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Jun 15, 2011

MotoGP Blog: Two Moto-Tourists Enjoy The British Grand Prix Weekend At Silverstone

Silverstone is so big they need buses to get people around. Double-decker buses of course. Photo by Mixo/Klaus&Hammer.
FIRST PERSON/OPINION

By Joshua Steinberg

Everyone loves fireworks. And why not? They're great. They explode. Everyone loves stuff that goes, "boom." When fireworks go off and light up the night sky with magnificent colors everyone ohhs and ahhhs. When the concussion wave hits, girls laugh and boys cheer. That's why any happy occasion worth celebrating is marked with a fireworks display. Everyone loves fireworks. Well, everyone except the family dog, perhaps. Our dog used to hide in the shower every July fourth.

There is a certain anticipation when a firework fuse is lit. It pops and hisses as it burns its way towards those wonderful explosive charges. People watching gleefully cringe as they wait for the thing to go off. Sometimes, they keep waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Eventually, some brave soul will cautiously stride up to the stricken firework and, after setting down his beer, and examining it will declare it a "dud." When that happens everyone secretly hopes it will go off just as the guy gets close.

Don't lie, yes you do, everyone does. Because otherwise it's a let-down. A disappointment. A dud. It happens when a firework gets wet.
But even people who love a good fireworks display generally don't love them enough to sit out in the rain to watch one.

The British round of MotoGP at Silverstone is one that Mixo and I have been looking forward to for a long time. It was somewhat disappointing, then, to see that rain was forecast for the weekend. It was more disappointing when we arrived at the track early Friday morning and found the place mostly deserted. I know what you're thinking and yes, we were there on the right day. And time. I know because I checked. Plus, all the usual sights and sounds of the MotoGP circus where there; trucks, bikes, mechanics, everything. Everything, except a crowd of fans. Those who were hardy enough to brave the party cloudy and breezy conditions were treated to some excellent on-track entertainment as well as very short lines at the food tents. And the beer tents. And the toilets. And the, you get the picture.

In fairness it did actually rain a couple times during the day, but only briefly and only once while bikes were actually on track. The temperature, however, was anywhere from T-shirts and sunny to breezy and cool to holycrapitscolderthanfinlandi'llbeinthecar once the rain did fall.

But come on, this is England! It rains here. Everyone knows that. This is a completely bike-mad country full of hard-core tough guys who drink dark beer and head-butt stuff. Surely the English race fans can deal with a little rain. At Le Mans the locals were out in droves. In Spain they sat out in the rain and couldn't have cared less.

Could it be that the English just don't have the same heart? Could it be that the English just don't love motorcycle racing as much? Could it be that this was a Friday and the English have jobs?

The issue needed further investigation. So after the last practice session of the day we went to check out the campgrounds. We expected to find them empty, but to our surprise the biggest one was packed. Well, it looked full. It was hard to tell because there were so many RVs and campers blocking our view. We wanted to get a closer look and mingle with the people, but we were denied access because we did not have the proper wristband showing that we had paid for a campsite. That made sense. We were staying in a hotel. So as the rain began to fall again we had no choice, but to turn around and go in search of adventures elsewhere. Preferably inside. With a decent selection of beer. And maybe hot food.

What a difference a day makes. Saturday morning we arrived at the track to find ample crowds had turned up despite the forecast of sunny skies and warm-ish temperatures. Actually, there were tons of people in attendance, yet the circuit still felt empty. The grandstands were full in a few spots, but whole sections were completely empty and the grassy knolls designed for general admission viewing were also only dotted sparsely with people. It was weird. We knew there were people there, the car parks (that's what the English call parking lots) were full, all the vendor areas had customers milling around, yet there was no crowd. We decided to walk from the paddock to the grandstands on the other side of the track, and in doing so discovered something.

Silverstone is HUGE.

I don't mean "wow that's really big" or even "goodness, that's the biggest one of those I've ever seen." No, I mean "wow, you could land several jumbo jets in here and still have room for Marco Simoncelli's hair" big.

It's really spread out, too, with seemingly no central area easily accessible from everywhere. Despite a free bus service. Yes, this track is so big it needs to have several bus lines running to ferry people around. The only problem is that it wasn't clear where each bus went or where to wait for it. The drivers and track staff tried to be helpful, but it just seemed a little disorganized. It would have been nice to explore the rest of the viewing and vending areas around the track, but that meant a lot of time and energy spent walking. A lot of people brought bicycles to get around Silverstone and if we go back next year we'll have one, too. With a motor in it. And a cup holder.

