Anyone who has seen a Formula 1 car with their own eyes will tell you the same thing – there’s nothing quite like the experience of seeing the world’s fastest racing cars in the flesh.
But for every F1 fan who comes back to their home grand prix year after year or those of us fortunate enough to follow this addictive sport across the world, there is always a first time witnessing a Formula 1 car up close. RaceFans’ regular writers take a trip down memory lane to recall their own experiences seeing F1 for the first time…
Pitting and winning
At my first experience of a grand prix I witnessed a victory by of Formula 1’s all-time greats. Sort of. Truth be told, I wasn’t actually sure who’d won when the chequered flag dropped.
I left the 1998 British Grand Prix at Silverstone shivering, sopping wet and baffled by one of the strangest conclusions to an F1 race. This race is remembered as ‘the one Michael Schumacher won in the pit lane’. However, due to my family’s vantage point at Copse corner – turn one on the old Silverstone configuration – that detail was lost on us, much less the explanation for such a bizarre turn of events.
At quarter past seven on a cool though mercifully dry Saturday morning we joined the pit lane walk-about to get a first-hand glimpse of the grid. The 1998 field was an odd-looking bunch, a wrong-headed FIA rule change having produced a peculiarly narrow generation of cars. But the cars did not disappoint on the track.
During qualifying later that day, we watched them emerge from Woodcote, grow from specks until they seemed far too close to the right-hander to get around it, then change direction with speed and composure which defied the huge forces at work. The scream of each V10-engined car was an assault on the eardrums which pounded in my skull long after each driver disappeared from sight towards Maggotts.
The showers began soon after pole-winner Mika Hakkinen led the field away. By half-distance it was tipping down, cars were pirouetting off the soaked track and the Safety Car was eventually deployed.
In those pre-mobile internet days we stood little chance of following what unfolded after the restart with 11 laps to go, though we saw Schumacher immediately lap Giancarlo Fisichella to get Hakkinen in his sights. Unbeknown to us, Schumacher was already in trouble for lapping the other Benetton of Alexander Wurz under a yellow flag.
The next time around Hakkinen understeered off just after he left our view, and Schumacher took the lead. So we were confounded when, at the race’s end, Hakkinen passed by as the apparent winner with Schumacher nowhere to be seen. We later learned he had peeled into the pits to serve a 10-second stop-go penalty for his yellow flag infringement, a quirk of the rules allowing him to do so after he’d already crossed the line.
Incomprehensible rules leading to a post-race row about the result? How little times have changed…
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A memorable debut Down Under
A decade after a seven-year-old boy’s first Formula 1 experience, crouched on all fours, straining to watch the cars flash through Bridge corner through a hole in the fence during the 1997 British Grand Prix, that now 17-year-old found himself on a plane from Adelaide to Melbourne in early March.
Albert Park was a world away from Silverstone. The gulf in overall organisational quality between the two events about as far as the physical distance between venues. It’s how so much of the city, already on a sporting high from the Aussie rules football season kicking off, keeps the party going by allowing this ridiculous circus of speed to take over its biggest public park for a four day festival of Formula 1.
This particular weekend, 2007, was as if watching the sport enter a new age. No more Michael Schumacher – for now – with McLaren making headlines in testing with world champion Fernando Alonso and new rookie team mate, reigning GP2 champion Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton’s face adorned countless front pages on news stands, nearly all promising primers on who this prodigious unknown was.
Millions of people have since watched Hamilton compete in grands prix from the track, but that March day in Melbourne, only 105,000 of us were there to witness his first.
Hamilton, a mere cub among the lions of Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen on the grid, roared the loudest off the line, even if he did not lead into turn one. Though the race itself was tame for Albert Park – the biggest crowd reaction courtesy of David Coulthard assaulting poor Alexander Wurz at turn three – the strategic battle between McLaren and Ferrari out front was more than enthralling enough for a young F1 fanatic.
