This weekend I went to the Autosport International show at the NEC in Birmingham. This is the ‘Racing Car Show’ put on by Haymarket, the people behind Autosport, and features two trade days followed by two public days. I went on Saturday which was the first of the public days.
First of all I should say I last attended the show in 2004, and before that in 2002. I purposely hadn’t returned for some time because even visiting two years apart, it seemed there was nothing new the second visit. A group from the VivaF1 website and a few commenters from Sidepodcast mentioned they were going, I was already going to the nearby karting event, and I was interested in how the show had changed since 2004 so I decided to go back – not to mention the ideal opportunity to meet some more bloggers and racing fans!
This entry is quite long so please click the ‘More’ button to read on..
I arrived at 10.15am after 3hrs of driving and immediately headed for the Live Arena for the pre-booked 11am show. This meant I didn’t get to see much of the main show while I pushed my way from one entrance to another, though the minute I got in the door it was a pleasure to be among polished racing cars again.
I entered the live arena and found the race track area was at least twice the size of the last time I visited – result! In ’02 and ’04 I’d felt the cars were really constrained by the limits of the circuit and I was pleased they’d changed it. This time the front straight was the same length as before (maybe a tad longer?), the back had been extended to the same distance to make a quad-oval, and the middle sections had been removed so there was track space available between every support pillar.
It started with a video intro based on The Apprentice, and while it was corny I did like the central joke making fun of Terry Grant’s regular appearances and being told he was fired.. and it featured Murray Walker beating him to become the presenter for the show. Grant is good at what he does, the cars doing donuts by themselves, and the trick was amazing the first time I saw it at the ’02 show with a Legends car and even better in ’04 with a Ferrari 360. He was less good at the ’07 RoC, and I’ve heard people were a bit fed of him by this time last year. He appeared on the video and then his ‘real’ appearance was just a brief stint of not much at all. Seems he was just the warm-up act this time.
A let down was discovering Walker was only going to perform his role via the video screen – now he may not have been a good compere in front of a large live audience as his skills are in TV and radio, but they did get my hopes up with that video.
The ‘show proper’ started and the first couple of events were fairly average and didn’t last long. There was a race for old Ford Fiestas which was quite slow and not much seemed to happen but only seemed to run for two oval laps. I don’t even remember what the other thing was! However, it was clear these were designed to bring us into the show gently rather than get us excited early so I wasn’t too concerned.
I tried to take photos throughout the show, unfortunately while it did look spectacular to the naked eye, the lighting was seemingly designed to prevent photography. The brightness of the big screens against the darkness of the arena just confused my poor point-and-shoot camera. It didn’t help that my arms were wedged in so I couldn’t pan the camera to the speed of the cars, as you normally would at a race track to get the cars in focus. Examples:
Believe me, these were the best I got! I must say I did like the idea of displaying the Autosport logo on vertical screens on the pillars, even if it did add to the lighting problems.
Tiff Needell and Vicki Butler-Henderson from 5th Gear then drove into the arena in a Jag and Porsche to do a ‘road test’. I was bored senseless by this part, all it was was these two showing off in expensive cars. I learned little other than the smaller Porsche was better at doing a slalom course on a slippery warehouse floor. All I could think was, “I’m here to watch a racing car show not a road car show!” and I don’t think they quite pulled off the ‘scripted unscripted race win’ but the latter is nit-picking I suppose. My guess is this section was here to appease the non-racing fans.
Also in the show were BRiSCA stock cars (wow – see below), Autograss cars (fast!), some drifting (good car control but is not racing), some dirt bikes, banger racing using a figure of eight course (!!!), Mazda MX5 racing, the Autosport McLaren BRDC Award Finalists in FPAs (hmm), recent British Rally Champion Mark Higgins in a 1970s rally car and 1980s rally legend Stig Blomqvist in an Audi of similar vintage (complete with little grey Goodwood Festival of Speed stickers).
I’d seen Blomqvist in a similar car at the Race of Champions and I’ve never got into his era of rallying so his appearance didn’t really ‘grab’ me. It was appreciated by the ‘racing history’ part of my brain, I just didn’t get the ‘fever’ that others get with Group B cars. Perhaps if it were going flat out it would be different.
There may have been more, I can’t remember. Each segment was very short and the next one started quickly after so at least if you didn’t like something you didn’t have to wait long for the next thing to appear. At times this was annoying, there were some good races interrupted by only being 3 or 4 laps long. In other instances this was a blessing, such as the Autosport young drivers in Formula Palmer Audis circulating side-by-side at walking pace because they had no grip. Most of the other races were faster, leading to the obvious question – why bother? Just put the young drivers in Legends or something and just let them race!
They did that last time I was there, I’m sure of it, and it was fun. That’s what the Live Arena show was missing for most of the hour: fun. Throughout the show I wondered if each set of drivers were saving the cars since they had to do several more shows that day and next. A lot of it seemed ‘by the numbers’. Let’s get these cars on and off quickly so we can get the next ones on. If they’d removed some of the filler (drifting, bikes) they could have extended the fun elements (BRiSCA, MX5s) to make a great show, as it was, it was merely a mildly-entertaining way to spend an hour. It CAN get better, if they want it to.
