formula 1: a fanatical wacky races.
It wasn’t even six o’clock in the morning and we were already inside the high security gates of Silverstone racecourse, those who had hired us hoping our tired eyes would fade into a tonic for those in need of lust as eighteen of us were set up as glorified a honey trap; me and Gorgeous George and sixteen beautiful twenty something girl’s all lined up as skin deep poster child’s of an overvalued shed. The two bosses called it a merchandise stand, but to me it was just a shed, one filled with overvalued merchandise with girls blessed with good genetics selling it. “Sex sells here, the depraved rich don’t know any better.” I’d been warned during the car journey on the way in. “Sex sells everywhere.” I remember replying.
Although the merchandise filled every panel of the shed possible, I hadn’t had a chance to scrutinise the items I was to be flogging just yet, it was too early and too cold, the shed a wind trap for the frost, making our hideout colder than the elements outside its thin plastic walls. The sun was early riser, much more so than I, but it didn’t offer any warmth in the initial hours. We were shaded, trapped and despondent under fatigue. “Look lively kiddo’s, pucker your lips, exercise your charm and sell the shit out of this stuff, the gates are about to open and money is about to be made.” The manager’s cries rung out like a bugle before battle, depraved and capitalist. I felt myself concede to the orders, my buttocks tightening, my back straightening and my rebellious side scratching under skin.
It was day one at the track, practise day I believe the know-it-all’s referred to it, and we had less than fifteen minutes to find our bearings and learn the routine of the stand before the mobs were released into the racetrack’s vicinity and us workers were forced to defend ourselves against their buying frustrations. Daunted by the simple number system and the vast selection of stock we offered, I looked around in disarray. Clothing of all kinds littered the walls of our shed like the heads of animals in a poacher’s dining room, all of them garish, corporate and merciless in their expense. I was positioned in the Mercedes Petronas section, a far cry from my cheap taste and love of a plain white tee, but it was the classiest of the evils on offer. To the right of me was Ferrari; it’s brash logo adorning the items limited to either scarlet red or heartless black. To the left of me was McLaren; all of it was mediocre and mundane. Beyond that was the arrogant Red Bull attire, corporate logos saluting from every section of its dark blue undercoat, arms chest back and gut, much like the Lotus attire, although the latter was not so evasive, it’s British racing green providing some kudos and beauty to what was innately disgusting.
“Last chance to grab some fluid, perfect your make-up and undo a button or two, its almost go time.” The bugle blared again. I adjusted my sunglasses, got comfy on my elbows and looked out of the shed, our backs to the illustrious Silverstone track. We were stationed opposite the tall wire fence of gate sixteen. Beyond the fence was the queue of early risers and super-fans, the queue growing bigger and bigger with each tick of the clock, their impatience rattling the fence panels despite hours separating them from the first sign of a car.
“Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it…. Now!”
In droves, the paying customers ripped their pre-paid tickets from the officials holding them and sprinted into the grounds, the first of them galloping past us without care for one another, some of them falling flat onto the hard ground, some of them trampling those that had slipped and all of them somehow oblivious to the bright spread of merchandise on show at each stall. “Why the hell are they running?” I asked to anyone willing to listen, all of us fixated on the struggles of the customer as the wide queues filtered in through bottleneck gates, wheelbarrows being pushed across the grassy banks, luggage being lugged without care and children being dragged by their upper arms. “Can anyone of you zombies tell me why these people are so goddam keen that they are running?” I tried again, curious at the sight, but none of the equally sleep-deprived workers could answer, all of them stood in disbelief with uniformly baffled faces. “The runners haven’t bought seats.” Our Aussie manager rationalised. “For them, it’s a fight for the best lick of grass.” I learned that this translated as the best of the worst; the grassy knolls they were running for offering little more than a small wedge of road and a split second glimpse of corporate blurs on wheels.
I looked over my shoulder at the merchandise, then at a discarded programme and then at a picture of one of the racecars. There was a common denominator - the entire setup was corporate.
I was hopeful of my epicaricacy prevailing and thus feeding off the sight of unfortunate runners falling under the ruthless stampede of other runners, but I was too tired to show emotion and laugh. I couldn’t understand the rush so I couldn’t feel bad for the victims. Looking back at the managers, expecting some commands to rain down on us, I learned that spectating was a right of passage and part of the weekend, for even they were watching with sadistic grins. This ritual was ephemera though, for once the early rising rabble had made it through the gates and sprinted into the distance, business was to be had and the managers instructions were given, “Tallahassee, Gorgeous George, look sharp; girls look pretty and look single.” The more laissez-faire crowds parted, stemmed in different directions and searched the racks of different stalls. I learned then that competition for money was stiff; we had three sheds opposite ours, and three either side, each of the sheds apparently official merchandisers of the Formula 1, albeit run by very different companies.