When it was over, Raikkonen may have enjoyed the perfect Ferrari debut with Alonso satisfied to kick off what was surely a bright future with McLaren in second, but as a few thousand of us watched on from the pit straight grandstand, by far the biggest cheer was reserved for the plucky 22-year-old.
The next season, none of us attending the Australian Grand Prix would need informing who Lewis Hamilton was.
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Hopping in a Honda
Despite having various memories of motorsport throughout my life thanks to my parents’ background as medical delegates at various racing events, my memory of first seeing a Formula 1 car is up for debate. One memory I do have however was when I visited Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2008 because at the time my dad was working the event.
My mum and I had found ourselves in the closed-off area at the top of the hill by the rally stage, watching each car and bike come up from around the corner and park in a neat line in front of us.
This was the year both Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton were in attendance, which they did frequently around this time. The festival would always fall on the weekend before the British Grand Prix to ensure F1 drivers were free, and more importantly, in town.
As Jenson Button dragged the Honda RA107 up the hill and swung it round to a standstill in front of us, he went off to sign autographs. Getting chatting with one of the mechanics working on the car about their season and how it was going, he suddenly asked if I would like to sit in the car. With an offer I couldn’t refuse, I jumped at the chance and scurried over to the car, dreading the fact I may not be able to squeeze my hips into the cockpit.
Thankfully I slid in and pushed my legs to the bottom of the chassis and sat there, uncomfortably smiling for pictures – terrified to touch anything. I was first struck by how uncomfortable the seating was, with the seat moulded to Button’s body. I was then shocked by how low down I felt, and how hard visibility seemed. Nonetheless, I was in awe of the experience and knew it would be one I never forgot. The mechanic very kindly helped me out of the car (not easy in a skirt) and they fired up the engine and drove off. I was already hooked on the sport back then, but this experience will stay with me for a lifetime.
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Straight line sighting
My first experience of seeing an F1 car at speed was at Duxford Airfield in rural Cambridgeshire in 2009.
Renault were doing straight line testing on the runway, and given all of their visits took place on week days they must have either occurred during the school holidays as I don’t think at a young age I would have been that sneaky to bunk off purely to watch F1.
Unsurprisingly given it’s an airfield, I do remember it being very windy at Duxford and any time spent in a small hut at the end of the runway was as appreciated as being outside watching the Renault R29 charge past due to the often harsh weather. And even in the hut you could easily hear the screaming Renault V8 engine. Apparently residents of Duxford village could too, which didn’t go down well.
The reason Renault was there was because of F1 had banned traditional in-season testing that year instead given teams the option of doing one-day aerodynamic tests eight times during the season on “FIA-approved straight line or constant-radius sites”. Duxford was such a venue, and continued to be used by F1 teams until Marussia tester Maria de Villota had an infamous crash there in 2012.
I am really not sure if these tests were publicised in advance, either by Renault or the aviation museum at the airfield, but I know entry was free and Renault came prepared for spectators by bringing merchandise with them to hand out. This included a poster of the car and that year’s race and test driver line-up, two of whom I got to see in action. Unfortunately that wasn’t Fernando Alonso, and I can’t remember if Nelson Piquet Jnr was in the car on one of the days I was watching, but I definitely got to see Adam Khan drive.
Khan was one of the drivers on the poster, and the previous year had come third in Euroseries 3000. For two seasons he had also raced for Team Pakistan in A1GP.
I may not have seen an F1 car take a corner of any kind at Duxford, but it certainly beat watching Hispania’s Sakon Yamamoto crash in practice for the British Grand Prix a year later.
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Over to you
What was your first experience seeing Formula 1 in the flesh? Have you ever gotten to sit inside a real F1 car?
Have your say in the comments.
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27 comments on “Fuelling the passion – Our memorable first encounters with live F1”
27th March 2023, 7:37
I’ve been to one race, Button’s win in Istanbul, with Brawn GP. It was amazing to watch the cars at turn 1, and then run down the main straight to catch the podium celebrations. Well, the last 10 seconds of the podium, just before everyone headed back in, but it was great anyway. Probably walked up and down the main straight for another hour after that.
