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Not The Vietnam Grand Prix

Not The Vietnam Grand Prix

This month’s blog was going to be my experience of the inaugural Vietnam Grand Prix. However, that will have to wait for another day although I really don’t think Formula One will be going anywhere this season.

During this period of lockdown it is not the over-technical, predictable, current day Formula One that I miss, it’s the places and their people. The Grand Prix is the destination, travel is the adventure.

A few years ago I embarked on the project of going to all of the current venues not yet visited, which at the time were most of the flyaways plus the most recent European additions of Sochi and Baku. This has taken me to several new countries along with others I knew well before I and they were involved in Grand Prix racing.

The last tme I saw Abu Dhabi and Bahrain was more than four decades ago when they were little more than trading settlements, tourism to such places was unimaginable. Singapore was much the same although as a maritime emporium it was fairly commercially developed. And now they are amongst the world’s most modern and prosperous nations. For the 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix I stayed with an old merchant navy shipmate from the late nineteen sixties who was now operations director at Abu Dhabi’s maritime gateway Port Khalifa. At least one of us became succesful.

I’ve always had a thing about Brazil and Rio de Janeiro in particular. Interlagos, in Sao Paulo, is also my favourite race track so what better than to combine the two in one visit? Sao Paulo is a lively, fun city with its outdoor bars, music and impromptu dancing but it does not have the scenery of Rio.

A domestic flight from Congonhas airport squeezed in amidst Sao Paulo’s skyscrapers is an experience in itself as you taxi to the runway with the aircraft wing protruding over the adjacent highway. Rio did not disappoint with the view from my hotel on Copacabana beach looking out across the bay. Swimming from Copacabana and surfing from Ipenema beach, riding the cable car to Sugarloaf Mountain, trekking up the Urca Morro trail or the views from Corcovado might all be part of the tourist agenda, but just have to be done. All that and a Grand Prix.

As a destination I like the variety of America’s cities and will always try to include a stop-over where possible en route. As a visitor, even a mere paying spectator at a Grand Prix, you are generally treated with respect and courtesy.

My visit to the first Grand Prix to be held at Indianapolis in 2000 was part of a two week trip based in Washington DC so I was able to see quite a lot of that part of the USA, but for COTA in 2016 the city of Austin alone with its renowned music scene provided enough entertainment. Why stay at the circuit to see Taylor Swift when the city’s bars were buzzing with local bands playing the music I was more in tune with? I also sought out the statue of one of Austin’s own, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

For Montreal I made use of its relative proximity to New York for a first time visit to the ‘Big Apple’. The Adirondack train runs a daily service between the two cities. It is not fast, about eleven hours, but runs in daylight through the magnificent scenery of the Adirondack region (naturally) and down the Hudson Valley arriving at Penn station mid-evening.

I looked at combining the Mexican Grand Prix with a whale watching trip on the west coast but it was the wrong time of year. However, the Grand Prix does coincide with whale season at Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary off Cape Cod. So I started with a few days in Boston followed by a couple more in Chicago before flying on down to Mexico City. The whale-watching was well worth the experience as were the spectacular ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrations and parade in Mexico City centre. Not so sure about Chicago’s renowned pizzas though.

As venues for the US Grand Prix go, I always regret never having gone to Watkins Glen. But the flight from Boston to Chicago took me as close as I’m probably ever likely to get as we flew across the north of the Finger Lakes. Watkins Glen is at the southern tip of Seneca Lake but spiritually I was there.

For the Japanese Grand Prix I based myself in Nagoya, thought about including some time in Tokyo but decided for my first taste of Japanese culture Nagoya alone would have enough to explore with its castle, parks, street markets, shrines and noodle bars.

Japan is a very formal society, organisation and efficiency are superb but as a solo traveller I found it difficult to make social interaction. Perhaps it was just me as the Japanese are lively enough amongst themselves and passionate race fans. I’ll put my experience down to an ‘off weekend’.

Conversely, the citizens of Sochi and Baku could not have been more friendly and welcoming. Whether it was my long hair, that they mistook me for someone famous, or thought I was just plain wierd, I attracted attention both at and away from the circuit. Starting with the opening question ‘Are you English?’ I would then have company for a drink, meal or just to pass the time and have a ‘selfie’ taken with me. A young couple who joined me for a meal on my first night in Baku did not even know there was a Grand Prix literally on their doorstep. Such an event seemed to be outside of their social and financial interest. I took some pictures of a group of obliging Baku marshals who then invitied me to join them on their lunch break. We would greet one another by shaking fingers through the fence each day as I passed their post.

Also, the displays of national music, singing and dancing and other cultural exhibits in the Fanzones of these circuits could have made a day out on their own.

Goodness knows what sort of Formula One there will be once racing gets underway again, but it will always survive in one form or another. In its present format my world tour is almost done. Apart from Vietnam, for which I still have a valid ticket as the circuit seems reluctant to give refunds, there is only Australia and China to do. My plan for Australia is to combine it with a visit to friends in Auckland, my first return to the Antipodes since 1973.

I have never been to China. But last year at Spa I met a young doctor from Shanghai who was training as a surgeon in Paris and Lyon. She is due to return to Shanghai this summer and has offered to be my Shanghai guide when I make my visit.

So, what then? There’s the new stripey Paul Ricard, although the track layout has basically not changed and the rebuilt Zandvoort which I have seen and driven around at a minor meeting in the 1990s.

We’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds.