F1 down in the docks
JUNE 29, 2011
Talk about a place of contradictions. Valencia is a beautiful city with a lot going for it, particularly in the perfect summer heat of late June. Yet you can be there and not have a clue that a round of the F1 World Championship is taking place. Valencia does not embrace its Grand Prix. Perhaps that's because it's down by the docks, in an area that's shabby by comparison with the understated elegance elsewhere.
You could argue that Melbourne is also too big and busy to shout loudly about staging a Grand Prix which, after all, is merely another event on the calendar for a multi-cultured city. But there is one difference. The Australian Grand Prix works; the European Grand Prix most certainly does not.
This is where the contradiction emerges. On paper, the Valencia circuit looks inviting as it skirts round a proper Marina, crosses a swing bridge, embraces long, fast straights and rushes past period buildings from another era. At 3.36 miles, it's got the distance. But Valencia is a classic case of quantity rather than quality.
The previous three races here were processional. It was difficult to attribute a reason because dull Grands Prix were often due to the stupidity of allowing technology to give us cars that can't run in close company - a logic that still defeats me. Forget the march of technical progress which engineers tell you can't be 'unlearned'; this is supposed to be about racing, for goodness sake.
In 2011, F1 has moved on in a typically convoluted way by not addressing the cause (among other things, those ridiculously expensive downforce-dependant front wings) but, instead, by applying a bandage in the form of DRS and, as Damon Hill describes it so succinctly, 'that little flappy wing thing on the back'. In terms of spectacle, it seems to work.
And, so, we come to Valencia. Even allowing for DRS continuing to be work in progress and perhaps the tyres not playing a major part as usual, if the racing is not good, then it has to be the circuit. And, guess what? The European Grand Prix was an hour and 40 minutes of next to nothing.
Sebastian Vettel can talk all he wants about this being a tough race from his point of view. I'm sure it was as he worried about tyre degradation and produced another inch-perfect job in pacing himself and his machinery. But, from where I and an alleged 84,000 people were sitting, the toughest part was staying awake.
The problem is that the curving straights, while looking spectacular from television cameras mounted perilously close, do not encourage drivers to even think about running alongside each other. One of the few places to have a go is into Turn 1 - as shown beautifully by Jenson Button when he pulled a terrific move on Nico Rosberg during what, for me, was a high point of the afternoon. The only high point.
Quite simply, the circuit layout does not work. And it's difficult to see what can be done, given the permanent structures that surround it. Talking of which, places such as the old fish market, adorned with beautiful mosaics, may make interesting - if hot and cramped - premises for the garages, but there are few people present to admire it.
That's another thing. The place simply lacks atmosphere. The paddock, bounding the waterfront, may be picture postcard and a welcome change from the traditional fencing and car park backdrops to the majority of tracks elsewhere, but you keep asking yourself if there's a motor race going on here. The vacated headquarters of the America's Cup teams silently dominate the landscape like abandoned hangers on a former wartime airfield. There is no buzz; no passion; nothing except sea and sunshine.
It's a shame. I bumped into several British fans who made the trip because of cheap flights and a plentiful supply of reasonably priced hotels and apartments. Transport is easy. The only problem is there's not much to see when you get there.
Early in the race, a colleague in the media centre cheekily tweeted that a departing helicopter probably had Bernie Ecclestone on board, his negotiations for the weekend done and dusted.
Word is that he's talking to Valencia about extending our stay. That'll be for financial reasons, then. Certainly not for what the track brings to F1. Now we know for sure that the Valencia circuit is rubbish, that should be the end of it.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.