The Spanish GP: A Memoir of Misorganisation

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The Spanish Grand Prix found itself at the centre of a lot of controversy last week. The event notably lacked organisation when it came to transport facilities and general crowd management. People queued for hours in front of the entry or drink and food stalls. For me, the Spanish GP was my first chance to see a Formula 1 race in person – I report on my experience.

Spanish GP
Lars Baron via Getty Images
Thursday

With our three-day General Admission ticket, we were allowed to get to know the circuit on Thursday and take part in the Pitlane Walk. In scorching heat, we waited in front of the main gate at three o’clock in the afternoon. It was the only entrance point where the admission took place on Thursday. Funnily enough, we met Pietro Fittipaldi, the reserve driver for Haas, in the queue. We had the chance to have a short chat with him and he disappeared into the crowd.

 

At the circuit

After a short rest in the Main Grandstand, we walked through the advertised fan zone. However, there was not much to discover there. Apart from a stand where you could simulate a pit stop and a stand for the E-sports of Formula 1, there wasn’t much to see.

The merchandise stands were only home to articles for the usual teams. Possibly inspired by our earlier encounter with Fittipaldi, I was sad to find that I couldn’t find anything from Haas.

We took our time for the Pitlane Walk, as the crowds were streaming over the track at 5.30 pm sharp. How Charles Leclerc made his way through the crowds on his bike still amazes me. The walk itself was stressful, to say the least. We started at the Haas garage and watched Mick Schumacher inspecting his car.

However, the further we got to the more popular teams, the more crowded it became. From the Alfa Romeo garages onwards, it was more of a pit walk “push” as there was absolutely no crowd control. Some fans went to the teams’ command posts but were chased away by the security.

My friend and I agreed that we were delighted when we saw the end of the pits because, after that, the crowd dispersed a bit better.

After spending the whole day in the heat, we had hoped that one of the public buses from near the circuit would take us back to the train station in Montmeló. Unfortunately, the bus drove right by us and about 20 other fans at the bus stop, so we had to walk almost 50 minutes to the train station.

The shuttle buses announced by the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya would begin to run on Friday, so we didn’t worry about the next few days.

Friday

Disillusionment came quickly, however. At noon, we reached Montmeló and searched for a sign for the shuttle buses to the circuit. We did not find anything. We got in a queue where others told us they were waiting for the regular bus towards the race track. That was good enough for us.

From its endpoint, we were able to get on another shuttle bus that took us to Gate 7 of the circuit. If we hadn’t gotten this bus, we would have had to walk 40 minutes steeply uphill to the western side of the track. Current weather: 32 degrees Celsius (or about 90 degrees Fahrenheit) and not a cloud in sight.

Beaten down by the sun, we found a shady spot between Turn 4 and Turn 5 and spent the rest of the day there. On Friday, the queues to get food were several hundred metres long. Fortunately, we had brought our own snacks and drinks, so we were not affected by this. However, I heard from others that they queued for over half an hour.

Trying to get back by train

The way back to Barcelona turned out to be a problem. Spooked by our experience with the public transport system thus far, we walked straight from the track to the train station before the W-Series qualifying had even started. Unfortunately, this did not work well. When we arrived in Montmeló, there was a big crowd of people in front of the station.

There was no track staff and only a few policemen were trying to control the chaos. We stood only 50m away from the entrance to the station, yet waited 90 minutes for a train because there were no extra trains (contrary to what was announced) in the direction of Barcelona.

The regular line “R2N” was not designed for this many people and generally only ran every 30-40 minutes. We were still lucky: Other spectators reported that at some point, they were standing in front of closed doors of the train station, although trains were still supposed to be running.

After this experience, we booked shuttle buses for Saturday and Sunday, which would drive directly from Barcelona to the track.

Saturday

The shuttle buses worked great on the way to the race track. It gave us hope for the day. We were let off the buses at the Eastern Roundabout; from there, it is just under 10 minutes to the main gates of the circuit. We aimed to stay in the Turn 7 area on Saturday. So, we made our way to the gates.

Once again, there was a long queue. We waited more than thirty minutes before we could enter the circuit. We had stocked up on water and snacks again, but other spectators had not realised that only a maximum of 1.5-litre plastic bottles were allowed. Half-full, larger bottles and other containers, e.g. made of metal, which were not allowed, were piled up in front of the gates.