Also, because these are motorcycle race fans and as such tend to have short attention spans and can be somewhat, uh, creative in how they pass the time, Silverstone officials have made sure nobody gets bored. There were so many diversions on tap to choose from it was almost overwhelming. We were faced with going to the "Village" area to watch a live band on the huge stage, browse the latest motorcycle offerings from the OEMs, check out the stunt plane air show, or perhaps watch some super-motard racing. And that was just what was within reasonable walking distance. We developed a highly effective and clever strategy to decide which things we would check out. We would go to whichever event was closest to us.

It worked great.

However, one of the great things about going to the track is the chance to meet people from all over the world who have a common interest. Oddly, after two days at Silverstone we had barely made contact with anyone. There was no shared experience and it left both Mixo and I a little deflated. We had looked forward to going to a European GP where we could actually understand the language so the fact that we had failed to connect with anyone or have any stories to tell was disappointing even though we were having a great time.

After we got back to our hotel we decided to head out in search of some moto-stupid. After all this is England. This is where bike hooliganism was invented, so surely we could find somebody doing something stupid on a motorcycle in order to impress total strangers. We headed to the nearest downtown.

What we found was a nice little strip of tidy nightclubs full of young women with big thighs in short skirts and young men with big arms in short sleeves. Yet, there was not a single motorcycle in sight. Not one. We didn't even hear any motorcycles. There was no siren song of tortured rev-limiters off in the distance. No smell of burning rubber, hell there wasn't even an old Honda in the parking lot. Nothing. So we left and headed in the direction of the track.

Earlier in the evening there had been some flat track races held near the campgrounds at Silverstone. It was our bad luck to have missed out on that, but our timing turned out to be perfect. As we were driving up the very dark and lonely road our rental car's headlights just caught in the periphery a strange and wonderful sight. Strangely the apparition almost looked like a dozen guys in inflatable sumo wrestler outfits walking down the sidewalk. As we got closer we realized what it actually was: A dozen guys wearing inflatable sumo wrestler outfits walking down the sidewalk! Things were looking up. I swung the rental around the next roundabout, circled back, went 180 around the next roundabout and pulled off the road so that the headlights shone down the sidewalk towards them. Did we miss them? Was it a hallucination? Wishful thinking? Then suddenly they were there, illuminated in the very edge of our headlight beams. First all we could see were shoes, all walking in lockstep. Then the legs. Soon the entire beam of our headlights was filled with large, waddling, sumo wrestlers. They even had the hats and thongs. And they were singing. As they flooded around the car we tried to get a good picture, but like Bigfoot they proved elusive. We only managed a few fuzzy snapshots and then they were gone, disappearing into the darkness.

Before we could drive off three young men approached the car. At last, we could talk to race fans who speak English, but they turned out to be from Scotland so a translator would have still come in handy. We offered them a ride, regardless, and they piled in.

We all decided that the campground held the most promise, but like Mixo and I they also had no wristbands to get in. So we hatched a plan. They were in the Royal Air Force and had come to the British GP on tickets specially issued to military personnel and as such figured that they could get into the campground to experience the alcohol fuelled, testosterone inspired, moto-coo-coo that surely lay within. All we had to do was convince the guards that it was OK to let military personnel in and that Mixo and I were also in the RAF. What could possibly go wrong?

I pulled the car into the dirt lot next to the entrance gate and let the boys out. Meanwhile, Mixo went searching for a gap in the security, also known as a hole in the fence, as plan "B." I stayed in the car with the motor running so we could all make a quick escape. OK, actually I was just being lazy, but whatever.
Mixo came back with the location of a gap that we could easily walk right through, but our new friends had also succeeded. All we had to do now was convince the guards that were British military. One of the guys told me the top-secret location of the base where we were all stationed. OK, it wasn't actually top secret, I just forgot. It's possible that I didn't understand him in the first place, but figured it didn't much matter seeing as how as soon as the guards heard my horribly fake accent (think Shrek with a head cold) the jig would be up. Mixo and I just hung back and let the youngsters work their magic and sure enough before I could even muster my best Mel Gibson in Braveheart imitation the nice security lady was handing out wristbands. We slapped them on and marched right in, proud new members of the RAF.

Inside there were no moto-shenanigans because all the bikes were parked in a designated and secure parking area, but we did find a large circus tent with a live band and a well-stocked beer tent and a few food vendors. This is where the party was. Hundreds of race fans were there to enjoy the festivities, despite the unseasonably cold weather. As with France and Spain everyone we met was in a good mood, having a ball, and completely friendly. Unlike Spain and France it was easy to strike up a conversation because everyone we met was either from Scotland, England, or Ireland so we could almost understood half of what was being said at any given time.

We were finally having the fantastic British GP experience that we had anticipated. These were our people. People who will travel long distances, endure high costs, bad weather, and do it happily so they can see motorcycle racing live and in person. The best view may be at home on your couch, but when you're standing outside with several thousand of your new best friends, drinking a nice beer, and talking about bikes, racing, or whatever else comes up you realize that the actual motorcycles going around in circles part of the race weekend is only just a part of the experience.

