With the world (hopefully) opening up, and audiences at live events (hopefully) returning, I thought I’d provide an introduction to the pros and cons of different types of seats for F1 races.
Why even go to an F1 race?
This may seem like a silly question, but I was asked this by a friend, and I think it is worth exploring. In no particular order, here are some reasons to see an F1 race (or other type of motorsport) in the flesh:
• You get the atmosphere of the crowd.
• You can potentially meet drivers, or at least see them in real life.
• You get a much more pure view of the speed, acceleration, noise, braking ability and turning ability of an F1 car, which you can’t get from TV. In fact, camera angles on TV often downplay these things to keep a car in shot for longer.
• Seeing action in real life is considerably more dramatic and memorable.
• There are other events, stalls and activities on offer during the weekend. At one grand prix I attended you could compete to change an F1 tyre as fast as possible, for example.
• You can see older F1 on display and get some cool photos.
• You also get to see support races, which can introduce you to other forms of motorsport and provide more entertainment.
The main disadvantage of being at the track is that the race is considerably more difficult to follow. Not only is your view of the action mostly restricted to one part of the circuit, but you may be unable to access things like timing information and radio communications. Even information that you can theoretically work out for yourself (such as race order or tyre choices) takes significant amounts of effort to follow in the flesh.
The cost of viewing an F1 race can vary wildly, with all sorts of luxury tickets that can run into the thousands of dollars. However, at many venues the cheapest entrance fees are surprisingly affordable. This is especially true at modern venues that have little motorsport history and have difficulty selling tickets (I’ve bought a weekend ticket for roughly $40 USD, for example). Entry often covers at least Saturday and Sunday, and whilst there is a certain amount of waiting around between events, the value for money can be more than reasonable (for an elite sporting event), given how many hours of entertainment are on offer.
Obviously cost should be the first thing you look at. Assuming you are lucky enough to afford more than the absolute cheapest, there are a lot of other considerations. I’d argue whether the seat has a television (and/or a screen that displays driver positions) is probably the next thing to check. If you’ve never been to a grand prix before, I would think carefully about getting a seat without TV access, particularly if you are a casual fan. It is considerably more difficult to follow a race by just watching cars go past. You may have to keep track of driver positions, timing, tyre choices etc. yourself, without any assistance. It’s possible that the safety car gets deployed and you have no idea why. A driver may disappear from their regular position and you have to wait 20s to work out if they’ve retired, slowed, or merely pitted. Smart phones and internet access may help considerably with this, but note that wifi access is unlikely, and reception may be less than ideal. It’s also a bit counterintuitive to spend a considerable amount of money to watch a race live, only to then spend half your time looking down at your phone to try to work out what you’re actually looking at.
With this in mind, it’s important to know why you are going to the race. If you just want to get an idea of F1 speeds, you may be willing to sacrifice a good understanding of the race itself for the ability to see real life cars go flying past. After all, you can always rewatch the race on TV later. If you want to properly understand the race as it unfolds, then TV access should be a priority, as it helps considerably in putting the pieces together.
There are many other considerations beyond this. For simplicity’s sake I’ve split the choices into an expensive seat on the main straight, and a cheap one on a grass hill. For other types of seats (e.g. a grandstand seat that’s not on the main straight), I’m assuming you’re intelligent enough to work out which points below apply.
A seat on the main straight.
1) It’s the most convenient place to be. You’ll probably enter the circuit just outside the pit straight. Not only that, but it will have all the activities/shops etc. close by, including places to eat and go to the bathroom.
2) The pre-race is much better. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get a good look at the cars, and allows for photo opportunities of stationary cars too. The drivers will also be milling about, although who you see depends on what part of the grid you are facing. It’s also cool to see the likes of Martin Brundle doing a grid walk. Finally, there may be some other small bits of entertainment (e.g. a band playing) to keep you entertained.
3) Pit stops. Not only does seeing when cars are pitting make a race much simpler to follow, but you get to see the stop itself. A lightning fast tyre change looks even more impressive in real life. Also recall that the best teams usually have the first box positions in the pits. This means that if you’re disappointed that you’re seat is facing the back of the grid, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you can see the lead team’s pit stops.
4) The post-race. Not only do you see the chequered flag itself, but all the cars come into the pits at the end of the race. You’ll see a jubilant driver, and possibly the podium ceremony too. If you’re at the back of the circuit without a TV screen, the best you get is the inlap, which can feel a little underwhelming as a conclusion.
5) Leaving the site is quicker. This relates back to the first point. Leaving an F1 circuit can be a nightmare, stuck in traffic or waiting in a long queue for a train. By being positioned right next to the exit, you put yourself much closer to the front of the queue, which could save you a good chunk of time.
