F1: Ways of Seeing

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What two people—an avid fan and a semi-ignorant reluctant follower—experience when they are part of the same audience watching the same race

He hears the syncopated rattle of pneumatic drills during a tyre change

As that rare sport that is louder than its spectators, there is little wonder motor racing does ‘sound’ so well. For Formula 1 in particular, where the biggest engines play, its sound is its calling card (or, channelling what Devangshu Datta posited on these pages in an earlier issue—‘A Religion for our Times’)—its azaan, its temple bell.

Those who have followed the sport since its early days insist that the ‘formula’—the set of technical restrictions that govern all participating cars—has muffled Formula 1’s voice down the years. The cars that line up on an F1 grid today are all 2.4-litre V8s that sound pretty much the same; the chorus of distinct engine notes one might have heard around a Grand Prix circuit from the 1950s through the 70s in particular—the high-octave signature of the Ferrari V12s or the deep-throated growl of the Coventry-Climax V8s; the bark and roar of the 1954 straight-eight Mercedes’; the shriek of the V12 Ligier Matras. Those are all gone, silenced at the altar of uniformity.

But the F1 sound is still a big sound. Deafening loud. A grand mechanistic yawp of defiance flung at the ether. It bounces up over the circuit fencing and rushes about the heads of people buying food and coupons in the tents outside: ‘eat later; pray, love’. Among those of us already parked in our seats, it provokes a spontaneous outbreak of idiot-grins. Karun Chandhok, reserve driver for Lotus, has just passed Force India’s Adrian Sutil down the straight to Turn 4. It’s 10.01 am on Friday, 28 October 2011. Practice Session 1 of the Indian Grand Prix has just begun.

I’m in Star Stand 1, East Zone, just towards the end of that straight. It’s a good place to be; the long downhill stretch lets the cars skim through the gears and up to top speed before a quick, grinding downshift to take Turn 4 at 100 kmph. A large screen on the other side of the track feeds us the televised action.

There’s just a smattering of people here. “Good thing it wasn’t a cow, eh?” a portly Australian gent growls as the first red flag goes up within five minutes—for a stray dog on the track. A few grim shakes of the head; nobody thinks that’s funny. Cheers and whistles as Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes is recognised. More as World Champion Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull takes its first lap of the circuit. Hushed ohs as Jaime Alguersuari becomes the first to crash, spinning out spectacularly on Turn 9 an hour later. A boy, about ten years old, explains red and yellow flags to his mother: Hamilton is fastest in Practice 1, but he has ignored a yellow flag; that’ll cost him.

More people trickle in as the day progresses. There’s chaos at lunchtime, even with the stand at 10 per cent of capacity. Just one tent sells food coupons, causing long queues and a lot of hot-and-botheredness. There’s even a 20-something smartass offering to sell his coupons in black. Later in the evening, the in-circuit shuttles overflow—because the feeder buses that brought us to the venue are parked in the wrong place. That dad with the big moustache struggling through the press of bodies to offload his two sons at the right stop? He would have paid Rs 7,500 at least for his three tickets; he deserves not to be hanging out of a moving bus. The organisers have had a bit of a cold start.

Day 2. Windfall. I’ve wrangled a bit of barcoded hard plastic that proclaims me a ‘Guest of Sh. Manoj Gaur’, and ingress to the Jaypee Lounge in the pit building thereby. The lounge is carpeted a fresh green and would be the envy of the ragged people in Star Stand East (the Rs 8,500-a-ticket ragged people). As I sit at one of the approximately 50 round tables on Level 3, a liveried waitress with a pretty smile comes up and asks permission to pour me a glass of water. “You had me at ‘elevator’”, I feel like saying, “they’re considered a luxury where I’ve come from.” I overlook the watercress salad and the achari murg, grab a cold pint, and head out to the verandah.