I was much younger when I saw an F1 car though, at an auto show. But it somehow didn’t feel real. I don’t know if it was the sight of the very plasticky tires, or what it was.
27th March 2023, 8:52
My first was Hamilton’s win at Silverstone in 2008 with sideways rain! We were so drenched after 10mins umbrellas were pointless. Subsequently I’ve been to Monza, Abu Dhabi and Spa… but the sound at the start of the Silverstone race with all cars hurtling off the start line is the most over powering memory. Also I remember watching the whole race, Hamilton won by a mile – but I didn’t really have any clue how, or what else happened in the field. Went home and watched the replay on TV to figure it all out, that was a sad reality of being in the grandstand without a TV/commentator feed
27th March 2023, 9:01
I’d seen several F1 cars before I went to my first race, mostly at car shows. Once I went to the Schumacher kart track in Kerpen. My first time seeing an F1 car running was during a Ferrari demo in 1999 during the Masters of F3 weekend in Zandvoort, Mika Salo drove that day. End of September was my first race I ever watched, the European Grand Prix of 1999, that was a crazy race to witness live. My big problem was that there was no screen across the cheap standing area that was the most I could afford, but I loved seeing the cars race none-the-less.
These days I don’t go to races anymore, too expensive and to be honest, I prefer just watching the races on F1TV instead. Last real car I saw was Verstappen’s Toro Rosso which is on display in his official shop.
Will Wood (@willwood)
27th March 2023, 9:22
I can hardly think of a more confusing race to watch without a diamond screen than the 1999 European Grand Prix…
27th March 2023, 11:35
@willwood Heh, we did have quite some fun with the people around us trying to predict who would be the race leader on the next lap round.
27th March 2023, 13:34
Sounds interesting to do in such an unpredictable race.
Red Andy (@red-andy)
27th March 2023, 10:05
First “F1” car I saw in the flesh was the Minardi two-seater, which was doing some demonstration laps at the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 2006. Bas Leinders was at the wheel, from what I remember. The roar of the V10 engine was something not easily forgotten. I have lots of good memories of Oulton Park in general, thanks to several childhood trips there in the company of my grandad.
A year or so later I went to Donington Park with some friends for the Renault World Series weekend. Again there were some demonstration runs from the Renault R26, driven by Jonathan Cochet. This time I got to get up close to the car, thanks to a friendly marshal who escorted us “behind the rope” in the paddock. We got a very memorable demonstration of how the whole seat can be extracted in the event of a crash and the driver needing to be removed from the car quickly. (Always be nice to the marshals, kids).
There were some older Renault F1 cars doing some demonstration runs that weekend too – I think Rene Arnoux was driving one of the cars from the 1980s. All in all, a great experience for a teenager for whom attending an actual F1 race would have been unaffordable.
27th March 2023, 10:20
I think it was Toyota City run in the middle of helsinki back in 2005. The track was partly on gobblestonea so the speed wasn’t very fast. Sound was. Once in a lifetime experience. It’s a shame they don’t do those anymore in “smaller” countries. As if finland is small in F1 level..
27th March 2023, 11:04
@qeki I happened to attend that demo event titled Helsinki City Grand Prix by Toyota (which occurred on August 12, 2006), as an 11-year-old at the time, in which Jarno Trulli drove the previous season’s TF105 in the Railway Square area (& Juha Kankkunen a Corolla WRC).
In retrospect, they should’ve chosen a different area within the city center with a wider & flat road, such as a nearby Mannerheim road or the Sörnäinen area where DTM used to race.
I still hope a similar event returns someday.
Nevertheless, I didn’t expect anyone to mention that event here, so a positive surprise.
27th March 2023, 20:20
@jerejj I somehow always remember it being the year before. I was also a 11 y/o and one other thing I remember from that day that there were some guys in top of some building (can’t rememeber which one). Still it was a great day and as a small boy I really didn’t care which road they drove it as it felt like a video game in real life because it was a bit surreal.
