Now Formula 1 may be my main preoccuption, but I'm enough of a petrol head to be excited at the prospect of witnessing a form of motorsport new to the UK. So when Rhona rang and suggested going to the first round of the FedEx CART Championship to be held in the UK, at the newly-built Rockingham Motor Speedway in Northamptonshire, I didn't hesitate!
Having seen some of Rhona's photos of Rockingham from her visit earlier this year, when construction was far from complete, I had some idea of what to expect ... but my first sight of the track from the grandstand in the Rockingham Building did nothing to quieten the excitement!
Not only could we see the whole circuit spread out before us (and those of you who have been to an F1 race will know what a novelty that is) but we quickly worked out that our race day seats were right above the start-finish line and directly opposite the podium.
I could have just sat there drinking it in, but there was exploring to be done ... we had centre transfer tickets so headed on over to the infield to see what we could see from there ... and that was where the next big contrast with F1 became evident!
As we wondered along the back of the garages I kept waiting for a hand on my shoulder and a voice telling me I shouldn't be there! But, this is how CART works, the whole event a show with the teams going about their jobs in full view not just of selected guests with an elusive pit pass but of me and Rhona and hundreds of other fans :-)
I began to understand why Toyota, having been involved in CART, did not hesitate to throw open the doors of their new Formula 1 facility at their "Open House" earlier this year.
Needless to say, I took loads of photos, just because I could ... only a few of which I reproduce here to try and give an idea to just how close to the cars we were!
I was touched to see that all cars displayed a September 11 Memorial sticker and heard in interviews over the weekend how difficult it had been for the predominantly American teams being away from home since before the attacks. By race day, each car was also sporting the pineapple logo of Alex Zanardi in support of their friend and colleague, thankfully now conscious and on the road to recovery from the appalling injuries he sustained in last week's race at the Lausitzring.
Not only were the cars and team personnel accessible, the drivers walked the short distance between the team portakabins and the rear of the garages in a swarm of eager fans waving programmes and photos for signing. Dario Franchitti, the sole British entrant in this year's championship, found himself in particularly high demand!
From the vantage point of the pit roof, where we were in solitary splendour until other people spotted us and realised access wasn't restricted, we had an excellent view of the impressive Rockingham Building, housing refreshment and merchandising outlets at ground level, hospitality suites and race control above, and crowning it all a grandstand stretching the length of the start-finish straight. The facilities are truly impressive, including disabled viewing areas in the grandstand, served by lifts from ground level!
I think I've probably waxed lyrical about the circuit and its facilities for long enough ... on to the action I hear you say! Only problem is, there wasn't much action for the first two days ... we saw plenty of "blowers" - Learjet engines mounted on the back of trucks used to dry the track (unsucessfully as it turned out). Although they were not, as you might reasonably expect, battling against the weather on the day, despite the idiocy or optimism (depending on your point of view) of scheduling an event dependant on a completely dry track for late September in the UK. Rather, the heavy rain in the days leading up to the event meant a high water table and water seeping up through the tarmac itself. Unfortunately, whatever the cause, the result was the same ... no running. The Champcars can't use treaded tyres on the ovals (even a somewhat square oval such as Rockingham!) ... they can't withstand the speeds and high lateral G-forces on the banked curves. And on slicks, hitting any patch of moisture is like hitting black ice on a bend in your road car - not advisable at 40mph a few feet from a hedge, suicidal at 200mph a few feet from a concrete wall. So, damp track = no Champcars.
They did eventually bring out the ASCARs for a few laps in a further attempt to disperse the water bubbling up at Turn 3, a simple line of cones allowing them to double up alongside the Champcars in the pitlane, but to no avail. Finally, late on Thursday afternoon, the Champcars came out for a few laps behind the pace car ... enough to whet the appetite, but far from the high speed action we'd been waiting for. So, on to Friday ... hoping for more!
Well Friday certainly brought more - more of the same ... lots of blowers, no Champcars, no action at all in fact.
... to be continued
Circuit from Rockingham Building grandstand
Pits - Car 25 Max Wilson
Pits - PacWest Racing Group
Dario Franchitti, Team Kool Green
Turn 1 grandstand from pit roof
Rockingham Building from pit roof
Dario Francitti - practice
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