From the stands
The 1986 British Grand Prix marked Steven Smith’s first visit to an F1 race.
In the 25 years since then he’s been to 50 more races from Monaco to Montreal and Imola to Abu Dhabi.
Which circuit does he rate as the best for spectators? And which would he not bother going to again? Read on to find out.
Race one: 13th July 1986
My very first Grand Prix, which I watched back in 1986 as a 20-year-old, was one of the best weekends of my life.
I left home at one o’clock heading for Brands Hatch one hour after having returned from seeing Queen performing at Wembley on their Kind Of Magic tour. Weekends simply do not get much better than that one!
The race is best for the a duel between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. Mansell eventually was victorious.
But it was also the 176th and last race for Jacques Laffite who broke both legs when he crashed approaching turn one during the first start. He never drove in F1 again.
Since then I have been to every British Grand Prix. I also saw the one European Grand Prix held in the UK during that time, at Donington Park. I got frozen and soaking wet watching Ayrton Senna show everyone how to drive in the wet.
How I managed to be present on the wet Friday and Sunday, yet miss the dry Saturday I do not remember. However I still rank that race as one of the top races that I have seen in person, despite the weather.
I’ve travelled to British races by car, bike, and helicopter. These days, with a teenage son, I drive in on Friday and pitch the tent up along with 20 thousand others for two nights.
When it comes to atmosphere and fan enjoyment the British Grand Prix is top of the list. The millions spent in the last few years really have put the place up there with some of the others I have seen.
First foreign race: Monaco
A few years after my Brands Hatch trip I went to Monaco for my first overseas race.
I took early flight from Luton to Nice , a quick jump into a coach for an hour’s drive along the coast. From there it was a short hop across the harbour on a boat to get to the grandstand – access on foot not being possible because you would have to cross the track.
I sat overlooking the chicane at the end of the tunnel where Sergio Perez crashed this year. It was not a great place for viewing, but as I’ve discovered for all its spectacle Monaco does not have many really good vantage points. I returned home around midnight after a 19-hour round trip.
The next time I went to Monaco I sat with my back to the Swimming Pool watching the cars come head-on towards me which was better. It was 1990, when Mansell and Alain Prost were Ferrari team mates.
Over a decade later I sat in grandstand K (the big one looking at the harbour) and watched Juan Pablo Montoya win For Williams. Staying in Nice and just hopping on the train is a brilliant way of accessing Monaco.
Off the calendar
Among the former F1 venues I’ve been to is Estoril in Portugal. I remember it mostly for being freezing cold – the race I saw was in October.
About the only other thing I remember was realising that the small space in the grandstand where my feet were, was in fact another row of seats. We really were crammed in tightly.
Two more tracks no longer in F1 use are Magny Cours and Imola, both of which I went to twice.
I was at Magny-Cours the first time it held the French Grand Prix in 1991. As it often said, it is in the absolute middle of nowhere. It’s not a circuit that offers much to spectators, and not one I would like to see back on the F1 calender.
Imola, on the other hand, is one I would like to see back. It had great atmosphere and being in parkland makes it quite pleasant when the sun is beating down and you want some shade for lunch time.
But despite disappearing from the calendar just five years ago it would probably need many millions spending on it to bring it up to moderns standard.
The Italian fans are famously fanatical, and must have spent ages building their own grandstands so that they have a better view of the circuit. When I first went there Mansell was driving for them, although he never won at Imola while at the team. I went there both before and after the Senna crash, but I was not there in 1994.
The Osterreichring, or A1-Ring, or Red Bull Ring as it is called today, was a great track. The viewing from turn one is one of the best I have seen. So much of this bowl of a circuit is visible. It’s a long way from any major town or city. But I’d love to go back. The facilities were a bit basic, but maybe that has improved with Red Bull money.
Mika Hakkinen gave the travelling Finns plenty to cheer about when I went there in 2000. Schumacher was bumped off at the first corner and tried to park his car on the track to stop the race. But the prompt deployment of the safety car thwarted his efforts.
Grand old tracks
The Nurburgring, like Magny Cours, is a long way from anywhere. But it is a track that has a good atmosphere and a circuit I recommend visiting. The locals really make a noise and put on a show cheering on their heroes.
I first went here on an overnight coach from London and stayed at Aachen – not a trip I would want to do nowadays. I sat high up in the grandstand opposite the pits. The fog hung heavily in the morning and the warm-up session (remember them?) had to be delayed.
On a later visit to the track I saw an unfortunate mechanic knocked to the ground by a departing car after a pit stop.
Its close neighbour is the spectacular Spa-Francorchamps. Unfortunately for me getting away from work in August for the Belgian Grand Prix is very difficult.
But I have managed one trip to Spa: another early morning start with a drive to Southend Airport, a hop over the North Sea to Maastricht, and an hour’s drive over the border.
I sat under what was the only covered grandstand at the time, halfway down the hill by La Source.
I liked Spa, and the grandstand was so close to the side of the track we could actually feel the air being moved by the cars as they flashed past. The view wasn’t great but the experience was worth it.
I have a grainy 35mm photograph tucked away somewhere showing Gerhard Berger coming around the first corner and climbing his Benetton over the back of his team mate’s car.
I went to Turkey in May 2008 and it was so cold. Not just the weather, but the atmosphere too. It was almost empty on the Saturday, and not much better on the Sunday.
The facility was new and shiny, but lacking in every other respect, with poor catering and trade stands. Some grandstands were covered over with green sheeting to try to disguise the fact that they were empty.
Getting there and back from Istanbul was horrific. The traffic is so bad in this huge city.
I sat in the grandstand overlooking the final three corners and the pit lane entry. Nothing of great note happened with the exception of Bruno Senna coming past in the GP2 sprint race with no nose cone having just hit a dog which had run on the straight just out of my sight.