27th March 2023, 21:01
@qeki Here’s a random gallery from the event I found earlier today by Googling, which also shows the building with people on top: 2006 Formula 1 Helsinki City Grand Prix (kuvat.fi)
I agree about the surreal feeling & that this aspect made the specific roads used for the demo run somewhat secondary despite not being enough long, wide, or flat for full-throttle driving.
27th March 2023, 21:06
@qeki Something seemingly went wrong with the link, but foundable among other Galleries (& videos) by Googling.
27th March 2023, 10:37
First f1 car I saw in the flesh… In 1998 HSBC opened a new branch in our town and to gain interest they parked a Stewart SF1 out the front. Still have the photo somewhere.
First GP was Silverstone 2000, went by coach and traffic was so bad that we missed half the race and received free tickets for 2001.
The highlight was jumping out of the way of Ron Dennis on a moped and collecting a F3000 tyre which they were throwing out. Fun that was, pushing it home…
27th March 2023, 10:46
What was your first experience seeing Formula 1 in the flesh? – In the 2010 Italian GP & great, especially the V8 sounds, which were very hearable outside the track boundaries when walking into the gates for the first time on practice day, with the same feeling reoccurring on the 2012 Hungarian GP practice day.
Have you ever gotten to sit inside a real F1 car?
– Unfortunately, not yet. Simulator monocoque is the closest experience.
27th March 2023, 11:07
Edit: If only I had recalled before posting, I would’ve typed that technically, my first time seeing & hearing an F1 car in a flesh happened in 2006 in a Toyota demo event in Helsinki (see a more detailed reference above), but 2010 Italian GP was nevertheless, my first time attending a GP & thus experiencing F1 car running at proper racing speeds in competitive circumstances.
27th March 2023, 20:23
@jerejj My only GP has been 2013 Hungarian GP as it was the last year of V8s. Next year we went to Goodwood Fos where you are able to see everything you want to see about racing cars in any category.
27th March 2023, 11:28
’98, Damon Hill winning at Spa. I’d been following F1 since I was a kid, but felt that at 30, it was high time to see a race in the flesh. I’d gone there in a borrowed Citroën 2CV. No navigation, no mobiles, just some prepared scrap of paper with directions to get there. I ended up on a narrow dirt road with cars parked along the sides, so I guessed I’d arrived. Walked some 800 meters and entered the gate. Try that these days!
Apart from what was shown on the screens, it was impossible to follow what was going on on track. The crowd that had come early had set up camp just behind the fences, and it was impossible to get close. All the umbrella’s and banners blocked the rest from view. Wandered around and got into the big public simulator, which was the highlight of the day actually. After the flag I went to the podium and got to see one of the cars from up close, which was impressive.
Since then, seen several cars from up close, at car shows, dealer events and motorsports events that featured demo runs. I’ve never visited a GP live again; It’s much better to follow what’s going on on TV and I don’t care to much for overprized, pale, wobbly fries and hamburgers, let alone the crowds of people.
27th March 2023, 13:36
My first [and last] F1 ‘live’ race was the 1974 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. A fellow student was an official timekeeper at Brands and three of us entered free with paddock pass thrown in. Those were the days. I left thinking how great it was to have seen James Hunt put the Hesketh on pole and to rub shoulders with Niki Lauda in the paddock. The race was wet, Hunt crashed, and Ickx won in a Lotus 72, funny, could have sworn it was Fittipaldi, but no.. long time ago.
Will Wood (@willwood)
27th March 2023, 14:04
@frasier That’s a pretty cool story to get to tell!
27th March 2023, 15:42
No wonder the opinions on this site are so narrow! If all you have seen is F1 since the late 1990’s, then you will never know what you missed or why so many people over 60 don’t watch F1 anymore (I do)! I saw multiple GP’s at Mosport Park, where I also saw all of the Can-Am’s; Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Donnington, and multiple Monaco races, most with pit access. Now I see why people today need netflix and drama to enjoy what used to be a car racing series.
