In praise of race fans

Start , British GP 2001

Start , British GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

In the field was a sheepdog looking for some sheep. But in Britain this year all the lambs have been chopped. And the cows are gone too. In recent months the Grim Reaper's bonfires have lit up the nights across England. Rural Northamptonshire has not escaped the slaughters of foot-and-mouth. Fields are overgrown because no four legged friends are there to eat the grass.

And yet, despite all the problems, rural England in the sunshine in the summer is still a glorious place to be. The sign outside Silverstone (hidden by a tree like most British road signs) says "Northamptonshire - Rose of the Shires" and when you potter through what they would like to call "Diana Country" (the ex-Princess of Wales having come from this part of England) you find a warm world of country houses, green wellies, village fetes, Range Rovers and girls who say "OK yah. Super" if you ask them nicely.

And in the middle of this green and pleasant land is 800 acres of prime real estate on which there is a racing circuit. Once it was an airfield which was used to school the doomed young men who went on join Bomber Command but later it became the playground for Middle Englanders with sporty cars, cravattes and horsey accents. Somewhere along the way the gentlemen racers faded away and a new breed of wheeler-dealer mechanic came along. Ever since they took over Silverstone has been a little lost in the commercial world.

In recent years the circuit has become the butt of national jokes. It is the home of the great British traffic jam; of summer rainfall and mud, mud, glorious mud. And, in the words of the song, "there is nothing quite like it for cooling the blood".

This year was not really different. After years of talk about rebuilding and the construction of bypasses and access roads things are finally happening. And so the traffic jams are worse than ever as big yellow earth-moving devices lumber about spilling clods of earth. Clods in luminous yellow jackets get in the way.

Every year on race day at Silverstone the first five minutes of every conversation in the paddock is spent discussing the traffic problems. About eight years ago we devised the ultimate secret route into Silverstone. You might think: "Ah, he takes a helicopter!" but no, the secret route is largely on tarmac (although there is a little rallying along the way). It is convoluted but brilliant. We leave the vine-covered pub which we know and love and 15 miles later we are parking up in the Media Car Park. Rarely does the car stop moving for more than a few seconds. At no point do we have to dematerialize and re-emerge on the other side of a wood. It is a veritable automotive Ho Chi Minh Trail.

This secret road - and you can torture me and I will never tell (try sending checks) - has the curious facet of taking one past queues of cars coming the other way and every year I am amazed by the cheerfulness and determination of the British Race Fan. Having dealt with Rourke's Drift, Dunkirk, Arnhem, Balaclava and Diana's death the average stiff upper-lipped Brit can take a lot of punishment. So a 12-mile tailback is a bit of a doddle. And when you finally reach a muddy car park, you have then to trudge across fields and jump over puddles until you reach a grandstand and there you sit and watch the cars sweeping by in their own individual balls of spray. And for the pleasure of doing all this, one has to pay 100 to the people running the track. They live in hope that one day everything will be fixed and we will all be able to sweep into great parking lots without drama as they do at all the big events in places such as the United States of America.

Years ago, I was out there in the crowd. Walking for miles and then standing on slippery slopes and seeing the occasional glimpses of passing cars, unable to leave the spot in case someone took it over.

Over in the paddock most of us have forgotten what it is like to be on the other side of the fence. The sadder ones have forgotten the excitement of this sport. They whinge and whine about the good old days when drivers drifted their cars and overtook one another. They forget the boring races. They forget that back in those days there were old farts in the paddock ruminating about how things had been better in the 1950s. And back in the 1950s there were those who grumbled about the good old days of the 1930s.

People like to grumble. People like to bitch and gripe.

On the drive to the circuit one morning we were discussing whether I should write about Silverstone, using Shakespeare's Macbeth. Motor racing, it was suggested, "is but a walking shadow. A rich player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then in heard no more. It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."

When I thought about it, I concluded that for thousands of people around the world, Formula 1 is a vital part of their lives. It is their passion. They are desperate to know about every possible detail about the sport they love. And they really care. And I remembered how many years ago I had that same passion. The same fascination.

I still have that passion but it is a little different now. I am still fascinated but today it is the fascination of a scientist, dissecting what I see before me like a gleeful schoolboy with a dead frog. Things have changed but I am not one who feels that things were always better in "the good old days." Perhaps, in the years to come, we will never say that these were the good old days, but one should always appreciate the good times when you are living them and not think back and realize too late that these were the best days of your lives.

Formula 1 is a world where values can become twisted and feet can leave the ground with alarming ease. There are times when one can imagine seeing some of the F1 people floating by in the sky - like a flurry of hot air balloons. It is easy for them to lose track of who they are and where they came from. It is easy for them to forget that they are amongst the luckiest people to inhabit this planet.

So, even if the rain was too hard, or the sun was too hot; if the mud was deep and the traffic horrible, life at Silverstone was still good.

So let's not forget that...

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