So, it looks like I won’t be watching F1 from next year. But before I go into that, here’s a little “Ken and Cars” history that puts that statement in to context.
My earliest memory of a car involves a Porsche. Not just any Porsche, but a 1973 2.7 Carrera RS. A bona fide classic, a sleek, stripped-down racing car for the road. The Renn Sport is frequently cited as the most desirable of all 911s, a sweet-handling drivers car that rewards and thrills in equal measure. Sadly, my memory doesn’t involve me driving one, or even seeing one, because I was five and living in Aldershot. When you’re five (and living in Aldershot) you get your automotive thrills courtesy of Matchbox (or maybe Dinky, if you were flush).
The reason that this particular model car stuck in my mind was due to the “duck tail” spoiler that it sported on the rear engine cover. Bear in mind that at this point in time I was five, and had a very limited grasp of aerodynamics, which limited grasp I have hung on to, down to this day. What was this flap? Why would you stick something like that on a car? I couldn’t answer these questions, but I knew a man who surely could: Dad. “Dad, what is this?” “Hmm, I think it’s a fold-up seat, so you can carry extra passengers.” “Cool!”
So, for quite a number of years following this explanation, I pictured myself sat in a 911 dickie seat, having the ride of my life. The truth was somewhat more prosaic, but eminently more practical.
Me, in a Porsche 911, going through the chicane at Goodwood. Passenger in dickie seat not pictured.
Over the years like many, but not, all boys, I have been fascinated by cars. That fascination manifest itself in the predictable ways: models, Airfix kits, magazines, posters, and the Holy Grail, brochures! My brochure collection spanned everything from Austin Allegro to Porsche 911. Trips to the Earls Court or Birmingham Motor Shows meant carrier bags and carrier bags of brochures. Ford and BL were easy marks, with their brochures just piled up ready to be gathered by eager young hands. The more interesting marques were tougher, but by being inherently cute (very easy for me obviously) it was occasionally possible to wheedle something more interesting which, let’s be honest, wouldn’t be too difficult.
Just a couple of years later and it was time to get a taste of the good stuff. Prior to 1985 my experience of motorsport had been confined to evenings watching banger racing at Matchams Raceway. The term raceway is perhaps a little grand for what was basically a ¼ mile tarmac loop surrounded by a dusty embankment, but you could get close to cars being driven recklessly quickly, and that was all that was important. About this time dad took me to a hillclimb event at Gurston Down, which was interesting (racing Skodas!?), but the one at a time format wasn’t quite as exciting as circuit racing, in my admittedly inexperienced eyes. Well then, imagine my excitement when some family friends asked if I would like to go with them to Brands Hatch to watch the hastily arranged European Grand Prix in 1985. “Would I?” So off I went, having no idea really what to expect, and being totally blown away. The noise, the smell, the speed was beyond anything I had imagined. The whole thing was absolutely tremendous. That Grand Prix is famous for being Nigel Mansell’s first GP win, and Prost’s clinching of the Driver’s Championship, and there was a real sense of tension as the race unfolded. Of course being 1985 it meant I can say that I saw Ayrton Senna race, as well as Piquet, Alboreto and Rosberg.
Nigel Mansell on his way to victory, Brands Hatch 1985. Taken on a 110 camera, sorry!
Second-place Ayrton Senna's JPS Lotus-Renault at Le Vie en Bleu, Prescott, May 2010
This was a turning point. No longer was it enough to read about cars, now I had to see them in action. And it didn’t matter what sort of action. I would head off in to the forests of Dorset to watch the Winter Rally. (If you want to get close to the action it really is hard to beat rallying!)
Lancia Delta Integrale
My cousin got wind of a Supercar trackday being held at Goodwood, so unselfconciously we set off, in his metallic bogie green Honda Accord, and spent a day in the sun watching our fantasy cars being blasted round the old circuit. Something similar was organised by the De Tomaso Owners Club at Castle Combe, and again we turned up to have our supercar itch scratched. I think the highlight was either the three Lamborghini Miuras parked up together or the super-rare Ferrari 250 GT SWB (currently one of my three all-time cars.)
De Tomaso Mangusta at Castle Combe
Ferrai 250 GT swb
Three(!) Lamborghini Miuras at Castle Combe
Ferrari 288 GTO at Castle Combe
A very sorry Ferrari 308 GT4 at Goodwood
Iso Grifo at Castle Combe.
In 1989 we upped the ante. Now depending on which bit of the globe you call home, you may have a different answer to the question “What is the world’s greatest motor race?” You might say the Indy 500, Dakar Rally, Bathurst or maybe the Monaco grand prix, but clearly you would be wrong. The correct answer is of course Le 24 Heure du Mans. Why? It’s epic, intense, demanding beyond imagination, a sensory overload and that’s just for the tens of thousands of fans who flock to northern France every year. In ‘89 Gary, Steve and I were the archetypal innocents abroad. We joined up with the Page and Moy tour somewhere in Kent on a very drizzly night and took the ferry to France. On disembarking we were allocated to our coach which was also the unfortunate receptacle of approximately twenty roaringly drunk Kiwis. They proceeded to increase their roaringly-drunkeness on the journey south. We laughed, we cried, and at times we feared for our lives. It is the journey that lives with me to this day, but that is not to take away from the astonishing experience of a twenty four hour motor race. After the first few hours we set off hitching round the circuit, watching from numerous vantage points. Without a radio it was impossible to follow what was unfolding but that really didn’t matter; we were immersed in the experience. I think the killer viewpoint was from an alley way between two houses on the Mulsanne straight. We had an incredibly narrow viewing angle, it was two in the morning, we were shattered beyond all belief, but racing cars were blasting past at 220 m.p.h about ten feet away from our faces. It was all too much for Steve, Gary and I looked round to find him asleep on a nest he had made from our bags.
The winning Sauber-Mercedes C9, Le Mans 1989
The truly ear-splitting Mazda 787B, Le Mans 1989
That wasn’t my last visit. In 1996 and 1997 I took my trusty VW Camper to the Sarthe to enjoy the race again. I really can’t stress just how fantastic these experiences were. The racing is clearly the reason to go, and it was as exciting as ever. But Le Mans is so much more. We established base camp in Camping du Houx, where over the course of the next few day we enjoyed an attempt at the record for most people playing volleyball in a crowded campsite, multi-frisbee, and drag-racing (post-race). During the race, you wander about, watching the racing from as many different places as you can, listening to position updates from Radio Le Mans (I'd learnt my lesson from 1989), before stumbling back to your tent in the early hours. You fall asleep to the sound of engines blaring round the track, before coming blearily to, five hours later, to the same sound. As you produce some sort of dubious fry-up, washed down with a small beer, you know there is another eight hours of racing to go. It is a truly epic motor race.
Le Mans is a tough act to follow, but over the year’s I’ve been to Donington, Thruxton, Combe and Goodwood to watch all sorts of stuff be raced. There is something to be said for being there, it beats watching it on the TV by an order of magnitude or two. In recent years, living in Gloucestershire as I do, I’ve been to the Prescott Hillclimb on several occasions ( 1, 2, 3). It’s a well-supported event, but still small enough to be intimate. You can get right in to the paddock, have a proper nose at the cars, talk to the drivers and then get really close to the action as they blast up the hill.
Porsche 935(?) at Castle Combe
Jaguar XJR-11 at Donington 1990
The winning Mercedes Benz C-11 at Donington 1990
So what has any of this got to do with me not watching F1 next year? Well, I think I probably sit somewhere in the middle of the target demographic; I’m between the ages of 35-44, am interested in cars and car racing, and own a TV. I’m not a motor-racing fanatic, and I’m not someone who just watches F1 because they fancy JB or Lewis or Mark Webber (you know who you are!) I’m somewhere between the two extremes, probably a bit further away from the “fancying” end, to be honest. I’ll watch the coverage of qualifying, the analysis and the race. I will have my laptop or phone to hand with the FIA app running, so I can see sector times and gaps and all that nerdy stuff. I get up early to watch the far-flung races, and periodically buy Autosport to keep abreast of what is going on. I listen to the Beeb’s “Chequered Flag” podcast.
Yet, if I want to watch F1 next year, I have to get a Sky subscription. Yes, yes, I know there will be half a season on the Beeb, but who watches half a season of something? And let’s be realistic, once this weird, Chimera, coverage has run its course, Sky will have the lot, and us poor old terrestrial viewers can go hang for all anyone cares. I am not so naive as to think that F1 is all about the fans, clearly in recent years the move to tedious, soulless tracks in emerging economies has highlighted that it’s all about the moolah, so the Sky deal makes perfect sense. The ear-splitting silence from the teams and drivers about this switch just emphasises where their loyalties lie. All the “Hey there fans, you’re great, we really appreciate your support” tweets ring a little hollow when not one of them, as far as I have seen, has expressed concern or disquiet at Sky’s takeover and the impact that will have on UK fans.
So “meh”, if you want my support, you have to give a little bit back. (As you read that I would like you to imagine a tiny figure waving an impotent, clenched fist at a huge, uncaring monolith. That will give you an idea of how much I think Bernie, Sky and their F1 puppets will care about my desertion.)
So what am I going to do instead of spending money on a Sky box? Well I think I might go and watch actual motorsport, with my own eyes, outside! A weekend ticket for Prescott will set you back maybe £30. The Silverstone 6 Hours last month cost £23. I live within a reasonable drive of Castle Combe, Thruxton, Donington and numerous other circuits. A ticket for Le Mans next year is about £70. £70! That’s an absolute bargain.
So sorry F1, you’ve lost a fan. It’s been fun, the last couple of seasons have been immense, but goodbye.