Saturday 7 July 2012

Silverstone's water torture

Before the Friday of the British Grand Prix weekend was out we had our most weighty story of the whole event in place already. Incessant rain, the type that Britain specialises in, fell all day and brought chaos with it. This chaos is well-documented: grass car parks and some campsites became unusable and the management of the incoming traffic seemed to break down, causing thousands of fans to sit idle in their cars on gridlocked roads for hours. Many were still queuing for entry come the evening, long after the on-track action was complete. And even worse, those with public car park tickets, up to 30,000 fans apparently, were abruptly asked yesterday not to turn up for today's action. The effects of this today were clear from the TV pictures: some grandstands were sparsely populated on a day you'd expect them to be full.

It goes without saying that this is a very bad situation. The fans who spend money on tickets are the lifeblood of the sport, and for such paying customers, who as well as spending money on tickets also are likely to have taken time off work and done all sorts of planning and organisation etc etc, to be treated in such a way is exasperating. This is especially so in an age where disposable income is generally low and stretching to a (usually expensive) F1 ticket isn't easy. And just a few days ago I was paying tribute to the size and enthusiasm of a Silverstone Grand Prix crowd (indeed 80,000 were due through the gates yesterday and 100,000 today - figures most F1 venues can't even think about matching). F1 needs all the paying customers it can get, particularly right now, and we can just hope that the problems haven't lost too many of them to the sport.

I don't like to criticise, particularly when the facts of the case have barely been established. There are no doubt all sorts of details we don't know about, that would make the solutions to the problems mooted thus far much more problematic than seems the case at face value. And such problems aren't exclusive to F1: in Britain we saw what if anything were even greater weather-exacerbated problems at the Isle of Wight music festival recently, and in the past I've spent hours of my life getting away from golf tournaments I'd spectated at (indeed, I recently spent literally hours sitting on a bus not going anywhere in Scotland because a lane was shut on the Forth Road Bridge). And while tarmacking car parks has been widely touted as an answer, the potential to do that is limited for various reasons - such as cost and that much of the space is hired.

But it can't be denied that it all doesn't look good. And especially so given the problems and resultant chaos appear very similar to those in the race here in 2000, and despite promises to learn the lessons and the various improvements since the infrastructure seemed barely more able to cope than then. F1, like any business, is all about keeping the customer satisfied, and given that this (happening for the second time in 12 years) has the potential to turn away up to 30,000 of them and seriously inconvenience many thousand more then I'd suggest finding ways of mitigating such problems should be made a priority. And Friday's weather, while extreme, is certainly not that uncommon in Britain in this or in any time of the year.

But the cash lost this weekend in refunds and the like will mean even less budget than usual is available for Silverstone to invest in infrastructure to improve the situation. The facility is never going to receive the trailer-loads of public money that some of the newer F1 events benefit from, and while a lot of money pumps through a British Grand Prix weekend profit margins after the deduction all of the outgoings (particularly with the race fee) will be very tight. And let's not also forget that, with the possible exception of Japan, no other F1 venue is ever likely to face such challenges from the elements as Silverstone. And while some have pointed at the money spent on the new paddock complex as evidence of scrambled priorities, we in reality cannot criticise the track's owners for building that first as without it they probably would not have retained the F1 race at all.

But it can't be denied that investigation into what went wrong and what feasibly can (and ideally cheaply) be improved is a necessity. In the absence of determined facts proposed solutions at this stage have to be tentative. For what it's worth, whenever I've been stuck in similar queues and jams in the past it's struck me in most cases that while the traffic at the venue itself gets a lot of focus, anything more than a mile of so away gets very little attention and it is sometimes there that a lot of the problems lie. Often a steward at a junction 'troublespot' further away to manage traffic and wave people through makes all of the difference. I've no idea whether this was the case at Silverstone yesterday but it's nevertheless worth looking at. Another option is to look at the possibility of reducing the numbers of cars that arrive at the venue itself. Indeed, I recall during Donington Park's abortive attempt at holding the British Grand Prix their plan was to have no cars at all enter the circuit site. Instead, a myriad of shuttle-buses was intended to take people to and from the local railway station. Obviously, that never happened, but I wonder if any of their ideas can be salvaged for use at Silverstone, at least for use in-part.

That the problems on Friday were compounded by the scarcity of cars on track for both Friday practice sessions to entertain the many hardy souls in the grandstands who had made it in is doubly galling however. Of course, drivers not wanting to smash their cars up in the sodden conditions was part of it and is unavoidable, but more of the reason is that the regulations allow only for three sets of wet-weather tyres per car for a whole weekend. In such circumstances an extra set of intermediates is made available for each car on a Friday, but yesterday that was irrelevant as the track was too wet for them. Pirelli's Paul Hembery said he could have brought more wets in quickly from the company's distribution point in Didcot, but for whatever reason no agreement was made on that. Quite why such tyre restrictions exist in the first place isn't clear. I'd assume it came into being as some kind of cost-saving measure. But when it manifests itself only to give the folks who ultimately bring the money to the sport in the first place an empty track to look at when they're also being rained on it all seems rather bone-headed.

All in all, it's been a bad weekend for Silverstone and for the sport. Neither institution needs me to tell them that lessons must be learned.

1 comment:

  1. "But the cash lost this weekend in refunds and the like will mean even less budget than usual is available for Silverstone to invest in infrastructure to improve the situation."

    I would be more than a bit surprised if Silverstone's incompetency stretched to not being insured against the sort of chaos and strife that has occurred this weekend. Therefore, I doubt they will be massively out of pocket, if at all.