I had my first customer. “Have you got number 113 in an double XL?” I turned around, stared at the garish wall display, searched for the number in question, followed the simple lay out, went around to the secret supply strip at the back of the shed, rifled through the piles of organised stock, made my mark on the organisation, pulled out the grey Mercedes jacket, brought it to the front and presented it to the customer who had queried its size a matter of minutes before. As he slipped his arms into the thin silvery material, I studied him, confused. He was fat and balding, but this didn’t bother me, what bothered me was the fact he was already draped in the ever changing shade of Mercedes grey; corporate logos tainting his chest, arms and forehead – Petronas, Pirelli, Puma, MIG Bank, Marcedes-Benz. “Oi chump, this is last seasons jacket mate, what the hell am I going to do with last seasons jacket.” The customer just snapped, disgust riddled, his tone so vicious you would have thought I’d been caught performing cunnilingus on his barely legal granddaughter. I stuttered an insincere apology and looked back over my shoulder. On the top shelf were two identical Mercedes grey jackets. I stared in silence playing spot the difference in blocked out serenity. I won. After some very long seconds I finally noticed the difference, and there were two; this seasons attire had a Blackberry logo on the chest and an Allianz emblem on the arm, both of them almost lost amongst the insolence of the corporations that shone bright. It was like trying to spot the difference between identical twin sisters during a ménage-a-trois, half a cup size on one of their breasts the only difference between them. It was a harsh environment where a lot of money was almost a right for the customer to get arsy, thus I was somewhat forced to pick up and quickly remember the little details and tiny disparities. I did, and by lunch on the practise day, I sounded like a seasoned pro. “You got any Williams stuff mate?” Came a frequent question. “Afraid not pal, their new sponsors are Martini and they failed to get the shit manufactured in time.” Then another customer would approach, their wallet crying. “Have you got anything for kids?” “How old are we talking?” “Eighteen months.” I’d point a strong index finger to my right and without looking state, “Only the Ferrari getups.” Same questions, same answers.
I hadn’t seen a racecar yet, but we knew when they were getting their practise laps in, but not because of the noise their revved engines emitted, even with the track no more than twenty metres behind us, instead it was because not a single man, woman, or child graced the steps of our stall, or any other stall, when the cars were running. In fact the path running between the line-up of stalls was eerily quiet, only every so often a pair of hopeful’s would run past in hope of finding a better view within their price bracket of free seats. It was like the setting of an old western film, the streets of the town emptying in the moments before a tense showdown, the odd person running late and panicked as they sought to find cover, the other witnesses already holed up in their stalls, akin to what would have been taverns, safe but for how long.
It was quiet while the drivers lapped the track. But once practise was made perfect, the stall fronts were flooded with an eclectic display of fans, all of them from different backgrounds, all of them wanting the same thing; the lower classes were desperate to make a purchase as they tried on the expensive cheaper products, the middle classes treated themselves their wives and their kids, tourists highlighted their inherent lack of style and the rich classes spent upwards of a grand on overpriced items they didn’t even feel compelled to try on. “Fucking rich people.” I’d mutter as they nonchalantly unfolded their gold cards, holding them out for all to see well before I’d even punched the high figure into the card machine. There was money at every level and every corner; from the ludicrous cost of the racecars to the ludicrous tax-free salaries of the drivers to the ludicrous amount the fans spent on weekend tickets and team merchandise. The stock was so popular it started to become scarce towards the close of play on the first day. “Have we got any more one-ten’s in a medium.” No more than a second passed and a voice from the back yelled, “No we’re out, may have more in tomorrow.” Sold out? How? I was bemused. All of it was vile in style and rancid in price. It made no sense.
T-shirts averaged at fifty bucks, sometimes seventy, polo shirts even more. Caps peaked at fifty, tiny toy cars were thirty bucks, biro’s twenty-five, teddy bears the same, bin-bag-rain-ponchos were five, lanyards were ten, a scaled down version of a F1 tyre cost four hundred bucks and the jackets cost the same price as the entire jewel collection of Her Majesty the Queen. As the salesman, I actually felt guilty. I’m not one to steal, but I quickly learned the safest way to commit theft was in broad daylight. People were literally throwing their money at us, the card machines had to be replaced with receipt paper thrice a day and people were splitting purchases between debit cards and credit cards just to pay for a baby grow.