One track not well-liked by some is the Circuit de Catalunya. I’ve been there three times and it’s not a bad place to watch a race, although I feel it’s a bit sparse.
Barcelona is a great city for a warm sporting weekend away, drinking ice cold beers on Las Ramblas in the evenings watching the world go past. Last time I went I was able to watch FC Barcelona play football at the Nou Camp on the Saturday evening – an experience not to be missed.
Valencia is another very pleasant city. I wrote about my experience at that track on F1 Fanatic last month:
I made a single trip to Indianapolis. It is an enormous venue and the seats offer great viewing. But I found it to be a strangely quiet city. But the football World Cup was taking place at the same time so some pubs got pretty busy at times with European football fans.
Coming home on the Monday evening meant a short flight to Chicago on a small 40-seat jet. Most people on the plane had been to the race. I notcied the chap sat next to me was reading a book printed in German. His name was Nico Rosberg. Scott Speed was also on the same flight during.
The longest trip I’ve made to see a race was for the Malaysian Grand Prix. Schumacher won at the fantastic Sepang International Circuit.
It’s quite a journey (over an hour) from the wonderful city of Kuala Lumpur, but a fine facility.
I rarely go to Friday practice, choosing instead to explore my surroundings wherever I am. One of the laziest lunches I have had was spent in Kuala Lumpur on the Friday in the revolving restaurant in the KL Tower next to the Petronas Towers.
Shanghai is a jaw-dropping city. Time restrictions meant my trip here lasted just four days. But they were well worth it.
Again here I didn’t bother going to the circuit on the Friday and went for another lazy lunch in another revolving restaurant.
The Oriental Pearl Tower is the building often shown in photos of the modern Pudong district of Shanghai. The food is best described as… different.
The circuit is again miles from the city, and the traffic is horrendous, particularly on Sunday evening. The track, grandstands and the facilities are great.
Regular readers may remember my piece on going to last year’s season finale at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi:
All I would add to that is: wow, what a set-up. Great organisation, fantastic people. Free earplugs for the fans as often as they need them.
There was even an “unmarked” beer tent (£7/pint) set up for foreign visitors. Being a country with restricted alcohol laws, providing this cooling facility was a welcome bonus for us overseas race fans.
My favourite F1 track
My first long haul trip was to Montreal in 1996 for the Canadian Grand Prix, won by Damon Hill.
Montreal is without doubt my favourite venue. You only need to ask anyone who has been there: fans, drivers and team members alike will tell you how highly they rate it too. It is brilliant.
The city absolutely buzzes for the whole weekend. Both down in the harbour area, but far more so in the centre in Crescent Street.
Great city centre hotels and a simple Metro system to take you to and from the circuit make things so easy. Getting off the island at the end of the race can be a bit of a crush at the Metro station.
I had a spare ticket with me the first time I went here, and sold it to a Canadian F1 fan at face value. He was expecting to pay a premium, so as his way of saying thanks he kept me in beer at the circuit all weekend. We sat opposite the pits, not far from the Wall of Champions.
When I returned in 1999 I sat overlooking turns one, two and three. I saw Frentzen crash exiting turn 3. I also got burnt by the seriously hot weather.
It was at this race I was queuing for a portaloo when the door opened and out stepped Murray Walker. I was able to congratulate him on the OBE he had been awarded the day before in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. That was a strange moment.
My last trip to Montreal in 2007 was to witness perhaps the most amazing F1 race I have ever seen.
We had the joy of watching Lewis Hamilton secure his first pole position on the Saturday. Then he followed it up with his first win on the Sunday. The national anthem rang out across the circuit, a long way from home.
That race is also remembered for other things like four deployments of the safety car and the horrendous sight of Robert Kubica being launched into the barriers at the hairpin corner.
I was sitting at this corner, and saw the accident happen in front of me. I seriously thought, like many others perhaps, that I had just seen a driver killed. It was a huge relief, later that evening in the hotel bar, to hear he was alright.
51 races since 1986
I’ve been lucky to be able to go to 27 British races and 24 overseas ones and hope to go to many more. But I’m not quite as fortunate as one man I met in Turkey.
He was going to every race that year – and he was in the Paddock Club! He could obviously afford it, so good luck to him. Plus being a generous sort, he was even taking his wife to a couple of races as well.
My wife is yet to accompany me to a race, but she says that if I ever go to Melbourne or Brazil then she’s coming too.
Are you going to an F1 race this year? Find other F1 Fanatics who are here:
- 2011 Belgian Grand Prix discussion
- 2011 Italian Grand Prix discussion
- 2011 Singapore Grand Prix discussion
- 2011 Japanese Grand Prix discussion
- 2011 Korean Grand Prix discussion
- 2011 Indian Grand Prix discussion
- 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix discussion
- 2011 Brazilian Grand Prix discussion
Can you top 51 races in 25 years? If so, and you’d like to write about your experiences, please get in touch via the contact form.
This is a guest article by Steven Smith. If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.
From the stands
- F1 still struggling to gain a foothold in India
- Why the Hungarian Grand Prix is a must-see race
- Why the Spanish GP was better in person than on TV
- Watching Brazil’s spellbinding F1 season finale
- Silverstone fans’ mixed views on the rain-hit weekend
- Nigel’s memories from the last 37 British Grands Prix
- F1 Fanatics meet up in Melbourne
- Watching at the Paddock Club, Parabolica and podium at Monza
- In the Paddock Club and in the stands at Spa
- Steven’s 51 F1 race visits in 25 years
Images © Williams/LAT, Renault/LAT, BMW ag, Ford.com, Ferrari spa, Force India F1 Team, McLaren