Thursday June14, 2007 11:45 pm
Last weekend I went somewhere! I feel like it’s been a while since I went on an actual trip to do something, I don’t count Connecticut or Montauk - I guess DC was the last real trip, and we all know what happened there - I nearly got maced and beaten by the police! It is hard to live up to a precedent like that, but nonetheless, I did some cool stuff and had a really good time in Montreal, so gather round so I can tell you the tale.
First though, I should address a small but vocal minority of my readership. Last night I was out to dinner with some friends and Ms. Rosie said that my blog was odd. “It’s all normal” she said, “and then suddenly it’s all “this car is fast! This bike is fast!” She said that she sort of had a hard time getting involved in my passionate writing about driving machines, and so let me just give you a warning. Just about this whole post is about cars going fast and how awesome cars that go fast are, so if that bores you, you should probably just skim. Apologies in advance, Rosie.
Anyway. Last weekend Fred and I drove up to Montreal to see the Grand Prix of Canada. The Grand Prix is a Formula 1 race - Formula 1 cars are the fastest and most sophisticated race cars in the world, and there are 17 races all around the world during the season. Last week was Canada, two weeks before that was Monaco, and so on. There are eleven teams (constructors) who pretty much build a car from the ground up and then continue to refine it during the season. Each team has two cars and two drivers in each race, which means 22 cars per race. The races are 70 laps, which usually ends up at about 100 miles. The drivers and constructors score points for finishing in the top eight positions, and no points for the bottom 14. It is not something I would have imagined getting into, but somehow I downloaded the Hungarian Grand Prix in Japan, and then watched it with Fred when I got home from Japan. Over the winter I thought about it now and then, and then when the motorsport season got started, Fred and I just ended up watching it. The first race we were pretty lost. The second we started following what was happening. By the third race we had bought tickets to see the GP in Canada, and were watching the practices on Friday, the qualifying on Saturday, and then the race on Sunday. Now I think about team strategies during my commute to work, I think about the temperament of the drivers while I should be doing work, and I watch YouTube videos of the great moments of Formula 1 all the time. I was just watching [the legendary] Ayrton Senna doing laps at Monaco in the 91 qualifying five minutes ago. So, you can imagine my excitement as we arrived in Montreal last weekend.
Felipe Massa, the hotshot Ferrari driver, at Saturday practice.
So, even though just about no one in the U.S. knows about Formula 1, it’s one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Last year the Monaco Grand Prix was the third most watched television event in the world, after the Super Bowl and the World Cup of soccer. Almost 200,000 people came to see the race in Canada, and that is a lot of people.
All the red hats and shirts are Ferrari fans. They were going to be disappointed.
One thing about Formula 1 cars is that they are fast. They are so fast that it is kind of difficult to comprehend that what you are seeing is a car being driven by a person. They pass by so quickly and make so much noise that your mind has a hard time processing what you are seeing. I stood up, got ready to take pictures of F1 cars going by, and no matter what I did, the pictures came out like this:
Massa, for Ferrari again. There was a guy next to us who was grossly fat, drunk, and would shake his fist and shout “Massa!” every time he went by.
See how the car is not even in the frame? That was one of my best. Most were like this:
I could be a real nerd and tell you about each driver that I have a picture of. I won’t. Except that this is Fernando Alonso, who drives for McLaren Mercedes, is a three-time world champ, and has been acting kind of pouty since his rookie teammate has been getting all the attention.
Anyway, as it turns out, a Grand Prix weekend doesn’t just mean the Formula 1 race. There are “support races” which are slower classes of cars that have their own races and benefit from the exposure to the thousands of fans that come for F1. One of those is the Ferrari Challenge, where race versions of Ferrari sports cars are raced by rich men who have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on a car that is not legal to drive on the road, and will most likely crash and be totaled.
This car is a Ferrari F430. If you keep an eye out for exotic cars, you see them from time to time - but you never see them being really driven. To push a Ferrari as far as it will go, you will be getting close to 200 miles per hour, and that is illegal almost anywhere in the world. Ferraris on the street are like race horses that have to walk for their entire lives. It is really great to see and hear Ferraris being ridden to the absolute limit.
Speaking of seeing and hearing, I had my video camera with me during the weekend, and I made a little video of cars going by. It’s not the most interesting video by a long shot, but you get to hear the cars, which if you ask me is more than half the point of going to a car race. You can check it out here.
So, at the end of the Saturday qualifying sessions, Fred and I headed out to see where everyone goes to party after the races. We took the metro and the wandered over to Crescent Street, which is where it all goes down. As we were walking, we started noticing how many extremely fancy cars there were. It seems that if you have an exotic sports car, the Grand Prix weekend is when you get it detailed and take it out for a drive. The number of Ferraris and Porsches out was so intense that I ended up just letting most of them roll by unphotographed. It was only when I could get a bunch of exotics into a single picture did I take the photo. It was like a game.