The real highlight for me were the BRiSCA F1 Stock Cars, little buggy things with big Chevy V8 engines, which are Britain’s top class of oval racing. Yes we do have short ovals in the UK! Here’s a short, low quality video:
I also got a small video of the Autograss cars which were a lot of fun as well. These two short races really did showcase their respective styles of racing very well and were the only things in the show that truly got my attention. I don’t think either visit my neck of the woods, if they did I would be tempted to go just to check them out in their normal habitats. Ironically, Autosport themselves don’t acknowledge the existence of either series in the mag or online so perhaps this segment could have been promoted by Motorsport News, if they are still with Haymarket?
The end of the show then, but not quite – a pleasant surprise at the very end was the arrival of Jenson Button! I knew he was being interviewed over on the Autosport Stage in the main hall during this show, so it was nice to see him arrive in the arena to say a few words to us too and he was very confident and up front. At the time it came as a complete surprise but I later realised he probably did this during several of the live shows, it was really good of him to go to the extra effort. I did get a bit of video but it is absolutely terrible, my fault entirely for expecting my camera to zoom to that distance. He’s the guy with the white shirt under his jacket, that I need to point that out should tell you enough about the video quality..
Following the live show I made my way to the F1 Racing stand, the pre-arranged meeting point for our group. The stand features 7 recent F1 cars painted in 2009 colours even if they weren’t quite all 2009 cars. I found some people already there and we waited around for a while for the others. It was while waiting that Franck Montagny, Nic Minassian and Alex Wurz appeared for a chat with a man Jackie identified as Stuart Codling. I caught about a minute of video of Stuart interviewing Franck, unfortunately you can’t hear much of it so I’ll not embed it, just link it. I did get a pic..
Stuart makes a great live interviewer. On being asked about Flavio Briatore, it was interesting to hear Alex say he refused to sign up to one of his management contracts and that ‘it may have cost me a good F1 career’, but that he has no regrets about making that choice and he could see how Piquet Jr might have been talked into the Singapore crash for the sake of his own career.
After the interview the guys signed autographs, although being Autosport you had to pay extra to queue up for 10-15 minutes for the privilege but kudos to Scott who had the patience to do this and came away with signatures from three top Le Mans drivers. I’m reliably informed the queue for Button’s scrawl was FAR longer.
Our group was a reasonable size now, with VivaF1 site admins Jackie and Maverick along with Kimster, Jolly and Spenny from the community (and a brief hi from Womble), as well as Sidepodcast’s regular commenters Chris, Scott, and StartledBunny. Actually that was a discussion we had a little earlier, do we call ourselves by our internet names or our real names? I think we decided it was too difficult to try and remember two sets of names for most of us.. Anyway, it was decided to call it lunch!
1x over-priced curry (it was nice but my wallet and stomach didn’t agree..) and the obligatory cup of tea later, Scott, Chris and I decided to head off to look for simulators to try out. At first we found a massive one seating three people (one driver, two ‘passengers’) sat atop complicated-looking hydraulics. Unfortunately (or fortunately for my stomach) it was an hour’s wait, minimum, so we went over to the Mobil 1 stand where Scott wanted to try again on a simulator he’d experienced at Silverstone.
The Puretech Racing (Facebook link) machine is very impressive. Housed in what Scott and Chris were convinced was a McLaren of a few years age – I lost the ability to tell this sort of thing some while ago – sat atop more complicated gizmos, it really does throw you around inside the cockpit and is really quite violent at times! If this is like the real thing, and presumably it is, it really gives you an insight into how difficult it is to drive a pure racing machine – nothing like sat at your home computer playing rFactor or whatever. I could take the racing lines but was braking far too early, and did spin.. So did Chris and we recorded nearly identical times – Scott didn’t spin and not only did he beat us, he set the fastest time of the day so far! Needless to say the pro/semi-pro drivers who actually race in F.Renault and F3 who had tried it the previous day were a way faster than he was, yet it was still impressive stuff from where I was standing given it was nearly 3pm and it had been open since 9.
We’d underestimated the queue there and ended up waiting a good 30-45 minutes (I wasn’t counting) – and as we waited I spied Franck Montagny and Nic Minassian again, on the other side of the stand inspecting the machine and watching some of the attempts! Nobody harassing them, no PR body nearby. They seemed impressed too. Franck then walked around to our side (!!) where the Superleague Formula display was set up. He took great interest in this… we were saying ‘no, don’t do it Franck!’. I doubt he heard, we weren’t loud. He was there a while until the team PR found him and dragged him away, presumably to the Peugeot stand. Perhaps he was checking his options for the future just in case the Le Mans deal falls through and he doesn’t get another F1 or IndyCar shot..