We met guy who was standing around with a few friends, talking trash and having a drink, completely normal-like, except he was wearing a SpongeBob Squarepants costume. We struck up a conversation and he revealed that he felt weird being a role model for kids and worried what they might think if they saw him smoking. Never mind the beer. He also assured us that if it rained the next day he wouldn't wear the costume because it soaks up water. Well, it is a sponge after all. Maybe he should have planned ahead. Like the guy wearing rubber boots and a wet suit, who was standing not far away.

The live band ended their set and a DJ took over. Soon the whole area was filled with swirling lights, fog machine smoke, and the thumping rave music.
Everywhere there were people of all ages twirling glow sticks, laughing, and dancing really, really badly. It was awesome.

Our belief that English people do know how to party and have a good time was restored and we were having a blast, but it was way past my bedtime. As we headed in the general direction of the rental car, through a darkened maze of tents and RVs, a plume of bright fireworks exploded overhead. Perfect.

The next morning dawned cold, wet, and windy. We tossed on every piece of clothing we had, covered it all with waterproof outer gear and headed for the track. Traffic was horrendous and we missed the morning warm-up sessions, but eventually made it to the track, found some seats in one of the many covered grandstands, and settled in for the racing action.

Moto2 was up first and even though rain makes for slower lap times the fact that there were 30-some-odd bikes on the grid meant we were in for a good show. These machines are piloted by some of the most talented and win-hungry racers in the world and when the green flag flies they all vie for the same tiny piece of tarmac. In the rain that means diving through blinding spray while trying to gain positions, not get knocked down, or knock anyone else down. It's as entertaining and unpredictable as an order of Fish and Chips at an unfamiliar pub. And just as filling.

The premier-class bikes took to the grid as the rain continued to fall, the wind blew and the temperature was hovering somewhere around the "why am I still outside?" mark and may have dipped into "this is stupid, I'm going to catch pneumonia" territory.

Injuries in the MotoGP ranks this season have thinned the already sparse field and an obvious technical gap between the manufactures meant that after a few laps the race had become more of a soggy parade, but it was still fun to watch the riders wrestle 200+ horsepower, two-wheeled machines in the wet and windy conditions. The 125cc GP race was next followed by the Red Bull Rookies, but pretty much as soon as the "big" race was over the remaining crowd dissipated quickly. Too bad too, because the 125s will never be run again at Silverstone. They are being replaced by the all new four-stroke Moto3 bikes which will supposedly be cheaper to race competitively thus allowing more teams and manufacturers to be involved and fighting for the championship.

More teams, more bikes, more competition sounds like exactly what the doctor ordered, but it still hard to imagine Grand Prix racing without the sweet smell and distinct sound of a two-stroke. Every race fan should get out and see these things while they still can. Rain or shine.

The next morning we made it to the airport for our flight back to Finland where it was, ironically, very warm and dry. As I was standing in line for the baggage check a familiar face got in line directly behind me. Well, a familiar face with familiar hair. It was none other than Honda Gresini rider Marco Simoncelli!

Honestly. Here was an actual MotoGP rider, possibly the next alien, and certainly a future MotoGP World Champion standing in line behind me. He didn't seem too pleased. In fact he was downright depressed looking. Maybe it was because he crashed, maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the early hour, or maybe it was the fact that he was flying home on the absolute cheapest, most low-budget airline on the planet. Seriously, this is the type of airline that doesn't have a first class, will soon have coin-operated toilets, and charges a fee if you plan on breathing during the flight. They probably made Marco buy an extra seat just for his hair. Why would a guy getting paid a gazillion dollars to race motorcycles be slumming it with the likes of Mixo and me? I figured these guys all got whisked away in private jets to their personal islands where people called them "sir," the pina-coladas flowed, and women randomly wandered around in bikinis.

Maybe Marco is different. Maybe Marco is just a hard-working, blue-collar type of guy. Maybe Honda is pissed at Marco for crashing all their bikes. Who knows? I had a polite conversation with him that he was less than interested in until I pulled out the camera and scrolled through some of the pictures we had taken over the weekend. Of him. When I got to one of Turn One he said, "Ah, first turn. Where I make the mistake!" and then he sort of looked like a kicked puppy. A very shaggy kicked puppy. I felt bad so I offered, "everyone had a rough time this weekend."

Truth is, though, that wasn't entirely accurate. Sure, the weather could have been better and the racing closer, but the fact is Mixo and I had a fantastic time in England and at Silverstone. Going to the track is always an adventure, always an experience, that's precisely why we go.