It was unabashed fraudulence masquerading as legit business because of the signs that read official at the merchandise that promoted big business. These people were paying through roof to be corporate billboards, and doing so with smiles, ignorant to the fact their wallets and purses were shaking in fear and snapping in half the moment their cash was handed over, or the moment the card machine buzzed with completion; it’s instruction to remove card simply was translated as embezzlement secured.
My jaw fell so wide at the prices people were willing to pay I thought the taught corners of my mouth were tearing. But whilst I struggled with the prices, what I couldn’t understand, as hard as tried, was the hype. I am sports fan, and excluding cricket and golf, I enjoy watching all sports, I even watch the Grand Prix when televised, but to actually be there, dancing the conga in the thick of it and lost in the local vicinity of the real fans was like being trapped in a world within a world where surrealisms had booted out reality.
When it comes to F1 fans, there is no middle ground to be found at the sports holy grail, only die-hard’s. I thought I’d understand the rules, after all it’s a team sports, and as such the rules state you daren’t suggest a different team to the one a fan supports. I get that. But at the F1, it’s a different level of commitment. At the F1 the notion of team is much more concentrated, the notion of team falls at the wayside in favour for individualism, but then again, like no other sport, teammates in F1 are rivals much more so than those driving a rival car. Each of the two drivers for any one team are locked into fierce competition for the number one jersey; they are not friends and the terminology of teammate holds no real depth in its fickle dressing. As a fan, you don’t just support Mercedes, you either support Rosberg or Hamilton. The Constructors Cup is a small bonus and very little more. Fans support a man; someone with a voice they can adhere to, not a car. My loyalty to anything in life became suspicious after witnessing the loyalty fans had to the helmet covered faces of those in the cockpit.
We wore the soles of our shoes away to display the yellowing tinge of our metacarpal bones, just to keep up with the demand and make our money hungry bosses every cent we could, kept on our feet from six in the a.m. to eight at night, delusion and motivation acting as whips. By the end of the first day I was knackered, a tentative android watching the last of the super fans make their way out of the gates, smiling, intoxicated and ready to do it all again the next day.
“Would you do this?” Asked one of the beautiful twenty-something year old girls. “Do what?” I answered. “Come to the F1 as a spectator?” I paused, shocked a bit and hoping the question was wholly rhetorical. “You’re asking me if I would take days off work to pay through the ceiling for what would be, at the very least, one ticket, then get to the parking lot and then to the gate for six a.m. and do so for three days, then pay through the next ceiling once inside the grounds for merchandise food and drink, only to receive neck pains from watching blurred motors drive around in a circle drawn by someone who’d suffered from an acid-flashback. No. Fuck no. No I wouldn’t. I concede that the F1 may not be to my eccentric taste, but I can’t understand how it is to anyone’s.” I think she agreed. How could she not though? Such questions were more common than I would have thought them to be; maybe it was just small talk though.
“How did it go?” Asked Juliet, her tone innocent. “It’s madness, utter madness. It’s nonsensical. Irrational. Ludicrous. Asinine.” I answered, my tone not so innocent, before one of the beautiful girls stepped up and absentmindedly confirmed, “It wasn’t as busy as yesterday?” “What do you mean yesterday?” I said perplexed. I learned then that I had apparently and unwittingly turned up a day late for work, and under the weight of this knowledge, my earlier terms of madness, nonsensical and asinine no longer pressed my bemusement with enough furore. “Are you telling me the weekend starts on a Thursday in this mental world.” “Yes Tallahassee,” Juliet smiled, “it’s not like football where there is a match every four days. This is a once a year, once a lifetime opportunity.” I understood that but I couldn’t understand why they came on the Thursday. The Thursday offered those that fell under the bell-curve of mega-keen the chance to walk around the pit-side garages of the track. That was it. The ultra-fans could arrive on three days before race day and look into a garage. Are Formula 1 fans insane, I thought? The premise of F1 had been lost on me before I’d heard about the garage tour, but after my enlightenment I truly struggled to unravel the obscenity of the fan loyalty to such a sport.