The Jaypee Lounge looks out over the pit lane and the start-finish line, which makes it the place to be during Qualification. More sound and fury, and much more immediate. As the cars screech out of their garages, I hear the heavy bass rumble of their engines in low revs, straining against pit lane speed limiters, then a high revving crescendo as they exit the pits, and a snap-crackle-pop that echoes off the North Stand as they downshift into Turn One. I hear the syncopated rattle of pneumatic drills during a tyre change. I see the team technicians and strategists at their monitors. I see the grid girls.

The sensory enjoyment of this sport, seen live, is absolute—colour, smell, sound, straights, curves, et al. But I have to head into the lounge and to a TV set to make complete sense of what’s happened. Vettel took pole, didn’t he? What was his time? Oh, and was that Massa who crashed out on his second timed lap? The volume of sound means that one can’t hear the commentary on the loudspeakers around the track, and the information on the big screens isn’t always legible, given that it’s actually meant for TV. Perhaps adding dedicated electronic ‘scoreboards’ would help.

Twelve teams, 24 drivers, varying pit stop strategies—F1 is a little more complicated than cricket, and a little more demanding of its live viewer. Back in the Star East Stand on race day, the guy on my right who murmurs “Schumacher” everytime a Ferrari goes by? There is much shoulder-shrugging through the race from him, and his girlfriend isn’t impressed. One row down, though, there’s a father-son duo that is better prepared, having at least bought the official programme that features team and driver helmet colours—essential to follow the action. The dad, long-haired, someone at Dolby, has been following F1 since 1980 and has waited for this day since, well, forever. “Next year I’ll be in the Paddock Club for sure,” he vows.

Schumacher draws huge cheers during the drivers parade before the race. Ditto Vettel, Karthikeyan, the Ferraris and Force Indians. Hisses for Hamilton from the desi tifosi, caused no doubt by his run-ins with Massa through the season. (Their collision during the race provokes much angry fist-waving from the Ferrari faithful.) Daler Mehendi, Leslie Lewis, Kay Kay and Lucky Ali sing the official theme song of the Indian GP, titled Hum Mein Raftaar. (Battle of the 90s Has Beens, anyone?) A couple of choppers take an aerial lap of the course. Someone suggests Sonia Gandhi has arrived. “Shouldn’t invite anyone from the Government,” a gent pipes in, “they haven’t even given this the status of a sport.”

There’s a moment, a genuine moment, when the national anthem is sung around the circuit. And a massive outpouring of noise—engines and crowd—as the race gets underway. The mini battles between Button and Webber, Alonso and Webber, Schumacher and Rosberg, Vettel and himself hold the attention. Some follow and applaud every pit stop (on the screen) and overtaking manoeuvre; others can’t work out why there are four Red Bulls on the track. But a good time is had by all.

Vettel wins. There’s a presentation, wherein it is revealed that urban upper and middle-class Indians cheer louder for Mittal than Mayawati. Go figure.

On the bus back to Delhi, I hear, for the second evening running, one bloke telling another which financial instrument he’s crazy to have invested in and which other one, the one he’s just invested in, would have made him richer. White noise. I switch off and sleep.


She sees an ignorant crowd in attendance just to update their Facebook status 

It struck me how big the F1 mania was really becoming when my 52-year-old mother insisted she come along to watch qualifying runs. A week of soaking in TV beams that seemed to be spreading F1 fever faster than encephalitis, and she was sure she wanted to attend, as it would be “a once-in-a-lifetime event”. The fact that she didn’t know even a single race driver’s name didn’t seem to deter her—for, as she said, she would learn.

