Motorsport isn’t always as glamourous as it seems on the surface. When the helicopters are flying over Albert Park this weekend you’ll see well-pruned topiary, rule-perfect grid markings, and Daniel Ricciardo’s teeth. You will watch the coverage of the opening Grand Prix and speculate at how it’s all done.
The truth, though, is far less glamourous.
From Formula 1 down to domestic kart meetings, the façade is only a small part of the bigger picture. What goes on behind the scenes is, very often, staggering.
Just before the New Year, the Race of Champions (ROC) was run at London’s former Olympic Stadium (which is now called the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium…), so to soften the turf up for when West Ham moves in. It’s a great event: the world’s best drivers – and I do mean best – go head-to-head in this and that and it’s all jolly good fun.
To add an extra element to proceedings, and to see that the organiser’s get their money’s worth out of the stadium rental, a kart race – or series of kart races – are usually held as well.
In London this honour has traditionally been out-sourced to a company called Daytona. They first got involved with ROC when it was held at Wembley in 2007. I know this because I was working for them at the time and, despite being the single-coldest motorsport experience in my 15 years of involvement, it was also one of the most surreal.
The track had been laid on the famous turf underneath the Wembley arch, and nothing can prepare you for the sight of looking around at the 90,000 seats facing you. The drivers’ changing room belonged to the England national team – who had two weeks earlier failed qualified for Euro 2008 so they didn’t need it. Then there was the sound, and you can’t imagine how much noise a kart makes when it’s echoing in a stadium. The experience will stay with me for a long time.
The work that went into setting up that event was epic. It’s not as simple as taking all your karts out of a truck, a splash of petrol, helmets for the drivers and off we go. You need an entire support infrastructure, safety equipment such as hundreds of barriers, personnel, equipment from timing loops and clipboards to spare clutches and cable ties and, most importantly, trust.
You need to trust your team, but you also need to trust your providers. If they let you down on, say, something like not giving you enough time or adequate safety barriers, you’re in a whole world of problems.
Your drivers are coming to race with you, whether it’s Derek from accounts or Sebastian Vettel from Ferrari, all they want to do is drive, they have no idea how much blood, sweat and tears have gone into getting that race ready.
Daytona found themselves in this very situation at Olympic Park. They had a room packed full of the likes of David Coulthard, Jenson Button, Daniel Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel, Romain Grosjean, Felipe Massa, Nico Hulkenberg (tell me when to stop) and, unbeknownst to the crème de la crème of driving around in circles, the Daytona team were scrabbling barriers from a nearby building site after having worked all through the night to clear up after Chris Evans and his new Top Gear.
My old boss, Daytona CEO Charles Graham, had been on the phone between 2am and 4am trying to work out how to tell over 110 drivers – and a load of Formula 1 drivers – that the race had to be cancelled.
But, remarkably, at the death, they did it. It had involved vans, 20-odd hard-working souls lifting safety barriers from a nearby building site, and goodness-know what else. After an all-night shift, endless stress and anxiety and the near-certainty of having to cancel on Sebastian and his friends – and Derek in accounts – the race was ready to run.
And, of course, it was raining.
Those in the briefing would have been totally unaware of what had gone into getting the circuit ready for them – the F1 drivers included – and I find that fascinating.
The next time you pop along to the Dubai Kartdrome, Al Ain Raceway, or wherever else, and you see the karts lined up in the pits, be assured, you have no idea what’s gone into getting them there.
Here’s a short documentary to give you an idea of what went on behind the scenes in London. You’ll see for yourself that motorsport, even with F1 drivers involved, isn’t as glamorous backstage as you think. Apart from Daniel Ricciardo’s teeth, they’re perfect everywhere.