1) It’s the most expensive (obviously).
2) The start is quite anticlimactic from this position. The cars rev loudly, and then… disappear into the distance. You don’t get to see Hamilton and Verstappen going wheel to wheel into turn 1, because that happens a couple of hundred meters down the track.
3) A lack of action generally. This is an extension of the point above. In my reasons to see a race live, I mentioned “speed, acceleration, noise, braking ability and turning ability of an F1 car”. On the start-finish straight you experience the noise, and possibly the speed (although they won’t be at maximum speed when they fly past), but that’s it. It’s not a great place to see what makes F1 cars unique, nor is it typically a good place to see overtakes, or drivers going off the circuit.
Cheap seat on the grass:
1) It’s significantly cheaper (obviously).
2) It’s flexible. Don’t underestimate the ability to change your position. You can move closer to the track to feel the speed of the cars, or move higher up to get a better overall view. When I got this type of seat it went around a corner. Depending on my location, I could see the speed of the cars on corner entry, the braking ability at the corner itself, the acceleration out of the corner, a TV screen that was meant for the more expensive stand next to my area and the pit lane entry (useful for knowing who stops when, which is vital for following the race as a whole). Of course I couldn’t see all of these at once, but it was great to have the opportunity to see cars at full speed/braking ability/acceleration during Saturday, and then switch to somewhere where I could follow the race much easier on Sunday.
3) There’s more space. I can’t speak for every venue, but you could bring in your own chair, food, drink, rug etc. and have a lovely little picnic that simply wouldn’t be possible in a stand.
1) There’s no cover, meaning getting wet is a definite possibility. As you’re on grass, the whole thing can turn to mud if you’re unlucky enough (although at least you’d get a wet race in this situation).
2) It may afford a good view of the local area, but seats like this generally don’t allow for a good view of the rest of the circuit. Seeing more of the circuit in the distance is brilliant, as not only does it prevent boredom from setting in by providing new things to look at, but it allows for new perspectives too. How often do you see an F1 car zooming along a straight parallel to you in the distance? It’s not a perspective often shown on TV, but it allows both the speed and acceleration of a car to be presented very effectively. To be fair, main straight seats can struggle with this too, as the pit complex often blocks a lot of the circuit from view. This may be a hard thing to judge when buying a ticket, but some ticket websites allow for previews of the circuit view to provide some context. Generally, seats that are higher up allow for a better view of the rest of the circuit, but it varies considerably grandstand to grandstand and circuit to circuit.
3) The lack of information can be frustrating. If you’re somewhat knowledgeable about the sport, you may be able to follow an F1 race by only seeing cars go past a single part of the track continuously, difficult as it may be. I’d you’re a casual fan you can end up completely lost. Either way, qualifying can be underwhelming without timing information and a full circuit view.
In short, it’s not as simple as “more expensive = better seat = better experience”. There’s a myriad of things to consider beyond the cost, and unfortunately you can’t try out different locations beforehand.
Any other considerations for a live grand prix?
-F1 is not the most accommodating sport when it comes to disabled access. Many areas have significant amount of steps.
-As F1 weekends last more than 1 day and are in limited locations, it’s quite likely a trip will feature travel, and either a stay in a hotel or camping. Remember to book early!
-Wearing earbuds is a personal choice, and F1 cars are not as loud as they used to be. However, the first few laps are the loudest, with the period just before the start (on the main straight) being the absolute peak due to every car revving simultaneously. It slowly quietens down as the field spreads out.
-Work out a system for driver identification within a team. I used to always use helmets, but I found the halo made it considerably more difficult in real life. Numbers may be more convenient.
-You may well be allowed to take your own food and drink to your seat. If so it’s not a bad idea, as you’ll be there for a few hours. Suncream, sunglasses, an umbrella, a camera and a battery pack may also be useful.
-Depending on the circuit, attendance for practice/qualifying can be considerably lower than race day. It may even be possible to slide into a better seat (in the same area) when the stadium is half empty.
-Grid girls may be gone, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t see female models dressed in tight leather (or perhaps not dressed in much at all) at stalls and events. I suspect their prevalence varies significantly country to country.
Finally, a few personal experiences:
-I once paid extra for a roof covering, only to find that the roof had a hole in it right above my seat, causing a steady drip onto my head. However. this also meant that the track was wet where I sat (in an otherwise undercover dry area), which caused a car to spin right in front of me. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.
– I mentioned that the start/finish straight allows you to see things like gridwalks before the race, but I once walked half way around a track to my middle of nowhere seat, only to bump into Johnny Herbert! He appeared a little lost, and his attempts to find his way back to base were interrupted by a gaggle of people asking for selfies.