And she did. By the time we were driving to the insanely faraway Buddh International Circuit (especially from Gurgaon), finally catching a glimpse of one of Mayawati’s famed statues in her Noida Dalit park, she knew that Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta drove the Force India cars and not Narain Karthikeyan. Unfortunately, the numerous others who had undertaken the journey to Greater Noida for the first time—and maybe the last, after the four-hour jams they all braved just to be seen as part of the glamset—had not been able to channel her wisdom. For, as soon as we sat down on our seats, I managed to overhear a gentleman, sitting grand with an umbrella over his head, ask his neighbour, “How does one find out which car Schumacher is driving?”, to which he got an indifferent, “It’s easy.” So he leaned back and smiled as he delivered the cincher. “Is it? Bhai, uski car ka number kya hai (Brother, what’s his car number)?” But that’s not all. A portly Sardar enthusiastically spoke into his cellphone after Q3 and remarked, “Teen racein khatam ho chuki hain, yaar (three races are already done, buddy).”

It was clear: Formula 1 meant a day out in the lovely winter sun of Delhi, the chance to eat some expensive grub, and yes, take lots of pictures to put on Facebook with status messages saying ‘I am at F1, where are you?’ Who cared if there were state-of -the-art cars that redefine auto technology every season racing on a multi-million-dollar track when there were pictures to tweet?  I could see little children with the same gleam in their eyes that I remember getting when my parents took me to a trade fair at Pragati Maidan or even the zoo. It was a picnic, and everyone was invited, knowledge of the sport no criterion at all.

Who am I to speak, though? After all, I had spent many Sundays urging my husband to change the channel as he watched these tiny cars (that reminded me of the miniature Hot Wheels my brother used to collect) go round and round. I knew my Sunday was doomed when a race was on, and for many years have waited for seasons to finish with baited breath. Slowly and steadily, the names became familiar, and before I knew it, I had a favourite. Does it matter if I selected the driver I thought best looking? Or that I supported the Indian team just because there was an Indian flag on their cars? Do we care if the drivers weren’t Indian, or if the team’s based in Silverstone, UK? I suddenly had favourites, and now I wanted them to win. And so I whiled away my Sundays too.

And now I can pride myself on knowing what they mean when they talk of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and DRS (Drag Reduction System). It was the only reason I agreed to spend an obscene amount of money on the tickets. After all, as my mother had remarked wisely, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

But my fellow audience members had other agendas to fulfil. First on hand would be to see a few cars crash. When they got a break from taking pictures and making videos of the four turns they could see, they were all hoping a driver would lose control (honest, I am not making it up). As Ferrari’s Felipe Massa ran off track during a qualifying run, or as Sebastian Buemi’s car retired in the sand during Sunday’s race, people cheered and ooohhed. Cameras clicked furiously, and it suddenly felt as if it was paisa vasool. One man remarked, “We saw everything we needed to— speed, sound and a few accidents. So exciting!” Confused souls asked whoever stood next to them who this Sebastian Vettel was and why the hell wasn’t Michael Schumacher making mince meat out of him? Wasn’t Schumacher going to win? Didn’t he always win? Most knew only that name and cheered every time his car went by. Some people just dozed with their eyes open, while others decided they were better off eating rajma rice for Rs 200 at the food stalls. A TV anchor’s voice boomed in my head, “Everyone who was anyone will head to Buddh today.” But as I watched a newly married couple take pictures of each other after every five seconds on their brand new iPhone, without even giving a second glance to the track, I felt like adding my own TV voice that would go, “Everyone who wanted to be anyone was here today.”

If I sound too cynical, forgive me. But what would you say if you saw half the crowd busy ordering food at the stalls as last-lap drivers sped past the chequered flag? Who won? “Arrey, it wasn’t Schumacher, so what’s the big deal?” could have been the answer. Mr Vettel could have been the local Mr Patel of the grocery shop as far as they were concerned. They came, they ate, they snapped, and they uploaded—now, what the drivers did or how the cars raced, well “we were here and that’s all that matters”.

But as we crawled back, squeezed between Jaguars and Audi R8s as part of a jam on the swanky Yamuna Expressway, I had a happy heart. My mother’s final comments on the race had eaten away my cynicism. She looked content as she said, “At 52, I, who hasn’t even ever watched a live cricket match, got to watch an F1 race. Now isn’t that something?” It surely is.