Our UK Editor Jamie Klein swapped his journalist hat for a Helio Castroneves cap at the Sonoma season finale, to sample the experience as a fan in the grandstand again. How did it compare to F1?
Since becoming a bona fide hack, visiting race events as a punter has tended to make for a frustrating experience – but my trip to watch the conclusion to the IndyCar season at Sonoma last Sunday showed that this need not be the case.
Indeed, if one thing struck me during my sojourn, besides Scott Dixon sensationally snatching the title from under the nose of Juan Pablo Montoya, it was the sheer lengths went to by the organisers to make my day as enjoyable as possible.
From the shuttle that escorted me from the parking lots to the main grandstand upon my arrival to the comprehensive programme of pre-race entertainment, there was a marked contrast between the quality of my maiden IndyCar experience and that of my previous trips to Formula 1 races.
Access makes all the difference
Perhaps the biggest difference was the level of access to the action afforded to the fans at Sonoma, where, for a mere $25 supplement, anybody could obtain a pass for the paddock area and pitlane, allowing fans to get up close and personal with their heroes and their machinery.
It was a major breath of fresh air compared to the hermetically-sealed bubble in which F1 teams and drivers operate during a race weekend and from which all but the super-wealthy and well-connected are excluded.
Of course, there’s no way that a Grand Prix paddock could function with free public access, but offering access to fans at a certain time for a fixed additional cost is surely something worth considering; the extra revenue stream could even allow promoters to lower the cost of admission.
Once seated in the grandstand, there was plenty to keep fans entertained between the conclusion of the supporting Pirelli World Challenge race and the famous ‘start your engines command’, with a dazzling 20-minute air display followed swiftly by a short rock concert on the main stage just opposite the grandstand.
Once that had finished, there was a touching tribute to the late Justin Wilson, including a ‘25’ – his race number in that fateful Pocono race just a week earlier – written in the sky, an impeccably observed moment of silence and a rousing rendition of God Save the Queen in his honour.
The highlight of the pre-race ceremonies however was each of the 26 drivers being introduced in turn to the public on stage, including brief interviews with the six theoretical title contenders – far preferable to the drivers being loaded on to the back of a lorry for a parade lap of the circuit, as has been the case during my F1 trips.
Then there was the race itself, and a combination of a giant TV screen opposite the grandstand, commentary over the public address system and the recent addition of the LED numbers on the cars themselves made it virtually impossible to lose track of what was going on.
Having huge race numbers on the side of every car, complemented by free spotters’ guides, also helped immensely when it came to driver recognition – unlike at a Grand Prix, there was no need for the casual fan to shell out $25 for a programme just to work out who was who!
Admittedly, F1 has upped its game somewhat in recent years in a bid to improve its fan experience, with podium interviews and the accompanying track invasions that have become common-place at many venues in particular a welcome development.
But compared to IndyCar, there are still many areas where F1 falls short, including the often-vast amount of walking required to reach the grandstands from the main entrance at many circuits (the shuttles at Sonoma in this regard were a godsend), the value for money and choice on offer when it comes to food and the affordability of merchandise.
Why the price is right in the USA
That point brings me neatly to the best thing about my IndyCar experience: the price. Main grandstand seating with a paddock pass supplement set me back just $99, around half the cost of the most basic general admission ticket for the United States Grand Prix at Austin.
The sky-high sanctioning fees that F1 promoters must pay makes a substantial reduction in ticket prices totally unviable, but making that modicum of extra effort to make the fan experience as good as it can be given the financial restraints imposed by FOM could make the difference when it comes to combatting declining track attendances at many venues.
If I were a local, I would certainly be heading back to Sonoma for more next year.