Scott headed off to rejoin his dad (we’d meet them again at the karting that evening), so Chris and I went for a walk around. We were quickly at the Autosport stage where we found Alan McNish and Alex Wurz being interviewed by Henry Hope-Frost. It was an interesting chat, reminding us of Alex’s photo taken from the cockpit on the Mulsanne Straight. Montagny then appeared again, on the upper floor throwing ice cubes at the guys on the stage! There was a surprisingly small crowd and I felt a bit guilty only stopping for a short while, but we’d hardly seen anything of the main halls all day and there wasn’t a lot of time left!
To be fair there wasn’t a lot else of interest among the actual stands in the main hall. We had to miss some other simulators because we couldn’t justify the waiting time and to be honest some of them just looked like rFactor with a great wheel/pedal setup, rather than being actual dedicated simulators. The one I do regret missing is the Bamboo Engineering simulator which was reputedly one of the better ones at the show. I’d wanted to see it earlier yet with everything else going on I’d forgotten about it by the end of the day, and only remembered again when the others had left.
Still, we had a good look around at some classic F1 cars and rally cars and so forth. Here’s a selection from my Picasa album:
After that look around we rejoined the main group for a cup of tea and a chat, and the sit down was very welcome by that stage! As the others departed Chris and I took in the last hall we’d missed earlier before he headed on, and I quickly went around getting some last minute shots in case I needed them for the blog before the venue closed for the day. A little later I was at the karting meetup, but that’ll have to wait for another time..
On the whole I really enjoyed the day. I do think going with other people helped a lot and probably would have helped during the live arena show. I don’t tend to enjoy events anything like as much when I’m on my own as with a group. If I had gone alone I would have been quite bored for a lot of the day – I probably wouldn’t have tried the simulator, for example (and I’m glad I did), and there are only so many pictures of static cars you can take before that gets old. Perhaps I might have stayed near the stage a bit more and heard the interviews. The reason I didn’t try and steer people that way, or break off from them to listen, was that I could just go to Autosport.com the next day and read it – and that’s what I did.
There were faults. The lighting in the live arena prevents photography – though I am convinced this is deliberate. Almost certainly not deliberate is the lighting in the main hall , which is orange and doesn’t provide enough light for photos without the flash, and the flash doesn’t work properly in open areas – the only thing that worked well was using the flash close-up to an object or only taking photos of the few purpose-lit objects such as the 60 Years of Autosport stand.
Jenson Button was worked hard, moving from stage to stage to arena and back around again, for two days running. You have to imagine he was being asked similar questions over and over and he seemed happy to answer them, though I grant you it was early days when I saw him. Spare a thought for the interviewers too, who had to keep the same material interesting as well as research a long line of stage guests.
The PistonHeads section. I didn’t mention that. I didn’t see the point of the section which seemed to be all about tuning and modding cars, and I was disappointed to hear there were some good racing stuff tucked away in there that I missed such as the Mansell LMP car and the Bloodhound SSC mock-up. I did find the Group C car, see pic above.
The Engineering section was useless and uninteresting to members of the public and I have no idea why those stands were still there on Saturday, they only really applied to the two trade days and the people on many of the stands were generally left alone by the public and looked very bored.
I noticed people from the Skip Barber School came over from the US and apparently Atlantics sent people too although I missed their stand. I think these could have been more prominently placed rather than tucked away among the engineering stands and university courses (though I see the logic in placing them near the latter). It would’ve been ideal opportunity to introduce them to the more knowledgeable punters who would probably otherwise only ever see them after a transatlantic flight. Meanwhile, the F2 and FPA joint stand was alongside F1 Racing, one of the most prominent positions there could be. While this may be right for F2 as an official FIA feeder series, I don’t think it is for FPA which has long been considered a marginal series and not the series it was when Justin Wilson was plying his trade there.
So would I go again?
Yes, but I would only ever go with a group of 2 others or more, and wouldn’t insist on going every year. I may go back in 2011 but if I do I won’t be back in 2012. Equally, if I don’t go next year I may return in 2012. There isn’t enough to sustain my interest with an annual visit, even with my broad racing tastes.
It did make a huge difference being there with a group of knowledgeable fans each with their own interests. This is still true even though 3 of us broke away from the main group for an hour or so. Of my two prior visits, one was with a non-fan, and one was with a fan as big as any of us – with the first I spent my time explaining everything, with the second we both got fairly bored almost as quickly as if we’d been alone. Go with a group. You may miss the interviews while talking among yourselves, but I guarantee you’ll learn just as much and you can read the interview text online the next day (though I’d make a point of catching at least one, maybe two).
Oh, and I didn’t come away with any free swag – that was a concious choice on my part because I have no use for either the show programme or the Honda pamphlet, whatever that was. I wasn’t really offered anything else. Various females stood around holding bits of paper and I nearly took some, but I decided I have enough crap in this flat already.. I also avoided the merchandise stalls because I’m trying to save money to go to the Belgian GP..
I hope this has been interesting and apologies for the mammoth post length. If you still have the stomach for more after all that, you can find other people’s thoughts and reports via these links:
The Feeder Series (trade day)