The fans’ displeasure at being robbed of their water was palpable, but once we found a shady spot, the general atmosphere was excellent. We watched the queues to the drink shops get longer and longer. The toilets also seemed to be of insufficient capacity for the amount of people wanting to use them. I heard from fans sitting around us that the TV screens, which were spread a little over the track, were much smaller than at other race tracks.

Qualifying

The view was not the best from our position, so we ventured out into the sun for the Formula 1 Qualifying. As the internet connection at the circuit broke down, we couldn’t get any other information except what we could see on the track with our own eyes. But: Q2 and Q3 were particularly exciting. We could hardly believe our eyes when we guessed both Haas were in Q3.

Once we were sure the Qualifying was over, we made our way to the shuttle buses. When we arrived, we had a queue of about half a kilometre long in front of us, but this queue moved much faster than it did on Friday in front of the train station. Our hopes rose that we would be able to leave the circuit within an hour, as we saw that at least 60 buses were waiting around the block.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. We waited over two hours in the sun to get on a bus. More shocking was that the queue had already went once around the block when we got on the bus. All I could think of were the people who now had to wait in line several more hours, without easy access to shade or water.

Interestingly, on the flight back on Monday, we met someone who explained that the buses all opened their doors at some point, and people poured onto the buses without being checked. She described the situation as highly dangerous.

When we arrived at the hotel on Saturday, we were dumbfounded by the situation and thought about not going to the circuit at all on Sunday.

Spanish GP
Image Credit: Cristiano Barni ATPImages via Getty Images
Sunday

On Sunday, I went straight to the track at 8 am. Yes, you read that right. At this point, sadly I’m only talking about myself.

My best friend and companion found herself so unwell on Sunday morning that she decided against coming to the track with me. The strain of the past days, the long queues in the sun and the safety concern because of the lack of organisation made her miss her first race in person.

Not untouched by the same concerns, I planned to leave the track before the end of the race to make sure I could get back to Barcelona quickly.

The journey to the track was perfectly okay, as before. I managed to get on a bus from Barcelona pretty early on and was already at the track at 9.20 am. I placed myself in Turn 7 again for the Formula 3 and Formula 2 races, but after the sun hit me there too, I wandered on towards Turn 6.

As the day before, I saw that the queues in front of the food and drink stands were extremely long. I spoke to a fan who told me that the stalls were out of water bottles around two o’clock. They still had soft drinks, but at almost 40 degrees, more water would definitely have been better. As you shouldn’t drink the tap water in Spain, the fans couldn’t even help themselves in the bathrooms.

The race

When I went to the toilet just before the race started, I noticed that there was hardly any water pressure left. I learned afterwards that the bathrooms’ water stopped working at some point, and spectators were not allowed into the toilets for an hour. That should not happen to 120,000 people.

Nonetheless, the start of the race was one of the most exciting moments of my life. The atmosphere was great, and people were cheering for everyone, regardless of what team they were repping. When Magnussen and Hamilton touched, I saw some Verstappen fans shaking their heads. Then, when Hamilton passed us, they cheered for him.

Thinking back, I’m a little sad I only got to watch the rest of the race on the early bus back to Barcelona, but the fear of the chaos surrounding the track and of getting back to the hotel all by myself won over.

Conclusion

Having interacted with other fans, I am relieved that this organisational disaster is not the standard at a Formula 1 race. I learnt that in 2019 there were only just under 80,000 spectators on-site on race Sunday. This year, the circuit sold 40,000 more tickets, but nothing else changed at the facilities. That this cannot work should have been a logical conclusion, and became evident during the actual event.

I hope that Formula 1 and the CEO of the Circuits de Catalunya-Barcelona will address the criticism pouring in from fans that were at the race. Otherwise, I see no future for the event. Many spectators (including my friend and I) have already announced that they will not return to Barcelona for a race.

Nevertheless: the racing action and every session were a lot of fun. Watching the action on track was amazing, it was just everything surrounding the actual racing that ruined the experience. Nonetheless, I am glad to have had this privilege of watching races at the track. If the powers-to-be of the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona manage a general overhaul of their event plan, then I’m hopeful that the Spanish GP can become a purely amazing experience for all its ticket holders again.

 

Feature Image Credit: ANP via Getty Images

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