but the frustrating thing is that racing circuits could do it so much better. Here I don’t mean the showpiece meetings, but rather the clubbie meeting. These invariably provide bigger grids and better racing than anything on the BTCC or F3/GT packages, yet have tiny race day attendances.

This is for a number of reasons, first among which is that the vast majority of the public doesn’t even know the meetings are happening. The two best attended meetings I raced at this year were at Castle Combe and Thruxton.

Why? Because both were advertised heavily in the local press. In contrast Silverstone doesn’t even list its clubbie meetings on its website – and you’re not telling me that’s Bernie Ecclestone’s doing.

With a bit of promotion and some good deals, many circuits could find themselves drawing spectators in excess of five figures on a weekly basis. Even today club motor sport represents cracking value – its just that no one knows about it.

For example in July I went to watch some bike racing at Brands Hatch on a Sunday afternoon. For ???15 I got admission, car parking, a programme and a can of coke, oh and 24, yes twenty-four races. That’s about 50p a race. Yet I only showed up because I happened to look on the Brands website on Sunday morning as I fancied a day out.

As F1 viewing figures show motor sport does have a fan base out there, and with a little bit of effort from the circuits motor racing could once again become a pre-eminent spectator sport.

MotorsportVision and Jonathan Palmer are making moves in the right direction, and Castle Combe has had the formula right for a long time, but surely Silverstone and Donington could make more effort in promoting their meetings.

Just because F1 grabs the headlines, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wealth of racing out there to be enjoyed.

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