.: My Indian Grand Prix Diary

My first experience witnessing a Formula One race was pretty exhilarating. It was a lifelong dream to be able to do it, ever since I started following Formula One since 1992 as a 10 year old. I have no idea what got me hooked on to it, but the more I watched the more I wanted to watch. Unfortunately, there were only a few races in a year. There was something magical about it, with drivers pushing their cars and themselves to almost-over-the-cliff, but never over it.

2011 was the first time India hosted a Grand Prix and I was in India at the right time to watch it, almost. I couldn’t as it was around Diwali and I was away in Kerala visiting my parents. But this time around, I was not going to miss it for anything because I would never see Schumacher race again. I have been following him since his Benetton days and this is his last season, in his second stint as an F1 driver. Tickets were booked well in advance after thoroughly scouting the track for best vantage points. I figured that Turn 4, at the end of the DRS zone, was the best place to be since the cars would be slowing down from 310+ kmph to under a 100, and then accelerate away. One huge caveat with booking online through bookmyshow.com is that they only let you pick the stand and block, but not the seats, which is just bull-crap. If you book early, you are going to be right up against the barricading fence on the lower most seat with non-existent views. I decided to live with it, but things would take an unexpected turn. So read on.

FRIDAY [26 October]
This is the day with two practice sessions, each 90 minutes long where the cars do their dry runs to understand the track and work on car setups and balance. I don’t think I have been as excited post turning 25+. I was up at 5 am, all my gear packed and ready to go. I knew this would be the best day to capture some good photos since the stands would be pretty empty. My trusty D200 and 80-200mm f2.8 lens would be my friends for the day.

The Buddh International Circuit is about 80 kms away from Gurgaon, which meant we had a 3+ hour commute each way to get to the track. The first day had many unknowns, which included travel times and frequency of buses to the circuit. Our trip was planned such that we would take the Metro from Gurgaon to Delhi and then to Noida and hop on a shuttle bus to the circuit. We left home at 7 am, in anticipation to be track-side at 10 am for the start of Free Practice 1 (FP-1). As luck would have it, the Metro line had some issues and the train to Delhi was delayed by 40 minutes. We managed to get to Noida around 9 am, hoping we would still make it to the track on time. However, the fine print in the bus ticket read that the buses would depart only when they are full. It was Friday and the crowd was small, which meant a lot of coaxing and cajoling to get the bus going and it finally did.

I overheard from co-passengers that the standard of service had dropped dramatically since last year, apparently they had air-conditioned buses and more volunteers to guide the fans. This year we were in a rickety old bus, like the ones you hear in stories told by foreigners and to go along we also had a sleepyhead driver. After taking the wrong exits a couple of times, we finally made it to the track 20 minutes before the end of FP-1. We were guided by clueless volunteers to a wrong stand, but did not argue as we wanted to catch a glimpse of the cars and savor the sound. As the session ended, we walked over to nice young lady to find out why we were not seated in the stands we had paid the money for. Her answer was pretty simple, “Sir, the Star East Stand 2 has been closed due to a construction safety issue”. Being a structural engineer, that did not go down too well with me; I was not too impressed and walked over to the ticketing booth to see if I could speak to a manager. It so turned out that the manager was as clueless as the nice young lady before and his answer was “Sir, it is a management decision not to seat people there, as a result we have given you an upgrade”. An upgrade??!!

That is when yours truly totally lost it because he knew very well that the stand they seated us was actually a big downgrade because you were sitting perpendicular to cars whizzing past at 300+ kmph. Imagine watching a tennis match from the sidelines and then fast forward that 8x. Totally out of the blue, I went ballistic and the poor *manager* had no chance or choice. My co-BIL also joined in and they finally conceded that we could walk over to that stand but the downside was that there were no toilet facilities there. We politely told him that we came here to watch F1 and if need be, we will use a bottle. Well, we did not say it. As we walked over to our stand, we found the stand was actually close to two restrooms, in fact, the only ones for the East Stand. Now you can understand why I said the manager was clueless.

The stand was sparsely occupied, with only a few people who knew the *right* place to watch the action. This also included Mr. Austin, a nice Englishman from near Bolton, who was on his first trip to India. We had 2.5 hours to kill before the next Free Practice sesson started and we were treated to Formula One’s poor cousin, the MRF Challenge series. The sound from these engines were like flies buzzing, compared to the thunderous roar from the F1 engines revving at 18,000 rpm.

In spite of being in India, known for the Indian Stretchable Time (IST), the second session started on the dot at 2 pm. I cannot put in words what I felt watching these cars zoom by. And this time I wasn’t straining my neck. We were sitting facing the long back straight, 1.2 km long, watching the cars reach top speeds and brake on a dime and accelerate away from Turn 4. Pat on the back for a wonderful seat choice, but we quickly realized that the stand next to ours had a slightly better view. We spent close to 40 minutes on Star East 2 before moving on to Star East 3.