I passed out late on that Friday night, lost and exhausted, and I awoke before the sun rose on the Saturday, still lost and exhausted. The next day was the same shit on a different day; except practise had been replaced by the pseudo-competition of qualifying. The view out of the shed hadn’t changed, the tired faces inside the shed hadn’t changed and the eager faces that lit up the queue to the entrance hadn’t changed. All that had altered was the worsened weather, the team tees we had been given to wear had been replaced by team jackets – they were still just shiny billboards - and the amount of potential customers had changed, with day two far busier than its predecessors, much busier. The morning started the same way, me chuckling over my expensive and pale dishwater-coffee as the queue’s eager frontrunners fought and tripped over each other. I watched, laughed and waited for their humorous tirades to end so the following masses that wanted this seasons attire could ascend upon us at the shed, like a tsunami.
Qualifying came and went in the same fashion as practise. The noise of the F1 racecars a small distraction compared the thunderous sound of those cars in the supposedly lesser categories. Familiar faces approached our counters wanting more caps and tees whilst wearing the very caps and tees they purchased from us the day before, whilst others stood a metre or so back, eyes darting and faces bewildered. “Can I assist anyone?” I’d ask. “We’re just browsing.” They’d answer. “That will four bucks please.” I would then state satirically, trying to make people laugh at the almighty costs, still shocked by the expense of this weekend affair despite having mentally absorbed the high prices, desperate to get used to them.
I didn’t have time to go and watch the cars themselves, and there was no large screen near by for any of us slaves to catch glimpses, so instead I studied the people that this sport attracted. They were like faceless insects busying about a flattened nest, all of them intriguing as they scuttled about in the hope of a bargain or better view. I decided it was akin to cricket, a day out to get drunk with ones mates, only the F1 was taken much more seriously - they are avid fans and won’t hear a marred comment against their deep set beliefs.
They drank and they drank, with the wet weather days forcing them into the shelter of the bars and the high heat days accelerating their means to get drunk. Towards the end of qualifying day, they were pests. Drunken slurring pests. They tried to barter with the likes of myself, bartering with those who held no authority to make an executive decision like that, their drunken fury building as they rightly attempted to reduce the price of a t-shirt from seventy bucks to forty. On one occasion I sought the manager and snitched. “Far side, drunken rabble, Irish, they want a Kobayashi shirt but won’t pay seventy and won’t walk away.” I said. “What are their reasons?” The manager asked. “Casual racism was their opening gambit, questioning how many Jap’s I’d seen here, I told them that route was pointless so they followed it with statements about how Kobayashi had come last in qualifying and that must qualify in a reduced price.” After my quick synopsis the manager took over. He thwarted their pleas using the counter top as a safety barrier and I watched, as their attempts smashed into smithereens, like freshly laid eggs against hard-set bricks. The manager then called me back to finalise the deal, as if wanting me to deliver the final blow, their wallets weeping as their owners finally conceded to the ridiculous price, the ballsy drunks now a mess of inebriate fans, gulping at their pints, whilst making ill-calculated and ambitious purchases. It was disgusting.
There was no hooliganism, but there were louts, lots of them. Food there was comically expensive, whilst drinks were just expensive, and this played into everyone’s hands, those there for the day out and those there to pick up the pieces. Men aggressively haggled with me under the influence and women aggressively flirted with me under the influence. Both were shot down. I can only imagine what the sixteen beautiful twenty something girls had to deal with, not only from what i'd experienced at the store front counter, but because I'd watched the way grubby men leered at the women who walked past, themselves trying to hard with the irbright red lipstick and revealing outfits as if they'd be able to bag a thirty million dollar man in the form of a racecar driver. It just got more bizarre with every sight.
I finished late on the Friday night, not out of want but because customers were still trawling the capitalist pond with money to spend. I learned that night how capitalist the event was. I thought it was bad with the lanyard situation - lanyards were selling for a tenner, but then the managers heard the Mercedes lanyards had sold out at every other stall so we raised their price to fifteen bucks. People still bought them and the notion of supply and demand was cemented. Then capitalism hit a whole new low, or high. Gorgeous George and I needed cash so we went on a search and find mission. The lady at the info point told us not to bother, “It costs ten bucks to withdraw your cash.” She said. “Ten bucks!” I retorted, outraged. “Yup, ten bucks. Yesterday it was eight, tomorrow it will be fifteen.” She said. We turned away, headed back up the hill to our shed and relayed the information to our manager, coughing at the thought or paying a ten-buck charge for a ten-buck withdrawal. “Excellent,” said our manager, “tomorrow we’ll offer cash back at a five buck charge. Make the sign and set it up for the morning okay boys.” I felt sick. Luckily for my moral compass the source of the information was wrong and cash-back-gate never came to fruition.