27th March 2023, 22:48
I’ve been watching/following it since ’68. I was 9, but we got a slotrace track. My schoolfriend had the same brand, so we got together to create extended tracks and race those for days on end. Great times.
But it’s not how long you’ve been watching that makes your opinion narrow. That has more to do with the decline of general education, with today’s short attention span and the need for everything to come to you, and fast please, instead of going after things yourself and take the time and trouble to do things right and not necessarily just quick.
You want to fly a radiocontrolled airplane? Then buy one, made of molded foam, ready to fly. In my days, you could only get balsa kits which took weeks to build. But those actually taught you something, and made you proud once finished.
27th March 2023, 18:38
First time seeing an F1 car in the flesh would’ve been my first live race, Silverstone in 2018. Had seats at Vale on Sunday, although spent most of Saturday at the Village grandstands because they were closer to, well, the village. Turns out Village is a pretty decent spot to also see Maggots/Becketts/Chapel if you don’t mind looking through the fencing a bit. Race itself was very good, Hamilton got turned around on lap 1, fought his way back through and was in contention by the end thanks to a well timed safety car. Vettel won, much to the disappointment of many at Silverstone, but the atmosphere was still something special (will never forgot the volume of the cheer when the aforementioned Safety Car was called!).
Went back the year after, sat in the same grandstand, turned out to be one of the best spots we could’ve had: we could see Verstappen and Leclerc coming through Stowe nose-to-tail throughout their early battle, saw Giovanazzi spin out at Vale causing a Safety Car, and then saw Vettel punt Verstappen at the same corner later on in the race. Two great races I got to witness, but haven’t had a chance to head back for a GP since Covid, and with the prices of tickets now, not sure I’ll be going again for a while!
27th March 2023, 18:54
LBGP and Caesars.
We were building track support stuff for Chris Pook’s Long Beach Grand Prix Racing Association. They also did the Caesars track. Hooked us up with some nice tickets and also rooms at Caesars.
They’d haul a lot of the LBGP track stuff out to Vegas and one night the truck stopped by the shop to pick up some bits. There were two cars on the flatbed along with the track cack. They were covered but definitely F1 shaped.
LBGP is not a race I’d pay to go see. Views from the stands were limited.
Caesars was great viewing. See the whole track from most every seat.
27th March 2023, 18:57
ed: Thinking back, those were probably Indycars on the truck.
27th March 2023, 19:50
LBGP ’83. All the big dawgs were there. HAD to qualify, so many entrants. Was a “contact sport”. The course ran down the hill to the waterfront stretch. Access easy: I had local friends pass a pass through the fence! They had (like) ten seats in a row (IIRC): simply to add in an “11th”. Different times, then.
27th March 2023, 20:59
1977 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Watched the race standing on an oil drum in the paddock where a black JPS Lotus crashed in the fences (no gravel traps in those day). Was it Andretti? Gunnar Nilsson? Petterson? Will have to look it up. There was also another car, Reutemann?
Got my first F1 Autograph (Patrick Neve, had to check his name on his overall as I didn’t recognize him. He recently passed away). And I still have James Hunts sparks plugs somewhere after they were thrown in the bin. The were still warm….
28th March 2023, 18:19
Australia 2012, only F1 race I’ve been 2 despite watching on TV since at least 1993. It was a great ticket for £310 with rotating grandstand seats – outside T1 on Thursday, T8 Friday, outside T2 Saturday, Main straight on the Sunday. Got to see Massa crash out in the gravel on the Friday. Helpfully other people with the same ticket were seated in roughly the same location so it was nice to meet people over the while weekend.
The problem is that it’s too expensive. Considering that Indy 500 tickets are far less ($86 including booking fee for one at turn 2) it’s just far more tempting to go that route for a race that is completely drivable from my current home.
Might consider other F1 races but Indycar is just way cheaper and the racing is far more competitive. Gateway near St Louis is my local track – and tickets for that race are cheaper again. I get that oval racing isn’t for everyone but it’s a massive benefit being able to see the entire circuit.
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