Star East 2 gives a head on view of the straight, which Star East 3 gives you a diagonal view of Turn 4. Since the crowd was almost non-existent and there was no one to check the tickets once you made it past the main entry point, we decided to hop over to the other stand. And I must tell you that although I thought I had made a good choice with my original seat selection, our adopted seats were way better. We began to wonder of ways to sneak into this stand for Saturday and Sunday as well. The day had gotten better so much that we forgot the miseries of the morning, which included terrible food stands with overpriced options and no cutlery, until we had to raise another sh*t storm there. And this time, we were not alone.

The day ended with me taking off my ear plugs for the last 15 minutes and letting the vibrations through to my eardrums. The ride back home was less eventful and we made it home around 7.30 pm. I was extremely exhausted, eyes red and dazed from capturing over 6+ GB of photos (around 700), almost all of which were captured with me hand-holding my 1.275 kg 80-200 lens for more than 3 hours that day. I was kicking myself for not bringing over my monopod from the US in April.

As tired as I was, I could not help but transfer my photos to see how they turned out. I had deliberately set my shutter speed very high 1/1250s or higher since it was my first time shooting extremely fast moving objects (read F1 cars). This high shutter speed did capture sharp images, but unfortunately did not capture the speed. The images looked static, and something had to be done about it on Saturday and Sunday. I decided to carry my lighter 18-105mm VR lens and try “panning” in order to capture the speed.

SATURDAY [27 October]

We decided to skip Free Practice 3 (10.00 am – 11.30 am). The 90 minute, 3 session Qualifying for the main race on Sunday was to start at 2 pm. We left home at 10 am to allow for some buffer based on Friday’s experience. This trip was extremely smooth and it appeared that the kinks in the organization were ironed out. There were quite a few more people and everything was on time. We tried out luck with stand hopping and it was easier than Friday as there was no one to check the tickets once we made it past the main entry. We walked right away to the nice stands and made ourselves comfortable at the top of the bleachers.

With my shutter speeds set to between 1/250s and 1/320s, I fired away focusing on the car as it entered the frame and following it as it exited the frame. I was giving my waist and torso a good workout, a much needed one. I need to do more of this even otherwise to lose the love handles. The results were far better than I anticipated for my first try. However, the hit rate was not as high as I would have hoped for.

I had downloaded an Android Live F1 timing app to keep track of the sector and lap times. As expected the Red Bulls were the team to beat, followed closely by the McLarens. The qualifying ended with a Red Bull front row lock out followed by the McLarens on Row 2, the Ferraris on Row 3 and the Loti on Row 4. Alonso has a big race ahead trying to catch up Vettel and keep his Championship hopes alive.

The day ended with a nice family outing at Connaught Place where Anu and her sister joined us and pigged out at Saravanaa Bhavan.

SUNDAY [28 October]

Two days of traveling long distances, which I had forgotten how to, meant it was a struggle to get our a**es out of the door on RaceDay. We did get out of the door at 10 am, having read about horrific traffic jams in last years race as 80,000+ fans tried to get in at the last minute. I think the bad experiences of Friday had prepped us enough that anything less worse actually seemed great.

We made it track-side and after being frisked thoroughly, we followed our usual routine. The crowds had gathered, but surprisingly on the East Stand 1, which is where we had hated to be. We right-royally walked to the stand with the best views, perched ourselves on the top-most row, and waited for the action to begin. We barely got in time to see the Driver’s parade, but I could not catch a photo as *stupid* me had the camera set to click on a timer. And it did, but after the truck had gone by. Bummer!

Thanks to my successful outing from Saturday and the good results, I had the same camera setup (D200 + 18-105 VR). There were a lot more people in our stands and with it a lot of nice camera and ultrazooms. After quite a bit of drooling, I settled down and reminded myself that I was a Structural Engineer and not an Investment Banker.

The countdown began and the roar of 24 F1 engines in unison was just incredible. We could hear the noise from grandstands and the start-finish straight. Turn 1 was incident free for the top runners but Vergne and Schumi collided, puncturing Schumi’s right and damaging Vergnes’ front wing. Schumi’s last race in India ended in a disaster, but in spite of it, the stands would erupt every lap he whizzed by. Alonso had a very good start and he ate up the McLarens of Button and Hamilton pretty fast. Vettel was untouchable and drove a perfect race.

We did see a lot of action in the middle of the pack, especially between the Saubers and the Williams, fighting it on Turns 4 and 5. We did not see much collision from ambitious overtaking maneuvers at Turn 4, but did see Pedro De La Rosa spin out after a brake failure. Overall, in terms of action, it was pretty boring except when Alonso was chasing down Webber lap after lap and finally pulled off a DRS-move on him at Turn 4. Later we learnt that Webber had suffered a KERS failure, which meant he had to fight to stave off Hamilton who was reeling him in.

The race ended with Vettel taking top honors followed by Alonso, Webber and Hamilton. We had a lot of Ferrari/Alonso fans and it provided a lot of cheer, as he did keep his Championship hopes alive going into Abu Dhabi. We did not wait for the post-race festivities and hopped on to the shuttle bus to take us back home. En route, I was thinking of the perfect timing of all the events that led me to being in India to witness a Grand Prix, which was pretty surreal.

So there you have it….exactly 7 days after watching the race, I have my blog written up. Not too bad for the procrastinator in me. I have about 1400+ photos that I am trying to process and upload.

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