Not one, but three Ferraris parked in a row.
This was good - these guys saw me step out with the camera and they arranged themselves for maximum photographability. That’s a Porsche 911 Turbo on the left, a Lotus Elise on the right, and a Lamborghini Murcielago behind the Lotus. Just Driving - that’s almost a million dollars worth of cars right there.
I have probably 20 or 30 more pictures of “Car Porn” as Brendon likes to call it - I will spare you, but if you’re interested they will be on my Flickr soon. Instead though, let’s fast forward to Sunday - race day! The stands were completely packed, I was wearing my BMW Sauber F1 team shirt, and things were about to get underway. Except first, a digression - why were there so kind of gross euro-style trashy people at the Grand Prix? The tickets were not cheap, the demographic was definitely not the NASCAR crowd, but here is pretty representative sample of the trashy F1 spectator:
Yick! There were a lot of totally normal and good people there too, but we saw a surprising number of people like this, and we saw them consume their body weight in beer over the course of the weekend. It was impressive, in a terrible and frightening way. So - don’t go to Formula 1 to see beautiful people. Go to see beautiful cars.
The opening parade for the race - each driver came through sitting on the back of an Austin Healy - this is the thorn in Alonso’s side, Lewis Hamilton, 22 year old racing prodigy.
After the driver’s parade, they all go and put on their five layers of fireproof clothing, and then bring their cars out to the starting grid. When they get there, the entire car is disassembled and prepared for the race. It’s a madhouse, with hundreds of mechanics and engineers working on cars, and then hundreds of media, celebrities, and people with a lot of money mingling with drivers, team managers, and coaches.
These eight guys are just a part of the Honda pre-race team.
One thing that kind of was annoying about the race - as there are hundreds of thousands of fans coming, and as they are getting pretty drunk, and because cars going at 200 miles per hour are pretty dangerous, there is a ton of crowd control. Fences in front of fences everywhere mean that no matter where you are, you are seeing the race through chain-link. It’s not so much a problem for watching, but it is a pain for taking pictures.
And off they go! Renault had a pretty bad weekend, all told. With a lot of practice on slower cars, I figured out how to properly lead the cars with my camera, and got a couple decent pictures of the F1 cars going by - except for the damn fences.
The sound of a Formula 1 car is almost indescribable. It is so loud that even with earplugs, the sound is a shrieking scream that you feel in your bones. Without earplugs, the race would simply be unbearable. The sound of 22 cars revving their engines and starting off was like a an earthquake made of explosions and dentist’s drills. At one point I was drinking some water, and as the cars passed I could feel the vibrations shaking through the water. Watch the YouTube video at high volume on a good sound system - it won’t be anywhere near what it was like to be there, but it might give you the tiniest idea.
The cars stop in for two or three pit stops during the race. When they stop, about twenty guys descend on the car, change all the tires, adjust the wings, fix any minor damage, and refuel the car - in under 7 seconds. Why can’t we get some of that in gas stations in the real world?
The race was a great race - a lot of excitement, a lot of overtaking and good driving, and Lewis Hamilton, the rookie driver who had never driven in Montreal before came in first winning his first race. The low point was when BMW’s second driver, Robert Kubica had a terrible crash. All the stands went dead silent, and basically we all thought he was dead. The race was stopped temporarily as the medical car rushed to the crash, and Kubica was taken off the track by helicopter. The awesome part is first that despite having a crash that would have been fatal 10 years ago, he sprained his ankle and got a minor concussion, and will probably race this Sunday. The second and more wonderful part is that I found this out on the drive home. We were waiting in the (awful, endless) line for the border, and a car pulled up next to us. Seeing my BMW shirt, a guy leaned out his window and said “hey, Kubica is going to be okay - it turns out he didn’t even break his leg! We all thought he was dead! Anyway, have a good one!” Formula 1 fans, unite! [I just did some post-blog reading on the F1 news sites, and Kubica will be sitting out the next race. He is feeling fine, but he can’t risk a second concussion so soon - the 19 year old BMW test driver will race his first F1 race at Indianapolis this weekend.]
Lewis Hamilton, race winner, behind the damn fence post.
So, the race is over, about 200,000 people are trying to get off the island where the race is held, and they all go to get on the subway. What does it look like when 200,000 people try to get into one mid-sized subway station? It looks like this:
And then when you’re driving home in the late afternoon on the beautiful highway from Montreal to New York, it looks like this: