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Formula 1

Chinese Grand Prix 2010: A view from the grandstands

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It is 5727 miles from London to Shanghai, and an 11 hour flight from Heathrow. By anyone's reckoning, that is a long way to travel for a sporting event, and such a journey doesn't come cheap. Is it worth it?

When he learned that I would be heading out to China for the grand prix, the editor of this site asked me to report on my experience of attending one of F1's so-called 'flyaway' races, so here is a collection of vaguely coherent ramblings presented as a fan’s perspective of a great weekend for the Brits in the fourth (and possibly most exciting) round of the 2010 season.

After months of anticipation and excitement, further stoked by the first three races of the season (yes, even the procession in Bahrain), I finally flew out of Heathrow Terminal 5 – bound for Shanghai – on the Wednesday before the race.

On arrival at my hotel, I heard the name Eyjafjallajokull for the first time. At this point, I wasn't bothered in the slightest at the mention of this Icelandic volcano – surely European airspace would be reopened within a day or two?

One look at Twitter however, and it was clear that the closure of British airspace seemed in the forefront of the minds of the F1 media and the teams. Eddie Jordan was the first 'casualty' of the ash cloud, and everyone who had made it to China was now worrying how they were going to return home. I wasn't going to let anything cloud my weekend though, and was optimistic it would all blow over soon.

I didn't attend Friday practice; instead some sightseeing was on the agenda. Later that day I heard about Buemi's spectacular accident which I would have seen clearly from my viewing position. Hamilton had been the fastest driver of the day, a popular result among the group I was travelling with.

Walking through the busy shopping centre in downtown Shanghai on the Friday, you wouldn't have known that the F1 circus was in town. Bernie Ecclestone was on BBC 5 Live's Chequered Flag podcast blaming the local promoters for the small crowds, and I could see his point. The only evidence of F1's existence anywhere was the few pictures of Lewis Hamilton trying to sell watches.

On Saturday I got my first taste of the Shanghai International Circuit. My seat was in the grandstand at the end of the long straight. For those watching on TV, it is the first grandstand the drivers come to on the lap with those fancy canopies.

When booking a couple of months ago I had two main criteria for choosing where to sit – cost of the ticket, and whether or not I would get wet (remembering the rain-soaked race last year which Sebastian Vettel won). As it turned out, the end of Grandstand H provided the ideal place to watch the action.

I had a clear view of the back straight and of the hairpin which provided the best overtaking opportunity of the lap. I could also see the pit lane entrance, and, at a stretch, down the start/finish straight. For any parts of the track I couldn't see, there was a big screen directly in front of me showing the world television feed.

The circuit in Shanghai is very modern. The iconic structure around the pit straight is as impressive in real life as it appears on the television. The banking around the circuit also provided good vantage points, so even a general admission ticket would have guaranteed a good view of the action.

The only problem was, the locals weren't there to enjoy the facilities. All throughout Saturday, even for the climax of qualifying, the grandstands were ridiculously empty. Of those in the grandstand with me, the vast majority were European fans.

Third practice passed by mostly without incident. There were vast hoards of Chinese policemen in our stand for this session. They had obviously been given that hour off as they were busy taking photos of each other with the circuit as a backdrop or trying to take pictures of the cars as they flew past. One even asked me if I could pose in a photo with him – something I learned later was a common occurrence for western tourists in China.

For me third practice provided a chance to get reacclimatised to the sheer volume of an F1 car as it zooms past. No matter how many races you attend, you forget what a piercing noise those V8 engines makes as they scream past you.

Vitaly Petrov provided us with drama towards the end of the session, running wide on the exit of the final corner and somehow finding the tyre wall. I got a clear view of this rookie error, and also of the recovery, which seemed to take an inordinate amount of time.

One part of the race weekend that probably is best watched on TV (or at least with some kind of commentary or timing screen) is qualifying. Standing at the side of the race track, one obviously can't determine fractions of a second difference in lap time, and you are reliant on the TV screens to see how the driver's lap times compare.

Unfortunately, the TV screen visible from our stand decided to stop working at the beginning of Q3 and although we could see cars fly past us, nobody knew who had got pole position until halfway through the driver's press conference when the big screen came back to life.

Back at the hotel on Saturday night, it was clear that the ash cloud situation was not improving. F1 teams were now genuinely concerned they would be stranded in China and, even though I was scheduled fly to Beijing on the Monday for a couple of days of sightseeing, I began to doubt if I would be back on British soil before the end of the month.

Even so, despite this cloud hanging over the F1 community (both literally and metaphorically) there was still a race to be run, and with the prospect of rain arriving at the 3pm local start time, it promised excitement. Sebastian Vettel had the pole position, but on a track that rewards cars easy on their tyres, and the possibility of mid-race precipitation, victory was far from certain for the young German.

Before the race is the traditional driver's parade. For those of us without a media pass, it is probably the only opportunity we get to see the drivers without their helmets on. At my first ever grand prix, Britain 2005, I was convinced that Michael Schumacher deliberately waved at me, and I briefly make eye contact with the seven-time world champion. It was a claim to fame I have recounted on many occasions since – although few have been convinced the wave was directed solely at me. This time I think Lewis Hamilton may have briefly grinned at me, but I may have been mistaken.

Even in the dry, watching a Formula 1 race unfolding directly in front of you is a great experience. I had cars speeding past me at nearly 200mph all trying to reach the tight hairpin first. To watch Lewis Hamilton scythe his way past so many cars was pretty breathtaking. Some he left for dead on the straights, such was his straight line performance advantage, while others he skilfully passed around Turn 14. The standing water kicked up by the cars later in the race just added to the spectacle.

One encounter that was especially intriguing to watch was in the early stages between Hamilton and Schumacher. Although Schumacher didn't come out of this race with much to shout about, he successfully defended his position from the rampaging Brit on two consecutive laps with what seemed to resemble the steely defensive driving he displayed in the old days. Hamilton, of course eventually made it past, and went on to finish the race just behind his teammate Jenson Button.

To travel halfway round the world and see the first British one-two finish since Austria 1999 is pretty special, and to hear the British national anthem ring out around Shanghai bordered on an emotional experience as wave of patriotism swept over me.

And where were all the Chinese fans to witness the great British triumph? They'd gone home! The stand I had been sitting in was much fuller on the Sunday (although probably about a third of the seats remained empty), but after an hour into the race there was a mass exodus. It seems that China still doesn't quite get F1, and more work needs to be done to sell the sport in the region.

That night in the hotel bar a celebratory beer was obviously required to celebrate Button's victory (and, for me, a certain football team's promotion from League 1). My China adventure continued onto Beijing the next day, which included a trip to the very impressive Great Wall.

I flew back on my scheduled flight from Beijing last Thursday without any problems which prompted the question: Ashcloud? What ashcloud? Upon landing in London I caught up with Twitter feeds of various F1 people (Beijing was very much behind 'the Chinese firewall') to see all the stories of eventful and rather unorthodox journeys home.

Having never visited China before, and not wanting the hassle of organising all the logistics myself, I had opted for one of the travel companies who offer holiday packages for motorsport events around the world. There are a few out there, and they advertise in magazines such as F1 Racing and Autosport. This gave me a small insight into the types of people who head out to faraway races to watch their motorsport.

There was an ex-student, who had never been to an F1 race before, but obviously wanted to visit China, and had used the event as a sort of excuse to go. An older couple were part of the group, who had been to most of the European tracks, and told me they usually took in one foreign race a year as part of a holiday.

There was also retired couple who had already been to Australia and Malaysia this season. They were in China for the 2009 season, and the male told me he had once attended an entire season of F1 races. Definitely something to aspire to – if I one day win the lottery.

As for me, China opened my eyes to the wide world of F1 that exists beyond Silverstone that had only previously been visible to me through a TV screen. I'm already trying to decide where to go next.

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