Sunday was race day was race day was ridiculous. It became ridiculous from five miles out, police motorcycles segregating the cars so as to slow down the influx into bit parts, wary of the heavy flow of traffic. When we finally arrived, still at the crack of dawn, the queue for gate sixteen was mammoth, and with only a minute thirty on the clock until the gates opened, we ran to our stall and settled in for the spectators sport of the early morning sprint. The sprint didn’t disappoint. The crowds were bigger fans that day than any of the others, a tightknit of jackets emblazoned with corporate sponsors, the corporation heads scoffing over their veal appetisers and champagne cocktails as they looked on from their VIP balconies at the free advertising they’d not only secured, but made into an actual thing, as if were the norm. “They’re genius’” I said to Gorgeous George.
On paper, race day was just the same as the other two days, except it angled more towards the extremities of the spectrum. When it was quiet it was unnervingly quiet and when it was busy, it was ferocious. What’s more, we were all three days tired and race day was to be the longest of them all - an earlier rise, a busier day, packing away and a later finish - it was like having to go to a board meeting on the tail end of a weekend at Coachella or Glastonbury. The small slither of a silver lining came in the declaration we were given forty-five minutes for lunch, a fifty per cent increase on the day’s prior. Luckily for us, there had been a crash big enough to halt the main race for over an hour and thus we had the chance to catch the restart. “Abbey corner?” Said Gorgeous George who’d picked up the terminology of the track somewhere along the way. We got there just in time for the race to begin again, and from a crowded back of trampled grass, we had a view of abbey corner and the farm curve. After the first blur of speeding cars flew past us anonymously, I accepted there and then that the whole event was overhyped, “This is better seen in its entirety on the screen of a television set than as a first-person viewer only partial to that of a solo corner.” I muttered, scared of the fans. Somehow, I had become more enthused by those watching the race than the race itself; alas I began to stare into the irrationality of what I was seeing.
As I faced away from the molten tarmac of the race and into the mob, I felt like Hunter S Thompson covering the Kentucky Derby. It was a mob of drunks, men and women but no gentlemen or ladies, the mob a collection of featureless faces sat deep within a mishmash of team shirts, team jackets and team caps, row after row after row, the occasional team flag wavering in the tight space as it blocked the views of those behind, binoculars so frequently spotted they could be confused as an added limb. The arrival of the cars about to partake on their next lap was signalled by the blare of air horns and the roar of the crowds, the quite engines drowned out by the noisy yells and clenched fists battering the air in front of them, forty seconds separating the impossibly fast competitors before a minute’s silence ensued. In the quiet, heads would turn to the left and face the nearest big screen, the mutter of spectator’s opinions kept low and too themselves, maybe out of fear like mine were, and then, as if they were one giant connected entity, their heads would flick back and cheer the drivers on as they flew past again, the heads of the crowd seemingly conjoined as they repeatedly jolted from right to left desperate to catch a glimpse of the blurred drivers peppered in sell-out sponsors, each car only a matter of metres behind the next.
Nothing good happened where we were, unlike other parts of the course, no overtakes, no crashes and no streaker’s. I got bored before my lunch break was over. I just preferred the téte-a-téte’s we had going on in the shed, the banter we all had and all played off, the people watching and the scrutiny of what can only be described as a wacky sub-culture, albeit one still very English in the sense Hamilton was the main man and the drinking culture was still very prolific, the gated confines of the Silverstone zone nothing more than a giant beer garden. I was exhausted, but I enjoyed the work, it was unlike my normal eight-to-six, it was work without pressures, where staff complaints were overruled by delusional tiredness, all of it playing into my preferences in a way.
I took the job because I wanted to understand the fanatical F1 society a bit more, and being there and doing it was sure to play a big part in my education. But it didn’t. Instead I left under a larger cloud of confusion than the one I arrived with - at least the one I arrived with was white and fluffy and all cumulonimbus like, whilst the one I left with was dark and ominous, almost terrifying. I tried to dissect what I’d learned from my time there, my mind slow under the fifteen hour working day, but as I walked with my weekend luggage out of the grounds and towards the car that would drive me to the train station that would take me back to London I asked myself two questions. “Would I ever attend Silverstone as a punter? No.” and “Would I ever work at Silverstone again? Yes.” It was that simple to me. The Gorgeous George asked me something that certified both the answers I’d internally asked myself. “Did you know this was the fiftieth anniversary of the Formula 1 at Silverstone?” I shook my head because I hadn’t, and knowing of this milestone in hindsight didn’t help the cause, it simply didn’t win me over. “There are far better things out there, things I’d rather spend my hard earned cash on.” A unanimous response flooded in from those who’d worked.